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I’m enjoying a guilty pleasure this week: reading a classic detective mystery, the kind Raymond Chandler tore strips off in his defining essay The Simple Art of Murder in 1944 (republished 1950). It’s the kind of book in which the detective ‘solves’ a murder which has puzzled the police (though how one can solve a murder is beyond me – the how, perhaps, but not the why). If this was in any way a realist form of fiction, we’d have to accept as fact that there was once an extraordinary number of murders in our neighbourhood; that an extraordinary number of them were found to be unsolvable; and that there was an extraordinary number of gifted amateur sleuths roaming the country for whom the solution was obvious. But this is not a realist form of fiction (what a juxtaposition!). Or do some people feel all these murders could have happened?
The book I’m reading is by Baroness Orczy, who had a huge success with a play in 1903, then a novel in 1905, The Scarlet Pimpernel. You may remember Leslie Howard in the 1934 film version. I was rather impressed when I saw it, but my appreciation was later spoiled by Tony Hancock’s sketch, playing the East Cheam Pimpernel nonchalantly flicking a speck of dust from his sleeve and making the gesture sublimely ridiculous. (Hancock has a masterly sketch on detective fiction, The Missing Page at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPDH3t1L37g). Baroness Orczy was a prolific writer, and went on to write two or three novels a year till her death in 1947, but never equalled the popularity of the Scarlet Pimpernel (originally a plant called chickweed, as prolific as the Baroness in its habits).
For a while the Baroness experimented with detective fiction. Her detective was the Old Man in the Corner, who first appeared in stories in The Case of Miss Elliott in 1905, then in an eponymous title of 1909, and was resurrected for Unravelled Knots in 1926. Orczy also invented probably the first female detective in fiction, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, published in 1910, when Scotland Yard would have thought the employment of a lady detective rather funny. Ho Ho. Lady Molly, to add to the impertinence of being on the Scotland Yard force, solves her crimes by intuition.
The Old Man in the Corner was published in 1909 by Greening and Co of London, with illustrations by HM Brock. The corner was in the ABC shop in Norfolk Street. There’s a little bit of social history here. The ABC shops were tearooms owned and operated by the Aerated Bread Company between 1860 and 1960 which played an important role (no pun intended) in the liberation of Victorian women, by providing a public place where women could socialise or eat alone without male chaperonage, and was the equal to the bicycle in this respect (of giving women independence).
The audience for this old man to elaborate his theories about unsolved crimes is Polly Burton, journalist for the Evening Observer, and a very independent young lady she is. The old man who impudently sits at her table at the ABC Shop is pale and thin, with his pale hair brushed over his bald crown and a nervous habit of tying knots in a length of string he fiddles with incessantly as he talks. The man is from the school of C. Auguste Dupin, and believes that all you need is the requisite amount of intelligence to realise the salient detail, and the crime is solved. But those blunderers on the Police Force always make a mess of it.
Now nobody can imitate Edgar Allan Poe, I don’t care who they are. There is only one The Purloined Letter, only one Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe overwrites, he is morbidly melodramatic, and stories like The Fall of the House of Usher invite the Hammer Films treatment, or that of Roger Corman, Jessie Franco or Ken Russell. But his hero Dupin still does magnificently what his pallid imitators like Hecule Poirot never do. He makes us think outside the square. So how does this old man measure up to Dupin (we won’t mention Sherlock Holmes, whose stories vary from the sublime to the ridiculous as Conan Doyle moved from trying to write detective stories to churning out rubbish for an exorbitant salary).
The first story in Orczy’s book is The Fenchurch Street Mystery. In it a villain murders an old acquaintance who has become wealthy, and gets away with the crime by disguising the body as his own and faking his own murder. He himself assumes the identity of the rich victim, and sends the police off looking for the wrong man. Nobody penetrates his disguise. He is finally arrested on circumstantial evidence, still in his assumed identity. But he is able to call in witnesses who testify to seeing the supposed murdered man (who is himself, the defendant) alive two days after the alleged murder. The police case collapses. Only the old man in the corner knows the solution, and he’s not telling.
