Mystery and Detective Stories: Autodidact, Episode 1

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March 20, 2018

In this first episode of our new series Autodidact, Dr. Fleming explores mystery and detective stories, from Oedipus to Agatha Christie to Edgar Allen Poe.


Original Air Date: March 20, 2018
Show Run Time: 41 minutes
Show Guest(s): Dr. Thomas Fleming
Show Host(s): Stephen Heiner

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Autodidact℗ is a Production of the Fleming Foundation. Copyright 2018. All Rights are Reserved.

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18 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I listened to a portion of this episode until you said “Yankee”. I don’t plan to listen to another. When is your Civil War going to end?

  2. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming, the way you tied the age of doubt to the emergence of search for truth and the mystery novel, was masterful. I had never thought of it that way. Our present problem seems to be that large chunks of the population don’t believe in truth, or they believe some silly feminist nonsense about everybody having “their own truth.” How can they search for something they are convinced does not exist?

  3. Brent says:

    Dr. Fleming, as you admire not only Poe’s detective fiction but also his other short stories and poems (so do I and long have), I take it you would disagree with Yvor Winters’ criticism of Poe in his In Defense of His Reason. I would be interested in your response to Winters, especially since in nearly all other cases (Kipling is perhaps the other exception) I find Winters to be spot-on in his judgments.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Yankee is a term devised by New Englanders. It is not a term of abuse and it does not apply to descendants of immigrants, Midwesterners, or indeed anyone but people of a specific ethnic, religious, and cultural background. In a discussion of Poe, it is scarcely out of place to point out the degree to which his rather Romantic imagination was colored by his Southern identity, much less to clarify the simple fact that in literary matters he was a Southern nationalist. I am aware how easy, in these latter days of the republic, to get swept along by sectional, religious, and ethnic passions, but it is a temptation to be avoided.

  5. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I hardly ever read literary hermaneutics. What does he say? (I should add, parenthetically, that while I like and admire some of Poe, my admiration is not unqualified. )

  6. Brent says:

    Winters’ view is that literature, especially poetry, ought always “increase the intelligence and strengthen the moral temper.” Poe in theory and practice does neither. His “aesthetic is the aesthetic of obscurantism.” A Poe poem cannot be understood because Poe does not write for understanding; he writes exclusively for emotional effect, and the emotional effect is often nothing more than nervous excitement. On top of that, Poe is uninfluenced and perhaps even oblivious to the Western literary tradition before him, has little or no artistic taste and no ear for meter.

  7. Ken Rosenberger says:

    This was another terrific podcast. I greatly appreciate the discussion on the rules of mystery fiction, not to mention putting Poe in his proper context, telling us a little about “where he’s coming from.” In that sense, I think your Yankee allusions are apt. When I read or hear that word “Yankee,” I immediately envision a certain type profuse in and around Boston, in the middle of the 19th Century, certainly the type with which Poe would have been familiar, the precursor to the present day progressive, so-called. The type who ignores the evidence of 5,000 years of human nature, and believes in the perfectibility of man, if man will only be remolded according to the Yankee’s specification.

    I wouldn’t think such a person (Yankee) could write good Detective Fiction, conditioned since birth, as he is, to eschew human nature. Indeed I can’t think of a good Yankee Detective Novel or mystery writer? Am I overlooking something or someone? Surely not Stephen King, about whom too much has already been said on this website.

    I have read comparatively little,
    I know. I’m biased by my present reading on the War Between the States and Southern fiction. When I envision the Great Yankee Detective Novel, I keep seeing in my mind’s eye Inspector Charles Sumner “solving “ the murder by resorting to a four hour oration on his own brilliance and mocking the stupidity of those with whom he is condemned to work, until someone confesses to the crime out of sheer exhaustion.

    But I am being unfair to Boston, since Thaddeus Stevens was from my native Pennsylvania, and he the uber Yankee.

    Thanks as always to Mr Heiner for asking all the right questions.

