Thursday, May 08, 2008

Modern crime, circa 1929, plus a question for readers

Dorothy L. Sayers, whose satirical jabs at advertising are as fresh today as when she published Murder Must Advertise in 1933, was just as lively an observer in 1929. That's when she wrote the following in the introduction to The Omnibus of Crime, which she also edited:

"The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one, with a long and honourable literary tradition. Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness to be derived from contemplating the cruelties of life and the riddle of the universe, delights to occupy his leisure moments with puzzles and bugaboos. The pages of every magazine and newspaper swarm with cross-words, mathematical tricks, puzzle-pictures, enigmas, acrostics, and detective-stories, as also with stories of the kind called `powerful' (which means unpleasant), and those which make him afraid to go to bed."
That may speak even more to the current obsession with sudoku than it does to the almost 170-year-old Western thirst for crime stories. Sayers' definition of crime is perhaps wider than we would define it today. The book's stories are divided into two major sections, for example: Detection and mystery, and mystery and horror.

Few commentators today would include horror stories in an omnibus of crime. Sayers, however, sees Edgar Allan Poe's early achievement as creating mystery stories "as distinct from pure detection on the one hand and pure horror on the other."

"In this fused genre," she writes, "the reader's blood is first curdled by some horrible and apparently inexplicable murder or portent; the machinery of detection is then brought in to solve the mystery and punish the murderer."

And here's your question, readers: Sayers' 79-year-old observation may provide fresh insight into contemporary crime stories and why we read them. Does it? To what extent do her observations still hold? (And here's a bonus question: Does anyone else find it interesting that Sayers was looking at crime fiction in historical terms as early as 1929?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find interesting is that Sayers was editing an omnibus published in 1929, when her first novel had only come out six years earlier. With three or four novels and a short story collection, she was already established enough to be asked to do this job. Quick work, Dot.

Laurie King

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not thought of that, but it fits the pattern of her having seemed to do and see things before others did. Thanks.

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

I think Sayers' observation speaks to fiction readers' desire to experience something beyond their daily routine. There are any number of reasons we read crime fiction, but I think the main one is to play at being the hero or villain, to consider what we'd do in the same situations.

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, to put your observation another way, crime fiction offers a mix of schadenfreude and vicarious thrills. Readers can experience the vicarious pleasure of committing acts they would not commit in real life, but see someone else go down for them.

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Peter, the last Sayers I tried to read struck me as horribly dated. It was THE FIVE RED HERRINGS. Maybe I just chose a bad one, maybe it was the fact that the copy of the book was a yellowing ancient paperback. I hadn't felt the same when I read HAVE HIS CARCASE the year before. Anyway, it put me off sayers, although of course I would read one if there was nothing else (and probably enjoy it). But it wasn't just the physical book, the language felt as if it was form another era (which indeed it was).
I wonder if a "modern" editor got to it, whether I would feel better about it?
By contrast when I recently read THUMBPRINT by Friedrich Glauser I was struck by how modern it felt, but then it was a modern translation using modern idioms.

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You make a good point about the Glauser translations. Introductions to new translations of older works will frequently salute earlier renderings while maintaining the need for a version that uses contemporary idiom. Glauser had never been translated into English before the current Bitter Lemon Press editions; one wonders how hypothetical earlier English translations would have read.

Murder Must Advertise, the one Sayers novel I’ve read, was not uniformly up to date. At least one passage attempts to convey the hectic pace of an advertising agency through a series of rat-tat-tat sentence fragments. The effect may have seemed novel in 1933, but it’s a dated artifact of modernism now. And yellowing, ancient paperbacks can have a charm of their own.

May 08, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"yellowing, ancient paperbacks can have a charm of their own"

As the proud owner of a few whose cover price was $0.25, I'm always astonished at how well the binding has held up, particularly since I bought them at used bookstores to begin with.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I found the book that gave rise to this post when I was prowling used bookshops to post notices of the Noir at the Bar reading. It's a hardback that dates, as far as I can tell, to the publication date of 1929, and it's in remarkably good shape.

May 09, 2008  

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