popular literary genres – crime fiction – whose roots go back far in human culture, ANALYSING CRIME FICTION AS A NARRATIVE GENRE. Crime fiction, if you choose to classify it in its broadest sense, has a very long history. Detectives can be found in ancient texts from around the world. One of the. A companion to crime fiction / edited by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley. . Folklore and crime fiction, co - founded the Popular Culture Association, and.
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explores the key sub-genres of crime fiction, such as 'Mystery and. Detective Fiction', 'The Hard-Boiled Mode', 'The Police Procedural' and 'Historical Crime. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction covers British and American crime fiction from the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. As well. British crime writer Simon Brett was born in After studying at Oxford University, he worked as a producer for BBC radio and London Weekend Television.
In either case she had plenty of time to be driven round the country in style by George, her chauffeur, and to involve herself in such interests as Roman ruins, the occult, ancient Greek mysticism and the Loch Ness Monster. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb. Download it here For five more free classic crime novels that are available, see our earlier article on the topic which includes one by AA Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. Bonteen, and only escapes conviction on strong circumstantial evidence by the energetic efforts of Madame Max, the woman who loves him and obtains the vital clue which helps to convict the true murderer. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep WHILE THE well-born and impeccably correct detectives of the Golden Age were courteously interviewing their suspects in the drawing rooms of country houses, the studies of rural clergymen and the rooms of Oxford academics, across the Atlantic crime writers were finding their material and inspiration in a very different society and writing about it in prose that was colloquial, vivid and memorable. This is her first novel, and introduces the indomitable Hercule Poirot, so it is a double bubble for classic crime fans.
Priest or no, he certainly seems to have the inside track on human evil, and he is adept at solving a convoluted mystery — a bit like Miss Marple in a cassock. In all, he featured in 51 short stories by Chesterton, an author who has been cited as an influence by such diverse modern-day writers as Neil Gaiman and Jorge Luis Borges. Download it here. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie I was amazed to find a book by the grand duchess of crime on the frees list.
This is her first novel, and introduces the indomitable Hercule Poirot, so it is a double bubble for classic crime fans. Set in Styles Court, a country house in Essex, Christie wrote the book in the middle of the First World War and it was published in It is the latter who acts as narrator for the tale of murder in an isolated country manor, a setting which would serve Agatha Christie very well in the ensuing years.
It might be her debut novel, but Christie is in top form and keeps the reader guessing right to the end. There are plenty of twists and turns before the conundrum is solved. There were four full length Raffles novels and the last of them was Mr Justice Raffles, published in In it, we meet a Raffles who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the mores of high society, and he sets out to teach a lesson to an unscrupulous moneylender who is preying on young upper class men by offering them loans and subsequently charging them huge amounts of interest — wonder where Wonga got its business plan from?
For five more free classic crime novels that are available, see our earlier article on the topic which includes one by AA Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. Five free crime fiction classics — the best!
Crime Fiction Lover. Classics in September — a recap Crime Fiction Lover. He was a man his fellow countrymen could understand: He imbued Sherlock Holmes with the 12 same passion, the same courage.
It was his declared policy not to acquire any knowledge which was not useful to him or would not bear upon his job. He was an expert boxer and swordsman and had a good practical knowledge of the law and of poisons, including belladonna and opium.
Although exhaustively energetic when engaged on a case, he spent days lying on a sofa without uttering a word, regularly injected himself with cocaine, and with his erratic lifestyle and habit of firing off his revolver in the sitting-room to pattern the wall with bullet holes must have been an uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous companion for his friend and flatmate Dr.
Hudson was certainly a most accommodating landlady. A moment of Holmes-like deduction suggests that, if there is a B, there must be a A, and possibly a C. And why did such a brilliant and successful investigator, called on by the rich and famous, able to afford a special train to take Dr. Watson and himself to the scene of crime, need to share lodgings in what seems to be essentially a rooming house? We are told by Dr. It hardly seems a satisfactory arrangement and I am not surprised that eventually, despite the moderate cost, Watson moved out.
One of his clients was the King of Sardinia, and noblemen as well as the humble workers of the world came to that sitting-room for help. Was he perhaps a secret philanthropist who used his income from prosperous clients to subsidise the poor? And what happened to Dr. Before moving into B he confesses that he keeps a bull pup, but we never hear again about this animal. Did Mrs. But for me the greater mystery has to be the missing money.
With such a large output, the quality is inevitably sometimes uneven. Rylott, who from his first entrance in B Baker Street reveals his strength and brutality. As a doctor, he surely had the means to dispose of his step-daughter with expedience and safety, but the method he employed somehow seems a wanton wish on his part to make the investigation as complicated as possible for Holmes, rather than a rational plan to commit a successful murder.
