Saturday, July 21, 2012

Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? : The Smackdown

A Quick Word of Introduction: I originally wrote this piece back in March, submitting it to an online publication. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a major delay in the publishing of the next issue. Being infamously impatient, I have at last decided to publish this essay on my blog to share with my readers. I have made a few more-or-less minor revisions and have added images. In this piece, I tackle Edmund Wilson's infamous essay Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? using all the tools Wilson used, particularly sarcasm. Throughout my analysis I will challenge the claim that this essay "destroyed" the typical Agatha Christie mystery by claiming the precise opposite: it is an entirely useless essay from a critical standpoint. And so, without further ado, I give you:

Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? : The Smackdown

Edmund Wilson, Professional Troll
As a university student, I was seriously tempted to sign up for a course in Detective Fiction last term. What made me decide otherwise was seeing the book list: there was no Agatha Christie nor Raymond Chandler, and in fact, all the books were contemporary. Not only was the selection highly limited, it gave no sense of the genre’s rich and varied history from what I could tell… my fears were confirmed when I found out that one of the readings for the course was Edmund Wilson’s infamous essay Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

But why is it famous? As I recently discovered on a re-read, Wilson’s essay contains literally nothing of substance. He only proved one thing: Edmund Wilson did not like detective stories. Which is a perfectly valid point of view. But Wilson did not substantiate it even remotely. He simply looked down at the genre through the eyes of a “true intellectual” and sniffed at it. In other words, Edmund Wilson was a troll.

In case you are unaware, the term “troll” on the Internet refers to someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic matter. This happens to describe Edmund Wilson’s piece beautifully. Wilson begins the essay by being genuinely shocked that such intellectuals like the great Jacques Barzun, Somerset Maugham, or Raymond Chandler wrote articles defending the detective story. So he decides that he “would try to correct any injustice to read some of the authors that had received the most recommendations and taking the whole matter up again.” After some useless statistics (more on that soon), Wilson moves into a discussion of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

Now, I admit a genuine love for the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, but The Nine Tailors in particular. I will sum up my thoughts on it very briefly. It is a masterful book that takes advantage of its setting and characters. It has wonderful background information on the art of bell-ringing, and Sayers constructs a tricky murder puzzle that is scrupulously clued. Edmund Wilson begs to differ:

“… it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part … is all about bell-ringing … and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters … There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and although he was the focal character in the novel … I had to skip a good deal of him, too. In the meantime, I was losing the story, which had not got a firm grip on my attention. [Having ruthlessly spoiled the murder method:] Not a bad idea … and Conan Doyle would have known how to dramatize it in an entertaining tale of thirty pages, but Miss Sayers had not hesitated to pad it out to a book of three hundred and thirty…”

Here’s an idea: a murder mystery with
this book as the murder weapon!
I’m tempted to concede the point on length to Edmund Wilson. After all, who could be more qualified than the author of To the Finland Station to talk about books that are overly long and dull? There are many books through all genres that are far longer than the relatively-modest The Nine Tailors – Wilson’s own To the Finland Station numbers well over 500 pages in every edition I’ve ever seen, but I’ve seen editions of Sayers’ novels below 300 pages. (You see, Edmund, two can play this game!)

Wilson’s problem is that he was dead-set against the genre from the beginning, and so he decided to be flippant about it. He also spoils the book, showing his disdain for readers who—you know—wanted to be surprised by the ending. But no, he whines about the extraneous information—information that is not at all extraneous, but which is intimately tied into the plot! Wilson might have understood this had he read the novel, but as he recounts it, he skipped all over the place. The problem is, you can do this with any piece of literature ever written and come to the same conclusion! You can conclude that Great Expectations was boring and that Hamlet was overly long— after all, shouldn't the Prince have killed his uncle when he had the chance in Act 3? The problem is, that’s the highest level of analysis we ever attained during class discussions in Grade 12 English. As a literary critic, Wilson should have been striving for a higher standard of analysis.