Just in case this story tempts someone into murdering an acquaintance, note that the story, while extremely ingenious, depends on some unusual co-incidences. The murdered man is wealthy, a foreigner unknown in England who yet decides to travel there. The murderer who assumes the murdered man’s identity disguises himself by shaving off his eyebrows and eyelashes. This fools even his wife. Hmm. A triumph of ingenuity over probability I think. The rest of the volume follows suit. All very Agatha Christiesque. Entertaining stuff ideal for passing a long railway journey which you forget and leave in the carriage when you disembark.
The stories of the Old Man in the Corner are classic puzzle mysteries. The reader is presented with what they are told is an insoluble mystery (human emotional behaviour is an unsolvable mystery, not, for heaven’s sake, how Sir Roger was stabbed with a kris while locked in the library!) and detail is carefully added to deepen the puzzle, some of it irrelevant, a red herring. The reader is then shown the police blundering, accidentally erasing evidence and generally behaving incompetently. Then, by an intuition based on e=mc2, the amateur sleuth solves the case. It was the butler, he had the duplicate key to the library all along, and was motivated by the dismissal of Prudence the under maid for whom he nurtured a passion that drove him mad. Neat oh!
Then there was the AEW Mason type of adventure story (I loved The Prisoner in the Opal), epitomised for me by Leslie Charteris’ the Saint (Enter the Saint, Meet the Tiger etc). I read all the books, and thought the Bishop and the Actress routine was rather witty. Wonder what I’d think of them now? I also liked Edgar Wallace, in books like The Four Just Men, and don’t think I could read him now.
There was a great vogue for this stuff in the 20s and 30s, and the appeal now is still strong, based I believe on nostalgia, a desire to turn back the clock to the halcyon days of the pre war years when simple problems like the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism were all that bothered people. Of course Golden Age detectives lived in a nostalgic era too, and solved their crimes in the PG Wodehouse world of pre WWI, so reading them today is double nostalgia, a cancelling out of the 20th century and a refusal to accept even the industrial Revolution. Conservatism verging on infantilism. Still a good source of income for those who can churn the stuff out. But it ranks up there with Enid Blyton as literature.
I used to love this kind of fiction. Golden Age authors like Anthony Berkeley (The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Trial and Error), Michael Innes (Death at the Chase), John Dickson Carr (Poison in Jest, The Mad Hatter Mystery), as well as exotics like Earl Derr Biggers (The Chinese Parrot, Behind That Curtain, and the movies with Warner Oland) and Robert van Gulik (The Chnese Maze Murders etc), filled my shelves. They were entertaining. Reading them was a bit like going to the movies and seeing a Lone Ranger serial. These books are what John Cawalti (see below) calls therapeutic literature, and need to be critiqued in a social context not a literary one. The pre eminent author of this kind of fiction is Agatha Christie. I could never finish a Christie book. They were a bit like a set of knitting instructions.
The book by Baroness Orczy, which I am still reading and kind of mildly enjoying, made me think of what I might have kept in my library of this kind of fiction. I have a lot of books, and periodically cull it of those that have lost their appeal. I found these authors still on the shelf.
Margery Allingham. I read all her books, and I mean all. Now, for I’ve recently reread them, I would take only half a dozen seriously, but those I think among the best of their kind. The rest are just awful. But titles like Police at the Funeral, Dancers in Mourning, Hide My Eyes, The China Governess and Tiger in the Smoke can be mentioned in the same context as Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Josephine Tey. I read all her books too. A recent reread disappointed me, as I thought The Man in the Queue and Miss Pym Disposes were rubbish, and I once thought them great. I didn’t have the heart though to reread my favourite book of Tey’s, The Daughter of Time.
GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were a little creaky, one or two were brilliant, but the writing style I found obnoxious and stopped reading. Eric Ambler, I discovered on rereading him, started out unable to write at all, but by the time he died was one of the best thriller writers in the business. Anything written after he returned to fiction in 1952 with The Judgment on Deltchev is of the best of its kind. Wilkie Collins impressed me with The Moonstone, but when I reread it I noticed a solution based on the most unlikely premise in fiction, and absurd. The first part of the book, where he sets character and milieu, is superior to any detective story ever written, but as a detective story, it has the usual contrived plot mechanism.
