"The Great Detective Stories: A Chronological Anthology," ed. by
Willard Huntington Wright (1927)
One of the early collections of classic detective stories was compiled
by Willard Huntington Wright, better known by his nom-de-plume S. S.
Van Dine. It comes with an excellent introduction in which Wright
'defines' what a detective story is -- as opposed to other kinds of
popular fiction. He distinguishes four types of 'light' fiction vs.
'literary' fiction, but note that he doesn't mention the Comic Novel:
(a) Romance, (b) Adventure, (c) Mystery (including spy novels, crime,
and horror), and (d) Detective Stories. By separating detection from
mystery, defined as "wherein much of the dramatic suspense is produced
by hidden forces that are not revealed until the denouement," he is
making a point that is still under discussion today. "In one sense, to
be sure, it [detection] is an offshoot of the [mystery]; but the
relationship is far more distant than the average reader imagines. ...
It is, in fact, a complicated and extended puzzle [or riddle] cast in
This main object of his discussion is also the most controversial. In
effect, he says that all attempts to provide atmosphere,
characterization, and setting in a true detective story are irrelevant
and distracting, that the most important element is the duel between
the author and the reader in providing a solveable puzzle analogous to
the crossword. Only the detective can show distinctiveness as a
person, the more the better. What is also interesting is his
historical background of detection up to the date of composition. It
is quite comprehensive and well-written, even when many of the writers
are all but forgotten these days. One will note that he mentions
Christie -- including his famous condemnation of "Roger Ackroyd" --
and others (including himself as Van Dine) who were later on to
consolidate the Golden Age of Detection. The fact that he published
this under his own name as an established art critic is an indication
of how he considered this to be a serious study, along with his books
"Modern Painting," "The Creative Will," "What Nietzsche Taught," and
"Misinforming a Nation," listed in the front matter. There is also
quite a bit of emphasis on the Continental, mostly French, detective
novel (esp. Gaboriau, and somebody called Boisgobey, whom I have never
heard of), which is a welcome thing to those of a chauvenistic mind
apt to ignore anything not English or American. His main argument,
quite right, is that Poe is the founder of detection as a distinct
genre with its own rules, even though there are some detective
elements in Herodotus, the Bible, "The Arabian Nights," and other sources.
All aficionados of detective stories should have a copy of this book,
along with Sayers's "Omnibus of Crime" and Queen's "101 Years'
Entertainment." This is not a huge book -- 483 pages -- but is quite
representative for 1927. The contents of the anthology are as follows
(his approach was to present them chronologically):
American and English
E. A. Poe: "Murders in the Rue Morgue"
W. Collins: "The Biter Bit"
A. K. Green: "The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock"
A. C. Doyle: "Boscombe Valley Mystery"
A. Morrison: "Lenton Croft Robberies"
R. A. Freeman: "Pathologist to the Rescue"
M. D. Post: "The Straw Man"
E. Bramah: "Knight's Cross Signal Problem"
G. K. Chesterton: "Oracle of the Dog"
J. S. Fletcher: "Murder in the Mayor's Parlor"
B. Copplestone: "The Butler" [?]
E. Phillpotts: "Three Dead Men"
H. C. Bailey: "The Little House"
M. Leblanc: "Footprints in the Snow" (French)
A. Chekhov: "The Swedish Match" (Russian)
D. Theden: "Well-Woven Evidence" (German) [?]
B. Groller: "Strange Tracks" (Austro-Hungarian) [?]
[?] = Never heard of these authors
One can cavil over particular stories by a given author, or even
question why Copplestone and Phillpotts are incuded, even if it is
pointless to do so (but I am thankful that the over-rated "Doomdorf
Mystery" by Post was not selected, nor Poe's silly "Purloined Letter").
Wyatt James (July 2004)
PS. I'll put this on the Blog, too.