There are other inconsistencies in a number of the stories, but I have some sympathy with the judgement of the late novelist and critic Julian Symons that we should not fall into the error of preferring technical perfection to brilliant storytelling, and that if one were choosing the best twenty short detective stories ever written, at least half a dozen would feature Sherlock Holmes. Such is the power of the writing that it is we, the readers, who conjure up this enveloping miasma of mystery and terror.
We may not always believe in the details of the plot, but we always believe in the man himself and the world he inhabits. And the magic has remained.
We readers, in our fidelity to Holmes, have a greater respect for him than had his creator. It was at the end of the second series of stories that he decided to kill both Holmes and his adversary, Moriarty, by plunging them over the Reichenbach Falls. But Holmes was not so easy to kill and by public demand was reinstated, although some readers may feel that the great detective was never quite the same man after the Reichenbach experience. Conan Doyle could not resist the public clamour for Holmes to be saved, nor say no to the enormous fees he was earning.
Another Victorian whose influence and reputation have been almost as great, in my view deservedly, was as prolific as Conan Doyle but very different both as a man and as a writer. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who was born on Campden Hill in London in and died in , can be described in terms which are hardly ever used of a writer today: All his life he earned his living by his pen and he was as versatile as he was prolific, gaining a reputation as a novelist, essayist, critic, journalist and poet.
But he is chiefly remembered as one of the most brilliant writers of the short detective story and for his serial detective, the Roman Catholic priest Father Brown. The Innocence of Father Brown was published in and was followed by four further volumes; the last, The 14 Scandal of Father Brown, appeared in Chesterton converted to Roman Catholicism in , and his faith became central to his life and work.
Valentin was not the only person to be taken in by this seeming innocence and simplicity. Father Brown could not be more different from the Golden Age heroes of detective fiction.
He solved crimes by a mixture of common sense, observation and his knowledge of the human heart. Although we are told that Father Brown was parish priest in Cobhole in Essex before moving to London, we meet him in other and very different places, in England and overseas, and in a variety of settings and company across the whole social and economic spectrum. Nothing and no one is alien to him. We rarely encounter him in the daily routine of his pastoral duties at Cob-hole, never learn where exactly he lives, who housekeeps for him, what kind of church he has or his relationship with his bishop.
We are not told his age, whether his parents are still living or even his Christian name. In each of the stories he makes his quiet appearance unannounced, as much at home with the poor and humble as he is with the rich and famous, and applying to all situations his own immutable spirituality. But he is always a rationalist with a dislike of superstition, which he sees as inimical to his faith.
Like the other characters in the stories—and like us, the readers—he sees the physical facts of the case, but only he, by a process of deduction, interprets them correctly.
In this he resembles, in his methods, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. We see what is apparently obvious, however bizarre; he sees what is true.
Chesterton loved paradox and, because we encounter Father Brown often in incongruous company and he comes unencumbered by his past, the little priest is himself a paradox, at once endearingly human, but also a mysterious and iconic harbinger of death. Chesterton never wrote an inelegant or clumsy sentence. The Father Brown stories are written in a style richly complex, imaginative, vigorous, poetic and spiced with paradoxes.
He wanted his readers to share that poetic vision, to see the romance and numinousness in commonplace things. He brought two things in particular to detective fiction. He was among the first writers to realise that it could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the condition of society, and for saying something true about human 15 nature. They may not be framed and on my desk but they are never out of my mind.
In Bloody Murder, published in , revised in and again in , a book which has become essential reading for many aficionados of crime fiction, Julian Symons suggests that because of their richness, no more than a few Father Brown short stories should be read at a time.
My Lord. Not only did the sensational business continue, but the new century saw an outburst of creative energy directed towards detective fiction, the emergence of new talented writers and a public which greeted their efforts with an avid enthusiasm which contemporary cartoons suggest amounted to a craze. Although short stories continued to be written, gradually they gave way to the detective novel.
One reason for this change was probably because the writers and their increasingly enthusiastic readers preferred a longer narrative, which gave opportunities for even 16 more complicated plotting and more fully developed characters.
In the words of G.
Bentley, published in The name of this novel is familiar to many readers who have never read it, and its importance is partly due to the respect with which it was regarded by practitioners of the time and its influence on the genre. Bentley, who wrote the book between and , was a lifelong friend and fellow journalist of G. But what Bentley produced was hardly what his friend would have expected.
