The Mystery of the Murder Story

A friend recently lent me a copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, an account of a factual 1860 murder investigation, the case of the killing of the child Saville Kent at Road Hill House in Wiltshire England. The London detective force had been recently established, Mr Whicher was a celebrated early detective, and he and the case inspired Wilkie Collins to write The Moonstone (1868), one of the first, and one of the best, detective stories. The Road Hill case continued to evolve: the murderer confessed in 1865, and was released from prison in 1885, and the methods of detection of Mr Whicher were much discussed at the time. In 1886 Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, and introduced a character called Sherlock Holmes to the world. Mr Whicher observed, and deduced, but his conclusions seemed to be based largely on intuition. He it was who first eliminated the impossible to arrive at the correct solution. But he wasn’t believed, and the police and the newspapers, not to mention the public (including Charles Dickens, at work on his final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1869) went on putting likely suspects forward till the time the murderer did confess, and proved Mr Whicher to have been right all along. This 1860 case inspired two rival genres of detective story, the so-called ‘police procedural’, and the exploits of the amateur sleuth. Mr Whicher retired and became a private investigator, and perhaps inspired a third genre of the detective story. What follows is not a book review, but a reflection on Kate Summerscale’s observations on the rationale of the detective story (her book covers a lot of ground: the evolving social conditions of Victorian society, attitudes to the family, privacy and respectability, development of the police force, the influence of the press and other matters – as well as being an exciting detective story itself).

“Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional – to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story’, observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is a tragedy with a happy ending’. A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death” (from Summerscale’s ‘Afterword’).

1
Death is an awkward subject. Anyone who has to deal with it, and we all do, finds out two things. Firstly, we cannot comprehend it; and secondly, we feel woefully inadequate offering comfort to others experiencing grief caused by a death. We have as little an idea of what death means as we do of birth. The best we can do is point to the change of form of the matter of our bodies into its constituent elements, and the consequent loss of our consciousness, our self, a function of that body. Some believe that one day this dissolution will reverse itself, and we will inhabit our bodies once more, and rise to heaven. Others talk of immortal souls. Look at this a bit more closely, and you can see that religion is a way of avoiding the subject of death, changing the subject to what might happen after death. Death remains, to the faithful and the sceptics, the great unknown.

So why would it be a great pleasure, as it is to many, to sit down with a book that recounts a death, usually a crime of violence, and watch as a detective ‘solves’ the murder? The usual answer is that the detective story celebrates ratiocination, human reasoning power. Readers try to solve the mystery before the detective. It’s a fine art: solve the crime too early, and you have a poorly written book; if it revolves on hidden information, the writer has ‘cheated’ and the book unsatisfactory; too clockwork and the story resembles a crossword puzzle and minimises the crime by confining it to cardboard characters.

In fact, whodunnit is the lesser matter. What matters in detective fiction is the question, why is there death? We all ask it. Why must I die? Why must the person I love die? And we have no answer, and no-one to blame, except god, and blaming god is never very satisfactory. We don’t understand god either. The detective story deals with this question. It explains why someone has died. It also blames someone for the death. And it proves its case, then punishes the perpetrator of the crime. We find this deeply satisfactory. Once we understand we must die, we want to blame someone for this injustice, and see them punished. Each detective story is a little psychodrama that clears our mind of worry, fear and resentment at our lot of mortality. Which is why we feel so strongly about a poorly written detective story. And why writers have looked at so many ways of resolving our doubts.
1. the private investigator who gets results through insights beyond official investigators
2. the dogged amassment of ‘facts’ and their scientific resolution
3. the gory retailing of crimes of violence, instilling horror, before the criminal is apprehended
4. stories of maniacs who might threaten us all (serial killers) and who personify the violence we are aware of in our society
5. psychological studies of killers with whom we can for a while identify with, then dissociate from as they are punished
6. the tale of vengeance, as a person kills those who have done wrong whom the law apparently can’t touch
7. the proponent of justice, who punishes the criminal even when official forces will not
8. the much ridiculed murder at the vicarage, complete with room plan and list of guests and an invitation to blame the lower classes (the butler did it).

