Politician, diplomat, Scotsman, Presbyterian, and writer of dozens of World War 1-era spy novels with occasional supernatural flair — that was John Buchan, who also, it seems, had a penchant for self-parody. That seems clear from this exchange early in his 1924 novel The Three Hostages, in which he satirizes thriller novelists who, he sarcastically suggests, are only employing cheap tricks.
It was a cold night and very pleasant by the fireside, where some scented logs from an old pear-tree were burning. The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title page.
‘I can read most things,’ he said, ‘but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself.’
‘Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can’t think how the fellow does it.’
‘Quite simple. The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively. Do you see what I mean?’
‘Not a bit,’ I replied.
‘Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connection.’
‘Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three thing’s [sic] a long way apart —’ He paused for a second to consider — ‘say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection — simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into the yarn. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realize that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘You’ve gone and taken the gilt off my favourite light reading. I won’t be able to marvel at the writer’s cleverness.’
— John Buchan, from The Three Hostages
Right or wrong? Are writers who arrange story elements inductively, to be read deductively, really no big deal? Or is there a truly clever element to the craft that Buchan’s skeptical doctor hadn’t considered?