Seeing himself as a modernist, Bentley disliked the conventional straitjacket of the orthodox detective story and had little respect for Sherlock Holmes. He planned a small act of sabotage, a detective story which was to satirize rather than celebrate the genre. The detective is an amateur sleuth and a painter, Philip Trent, and only at the end of the book do we know why this is his last case.
The clues are fairly presented and there is at the end not one surprising disclosure, but two. The dominance of the love interest was also unusual. Subsequent writers tended to agree with Dorothy L. Sayers that their detectives should concentrate their energy on clues and not on chasing attractive young women.
The writers of the Golden Age attracted to this fascinating form were as varied as their talents. It must at times have seemed as if everyone who could put together a coherent narrative was compelled to have a go at this challenging and lucrative craft. Many writers who made a reputation for detective fiction already had successful careers in other fields.
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery — , a musician, composer and critic. Monsignor Ronald Knox — wrote under his own name, as did G. Cole — and his wife, Margaret — , who were both economists. Innes produced in Appleby probably the most erudite of all fictional detectives in books which are witty, literate, larded with quotations chosen to be unfamiliar to all but learned academics and with plots which are sometimes more bizarre than credible.
One of the most interesting aspects of Appleby is the way in which he ages and matures so that readers who fall under his spell can have the satisfaction of vicariously living his life. From his first case, the murder of Dr. This is very rare. Other prominent academics joined in the game, perhaps intrigued by the challenge set by the rules which were laid down by Ronald Knox in the preface to Best Detective Stories —29, which he edited.
The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used or, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation.
No Chinamen must figure in the story. No accident must help the detective, nor is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader, and his thoughts should not be concealed.
And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been duly prepared for them. These rules, if accepted as mandatory, would have reduced the detective story to a quasiintellectual puzzle in which the reader would be exercising his intelligence, not only against the fictional murderer, but against the writer, whose quirks and cunning ploys aficionados set out to recognise and confute.
Rules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature, and the rules were not strictly adhered to. The Watson became superfluous relatively soon and, having a 18 tendency, indeed an obligation, to be boring, was rarely missed. One rule was brilliantly broken by Agatha Christie, arch-breaker of rules, in her long-running play The Mousetrap. She perpetrated an even more audacious deception on the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the narrator proves to be the murderer, an ingenious if defensible defiance of all the rules, and although she provided perfectly fair clues, some readers have never forgiven her.
The prohibition against Chinamen is difficult to understand. Or was it perhaps the general view that Chinamen, if inclined to murder, would be so clever and cunning in their villainy that the famous detective would be unfairly hampered in his investigation? It is possible that Monsignor Knox was obliquely referring to Dr.
Fu Manchu, that oriental genius of crime created by Sax Rohmer, who for nearly fifty years between and pursued his evil purposes while no doubt contributing to racial prejudice and fear of the menacing Yellow Peril. The first rule is interesting. Certainly a proper regard to structure and balance would suggest that the murderer should make an appearance comparatively early in the story, but a demand that this should be no later than two-thirds of the way through the narrative seems unduly restrictive.
Some novelists like to begin either with a murder or with the discovery of the body, an exciting and shocking beginning that not only sets the mood of the novel but involves the reader immediately in drama and action.
Although I have used this method with some of my novels, I have more commonly chosen to defer the crime and begin by establishing the setting and by introducing my readers to the victim, the murderer, the suspects, and the life of the community in which the murder will take place. This has the advantage that the setting can be described with more leisure than is practicable once the action is under way, and that many of the facts about the suspects and their possible motives are known and do not have to be revealed at length during the course of the investigation.
Deferring the actual murder, apart from the build-up of tension, also ensures that the reader is in possession of more information than is the detective when he arrives at the scene.
It is an inviolable rule that the detective should never know more than the reader, but there is no injunction against the reader knowing more than the detective—including, of course, when a particular suspect is lying. In an introduction to an anthology of short stories published in , Dorothy L. Sayers confronted this difficulty, which still challenges detective novelists today.
Miss Sayers did nothing in her life by halves. Having decided to earn some much-needed money by writing detective fiction, she applied her mind to the history, technique and possibilities of the genre. Being highly intelligent, opinionated and combative, she had no hesitation in giving other people the advantage of her views.
Not surprisingly, it is Sayers to whom we frequently look for an expert view on the problems and challenges of writing detective fiction in the Golden Age. She wrote: It does not—and by 19 hypothesis never can—attain the loftiest level of literary achievement. Though it deals with the most desperate effects of rage, jealousy and revenge, it rarely touches the heights and depths of human passion. It presents us only with a fait accompli and looks upon death and mutilation with a dispassionate eye.
