Murder, they wrote

graveyard

I’ve been outlining the creative writing classes I’ve been attending in which we’ve looked at different genres such as Gothick horror and, more recently, Horror Fiction. The next in line was Thriller and Detective Fiction, a genre with close on two centuries of development. Conan Doyle acknowledged Edgar Allan Poe as the “father of the detective tale”; for Sherlock’s creator Poe “covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.” In fact over those two hundred years Poe’s detective tales — beginning with The Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) — led to a vast range of crossovers, cross-pollinations and sub-genres (many focusing on at least one murder) which did indeed try to find ground to call their own.

Poe introduced many key motifs that come up again and again, including the brilliant amateur detective and the less than brilliant friend. Quite often the armchair detective solves the case by the application of pure reasoning, with a solution that could even be the most obvious if unexpected (maybe reached by devious means). Frequently the wrong person is suspected, with the least likely suspect unmasked. Other features include the sealed room, a code and a trail of false clues laid by the murderer. With a fair few novels the deduction may even have a psychological basis.

Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t the only other writer of 19th-century detective fiction — Dickens’ unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone spring to mind — but he is certainly the most famous. His last collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), appeared slap-bang in the middle of the so-called Golden Age of Crime Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s; Agatha Christie (whose The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920) and Dorothy L Sayers (Whose Body, 1923) are the best known of these writers, many of whom as it happens are women. The parochial nature of the settings were to inspire a later generation with the cozy mysteries of the later 20th century (the American spelling of ‘cosy’ reflecting the origins of this sub-genre’s popularity).

But perhaps in reaction to the rather genteel crimes recounted in these works a much more violent and cynical brand of detective novels appeared, so-called Hardboiled Fiction. Set in North American cities with anti-heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the novels of Dashiell Hamnett, Raymond Chandler and others began in and reflected the period of the Great Depression (1929 to the late 1930s). Hamnett, a former Pinkerton agent, produced Red Harvest in 1929 and The Glass Key in 1931, Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely in 1939 and 1940. Direct descendants of hardboiled fiction include Tartan Noir, led by Edinburgh author Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses (1987), itself influenced by Stevenson’s Gothick novel Jekyll and Hyde; and television has since popularised other home-grown products such as Nordic Noir, typically the Swedish Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, beginning with Faceless Killer (1991).

Sub-genres now begin to multiply. Crime novels take a psychological twist with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), P D James’ Cover Her Face (1962) and Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death (1964) leading the way. In the early 1980s female private investigators start to take centre stage in novels by US writers Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, at the same time as Britain produced the innovative TV series Juliet Bravo centred on two successive female police inspectors. Meanwhile two other closely allied sub-genres, the police procedural and forensic fiction also make their presence felt, with novels by authors such as Faye Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Significantly, perhaps, female writers feature prominently in these developments.

And so the cross-pollination goes on. Spy novels by authors such as John Le Carré blur into thrillers, where action blends with psychological games. Caper or heist novels, maybe with a strong dash of humour, have many detective and thriller elements (I’m thinking of John Boland’s 1958 The League of Gentlemen, made into a successful film two years later); Michael Crichton has made forays into techno-thrillers such as Prey or the famous Jurassic Park, borrowing aspects of science fiction; and Val McDermid writes suspense novels characterised by ‘visceral’ crime and graphic violence.

A feature that comes up time and again is the unlikely pairings or unusual partnerships in detective fiction. Holmes and Watson are the prototypes, Morse and Lewis appear on British TV, Montalbano and Augello in Camilleri’s Italian novels: usually one is a foil for the other, with complementary personality and/or skills. Other features include the nemesis — Holmes’ Moriarty, for example — and the incompetent or unimaginative superior who attempts to rein in the maverick investigator — Chief Inspector Dreyfus is just such a one in the Clouseau films.