Instead, Wilson condescendingly refers to the book’s melodrama and moves on to viciously attack author Bernard De Voto for calling Ngaio Marsh’s writing “excellent prose”:

… this throws for me a good deal of light on Mr. De Voto’s opinions as a critic. I hadn’t quite realized before, though I had noted his own rather messy style, to what degree he was insensitive to writing. I do not see how it is possible for anyone with a feeling for words to describe the unappetizing sawdust which Miss Marsh has poured into her pages as “excellent prose” or as prose at all except in the sense that distinguishes prose from verse. And here again the book is mostly padding. [Just like this essay, might I add.]”

Dame Ngaio Marsh
This marks yet another pointless digression of no substance whatsoever. All right, Edmund. You’ve made your point: you think Marsh’s writing is atrocious. Now let’s hear it. Give us an example. Come on, give us one laughably bad piece of writing that you can tear to shreds to illustrate your point! But no— no examples are forthcoming. This is simply a vicious side-swipe at Bernard De Voto and Ngaio Marsh, and Wilson quickly delivers the same treatment to Margery Allingham. Ironically, De Voto ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Edmund never won any sort of award. This should give you an idea of the passage’s purpose: Edmund Wilson is belittling a colleague in order to inflate his own self-importance. None of this bears any relevance to the supposed topic of discussion: the detective story.

I’d just like to note the supreme irony of Wilson’s complaints—he keeps emphasising that these books are mostly padding—but padding makes up almost the entire essay! Wilson keeps citing useless statistics, as though he were trying to impress the reader. Much of the essay reads like this: “At least four readers have written to me saying that M. Pif Pouf’s novel is brilliant, but I shuddered when I saw the 332 pages.” “Seven other readers have written to tell me that…” “At least 56 writers were recommended to me in a batch of 74 letters, but only a mere 32.7% of them could agree on whether there should be a hyphen between the ‘fifty’ and the ‘six’.” Not only are these segments intensely boring, for all we know, Wilson could have made these numbers up.

But back to the essay: from here, he moves on to discuss Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham. Allingham was one of the period’s best writers. Every one of her words seemed carefully crafted, and she had a particular skill for coming up with rather crazy characters. Some people dislike her writing, I personally adore it. Wilson calls it “wooden” and “dead” and “completely unreadable”. He then makes the following declaration (which at least three students, reading the essay before me, found important to highlight/underline):

“It was then that I understood that a true connoisseur of this fiction must be able to suspend the demands of his imagination and literary taste and take the thing as an intellectual problem. But how you arrive at that state of mind is what I do not understand.”

It is true that in a poor, sub-par detective novel, the whole thing could often read like nothing more than a puzzle. But the best practitioners gave the novel a human element, made you care for the characters, gave great atmosphere, suspense, etc. Wilson has not done a single thing to build this alternative argument— when he attacks an author’s work (for he is almost always on the offensive), he follows this general pattern:

“Many readers urged me to try this book. It was recommended to me as delightful/well-written/a tour-de-force. These readers are ninnies and drug addicts on the side. In reality, it is unreadable/dreadful/laughable. To think that anyone could like this garbage is beyond me!”

I could go on, but what’s the use? The pattern is repeated over and over again. Wilson was a literary snob, pure and simple, and he compares those who read mysteries with drug addicts. In a sense, it’s not a bad comparison, but he uses it not in a “friendly” way but to further his “you are all morons!” agenda. The conclusion of the essay is the very epitome of literary snobbery at its worst and most judgmental—all it is missing is gratuitous Italian:

“And to the seven correspondents who are with me and who in some cases have thanked me for helping them to liberate themselves from a habit which they recognized as wasteful of time and degrading to the intellect but into which they had been bullied by convention and the portentously involved examples of Woodrow Wilson and Adre Gide—to these staunch and pure spirits I say: Friends, we represent a minority, but Literature is on our side. With so many fine books to be read, so much to be studied and known, there’s no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish. And with the paper shortage pressing on all publications and many first-rate writers forced out of print, we shall do well to discourage the squandering of this paper that might be put to better use.”