The majority of the Golden Age novels are at present out of print, but the names of the most popular still resonate; their crumbling paperbacks can still be seen on the racks of secondhand bookstores or in private libraries where their owners are reluctant finally to dispose of old friends who have given so much half-remembered pleasure.
Those writers who are still read have provided something more than an exciting and original plot: The omni-talented amateur with apparently nothing to do with his time but solve murders which interest him has had his day, partly because his rich and privileged lifestyle became less admirable, and his deferential acceptance by the police less credible, in an age when men were expected to work. Increasingly the private eye had a profession, or occasionally some connection with the police.
Doctors were popular and were usually provided with some idiosyncratic hobby or habit, an interest for which they had plenty of time since we rarely saw them with a patient. Among the most popular was H.
Reggie is a weighty character in both senses of the word, a gourmet, the husband of an exceptionally beautiful wife and a doughty defender of the weak and vulnerable, particularly children. Occasionally his concern as a social reformer in these fields tended to override the detective element. Thereafter Miss Mitchell published a book a year, sometimes two, until Dame Beatrice was a true original: Professionally she was highly regarded, despite the fact that her methods seemed more intuitive than scientific, and although we are told she was consultant to the Home Office it is not clear whether this entailed treating any home secretary whose peculiarities were causing concern, or involving herself with convicted criminals, which seems equally unlikely.
In either case she had plenty of time to be driven round the country in style by George, her chauffeur, and to involve herself in such interests as Roman ruins, the occult, ancient Greek mysticism and the Loch Ness Monster.
There are frequent allusions to her mysterious past—a distant ancestor was apparently a witch—and she was much given to conclusions which seem to owe more to her esoteric knowledge than to logical deduction. Like Reggie Fortune, she had a maverick attitude toward authority. Three writers whose books have deservedly lasted beyond the Golden Age and can still be 20 found in print are Edmund Crispin, Cyril Hare and Josephine Tey Each had a profession apart from writing, and each produced one book which has generally proved the favourite among their work.
Edmund Crispin, following his time at St.
Like many other detective writers, he made excellent use of his personal experience, both of Oxford and of his career as a musician. We learn nothing of the sex of these children and are only surprised that Professor Fen has found the time and energy to father them. He seems to be rarely inconvenienced by academic duties and in one book, Buried for Pleasure , he becomes a parliamentary candidate, narrowly escaping what for him would have been the inconvenience of being elected.
Reasonably, he summons the police, but they arrive to find no toyshop and no corpse. Most readers at some point in the story will laugh aloud. Crispin is a farceur, and the ability successfully to combine this less-than-subtle humour with murder is very rare in detective fiction. One modern writer who comes to mind is Simon Brett, whose hero—if the word can be regarded as appropriate—Charles Paris is an unsuccessful and hard-drinking actor separated from his wife. Like Edmund Crispin, Simon Brett makes use of his own experience—in his case as a playwright for radio and television—and, like Crispin, he can combine humour with a credible mystery solved by an original and believable private eye.
Cyril Hare was a barrister who became a county court judge; he took his writing name from his London home, Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and his chambers in Hare Court.
Like Edmund Crispin, he made effective use of his professional experience and expertise, creating in his hero, Francis Pettigrew, a humane, intelligent but not particularly successful barrister who, unlike Professor Fen, is a reluctant rather than avid amateur detective. Like Crispin he has a felicitous style, and his humour, although less laughter-provoking, has wit and subtlety.
His bestknown book—and, I would argue, by far the most successful—is Tragedy at Law, published in This novel, which is happily in print, is also something of a period piece, since we the readers move with the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, a judge of the High Court of Justice, as he travels round the towns of the South West Circuit.
This perambulation in great state of an assize judge has now been abolished with the creation of the Crown Court; as the book is set in the early days of the Second World War, we have the interest both of fairly recent history and of a now dead tradition. The plot is well worked out, credible and, as with the majority of his books, rests on the provisions of the law.
The book opens with a loud complaint by the judge that, because of the economies of war, his appearance is not being 21 celebrated as it should be with a flourish of trumpets. The man, the time and the place are immediately set in an opening paragraph which is as arresting as if the trumpets had indeed sounded.
Josephine Tey, the pseudonym of the Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh — , was better known in her lifetime for her play Richard of Bordeaux than she was for her detective fiction.
Her detective is Inspector Alan Grant, who is very much in the gentlemanly mould, notable for his intuition, intelligence and Scottish tenacity. He first appeared in The Man in the Queue and was still on the job when, in , Tey published her eighth and last crime novel, TheSinging Sands.
But with the two novels which many readers regard as among her best, Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair , she moved further from the conventional plot of the detective story and with such success that she might not now be regarded as a detective novelist had she not created Inspector Grant. Novelists who prefer not to be so designated should beware of introducing a serial detective.