Over the years I’ve sampled the work of some of these writers — Poe, Conan Doyle, Christie, Highsmith, James, Boland and Crichton for example — but I’ve found that occasionally they’ve left me slightly unsatisfied. Such novels can be like cryptic crosswords, which I personally enjoy but rarely go back to; they stimulate, but all too briefly. The reason for the most part is that I don’t find the characters believable and so I seldom engage with or care about them; they may suffice as holiday reading but not as literature.

Crime writer Michael Connelly puts his finger on this dividing line between run-of-the-mill detective fiction and the best of the genre: “It’s not so much the characters working on the crime as it is the crime working on the characters.” I’ve sensed that in the Italian police inspectors Montalbano and Brunetti of Andrea Camilleri and Donna Leon’s novels, or the retired police officer in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. It’s the crime equivalent of the Mrs Brown of Ursula Le Guin’s SF (in her essay “Science fiction and Mrs Brown”), that recognisably real human individual who is at the centre of any piece of good writing. I’ll leave the last word to Le Guin:

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel — or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel — is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.

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4 thoughts on “Murder, they wrote

  1. I was just telling someone about how I like watching detective TV shows and films, especially the British ones (the various Agatha Christie series, Morse, Lewis, Dalgleish, Hamish Macbeth, Inspector Linley, Jane Tennison), but that I can’t read most of them. This genre has always seemed like the perfect visual diversion, eye candy to while away an hour or so, saving my reading mind for more substantive fare.
    Eric Ambler and Dashiell Hammett, and possibly Philip K Dick, are the exceptions. Even though the surprise element is gone, I reread Ambler’s *A Coffin for Demetrios* and Hammett’s *Maltese Falcon* and *The Thin Man* because the detectives are intriguing — even funny, in the case of Nick and Nora Charles. I have to admit that I saw the movies before reading these books, so I hear the actors’ voices throughout, but that only add to the pleasure of reading.
    Re Hamish Macbeth: I’m one of those who loved the TV series and was then disappointed by how different the books were. Their author, MC Beaton, understandably had the opposite reaction — i.e., outraged that her characters and stories had been buried under some nonsensical amalgamation for TV. Evidently the only things that transferred to the new medium were the location and the detective of the title. It seems other authors have been treated with more respect.

    1. Of the TV series you mention I particularly enjoyed the Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson, Morse, some of the Dalgleish and a couple of the Inspector Linley episodes that I watched. But most of these are from some years ago — I don’t know what this says about my viewing habits, Lizzie, or if it’s just because there is more choice on UK television these days.

      I would agree that it might often more enjoyable to watch the acted version, despite liberties taken with storylines and especially if the lead characterisation is particularly compelling; but as I’ve not been strongly drawn to the genre I can’t really say if the text has disappointed me compared to the screen version, and anyway the Christie novels I’ve read I can count on the fingers of one hand without resorting to the thumb. The only detective series I’ve bothered to read after screened versions are the Sicilian-based Montalbano novels in translation — I don’t know if these have ever aired in the States or even if they’re available on DVD or to download. As the author was involved in the production he was luckily able to have a significant input on the filmed treatments.

  2. One of my favorite master’s class was early detective stories. We studied the classics you mentioned. As I recall, many of us mentioned that early writers like Poe and Doyle cared little about their characters. They all fell into the “Flat” category. Thanks to Sayers this changed in the early 20’s. Now, it seems author’s have swung far to the other side. Our modern detectives are so flawed and full of angst it is hard to connect with them. This one reason, I’d take Poe over Kellerman any day. I want more detective work, less personal drama.

    1. A tricky balance, Sari, and one that depends on personal taste, but even with my limited experience of this genre your comments ring true.

      For me, there’d be other considerations too — aspects of literaty style, plausibility, factual accuracy for example — that would come into play if the balance was weighted more heavily towards mere puzzle or excess of angst. (And that’s even before we get to cross-genres, such as urban fantasy police procedurals…)

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