At the end of Summer I went to a literary festival in Saint-Clémentin, Poitou-Charente.
Among other events I went to there was a workshop on the short story. The British writer Bill Kirton talked about the principles of a good short story in terms that reminded me of a favourite of mine, The Creative Impulse, 1926, by W.Somerset Maugham.
Kirton didn't know the story, so I gave a brief summary and retold the following passage in which the mystery of the birth of a best-selling detective novel is revealed.
It was then that Mrs Bulfinch had the idea that was to have consequences of such magnitude.Surprisingly, it's not easy to find Maugham's story on the internet. You'd think that works published in 1920s would be somewhere there on an open resource - but no. Amazon has collections of Maugham's stories but there aren't library sites with this one. In the end I found the full text on Cadwallen.
‘Why don’t you write a good thrilling detective story?’ she asked.
‘Me?’ exclaimed Mrs Albert Forrester, for the first time in her life regardless of grammar.
‘It’s not a bad idea,’ said Albert. ‘It’s not a bad idea at all.’
‘I should have the critics down on me like a thousand bricks.’
‘I’m not so sure of that. Give the highbrow the chance of being lowbrow without demeaning himself and he’ll be so grateful to you, he won’t know what to do.’
‘For this relief much thanks,’ murmured Mrs Albert Forrester reflectively.
‘My dear, the critics’ll eat it. And written in your beautiful English they won’t be afraid to call it a masterpiece.’
‘The idea is preposterous. It’s absolutely foreign to my genius. I could never hope to please the masses.’
‘Why not? The masses want to read good stuff, but they dislike being bored. They all know your name, but they don’t read you, because you bore them. The fact is, my dear, you’re dull.’
‘I don’t know how you can say that, Albert,’ replied Mrs Albert Forrester, with as little resentment as the equator might feel if someone called it chilly.
‘Everyone knows and acknowledges that I have an exquisite sense of humour and there is nobody who can extract so much good wholesome fun from a semicolon as I can.’
‘If you can give the masses a good thrilling story and let them think at the same time that they are improving their minds you’ll make a fortune.’
‘I’ve never read a detective story in my life,’ said Mrs Albert Forrester. ‘I once heard of a Mr Barnes of New York and I was told that he had written a book called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. But I never read it.’
‘Of course you have to have the knack,’ said Mrs Bulfinch. ‘The first thing to remember is that you don’t want any lovemaking, it’s out of place in a detective story, what you want is murder, and sleuth–hounds, and you don’t want to be able to guess who done it till the last page.’
‘But you must play fair with your reader, my dear,’ said Albert. ‘It always annoys me when suspicion has been thrown on the secretary or the lady of the title and it turns out to be the second footman who’s never done more than say, “The carriage is at the door.” Puzzle your reader as much as you can, but don’t make a fool of him.’
‘I love a good detective story,’ said Mrs Bulfinch. ‘Give me a lady in evening dress, just streaming with diamonds, lying on the library floor with a dagger in her heart, and I know I’m going to have a treat.’
‘There’s no accounting for tastes,’ said Albert. ‘Personally, I prefer a respectable family solicitor, with side–whiskers, gold watch–chain, and a benign appearance, lying dead in Hyde Park.’
‘With his throat cut?’ asked Mrs Bulfinch eagerly.
‘No, stabbed in the back. There’s something peculiarly attractive to the reader in the murder of a middle–aged gentleman of spotless reputation. It is pleasant to think that the most apparently blameless of us have a mystery in our lives.’
‘I see what you mean, Albert,’ said Mrs Bulfinch. ‘He was the repository of a fatal secret.’
‘We can give you all the tips, my dear,’ said Albert, smiling mildly at Mrs Albert Forrester. ‘I’ve read hundreds of detective stories.’
Read about the festival here and here, and on the organisers' blog here.
Bill Kirton's website is here.