Edmund Wilson, looking slightly-less-cheesed-off
What does all this prove? Edmund Wilson did not like detective stories and considered them sub-literary as a matter of course. But instead of behaving like an intelligent critic, he was simply irrelevant. If he was an Internet blogger today, he would be branded a troll: he calls those who disagree with him names (drug addicts), personally insults people who praise the genre (De Voto) and hurls insults at authors without backing up his opinions. And what’s worse, he shows disdain to readers who might like detective stories and may have not read the books he’s cited. He spoils endings as freely as though he was giving out Hallowe’en candy. (Though I somehow doubt the kids would head to the Wilson household on the Eve of All Souls.)

There are many viewpoints out there, and I won’t pretend mine is the only valid one. I love mysteries, some hate them. I can understand that, and I can respect that provided the other viewpoint is based on something. Wilson’s is based on nothing but unfounded literary snobbery. It is a vitriolic attack but proves nothing of substance. And this is why Wilson did not do anything significant with this essay. He did not “destroy” the typical Agatha Christie mystery—in fact, he doesn’t even mention “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. But I will answer the question posed by his essay: millions of readers spanning generations have cared, and they will continue to do so. And for very good reasons, these readers will likely ignore the unsubstantiated vitriol of Wilson’s article.


  1. Spot on! When I first read the essay I was waiting for the moment when he would begin to carefully demolish the genre by carefully listing examples of bad writing. It never came. He wasn't interested in rational argument, just in vitriol. I was taught by a school teacher who thought detective stories were rubbish, but had never read any. Wison is on the same level.

    1. Thank you for commenting! I am pretty much in agreement with you. Wilson apparently did two more essays on the subject, but this is the most famous one. I might see about analyzing one of the others, but honestly, this one was painful to get through: the arguments were just so distorted and much of the essay was so irrelevant... so I wouldn't place any money on my returning to Wilson's writing.

  2. Graham Greene, Edmund Wilson and Raymond Chandler all vehemently disliked the Sayers/Allingham/Marsh school. As I talk about in my blog pieces on Chandler, I their objection to a considerable extent was ideological. They hated the aristocratic detective and thought these women were apologists for upper class.

    I don't see anything wrong with enjoying a mystery for the sake of the puzzle, but it's also clear that, contra Wilson, many people read Sayers/Allingham/MArsh not for the puzzles, but for what they perceive as the literary quality.

    Edmund Wilson does list some specific things he doesn't like about the Nine Tailors we have, in his view:

    1. Part of the plot is a cock-and-bull device (can't say what without spoiler)
    2. There's oo much detail about church architecture (interestingly, this is a criticism often made of P. D. James)
    3. There's too much quaint lore from books about bell ringing (another criticism often made by the book's detractors)
    4. And the awful whimsical patter of Lord Peter (again, another common criticism form perople who don't liek the Sayers books)

    Except for 1, this is all criticism commonly made by anti-Sayers readers. With MArsh and Allingham, however, Patrick's right, Wilson doesn't even try to go beyond invective.

    As criticism of the Crime Queens and others, Chandler's essay is a stronger piece of polemic.

    1. Curt, of the four reasons, I think that #1 isn't quite right. After all, he calls it "not a bad idea", which for Wilson seems to be the equivalent of "BEST STORY EVER!!!". I argue that the rest of his criticisms are invalid, since skipping around all over the place he didn't get a sense of how vital these things are to the plot of the book. Nobody afterwards gets much in the way of analysis, except Raymond Chandler, who oddly enough manages to get some praise even though Wilson still sniffs that his stuff must be sub-literary for all that.

  3. Well done, Patrick. Wilson's essay has annoyed me for a very long time. Sometimes it seems like "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" is the only thing keeping Wilson in the public memory.

