Follow monroe_aly on Twitter

Monday 22 June 2009

Ratiocination and Other Horrors or The Art of Playing Ball.

At the recent Crimefest, I was surprised to hear an attack on Edgar Allan Poe for using a word like ‘ratiocination’. I was surprised, first because Poe died 160 years ago in 1849, and second because the poor man pioneered a genre without knowing it would come to be called ‘detective fiction’.

Undoubtedly Poe’s ‘Tales of Ratiocination’ would now be re-named by the marketing department. This is partly because the word is difficult to pronounce – “rashio-sin-ayshun” – and partly because its meaning – rational deduction – is not immediately and confidently recognized outside certain philosophy and literature departments.

Another example, just in time for Wimbledon, of a word that did not become popular is Sphairistike, the first name given to the sport by Major Walter Wingfield in 1874 when he drew up the rules of Lawn Tennis. I am not aware that the Major has been attacked for his desire to trace the game back to the Ancient Greek ‘art of playing ball’.

As it happens Poe rapidly lost interest in the genre. “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious – but people think they are more ingenious than they are on account of their method and air of method.”

It turns out that 'ratiocination' was indeed good marketing in the 1840’s. In effect, Poe was playing up that air of method by choosing a problematic word precisely to impress the reader with apparent science and the detective’s almost ‘inhuman’ powers of deduction.

Not our word choice today? Probably not. But just consider the sheer number of ‘human thinking machines’ that followed Poe, from Sherlock Holmes all the way to the current tv series that begins with a word and a definition – The Mentalist.

They were one reason we were all at Crimefest.


Kirk said...

Were people at Crimefest upset because readers might have to look up a word they don't understand? Poe's work is peppered with words no longer used by the public majority.
Do you have any suggestions for resources on writing crime fiction? I'd like to learn more about writing in this genre.

Aly Monroe said...

Hi Kirk,
Thanks for your comment on this post.
You ask if I can point you in the direction of resources for writing crime fiction.First stop?Yourself. Ask yourself questions:
What writers do you enjoy reading? What do you admire about them? Why are you attracted to crime fiction?
Publishers are often more interested in a series than in stand-alone novels, so think about that.
Learn from writers you admire (not only crime writers)- then do your own thing. A lot of it is about finding the confidence to do something that is yours. This is the hardest part. You have to trust yourself as a writer - then as a critic of what you have written.
I have had a look at your blogs - you can obviously draw. Have you thought of doing a graphic crime novel?
Good luck!

Kirk said...

Thank you for the suggestions Aly. I'm currently reading Scout McCloud's book Making Comics as research for the possibility of doing just that. Cheers!