By Margaret Lucke
If I'd only known …
Permit me to tweak The LadyKillers' theme for this week just a little. Take out the if and the only, add a but, rearrange a couple of words, and voilà! We have one of the most famous--or should I say infamous?--phrases in mystery literature.
These words refer to a category of story that was popular in the first half of the twentieth century. The stereotypical book of the Had I But Known (HIBK) school was Gothic in tone and had an innocent or naïve young woman as narrator, giving a first-person account of what happened to her in that spooky old mansion. The HIBK was a foreshadowing device, intended to create suspense by letting readers know that even if this section was dull, things would pick up because the main character was running headlong toward disaster. Had I but known that an evil killer had escaped from the asylum in the village, I never would have gone out by myself for a midnight walk on the moor. Some writers employed the technique in a clunky way, making it too obvious and sometimes a bit silly.
But it's still used today, usually subtly and effectively.
Mary Roberts Rinehart, whom some call the American Agatha Christie, is credited with inventing the HIBK approach in one of her earliest novels, The Circular Staircase, published in 1908. (Rinehart also wrote a popular novel called The Door, in which the butler did it, thus giving the mystery genre another famous phrase.)
Some of the writers who followed Rinehart's footsteps onto the bestseller lists are still known today. Others have faded into obscurity. They include, but are not limited to, Anita Blackmon, Dorothy Cameron Disney, Daphne du Maurier, Mignon G. Eberhart, Medora Field, Leslie Ford, Lenore Glen Offord, and Ethel Lina White.
Readers loved HIBK stories. Critics, not so much. The "Had I But Known" label was applied in derision.
Apparently the first person to use it was Ogden Nash, in a poem spoofing detective stories. Called "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You," it first appeared in the April 20, 1940, issue of The New Yorker. Sadly, I couldn't find a web page to link to that has the full text of the poem, but it's worth seeking out in a collection of Nash's works.
It also appears in The Art of the Mystery Story, a wonderful collection of critical essays edited by Howard Haycraft and published in 1946, which belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history of crime literature. Haycraft apparently felt that the stories in question deserved Nash's disdain. In introducing the poem, he said, "Not the least of his achievement is his feat of attaching the telling label 'Had-I-But-Known' to a school of mystery writing about which the less said the more chivalrous."
It has occurred to me that the gulf between readers' and critics' responses to these books may have had to do with the fact that the readers (and authors) were mostly women while the critics of the day were mostly men. Or maybe it's that age-old argument that holds that writing a book that's a great read is a lesser achievement than writing one that is great literature (and who gets to define what great literature is, anyway?)
I don't aspire to write great literature; in fact, I suspect that the harder one tries to do that, the less likely one is to succeed. But I do hope that readers find my books to be a worthwhile way to use their precious leisure time. I've never used an HIBK device deliberately, though that doesn't mean such a thing hasn't occasionally crept into a story without my realizing it.
Here's one. It doesn't apply to any single tale I've written, but rather to all of them: Had I but known that mystery writing would be so rewarding, I would have made it a priority in my life much sooner.