In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the

popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of

many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer

bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are

bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a

book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams of

psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter

evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance than

railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many

good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more

fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story would probably

be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that

many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good

detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a

story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of

committing it. To persons of somewhat weak sensibility this is natural

enough; it must be confessed that many detective stories are as full of

sensational crime as one of Shakespeare's plays.

There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective

story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good

epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate

form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages as an agent

of the public weal.

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it

is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is

expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among

mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that

they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our

descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the

mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees.

Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious

the detective story is certainly the 'Iliad.' No one can have failed to

notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London

with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of

elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual

omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the

city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the

guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the

reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to

it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively

signalling the meaning of the mystery.

This realization of the poetry of London is not a small thing. A city

is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while

Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious

ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may

not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no

brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol--a message

from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The

narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention,

the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick

has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every

slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate

covered with addition and subtraction sums. Anything which tends, even

under the fantastic form of the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, to assert

this romance of detail in civilization, to emphasize this unfathomably

human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. It is good that

the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at

ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh

might be a notorious thief. We may dream, perhaps, that it might be

possible to have another and higher romance of London, that men's souls

have stranger adventures than their bodies, and that it would be harder

and more exciting to hunt their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But

since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson)

decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the

great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must

give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of

pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or

the common as commonplace. Popular art in all ages has been interested

in contemporary manners and costume; it dressed the groups around the

Crucifixion in the garb of Florentine gentlefolk or Flemish burghers.

In the last century it was the custom for distinguished actors to

present Macbeth in a powdered wig and ruffles. How far we are ourselves

in this age from such conviction of the poetry of our own life and

manners may easily be conceived by anyone who chooses to imagine a

picture of Alfred the Great toasting the cakes dressed in tourist's

knickerbockers, or a performance of 'Hamlet' in which the Prince

appeared in a frock-coat, with a crape band round his hat. But this

instinct of the age to look back, like Lot's wife, could not go on for

ever. A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the

modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective

stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.

There is, however, another good work that is done by detective stories.

While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so

universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and

rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the

mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of

departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the

unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to

remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic

world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but

the traitors within our gates. When the detective in a police romance

stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists

of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that

it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure,

while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic

conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and

wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of

man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring

of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable

police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a

successful knight-errantry.

* * * * *


The decay of patriotism in England during the last year or two is a

serious and distressing matter. Only in consequence of such a decay

could the current lust of territory be confounded with the ancient love

of country. We may imagine that if there were no such thing as a pair of

lovers left in the world, all the vocabulary of love might without

rebuke be transferred to the lowest and most automatic desire. If no

type of chivalrous and purifying passion remained, there would be no one

left to say that lust bore none of the marks of love, that lust was

rapacious and love pitiful, that lust was blind and love vigilant, that

lust sated itself and love was insatiable. So it is with the 'love of

the city,' that high and ancient intellectual passion which has been

written in red blood on the same table with the primal passions of our

being. On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet

anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk,

like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun

by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not

realize what the word 'love' means, that they mean by the love of

country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something

of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his

fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a

national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that

a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only

his son. Here clearly the word 'love' is used unmeaningly. It is the

essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone

who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This

sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was

the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like

Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would

think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My

mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink

he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be

in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or

not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and

raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When

that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all

the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or

the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid

counsellor the best. Love is drawn to truth by the unerring magnetism of

agony; it gives no pleasure to the lover to see ten doctors dancing with

vociferous optimism round a death-bed.

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England,

which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to

us to have none of the marks of patriotism--at least, of patriotism in

its highest form? Why has the adoration of our patriots been given

wholly to qualities and circumstances good in themselves, but

comparatively material and trivial:--trade, physical force, a skirmish

at a remote frontier, a squabble in a remote continent? Colonies are

things to be proud of, but for a country to be only proud of its

extremities is like a man being only proud of his legs. Why is there not

a high central intellectual patriotism, a patriotism of the head and

heart of the Empire, and not merely of its fists and its boots? A rude

Athenian sailor may very likely have thought that the glory of Athens

lay in rowing with the right kind of oars, or having a good supply of

garlic; but Pericles did not think that this was the glory of Athens.