The first books of Patricia Highsmith, before she went into her rather morbid decline in 1970, starting with the second Ripley novel, are as good as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (admittedly not one of his best books, but as mesmerising as Highsmith’s).
One volume I value is the Collected Stories of Ruth Rendell, 40 stories published in 1987. I’ve read a dozen of her novels and liked them, but these stories are better. Peter Lovesey (Keystone, The False Inspector Dew) is still good, though I enjoy the social history in his books as much as the mystery. Dorothy Sayers I once liked, especially the Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise and the baroque Gaudy Night. I haven’t reread them for years though and have no idea how they’ve lasted. The same goes for Peter Dickinson, who impressed me with his ghostly retelling of stories from the past in a more modern setting, suggesting all kinds of interesting parallels. I tried to reread one recently but it failed to impress. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. That was Teluga. But I would like to recapture the magic of A Summer in the Twenties or King and Joker, and many others, if i can.
Some writers can’t be defended. The plodding Freeman Wills Crofts (The Cask, The Pit-Prop Syndicate) is one of these. But I like him. His railway timetable sort of construction is so reassuring. Some writers are so good they’re terrifying, like John le Carré (The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People). What if the world really is like his world, dreary, bureaucratic betrayals and hopeless violence for not too clearly discerned objectives?
But the writers I read the most are the American school called hard boiled. Chandler, whose works I reread every few years (I used to be a Chandler evangelist, donating sets of his novels to libraries that didn’t have him in the catalogue). Chandler drank his talent away, but produced a handful of masterly stories and four seminal crime novels never excelled. Dashiell Hammett, whose Glass Key I still admire. James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and other works. Ross Macdonald (The Moving Target, The Zebra Striped Hearse, Sleeping Beauty), whose books are all the same after a certain point, but beautiful.
And then there’s Simenon, whose work I tried to read complete before realising how much of it there was, and whom I’ve written about on these pages. And Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose books I am always going to reread but never do. Dürrenmatt is the Nietzsche among crime novelists.
And there’s Vickram Chandra’s Sacred Games, a crime novel, among many other types of book, and quite profound.
Looks like I have gained discernment as I’ve gotten older, doesn’t it? Once I read voraciously, finding bibliographies of favourite authors and collecting and reading everything they wrote. I was discovering, and I wasn’t critical at all. I would have said I liked crime fiction, and included everything under that heading. Thrillers, procedurals, serial killers, detective and PIs, mysteries, exposés of political corruption, espionage, terrorists. Crime.
What’s so fascinating about crime? It’s a hidden activity I suppose. Something we conceal. But we can’t hide it completely. Something reveals what’s going on, a shifty look in the eye, or the corpse’s foot sticking out of the suitcase. Clues. Something we can’t understand. A bit like sex when you’re an adolescent. And I think we can get addicted to the process of finding a solution. So reassuring. Perhaps that’s why we say things like “I like crime fiction” rather than “I thought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best constructed novel I’ve read”. We use the language of addiction in describing our pastime. “I couldn’t go to sleep until I finished it”, “Unputdownable”, “I devoured all her books”. We speak as though they were all the same, all these books about crime. Who would you rather be, the criminal, the victim, the detective or the concerned bystander? That’s the most important role, and there’s one in every crime story.
Saying something intelligent about crime fiction is difficult, as this essay demonstrates. The best observation of the genre is Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. An eye opener is John G Cawalti’s Adventure, Mystery and Romance, which not only covers crime, but westerns and social melodrama, and attempts to guess why we read such genre fiction, and how it should be assessed. A vigorous survey of the field is Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder.
Individual books should be evaluated, not authors, and not the genre as a whole, as in “I really liked The Silence of the Lambs”, rather than “I like Thomas Harris” (unless you’re a friend of his, then it’s all right) or “I like horror fiction, or books about serial killers”. There’s nothing wrong about any of these reactions. It’s just that if you can speak about individual titles you’re probably getting more enjoyment from the reading process.
So much for my idiosyncratic selection of authors and titles. That leaves lists. Here’s a top 100 list for everyone to disagree with. http://literary-exploration.com/reading-challenges/the-top-100-crime-novels-of-all-time/. “Brilliant, Holmes!”. “Elementary, Watson”.
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