Brat Farrar is a mystery of identity set on the estate and the riding stables of Latchetts on the south coast. If Patrick Ashby, heir to the property, has really committed suicide, who is the mysterious young man calling himself Brat Farrar who returns to claim the family inheritance, who not only looks like Patrick but is familiar with details of the family history?
We, the readers, know that he is an impostor, although we quickly come to sympathise with him. This, then, is a mystery of identification, common in English fiction, and the fact that Brat Farrar is also a murder mystery only becomes apparent late in the novel. The story conforms more closely to the conventional mystery, although there is no murder. A local solicitor, who is consulted by the women, is convinced of their innocence and sets out to prove it.
The mystery is, of course, centred on the girl. If her story is false from start to finish, how did she obtain the facts which enabled her to lie so convincingly? An uncomplicated structure and the first-person narrative—the tale is told by the solicitor—engage the reader both with the characters, who are exceptionally well drawn, and with the social and class prejudices of the smalltown community—prejudices which the author to some extent undoubtedly shared.
Josephine Tey not only has retained her hold on readers of detective fiction, but is now being resurrected in the novels of Nicola Upson, who sets her mysteries in the years between the wars and peoples them with real-life characters of the time, Josephine Tey being her serial protagonist. Famous detectives have from time to time been resurrected on film or in print—Jill Paton Walsh is continuing the Wimsey saga—but Nicola Upson is the first writer to choose a previous real-life crime novelist as an ongoing character.
The great majority of detectives in the Golden Age were men—and, indeed, if they were professional police officers, had to be male, since women at that time had a very limited role in policing.
In general women characters who dabbled in detection were either sidekicks or cheerful crusaders-in-arms to the dominant male hero, serving as either a Watson or a love interest, or both.
But as time progressed it was thought necessary that even the women who played a subsidiary part in the triumphs of the male hero should have some kind of job in their own right rather than sit at home ministering to the needs of their spouse. It is interesting that neither Harriet Vane nor Georgia Cavendish is described as beautiful although both, particularly Georgia, are sexually attractive, and so of course is Lady Amanda.
Although women detectives play little part in the novels of the Golden Age, somewhat surprisingly they appeared very early in the history of crime writing. To discuss their exploits and examine their significance to the genre requires a whole book—which has, indeed, been written by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan in their fascinating The Lady Investigates I am particularly sorry not to have encountered Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, the creation of Baroness Orczy, more famous for the Scarlet Pimpernel stories.
The relationship between them is one of sickening sentimentality. Not surprisingly, given the talents of many of the writers, the Golden Age detective stories were competently and sometimes very well written, and some of the best will endure. Nevertheless, subtlety of characterisation, a setting which came alive for the reader and credibility of motive were often subjugated, particularly in the humdrums, to the demand to provide an intriguing and mysterious plot.
Writers vied with each other in their search for an original method of murder and for clues of increasing ingenuity and complexity. Webster has written that death has ten thousand doors to let out life, and it seems that most of them have at 23 one time or another been used. Unfortunate victims were despatched by licking poisoned stamps, being battered to death by church bells, stunned by a falling pot, stabbed with an icicle, poisoned by cat claws and not infrequently found dead in locked and barred rooms with looks of appalling terror on their faces.
This world was summed up by William Trevor, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer, when he spoke of reading detective stories as a child in his acceptance speech on winning a literary award in All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries.
Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Chief Constables awoke to them in their gardens. We had nothing like it in West Cork.
Nor in West Kensington either. These novels are, of course, paradoxical. They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor.
All the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved, and peace and order will return to that mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence.
Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world. It was a tough case. Plenty of witnesses, but no one was talking. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep WHILE THE well-born and impeccably correct detectives of the Golden Age were courteously interviewing their suspects in the drawing rooms of country houses, the studies of rural clergymen and the rooms of Oxford academics, across the Atlantic crime writers were finding their material and inspiration in a very different society and writing about it in prose that was colloquial, vivid and memorable.
Although this book is primarily about British detective novelists, the commonly described hard-boiled school of American fiction, rooted in a different continent and in a different literary tradition, has made such an important contribution to crime writing that to ignore its achievements would be seriously misleading.
The two most famous innovators, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, have had a lasting influence beyond the crime genre, both in their own country and abroad. No writer, whatever form his fiction takes, can distance himself entirely from the country, civilisation and century of which he is a part.
Sayers could reasonably feel that these writers were living not only on different continents but in different centuries.
