The publication of how-to advice for wannabe writers has been a widespread and profitable endeavor since at least the first quarter of the Twentieth Century and certainly shows no sign of slowing down. The oldest American periodical devoted to advising professional or would-be professional scriveners, The Writer, has been in business since 1887, while its younger rival Writer’s Digest dates to 1920. Both are still going strong. By 1913, the Home Correspondence School was offering a whole series of book-length manuals called the Writer’s Library. The Art of Versification, The Art of Story-Writing, Manuscript Preparation, Writing the Short-Story, Studying the Short-Story, and Writing the Photoplay were all credited (solely or with collaborators) to the series editor, J. Berg Esenwein. When it came to the burgeoning field of mystery fiction, though, he wisely turned to a specialist, confining his own contribution to an introduction. Thus came the first full-length volume, at least in English, about the detective-story genre, Carolyn Wells’s The Technique of the Mystery Story. A revised update appeared in 1929, but the present volume contains the 1913 original.
Carolyn Wells was born in Rahway, New Jersey, most likely in 1862—when sources differ, the earliest date tends to be the correct one. Deaf from the age of six as a result of scarlet fever, she worked as a librarian before becoming a sort of literary all-rounder who may have, as Barrie Hayne speculates in St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers (1996), “never had an unpublished thought.” In 1918, she married Hadwin Houghton of the Boston publishing family. After he died the following year, she settled in New York City, where she lived until her death in 1942. In the unconventional autobiography cum commonplace book The Rest of My Life (1937), she eschewed looking back in favor of describing what she hoped to do in the time left to her.
Wells was an anthologist, mostly of humor, beginning with Nonsense Anthology (1902); a writer of children’s books, light versifier, and parodist. In the latter role, she did a book-length send-up of Sinclair Lewis called Ptomaine Street (1921) and rewrote Gelett Burgess’s “Purple Cow” in the style of Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Keats, Poe, Kipling, and other poets. Wells turns up in quotation sources with both one-liners (“A cynic is a man who looks at the world with a monocle in his mind’s eye”; “A guilty conscience is the mother of invention”) and limericks (“A canner exceedingly canny/One morning remarked to his granny:/“A canner can can/Anything that he can/But a canner can’t can a can, can he?”).
But the largest part of Wells’s literary output was her detective novels, beginning with The Clue (1909), introducing the somewhat colorless Fleming Stone, who would eventually appear in around sixty cases, usually entering the story in the latter chapters to clear up the mystery in best Transcendent Detective style. Other series sleuths would come from her busy pen, most notably Pennington Wise and Kenneth Carlisle, but she would stick longest with Stone, whose last two cases, Who Killed Caldwell? and Murder Will In, were published in the year of her death.
Though very popular with readers in her time, Carolyn Wells never earned high marks from critics. Dashiell Hammett, reviewing her 1927 novel All at Sea in the Saturday Review of Literature, pronounced Wells’s output “conscientiously in accordance with the formula adopted as standard by the International Detective Story Writers’ Convention at Geneva in 1904. One should expect that by now she would have learned to do the trick expertly. She hasn’t.”
Howard Haycraft, writing while the elderly Wells was still living, is more gentle in his assessment in Murder for Pleasure (1941). Noting that the best Fleming Stone cases were the earlier ones, he adds,
In recent seasons Miss Wells has written on a definite schedule calling for the publication of three Fleming Stones, on fixed dates of the calendar, each year. The surprising fact, perhaps, is not that some of the stories scarcely rise to the mark, but that they have not perceptibly diminished in popularity. Carolyn Wells is in many ways a remarkable woman—gracious, well loved, gallant. She would presumably be the last to maintain that Fleming Stone belongs in the company of the immortals of detective literature. The fact that his adventures have given harmless pleasure to many thousands of readers she undoubtedly considers full and sufficient reward.
Later he paraphrases her perceptive remark that “the detective story must seem real in the same way a fairy tale must seem real to children…” In other words, while the details must be realistic, the pure detective story with its ingenious murder methods, multiple suspects, and arcane clues is after all a branch of fantasy.
Bill Pronzini, writing in Gun in Cheek (1982), finds Stone “as unreal an investigator as any of his dime novel predecessors. In not one of his…cases does he come alive as a human being, or as anything more than a two-dimensional silhouette with a penchant for pulling murderers out of hats on the flimsiest of clues and evidence.” Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, writing in A Catalogue of Crime (revised edition, 1989), admit that Wells “often had ingenious ideas for stories, but her executive powers were slight—or swamped by a bad convention she did not resist or outgrow.”
On the other hand, Wells’s commitment to formal detection, including a special fondness for locked rooms and impossible crimes, won her some prominent defenders. Ellery Queen (the Frederic Dannay half) once reported that John Dickson Carr, who had much admired her work in his youth, had ordered a complete set of her books to be shipped to his home in England. And there’s no doubt of her credentials as a devotee and student of the form. When she edited two early 1930s anthologies of best American mystery stories, apparently not thin-skinned about negative reviews, she included Dashiell Hammett in both, though the creator of the Continental Op and Sam Spade was hardly writing her kind of mystery.
Wells’s greatest contribution to the genre was indisputably The Technique of the Mystery Story. Pronzini in 1001 Midnights (1986) deems it “far more readable today than her novels.” Barzun and Taylor pay a less backhanded compliment, finding her “extremely tough-minded and superbly critical.”
The book gives a remarkable picture of the state of detective fiction several years before the post-World War I dawn of the Golden Age with its rules of fair play to the reader. Wells discusses misuses of evidence like threads and footprints, remarks on the considerate and obliging weather that accompanies fictional murder, and catalogues those devices (e.g. the stopped watch and the missing will) that, while already considered hackneyed in 1913, still turn up occasionally today.
In What About Murder: A Guide to Books About Mystery and Detective Fiction (1981), I noted, “While it would be a mistake to suggest that any new writer in the form (even one drawn to period settings) use this volume as a handbook, the fact remains that many of the points Wells makes about plotting are equally valid today.” I found the book’s historical interest of greater value. While Wells alludes most frequently to the expected icons—Poe, Conan Doyle, Gaboriau, Green, Collins, Leroux—she also quotes and discusses the relatively obscure Rodriguez Ottolengui, Francis Lynde, Harrison J. Holt, Frederick Trevor Hill, and A. Maynard Barbour. I finished by pointing out an element any such book today would surely include: “A view of the publishing scene in 1913 would have added to the fascination of this work, but Wells gives absolutely no attention to the marketing of a mystery. Her concerns are strictly literary.”
Jon L. Breen
Fountain Valley CA