  8. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Anna Katherine Greene, who preceded Conan Doyle by a decade, was fro Brooklyn, but I don’t know if she counts as a Yankee. There are hints of the genre in Hawthorne’s short stories–My Kinsman Major Molyneux amd Young Goodman Brown, for example, and I think he had the imagination for it, but he was an original, capable of critically reflecting on his own section and rather opposed to the war. Lovecraft was more or less a Yankee. I would have said Hammett but he was basically Marylander/Pennsylvanian. I do believe for both good and ill, the impulse toward mystery is more Southern, and this is buttressed by several bits of Mark Twain, e.g. Puddinhead Wilson and The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.

    PS Not sure that Stevens was a good Yankee. He was crazy, true, but apparently sincere and insisted on burial with his mulatto mistress. That would never have done in Boston. Dixon has a good portrtait of his type and it is on the whole positive.

  9. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Re Winters: I am not sure on what authority or by what chain of reasoning a student of literature felt competent to pronounce on the purposes of literature. Nor am I sure what such a man meant by “moral temper.” Neither his poems nor those of his most famous students ever aroused any enthusiasm or even interest in me. He was a charming eccentric with all sorts of notions, but in my view fundamentally unsound. It is always dangerous to teach readers and students how to be clever at the expense of some poor dumb poet who is just trying to to his best at something that he doesn’t much understand and that interests only a minority of his fellow human beings. As for Poe, his works in general cannot be said to increase the intellect, though the detective stories certainly offered an original intellectual challenge to readers of his day.

    In the interests of full disclosure: I absolutely loathe literary hermaneutics–as opposed to the criticism practiced by Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, Dryden, and Arnold–and if I were Dante, people like Leavis and Winters would be torturing each other in Hell by misinterpreting each other’s works. (I am not speaking of either true critics or of literary historians or philological scholars or text critics….

  10. Brent says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming. I’ll stick to Aristotle, et al., from now on. And thank you for your other insights into Poe. Your podcast has inspired me to purchase the Library of America volumes.

  11. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    If you use promotional code SPRING2018 at checkout, you can get the LoA two volume Poe set with free postage for $40.

    You can get the Freeman “Megapack” and some other of his anthologies for Kindle at Amazon for almost nothing.

  12. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    According to the IMDB, there was a 6-episode British TV series called Thorndyke in 1964. I have not been able to find it available for viewing anywhere, but I checked only Amazon and Netflix.

    Does anyone know anything about this series?

  13. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    All I know is that they are “based on” Austin Freeman’s novels and stories. In general, I am very unimpressed by TV and film versions of so-called Golden Age detective fiction. I watched one or two wretched episodes of a series based on Peter Wimsey–not one of my favorite characters in general. Even more deplorable was the series based on Ngaio Marsh. The actor playing Allyn was very stiff and sort of faux-aristocratic, and they laid much too much emphasis on his lady love Agatha Troy, who was not even in the early novels. I saw a bit of a Nero Wolfe series and couldn’t stand it. Perry Mason fared much better on television, partly because it was not such a long way down. I understand that the radio series “Marlowe” was pretty good, but for a real nightmare try Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye with–shudder–Eliot Gould.

    R. Austin Freeman, in my view, is near the top of English crime fiction. His methods are far more probable and reality-based than those of Holmes. His frequent side-kick Dr. Jervis is a character in his own right–something of a wise guy in the style of Archie Goodwin. Freeman is much better than Conan Doyle at developing sympathetic characters–even some of his villains have a certain appeal–and his love of London comes through on every page. The biggest drawback is John Thorndyke, a very nice man with none of the quirks that contribute to establishing a memorable character, though Thorndyke’s contempt for modern art is always sure to warm the heart. The Stoneware Monkey has a lot of this because the plot turns on the ability of an untrained amateur to pass off his lousy ceramics as art.

    On the whole, there is no writer of detective fiction I like better and he holds up well on second reading. Even Chandler, who disliked this sort of thing, has a good word for Freeman. Most of his stuff is available in one or another ebook format.

  14. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    And oh, one more thing. The author of this website’s own detective novel, Born out of Due Time, would like some feedback. He tells me he thinks he has been a bit slow in getting the tale moving. He also wonders if we shouldn’t post longer chunks. Your thoughts would be welcome.

  15. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you Dr. Fleming.

    Longer, more frequent installments will help me follow the story line.

  16. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Will certainly do longer.

  17. Jacob Johnson says:

    I like slow developments. It makes room for more detail.

  18. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The author, I feel sure, appreciates your good taste.