So what England were these predominantly middle-class, well-educated novelists and their devoted readers portraying, what traditions, beliefs and prejudices were the purveyors of popular literature consciously or unconsciously reflecting?
As I was born in it was an England I knew, a cohesive world, overwhelmingly white and united by a common belief in a religious and moral code based on the Judeo-Christian inheritance—even if this belief was not invariably reflected in practice—and buttressed by social and political institutions which, although they might be criticised, attracted general allegiance, and were accepted as necessary to the well-being of the state: It was an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration, and in which there was small sympathy for the criminal; it was generally accepted that murderers, when convicted, would hang—although Agatha Christie, arch-purveyor of cosy reassurance, is careful not to emphasise this disagreeable fact or allow the dark shadow of the public hangman to fall upon her essentially comfortable pages.
The death penalty is mentioned by Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. It was therefore possible to live in a country town or in a village and feel almost entirely secure.
We can read an Agatha Christie novel set in what seems a mythical village, in which the inhabitants are happily reconciled to their allotted rank and station, and we feel that this is an exaggerated, romanticised or idealised world.
Harriet is speaking of her husband, Lord Peter: She understood now why it was that, with all his masking attitudes… he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security. He belonged to an ordered society and this was it.
More 25 than any of the friends in her own world he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. But it was an age of underlying anxiety. Before the institution of the welfare state, the dread of unemployment, of sickness, of economic failure was very real, and the growing power of the fascist dictators abroad threatened the possibility of a further war before the country had recovered from the appalling carnage, social upheaval and personal tragedies of the —18 conflict.
Sayers and Michael Innes, are so profound that it seems stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category. If the British detective story is concerned with bringing order out of disorder, a genre of reconciliation and social healing, restoring the mythical village of Mayhem Parva to prelapsarian tranquillity, in the United States Hammett and Chandler were depicting and exploring the great social upheavals of the s— lawlessness, prohibition, corruption, the power and violence of notorious gangsters who were close to becoming folk heroes, the cycle of boom and depression—and creating detectives who were inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms.
Dashiell Hammett — had a tough and under privileged youth working on the railway, then as a Pinkerton detective, and as a soldier in the First World War. He was discharged as tubercular, married his hospital nurse and had two children, supporting his family by writing short stories for the pulp magazines that were extremely popular during the s.
The editors demanded violent action, vividly portrayed characters and a prose style ruthlessly pruned of all inessentials; all this Hammett provided. Hammett knew from traumatic personal experience how precarious is the moral tightrope which the private investigator daily walks in his battle with the criminal.
There is nothing subtle about him and little we expect to know—except his age, thirty-five, that he is short and fat, and that his only loyalty is to the Continental Detective Agency and his job. But there is an honesty and directness about this personal code, limited as it may be. And liking work makes you want to do it as well as you can. He is as ruthless as the world in which he operates, a violent gun-carrying dispenser of the only justice he recognises.
Short and fat he may be, but in Red Harvest he takes on the combined strength of the police, corrupt politicians and gangsters to cleanse the city of Personville, meeting violence with violence. He is naturally solitary, and how could he be otherwise with such a job in a 26 corrupt and lawless world?
When a woman attempts to seduce him, his response is a brutal rejection; later, to get rid of her, he shoots her in the leg, but not without a certain compunction: I felt queer about it.
He is classless, younger and more physically attractive than the Op, but there is a cruelty in his ruthlessness and he is the more immoral of the two, capable of falling in love with a woman but never putting love above the demands of the job.
There he met the playwright Lillian Hellman and began a love affair which lasted until his death. After his release his books were proscribed, and during his final ten years he lived on the charity of others.
He would not be the only writer whose talent was destroyed by money, self-indulgence and the egregious temptations of fame, but perhaps for him the temptations were the more irresistible because of the penury and struggles of those early years.
Might Hammett have written another novel as good as The Maltese Falcon if he had resisted that invitation to move to Hollywood? I think it doubtful. It may be that by then he had said all he wanted to and that his talent was exhausted. Nevertheless, his achievement remains remarkable. In a writing career of little more than a decade he raised a commonly despised genre into writing which had a valid claim to be taken seriously as literature. He showed crime writers that what is important goes beyond an ingenious plot, mystery and suspense.
The early life of Raymond Chandler, born in , was markedly different from that of Hammett. He was educated in England at Dulwich College and returned to the United States in , where he had a successful business career before retiring in to devote himself to writing. I set out to prove them wrong. And that was what, superbly, Chandler provided.
In this he reminds me of a very different writer but one who was also brilliant at writing dialogue, Evelyn Waugh.
