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Re: Leslie Charteris on Chesterton and detective stories

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  • Xavier Lechard
    ... Some people have obvious difficulty to realize fiction and poetry aren t the same thing. Language is not the subject of a story; it first serves to bring
    Message 1 of 6 , Nov 1, 2003
      Barry wrote:

      >While I might agree with him that many detective stories lack
      >scintillating styles, I also have to say that I'd rather read a good
      >one written in a colorless style than one that tells its story in
      >the kind of highflown prose that often suggests its author feels
      >he's "above the rabble." That sort of writing can make a reader
      >think the author is contemptuous of the genre while simultaneously
      >declaring, "Look at me, Ma! I'm writing!"

      Some people have obvious difficulty to realize fiction and poetry aren't the same thing. Language is not the subject of a story; it first serves to bring it to life. A colorless yet efficient style fulfills this role much better than an elegant but pointless flow of words and adjectives.

      >I have to disagree with him about some of the authors named in the
      >passage Xavier cites. Although Carr sometimes penned descriptive
      >phrases that are as puzzling as the events in the story, he often
      >surprised with a well-turned phrase, the *mot juste* Charteris
      >seeks. I don't know which Raymond Chandler Charteris read; the one
      >I'm familiar with wrote in a style rife with sparkling sentences and
      >tropes, many of which stay with you. Hammett's style was carefully
      >wrought workaday prose, it's true, but Charteris forgets that
      >Hammett began writing during a period in which many writers were
      >reacting to an older, deliberately "literary" style by turning away
      >from it. Hammett and Chandler--and Carr, too, on occasion--wrote
      >stories that resonate after you finish reading them. Why? Partly
      >because of their styles, partly because of the power of the stories

      Carr definetely was a stylist, if sometimes a non-orthodox one. He had a way with words, and this is one of the reasons why he is the ultimate mystery writer to me.
      It takes either terminal cataract or pig-headed bad faith to label Chandler's prose as "colorless", for few authors in the genre were so virtuoso with language. As to Hammett, his style looked bare but, as you say, it was an esthetical device that actually required a lot of work.

      >As far as "philosophy" is concerned, I think it's often inherent in
      >a writer's worldview, whether expressed overtly or not. Carr,
      >Hammett, and Chandler all brought their worldviews into their work.
      >I wonder what Charteris would have to say about the Travis McGee
      >stories. Would he like them, or would he find some of McGee's
      >dissertations overlong and disruptive of story movement?

      That's the most controversial part of Charteris' manifesto, as he couldn't have found more absurd targets. Carr, Chandler and Hammett all were authors with strong worldviews that showed more than often in their works, and someone like Philip Marlowe can't be said to "never take time out of crime for anything but the basic problems of eating, drinking, money and the crudest forms of sex". It really looks like either Charteris used provocation to push his agenda or he never read in depth authors he attacked. Whatever may be, his attempt falls flat.

      >Someone once said, "If you want a message, call Western Union."
      >Whatever genre he writes in--mystery, sci-fi, romance, western,
      >horror, literary, or mainstream--a writer's primary "philosophy"
      >ought to be the desire to tell a story with all of the vital
      >elements intact: plot development, characterization, and atmosphere.
      >Any other "philosophy," "message," political or social agenda might
      >be immanent, but he shouldn't hammer the point to the detriment of
      >the essential storytelling ingredients. Storytelling is drama, not

      I second that. Besides, Chateris (once again) contradicts himself when he writes:

      > Idon't mean I think detective stories should have a message. I do
      >think they should be based on a philosophy, and that this should go
      >beyond such copybook platitudes as Crime Does Not Pay.

      Isn't basing a story on a philosophy the same as basing it on a message? So sad Charteris passed away a while ago, I would have liked he told me where the difference was. Another mystery that will never be solved...


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • b_ergang
      In my previous post, I forgot to add mention of Erle Stanley Gardner, whom Charteris cites as another example of a colorless writer. I have to wonder whether
      Message 2 of 6 , Nov 1, 2003
        In my previous post, I forgot to add mention of Erle Stanley
        Gardner, whom Charteris cites as another example of a "colorless"
        writer. I have to wonder whether Charteris ever read anything but a
        Perry Mason story to reach his conclusion. Because if he read any of
        the pulp stories--e.g., Whispering Sands, the Phantom Crook, Paul
        Pry, or Lester Leith--he'd have known Gardner as a versatile stylist
        with a much greater sense of character than the Mason novels alone
        would have you imagine.
      • b_ergang
        This afternoon, prompted by my posts responding to Xavier s about Charteris on the detective story, I dug out the September 1965 issue of THE SAINT DETECTIVE
        Message 3 of 6 , Nov 1, 2003
          This afternoon, prompted by my posts responding to Xavier's about
          Charteris on the detective story, I dug out the September 1965 issue
          of THE SAINT DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, which I bought a couple of years
          ago on e-Bay because of the line-up it features: H.C. McNeile, T.S.
          Stribling, Edmund Crispin, Frank Gruber, and Ray Bradbury, among

          I read Charteris's "The Mixture As Before," in which Simon Templar
          foils a con artist whose scam involves a "formula" to create
          synthetic diamonds. The basic story is fun to read, even though once
          you know the scam you can see the ending coming from a week away.
          But the whole thing is overburdened with Charteris' turgid, self-
          conscious prose style. I'm sure his fans find it part of his appeal,
          but to me the preciousness of it is something of a hindrance. It
          reminded me anew of why I've never read a lot of Charteris' stories
          and have never read any of his novels.

          Another habit of his that irritates me is his insistence on
          reminding the reader that Simon Templar is a debonair, self-
          assured, savvy, and infallible hero--much in the manner of the
          authors of "hero" pulps. If you've ever read any of the Nick Carter
          dime novels, the Shadow or the Spider pulps, you know the kind
          of thing I mean: "Little did the murderous swine realize that his
          opponent was the Invincible Icon!"

          Now I don't care much for infallible heroes, but that's immaterial.
          Fallible or not, I want to infer the hero's qualities from his words
          and actions rather than be *told* what swell all-around guy he is.

          The only "philosophy" I can find in "The Mixture As Before" is that
          a career of high-living based on theft is a good thing. I wonder how
          many corporate executives and politicians were influenced by

          THE SAINT DETECTIVE MAGAZINE contained a page of prefatory remarks
          by Charteris, who was billed as Supervising Editor, along with a
          photo of him. (His looks always reminded me of Turhan Bey's in the
          Universal Pictures series of films about the Mummy.) In this issue
          he praises Frank Gruber for his versatility and ability to tell
          stories with "deceptively easy-looking dexterity." This praise seems
          to fly in the face of the criteria listed in the article Xavier
          quoted from; Gruber's stories and novels are fast-paced and
          entertaining, but they're hardly stellar examples of "singing prose"
          with philosophical underpinnings. Gruber's style was as pedestrian
          as it gets.
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