    1. Honestly, I don't know much more about Wilson. I tried to read TO THE FINLAND STATION and was so intensely bored I gave up before reaching the 30-page mark. I have no intention of reading any of his literary criticism if it's on the same level as this essay... and it seems to me that people who praise the essay as the one that destroyed the typical Agatha Christie novel for good must have never read it!

  4. To be fair to the man (even though he was not fair to detective fiction), Edmund Wilson still is considered one of twentieth century America's most important critics and he has in print:

    To the Finland Station and Memoirs of Hecate County (New York Review of Books)

    Patriotic Gore and Axel's Castle (literary criticism)

    Literary Essays and Reviews in two volumes (Library of America)(Vol. 2 includes the detective fiction essays)

    Modern Library chose Patriotic Gore as one of the 100 best nonfiction works of the 20th century. All in all, not bad for someone dead forty years!

  5. Which isn't to say I don't agree with Patrick about WCWKRA! ;)

    1. Curt, I know Wilson is considered very important, and honestly I'm stunned that much of his stuff remains in print... but this is such low stuff. It's insults, digressions, and vitriol. No intelligent analysis whatsoever. Raymond Chandler at the very least approached the mystery novel with the view that it was a worthwhile genre, even if I disagree with much of his opinions. (Still, a person who liked Dr. Thorndyke cannot be all that bad!)

  6. Well, I rather liked To the Finland Station. Am I allowed to admit that. Found some of the analysis very interesting. However, when it comes to WCWKRA I am with you all the way. I was particularly annoyed by some of the rubbishing of the Nine Tailors. Didn't get the feeling he actually read it because that is the one Wimsey grows up and starts to understand the effect his activity might have. Then there is the wonderful description of the Rector, a truly good man who is also very practical. Most of all I thought it was idiotic of Wilson to be so sniffy about Sayers describing "quaint rustics". What Sayers was doing with some success was to show the difference in speech between the various classes and people from different areas. Anyone who does not understand the importance of different accents in England has a cloth ear.

    1. Helen, no worries. I'm not the judgemental type. I used TO THE FINLAND STATION because I was personally intensely bored by it, and I decided to give Wilson's article a rebuttal in the style of the article itself-- i.e. using plenty of sarcasm and taking a few swipes at the author himself. It may not be up to the standards of literary criticism and I won't earn the Pulitzer Prize for it, but I can get away with it because:

      (a) I'm just a kid after all.
      (b) I wouldn't even dream of flattering myself (or insulting myself, take your pick) with the label "literary critic".

      As for THE NINE TAILORS, you are quite right in your analysis. But of course, remember that Wilson himself admitted he skipped all over the book, so these points may have been quite lost on the man. Although I'm sure he wouldn't lose any sleep over it; from the little I've read he sounds like he wasn't the kind of man you'd be eager to have for Christmas dinner!

  7. Thank you to everyone who has commented, and I apologize for taking so long with my replies! I generally try to give everyone an answer in my comments, but it has been very difficult this summer with my paint-shop job. It does eat away at potential reading time!

  8. To be fair, there have been some other really famous people whose opinions you might respect that looked down on the detective genre like... Dashiell Hammett. He spent the last 25 years of his life trying to write a non-detective fiction and feeling insecure about the artistic value of detective writing. He also questions the artistic merit of detective fiction in a general way in many of his published letters to the editor.

    Probably the two best pieces to pick up as an antidote to Wilson are
    Cawelti, John G. Adventure, mystery, and romance : formula stories as art and popular culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

    Knight, Stephen Thomas. Form and ideology in crime fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    Who both look with a real critical eye at why the classic detective stories appear poor to critics like Wilson, and just why Wilson et al are missing the point.


  9. Edmund Wilson wrote two essays on Crime Fiction. The first 'Why Do People Read Detective Stories?' Oct 14 1944 followed by 'Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?' Jan 20 1945.