The hard-boiled detectives are not introspective; it is through action and dialogue that their story is told. He is discriminating about the kind of work he will accept, never takes tainted money or betrays a friend, and is totally loyal even to undeserving clients.
More personally vulnerable than Spade, he is a more reluctant private eye, troubled and repelled by the corrupt and heartless world in which he earns his living and uncomfortably sensitive to the suffering of its victims.
Somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them…. Decent people lost their jobs…. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. I doubted if it would do me any good.
The big man would probably take it away from me and eat it. The story may at times be incoherent but the writing never disappoints in what Chandler cared most about, the creation of emotion through dialogue and description. Both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are licensed investigators and, unlike the British amateur detectives, have to some extent a recognised function and authority.
But their attitude to the police is ambivalent, ranging from a wary and reluctant co-operation to open enmity. The police are seen by both as brutal and corrupt. In a famous passage from his critical essay The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler describes his detective in words which were more appropriate to a work of high romance: In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption….
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
This is surely too romantic and unrealistic a view to be credible. The Op and Spade generally preserve their emotions as inviolate as the secrets they uncover, and only Marlowe is susceptible to love. Here are no brave and cheerful comrades-in-arms, no devoted non-interfering wives at home with their knitting, no successful professional women with interesting lives of their own, no carefully crafted figures of wish-fulfilment.
The women in the hard-boiler are sexually alluring temptresses seen by the hero as inimical both to their masculine code and to the success of the job. They may not all get shot in the leg, but if guilty they are likely to be handed over to the police without compunction. We have, of course, always had the most notable detective stories of America and Canada available in this country, including the hard-boiled school. I came to the American hard-boiled school in the s through the work of Ross Macdonald, the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar — , and he remains my favourite of the triumvirate of the best-known hard-boiled 28 writers.
His childhood was a tragic odyssey of poverty and rejection. His mother, deserted by her husband when Macdonald was three, dragged him round Canada depending on the charity of relatives, and Macdonald narrowly escaped the appalling fate of being consigned to an orphanage. His detective, Lew Archer, is in the tradition of Philip Marlowe and, like Marlowe, he casts a critical eye on society, concerned particularly with the searing damage to the human spirit caused by the ruthlessness, greed and corruption of big business.
Less romantic than Chandler, his style has the vigour and imaginative richness of a man confident of his mastery of epithets and, particularly in his later novels, he attains a standard which places him first among those novelists who raised the genre from its roots in pulp fiction to serious literature.
For me the most remarkable of the moderns is Sara Paretsky When she created her private eye, V. Warshawski, it was in conscious emulation of the myth of the solitary private eye and his lone campaign against the corruption of the powerful, but her Polish-American heroine has a humility, a humanity and a need for human relationships which the male hard-boilers lack.
Paretsky creates a powerful vision of the Chicago where V. Warshawski grew up and where she operates as a courageous, sexually liberated female investigator.
Through her heroine and in her private life of speaking and journalism, Paretsky conducts her campaign against injustice and, in particular, for the right of women to control their lives and their sexuality. No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest. And here, too, we see the influence of Raymond Chandler.
These four highly successful women are among the relatively few whose books are still in print and read today, a longevity undoubtedly sustained, in the case of Christie and Sayers, by television. All four consolidated and affirmed the structure and conventions of the classical detective story, inventing detectives who have entered into the mythology of the genre. Three of the women aspired to, and achieved, a standard of writing and characterisation which helped to raise the reputation of the detective story from a harmless but predictable literary diversion into a popular form that could be taken as seriously as a well-written mainstream novel.
For me they have an additional interest. To read the detective novels of these four women is to learn more about the England in which they lived and worked than most popular social histories can provide, and in particular about the status of women in the years between the wars.
For this reason, if no other, they should have a chapter to themselves. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb. Writers who explore the phenomenon not uncommonly begin with the arithmetic of her achievements: The perennial question remains, how did this gently reared, essentially Edwardian lady do it?
Although both her best-known detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, occasionally investigated murder overseas, her natural world as perceived by her readers is a romanticised cosy English village rooted in nostalgia, with its ordered hierarchy: Her style is neither original nor elegant but it is workmanlike. It does what is required of it. She employs no great psychological subtlety in her characterisation; her villains and suspects are drawn in broad and clear outlines and, perhaps because of this, they have a universality which readers worldwide can instantly recognise and feel at home with.
Above all she is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practised cunning. Game after game we are confident that this 30 time we will turn up the card with the face of the true murderer, and time after time she defeats us. And with a Christie mystery no suspect can safely be eliminated, even the narrator of the story.
