GIVE US BACK BILL SIKES By SEAN O'FAOLAIN C ALVINISTS should
be, though I doubt if they are, the chief support of the detective story. Tor here; where the wicked are predestined to wickedness (and worldly ruin) and the good man from Scotland Yard is endowed with the grace that fills and the perseverance that fulfills, is the pure literature of predetermination.
The detective-story is a convention and a form which, from the beginning, promises a hare and a pack and a kill. It may give a little more, but it promises no more. A criminal, for example, who by reasons of internal stress, repents at the moment when -he should be striking the blow that lifts the curtain, would never lift the curtain ; and as for his internal stress when he- is caught, that no more interests us than the air outside the saffron back- cover of the book which has closed him into his cell. There is the weakness of the form. The villain, being pushed out of the spotlight, frightens us only as a shadow ; the hero stands at the footlights, and even he is not, I suggest, a man but a painted face.
The detective-story, in other words, deflects of necessity from the main road of literature. It picks up where the novel proper arrives at a climax, and dives inside the periphery of the brain to a side-track. The detective is an ancillary to the criminal, who, by rights, should be the main character, and it runs to a new climax—the discovery and capture of the damned soul. And there where literature might well proceed- on its way the detective- story stops. It has no interest in the wicked man other than the one interest—to hear of him when he has sinned end to forget him as soon as he is named, known, and realized. It is, in this, not even journalism ; for when we read the newspaper account of a murder-trial, we refocus the villain and we properly forget, the bit of machinery that shoved him into the limelight—the humble 'tee." The difference between the two forms of fiction, detective story and novel proper, is the difference between Murder at the Spotted Phoenix and Crime and Punishment.
You might protest that this is dry theory ; that the central character of Murder at the Spotted Phoenix has his awn life to live and his own interest, even if he is only a detective. True ! But who wants to know anything of the private life of Superintendent Blank ? .At most we - are willing to be told that he has a cousin, a wife, or a vague personality—all adequately tangential to his imme- diate function. We are glad to know that he is worried by the case in hand, but Whether or not his soul is worried by anything else is no concern of ours. What should we think of him if he interrupted his work, for example, to dis- cuss Blank Junior's doings-at Oxford ? I think we should very properly conclude, at once, that Blank Junid had a line on the criminal and we should be very naturally chagrined to find that he had not.
In the novel proper, on the other hand, all action tends to rise out of the character at the centre ; in the detective story, all action is governed by the end towards which the story moves. And the story moves away from character because it lives within the intelligence, a cold region. So there is no murderer in detective fiction so foul as the author. He has killed Bill Sikes for ever, the criminal as well as the victim. And he has killed the detective. Give us back Bill Sikes, we may well cry to him. Restore to life this unfortunate man and let your penance be our delight, a story in which he will live again.
There have been detectives who were real, you may say. It is not so, and I say it Cannot be so—and this with due gratitude to those writers who gave us at least detectives who have had some personality—a very different thing from character—Mrs. Agatha Christie, who gives us Hercule Poirot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave us Holmes, Miss Dorothy Sayers, who gives us Lord Peter Wimsey. These detectives please us, because, while being an organic part of the _story of the hunt they do not wholly cease to be men, and that. possibly is why Holmes still remains so popular—the man who was detective and the detective who was a man, indivisible and inseparable, the one purely voca- tional detective in fiction. But, to my mind, far more interesting than any of them is Professor Moriarty, who was never submitted to the base indignity of hanging and who remains in the mind like some symbol of powerful evil ; at least as much of a character as The Flaming Timnan or the original Sikes—a _person of dignity in his own right as a respectable criminal.
The test of this distinction I make between personality and character, in -detectives, .and. indeed, the test of the distinction, everybody must make between detective fiction and' "just fiction," is whether the dramatis persona lives on in the mind, dilating there, impressing and disturbing it and the emotions. Holmes certainly lives on--bid even he does not disturb : at least not the adult mind, for one must distinguish between the boy who, having read Holmes, at once creeps under the table with a toy-revolver and the tired business-man who closes Holmes and takes up the Financial Times, undisturbed if refreshed. So, the most exciting detective story we have had of recent years is, undoubtedly, The Nine Tailors, where the bells over the flat lands become Iniman and endow the little figures underneath them with the dignity of their own honour and their own personalities.
The detective story has its own charm, all will allow, and its own delight. But its circumscription is rigid and tyrannical, and has become even more so since the days of Holmes, by reason of our increased knowledge of the mechanisms of detection and, as a sad result, our diminished credulity. Chesterton was right when he said that the detective story restored magic to the policeman and put the commonplace to flight. But he is not necessarily right now. For according to his theory the greatest writer of detective fictiOn would be the writer of the thriller, the man for whom no extravagance was impossible. And extravagance is being killed by Our deligld in police routine and our 'refusal to admit that Holmes could have told. a man, by looking at the callosity of his forefinger, let us say, that he was a regular soldier in 1914—the period of rapid and repeated rifle fire. 'Why ! Holmes could have told a Man that a habit of blinking the left eye revealed him for the first-cousin of a woman who kept a pub. near Paddington.
The release from the bonds of convention cannot come, therefore, as it once did, by magic. On the contrary, since reality is the craze, is it not plausible that it must come through greater reality? And since that greater reality surely resides in the character Of the true principal—the criminal, the one free .agent, the one person not circumscribed by the necessity of having to catch someone—let us, therefore, turn the detective story upside down and hunt not Bill Sikes but Superintendent Blank. Give us clues on the detective, his finger-prints and his fiat footmarks, and 'when we have found him let us do him in. At any rate let us have a fair view both of the hare and hounds. It has been done but nobody has so adopted the system as to promise us a convention which, instead of beginning with a murder and ending with a revelation, begins with a live thug and ends with a dead detective.