The detective story is very similar to religion in the way they both make sense of an outrageous situation. We don’t know why we are here, why we are, and soon we are aware we are here on sufferance, and are soon gone. Our minds, our tool of comprehension, is part of this process, and cannot distance itself from the situation enough to comprehend it. We invent props. One of our processes of dealing with this absurd situation is drama. We create characters who embody our dilemma, and send them through the processes that we experience and feel so helpless enduring. We simplify these characters into heroes and villains, invent values of good and evil, and process a psychodrama as we empathise with what goes on. God is a way of reassuring ourselves there is meaning. The detective story is a way of asserting that death may not be the lonely, frightening, meaningless dissolution it appears to be.

2
There are other ways of coping with the situation. Look at the news on television. It is largely an account of people who have died. These accounts should be heart breaking tragedies that cause us grief. But they are presented in a uniform, non-committal way by newsreaders, and are followed by an antidote, commercials. Buy, say the sponsors, and you may live for ever. Any resemblance to the words of the serpent in the Garden of Eden is purely coincidental. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Throughout history murder mysteries have evolved to comfort us. In 1599 King Hamlet of Denmark was murdered, and the Holmes and Watson like duo of investigators Prince Hamlet and Horatio began an investigation into motive, method, opportunity and perpetrators of the crime. Hamlet received information from the ghost of the King, and prepared to punish the murderer. Like Orestes, he found he must revenge himself on his guilty mother and uncle, and it gave him pause, as it did Orestes. In one of the great resolutions in drama, Hamlet is able to see his horrifying dilemma as part of a natural process, and famously soliloquises:
“To be – or not to be – that is the question…”
This was a situation that Shakespeare himself had been in three years previously, when his 11 year old son Hamnet died suddenly and unexpectedly. Here is a clear case of how the detective story acts as a solace and comfort to a disquieted mind.

In first century Greece a crime was talked about involving a charismatic preacher called Jeshua, who had been unjustly murdered by the Roman military tribunal in Jerusalem. How could this be? His disciples cowered in Jerusalem, seemingly crushed by the misfortune. It took a renegade Pharisee from Tarsus to see that the ‘solution’ to the crime was that Jeshua was an Adonis, a god who died so his followers could be saved. The doctrine was heresy to Jews, but the disciples were eliminated when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and its inhabitants in AD 70, and Paul’s solution has been offering comfort to his followers ever since.

The Jewish people had their own murder mystery in the story of the Garden of Eden. God had created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and made them immortal. But then he had taken away that immortality, and made his creation mortal. He had created death. Jehovah was in effect the first murderer. But god was perfect, without fault. Therefore the crime had been on the part of the created ones, Adam and Eve. The Book of Genesis is an investigation into how this guilt was created, a just murderer, god, implying the victim was at fault, and not the actual perpetrator of the crime. As an explanation it is awkward and not entirely convincing, but it worked, and gave comfort to many who might otherwise have caviled at their lot. Relevant here is a statement by the French writer Georges Simenon, who believed there was always a murderee as well as a murderer, and that the victim had an active not passive part in every crime.

3
Raymond Chandler points out in his 1944 essay The Simple Art of Murder that there are two kinds of murder stories. He saw them in terms of the movement towards realism in the genre, of which he was a part, ie the class bound English stories of the 20s in which murder was a puzzle that was solved by deduction; compared to the American stories of the 30s derived from the pulp magazine market, driven by action, where a detective of sorts came up against violent criminals in a violent environment, and was himself violent, but in the event served the cause of justice. As Chandler also pointed out in this essay, there are very few well written detective stories, but the level of writing is much more uniform, in comparing the really bad with the really good, in contrast to the ‘mainstream’ social novel examining the psychology of its characters, where the writing skills may veer between impressive and sickening.

The problem in writing for the crime and detection market, Chandler implies, is that an author has to choose between plot development (the crime, the clues and the solving of the mystery), or character development (why a person acts in a certain way, how they are affected by others’ actions). In his mind the realism of the school typified by Dashiell Hammett (and his own stories), which tries to look at real situations, at society that may be corrupt, law enforcement that may be incompetent, behaviour that may be lawless and irresponsible, is much preferable to tales of exotic murder weapons, unlikely motivations and violently inconsistent depiction of a character, all adopted to make a puzzle to intrigue the reader.