  10. Hi Joshua,

    I've read your article and I'm afraid it seems you've missed the entire point of this article. I'm not trying to debate whether or not mysteries can be literature and how mysteries Must Be Taken Seriously As Real Literature, and I'm not trying to propose a counterargument to Wilson's. The point of this article was to combat the absurd notion that Edmund Wilson "destroyed" the typical Agatha Christie detective novel, an assertion I've seen too often in overviews of the genre, and which has no basis. I decided, then, to write a rebuttal to Wilson's piece using the same style-- i.e. a liberal dose of sarcasm and disdain for the author. It won't win me the Pulitzer Prize, but I'm not asking for one, either.

    For me, there is a difference between genre fiction and "real" literature, and that's a sense of entitlement from the latter. Those who talk about the art of "true" literature and how genre fiction is beneath it are nothing but snobs, and deserve to be murdered far more richly than all the miserly uncles or prying Aunt Adas of detective stories. British comedian David Mitchell made an interesting video rant about "Gangster movies", asking when exactly they became 'art' -- i.e. those pretentious three-hour long movies that try to emulate The Godfather but haven't got any substance to them. (Example: THE GOOD SHEPHERD, one of the most boring movies I've ever sat through, although I did enjoy seeing Joe Pesci acting again.) The point isn't that one form is better than the other-- they're two seperate genres, and one hasn't got the right to claim superiority over the other. Both forms should be taken in their own stride and judged by their own merits. Unfortunately, the Literati aren't satisfied with that kind of arrangement, continuously invading other genres until, to their satisfaction, they've reduced genre fiction to the same plotless hopeless nonsense that pervades the "real" literature of today. (Example 2: CITY OF GLASS by Paul Auster, easily the most infuriatingly pretentious novel I've read all year long. I also wrote a review of it that you can find via my "Criminal Record" tab.)

    I actually think sci-fi fans are far more confident than mystery fans. Contemporary mystery authors in particular are constantly apologizing for Agatha Christie and saying she dealt with caricatures instead of characters (patently false) but that *they* are really literary if you just give them a shot and think of them more in the Raymond Chandler school. If you went to a sci-fi convention and told the Star Trek fans just how lame their silly little science fiction stories are and how they don't approach True Art, I guarantee you that you'd land yourself a hefty dental bill. Try the same at a mystery convention, and you'll get some meek gazes, a downturned head or two, and maybe a half-hearted attempt at a debate. Mysteries seem desperate to be considered as Real Literature. Me, I've come to the conclusion that if the Literati try sabotaging my favourite genre again, I'm forcibly throwing them out of the sandbox until they learn how to play nicely with the others.

  11. Yes, I missed the point.

    I've never been under the impression that anyone who mattered thought Wilson's essay "destroyed" the classic detective novel. Most reference to it I've seen assumed he was preaching to the choir.

    Enjoyed your review of City of Glass. I hate books like that. If you don't like detective fiction, don't write it! As a sci-fi fan, I have a similar complaint about Jonathan Lethem's "Gun, with Occasional Music" (although Lethem, at least, seems to genuinely like science fiction, even if he considers himself above it).

  12. Hello! What a amazingly looking personal resource you have! Did you create this domain by yourself?

  13. Where can I read the essay?

    1. A quick Google search turns it up:

  14. You're absolutely right! Wilson was just a hypocrite who tried to justify personal taste by making it look intellectual. When I read it, I was quite surprised that he liked the Sherlock Holmes stories - I didn't think he'd have that good taste.

  15. Another celebrated eruptiion of Wilson's was his 1956 essay/philippic/rhodomontade/effusion "Ooh, Those Awful Orcs !". It can be found here, complete with commentary/dissection/evisceration:

    The harshness of Wilson, as demonstrated in his attack upon Tolkien's tale, are what interested me in his comments in the present essay. I wonder what he would have made of the phenomenal success of Harry Potter ? I think anyone who is going to make the criticisms he did almost has a duty to be a better author than those whose works he castigates; otherwise, his criticisms look like irresponsible carping.