G. K. Chesterton
To introduce the last book by the late Bernard Capes is a sad sort of honour in more ways than one; for not only was his death untimely and unexpected, but he had a mind of that fertile type which must always leave behind it, with the finished life, a sense of unfinished labour. From the first his prose had a strong element of poetry, which an appreciative reader could feel even more, perhaps, when it refined a frankly modern and even melodramatic theme, like that of this mystery story, than when it gave dignity, as in “Our Lady of Darkness,” to more tragic or more historic things. It may seem a paradox to say that he was insufficiently appreciated because he did popular things well. But it is true to say that he always gave a touch of distinction to a detective story or a tale of adventure; and so gave it where it was not valued, because it was not expected. In a sense, in this department of his work at least, he carried on the tradition of the artistic conscience of Stevenson; the technical liberality of writing a penny-dreadful so as to make it worth a pound. In his short stories, as in his historical studies, he did indeed permit himself to be poetic in a more direct and serious fashion; but in his touch upon such tales as this the same truth may be traced. It is a good general rule that a poet can be known not only in his poems, but in the very titles of his poems. In the case of many works of Bernard Capes, “The Lake of Wine,” for instance, the title is itself a poem. And that case would alone illustrate what I mean about a certain transforming individual magic, with which he touched the mere melodrama of mere modernity. Numberless novels of crime have been concerned with a lost or stolen jewel; and “The Lake of Wine” was merely the name of a ruby. Yet even the name is original, exactly in the detail that is hardly ever original. Hundreds of such precious stones have been scattered through sensational fiction; and hundreds of them have been called “The Sun of the Sultan” or “The Eye of Vishnu” or “The Star of Bengal.” But even in such a trifle as the choice of the title, an indescribable and individual fancy is felt; a sub-conscious dream of some sea like a sunset, red as blood and intoxicant as wine. This is but a small example; but the same element clings, as if unconsciously, to the course of the same story. Many another eighteenth century hero has ridden on a long road to a lonely house; but Bernard Capes, by something fine and personal in the treatment, does succeed in suggesting that at least along that particular road, to that particular house, no man had ever ridden before. We might put this truth flippantly, and therefore falsely, by saying he put superior work into inferior works. I should not admit the distinction; for I deny that there is necessarily anything inferior in sensationalism, when it can really awaken sensations. But the truer way of stating it would perhaps be this; that to a type of work which generally is, for him or anybody else, a work of invention, he always added at least one touch of imagination.
The detective or mystery tale, in which this last book is an experiment, involves in itself a problem for the artist, as odd as any of the problems which it puts to the policeman. A detective story might well be in a special sense a spiritual tragedy; since it is a story in which even the moral sympathies may be in doubt. A police romance is almost the only romance in which the hero may turn out to be the villain, or the villain to be the hero. We know that Mr. Osbaldistone’s business has not been betrayed by his son Frank, though possibly by his nephew Rashleigh. We are quite sure that Colonel Newcome’s company has not been conspired against by his son Clive, though possibly by his nephew Barnes. But there is a stage in a story like “The Moonstone,” when we are meant to suspect Franklin Blake the hero, as he is suspected by Rachel Verinder the heroine; there is a stage in Mr. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” when the figure of Mr. Marlowe is as sinister as the figure of Mr. Manderson. The obvious result of this technical trick is to make it impossible, or at least unfair, to comment, not only on the plot, but even on the characters; since each of the characters should be an unknown quantity. The Italians say that translation is treason; and here at least is a case where criticism is treason. I have too great a love or lust for the roman policier to spoil sport in so unsportsmanlike a fashion; but I cannot forbear to comment on the ingenious inspiration by which in this story, one of the characters contrives to remain really an unknown quantity, by a trick of verbal evasion, which he himself defends, half convincingly, as a scruple of verbal veracity. That is the quality of Bernard Capes’ romances that remains in my own memory; a quality, as it were, too subtle for its own subject. Men may well go back to find the poems thus embedded in his prose.
G. K. Chesterton.
Website by C.J.S. Hayward (bookshelf, substack), an Orthodox Christian novice and apologist. A good place to start with his work is The Angelic Letters, which open C.J.S. Hayward in Under 99 Pages.