However the murder mystery buying public don’t agree. Both types of story continue to be written, and both are popular. The reason, I believe, is that both deal with death, in very different ways, and as Kate Summerscale points out, exorcise it. Reading murder stories is, in the categorisation of John G Cawelti (Adventure, Mystery and Romance) a therapeutic process.

True, if you like the intricate plotting of an Agatha Christie book you probably don’t enjoy the eerie, unsettling atmosphere of a Patricia Highsmith one or the uncouth and randomly violent behaviour depicted in one by Chester Himes, or the compelling and nauseating Hannibal Lecter books of Thomas Harris. But in each of these author’s books alike you are confronting death. Debates on whether the depiction of violence is harmful or exciting, whether deduction is ingenious or sterile, are side issues. So also is whether the book is “unputdownable” or plodding. A writer skilled at construction and pacing can construct a book in any genre that is exciting to read. It’s about pacing, a device of cinema, not of plotting or character depiction. These well paced books are the best sellers, most of them thrown away and forgotten after they’ve been read.

Central to the effect of a good murder mystery is the role of the detective police officer/private investigator/amateur sleuth. He it is who explains the death, sees the murderer is punished, says that everything is all right again. Just as the priest explains that we all have to suffer in this world, but will be rewarded in the next. It’s the detective we remember, we follow, we want to meet again in the next story. The detective and the priest bring some comfort to our uneasy and intermittent sense of mortality.

4
There are a few murder stories that do more than this. The “hard tales” of Georges Simenon, the best of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and only a few others, abandon the rigidly defined roles of the genre: the detective hero, the criminal villain, the innocent victim, the corrupt and violent society they all inhabit. They are concerned with more than reassurance, than with giving an explanation of death. They confuse roles, and present the policeman aware he could be a killer, the murderer who kills from compassion, the victim who taunts their killer into violence, the official who connives at graft and corruption for the very best of motives, or suggest the extent we the readers are complicit in the guilt we are reading about. Some of these stories look at the real world we live in, where motives are so confusedly mixed. This is far from being reassuring, which is why realism has been such a controversial subject in fiction.

This crossing of boundaries seen in the best of detective fiction, or murder mysteries, shows how misleading such categorisation is. Murder mysteries can be throw away items, like most of Agatha Christie’s books: she is the best selling author of all time, and her books are popular exactly because they don’t matter. They are the perfect book for distraction, passing the time, getting your mind off an oppressive subject, when the last thing you want to read is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, seemingly so similar a story about crime. Where do the books of Friedrich Dürrenmatt fit in this way of defining fiction? Are they metaphysical speculations or whodunnits? How confusing that Simenon wrote Maigret detective stories and also psychological explorations of minds under unendurable pressure. Is Patricia Highsmith a writer of horror stories or is she saying something deeply significant about human nature? How do we treat Margery Allingham, Ross Macdonald, Josephine Tey and Ruth Rendell, whose works veer between run of the mill genre fiction and mainstream novels of considerable importance?

The label doesn’t matter, no matter how convenient it is to have it. A look at the books of these authors, and many more, reveals that the significant thing is the process they present us with: that of dealing with death.

A similar thing to the way we interact with murder mysteries happens with the other two main processes, or psychodramas, by which we cope with our predicament of being human: the romance, with the roles of the lover and the beloved, and sometimes the villain who obstructs the lovers’ union, by which we cope with our reproductive role; and the exploration, in which an adventurer leaves the community in search of knowledge or treasure, through which we cope with the need to learn and adapt. These dramas have their consequent high and low literary forms: the novel and the romance, gothic or otherwise of the first; and the journey to unknown worlds and back, of the second, which span works as diverse as the Odyssey and Star Trek.

Strange to reflect that the light escapism of reading a murder mystery should itself be a mystery, an evolution of a process by which we deal with death. Seen this way, the focus is on the process that we the reader go through while reading, not on the plot mechanism or lack of in the book itself. Like Adam in Eden, we may have bought the fate of death on ourselves, be guilty of causing the very thing we fear. But we have Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and a host of others to reassure us. They explain the death, reconstruct the murder, find and punish the criminal. For a moment corrupt and short sighted politicians, the Mob, juvenile delinquents, racial or religious riots caused by fear and intolerance all fade from mind. Yes, there is justice, the death is that of another, the guilty are punished, the innocent are set free, all is forgiven.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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