With us, on the other hand, there is no difference at all between the

patriotism preached by Mr. Chamberlain and that preached by Mr. Pat

Rafferty, who sings 'What do you think of the Irish now?' They are both

honest, simple-minded, vulgar eulogies upon trivialities and truisms.

I have, rightly or wrongly, a notion of the chief cause of this

pettiness in English patriotism of to-day, and I will attempt to expound

it. It may be taken generally that a man loves his own stock and

environment, and that he will find something to praise in it; but

whether it is the most praiseworthy thing or no will depend upon the

man's enlightenment as to the facts. If the son of Thackeray, let us

say, were brought up in ignorance of his father's fame and genius, it is

not improbable that he would be proud of the fact that his father was

over six feet high. It seems to me that we, as a nation, are precisely

in the position of this hypothetical child of Thackeray's. We fall back

upon gross and frivolous things for our patriotism, for a simple reason.

We are the only people in the world who are not taught in childhood our

own literature and our own history.

We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not knowing

our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in the history

of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among the foremost in

that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows do not slay, but

create. In painting and music we are inferior to many other nations; but

in literature, science, philosophy, and political eloquence, if history

be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with any. But all this vast

heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our schoolboys like a

heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull and infantile type

of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. There is no

harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect children to be equally

delighted with a beautiful box of tin philanthropists. But there is

great harm in the fact that the subtler and more civilized honour of

England is not presented so as to keep pace with the expanding mind. A

French boy is taught the glory of Moliere as well as that of Turenne; a

German boy is taught his own great national philosophy before he learns

the philosophy of antiquity. The result is that, though French

patriotism is often crazy and boastful, though German patriotism is

often isolated and pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull,

common, and brutal, as is so often the strange fate of the nation of

Bacon and Locke. It is natural enough, and even righteous enough, under

the circumstances. An Englishman must love England for something;

consequently, he tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a

German might tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting,

because he really believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It

would not be in the least extraordinary if a claim of eating up

provinces and pulling down princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The

extraordinary thing is, that it is the chief boast of a people who have

Shakespeare, Newton, Burke, and Darwin to boast of.

The peculiar lack of any generosity or delicacy in the current English

nationalism appears to have no other possible origin but in this fact of

our unique neglect in education of the study of the national literature.

An Englishman could not be silly enough to despise other nations if he

once knew how much England had done for them. Great men of letters

cannot avoid being humane and universal. The absence of the teaching of

English literature in our schools is, when we come to think of it, an

almost amazing phenomenon. It is even more amazing when we listen to the

arguments urged by headmasters and other educational conservatives

against the direct teaching of English. It is said, for example, that a

vast amount of English grammar and literature is picked up in the course

of learning Latin and Greek. This is perfectly true, but the

topsy-turviness of the idea never seems to strike them. It is like

saying that a baby picks up the art of walking in the course of learning

to hop, or that a Frenchman may successfully be taught German by helping

a Prussian to learn Ashanti. Surely the obvious foundation of all

education is the language in which that education is conveyed; if a boy

has only time to learn one thing, he had better learn that.

We have deliberately neglected this great heritage of high national

sentiment. We have made our public schools the strongest walls against a

whisper of the honour of England. And we have had our punishment in this

strange and perverted fact that, while a unifying vision of patriotism

can ennoble bands of brutal savages or dingy burghers, and be the best

thing in their lives, we, who are--the world being judge--humane,

honest, and serious individually, have a patriotism that is the worst

thing in ours. What have we done, and where have we wandered, we that

have produced sages who could have spoken with Socrates and poets who

could walk with Dante, that we should talk as if we have never done

anything more intelligent than found colonies and kick niggers? We are

the children of light, and it is we that sit in darkness. If we are

judged, it will not be for the merely intellectual transgression of

failing to appreciate other nations, but for the supreme spiritual

transgression of failing to appreciate ourselves.