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|
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.
“… 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!
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|
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.
“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!”
“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|
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.