Most mystery writers jib, as do I, at killing the very young, but Agatha Christie is tough, as ready to murder a child, admittedly a precocious unappealing one, as she is to despatch a blackmailer. With Mrs. Christie, as with real life, the only certainty is death. Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent.
She knew precisely what she could do and she did it well. For over fifty years this shy and conventional woman produced murder mysteries of extraordinarily imaginative duplicity.
With her immense output the quality is inevitably uneven—some of the later books in particular show a sad falling-off—but at her best the ingenuity is dazzling. Her prime skill as a storyteller is the talent to deceive, and it is possible to identify some of the tricks, often verbal, by which she gently seduces us into self-deception. In time we almost match the cunning of the author. She is particularly fond of a version of the eternal triangle in which a couple, apparently happily engaged or married, are menaced by a third person, sometimes predatory and rich.
When the victim is murdered there is little mystery about the chief suspect. Only at the end of the book does Miss Christie turn the triangle round and we recognise that it was that way up all the time. And her clues are brilliantly designed to confuse. The butler goes over to peer closely at a calendar. She has planted in our mind the suspicion that a crucial clue relates to dates and times, but the clue is, in fact, that the butler is shortsighted.
Both the trickery and the final solution are invariably more ingenious than believable. The books are mild intellectual puzzles, not credible blueprints for real murder. In Death on the Nile, for example, the murderer is required to dash round the deck of a crowded river-steamer, acting with split-second precision and depending on not being observed either by passengers or by crew.
In another book we are told that the murderer unscrews the digits of a number on the door of a hostel room, so luring the victim to the wrong room. In real life we never go unerringly to the room we want; we identify it by the floor and by the numbers on adjoining doors. In Dumb Witness the clue is that a brooch made of initials is glimpsed in a mirror at night.
But the brooch is worn by a woman in a dressing-gown—the last garment on which a heavy brooch would normally be pinned. But to the Christie aficionado this is mere quibbling. And indeed it does seem ungracious to point out inconsistencies or incredulities in books which are primarily intended to entertain—a far from ignoble aim—and in which the reader is in general treated fairly and falls more often than not into a pit of his own devising.
I disapprove of it. We feel that at the end of the book the victim will get up, wipe off the artificial blood and be restored to life. The last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil. Admittedly Poirot and Miss Marple occasionally used the word, but with no more relevance than if they were referring to the smell of bad drains. One of the secrets of her universal and enduring appeal is that it excludes all disturbing emotions; those are for the real world from which we are escaping, not for St.
Mary Mead. All the problems and uncertainties of life are subsumed in the one central problem: And we 31 know that, by the end of the book, this will be satisfactorily solved and peace and order restored to that mythical village whose inhabitants, apparently so harmless and familiar, prove so enigmatic, so surprising in their ingenious villainy.
What she consistently provided is a strong and exciting narrative, the challenge of a puzzle, an accommodating and accessible style and original detectives in Poirot and Miss Marple, whom readers can encounter in book after book with the comfortable assurance that they are meeting old friends. Her main influence on contemporary crime writers was to affirm the popularity and importance of ingenuity in clue plotting and of surprise in the final solution, thus helping significantly to set the limited range and the conventions of what were to become the books of the Golden Age.
Sayers could have been thinking of Agatha Christie when she wrote: Just at present… the fashion in detective fiction is to have characters credible and lively; not conventional but, on the other hand, not too profoundly studied—people who live more or less on the Punch level of emotion. She is more than that. She may draw them in clear outline with none of the ambiguities of shading, but she gives us enough to enable us to feel that we know them.
But do we? Are they, like the material clues, intended to deceive? Rereading a selection of her stories to affirm or modify my existing prejudices I found some had lost even their ability to keep me reading.
Others surprised me by being both better written and more ingeniously puzzling than I had remembered, among them one published in , A Murder Is Announced. For me, this story demonstrates both her strength and her weakness. Here we have the usual village setting, Chipping Cleghorn, and a cast of characters typical of Christie-land, but the setting is described with more realism than in the later books, and a keener eye to the economic changes and social nuances brought about by the difficult post-war years.
As usual with Christie the dialogue is particularly effective, but here it is used not merely to reveal character but to contain vital clues, one of which even the most careful reader would probably miss. The people are drawn with economy but with more subtlety than usual, and both the motive for the murders and the solution to the mystery derive directly from the characters, their unchangeable past and living present.
This ability to fuse character with clues is one of the marks of a good detective story. Admittedly the end of the novel is disappointing, with overcomplicated and contrived relationships and a surfeit of incredible killings. And she was overfond of the unconvincing contrivance whereby one of the characters acts as a decoy and is on the point of being killed when the police and Miss Marple dash in to arrest the murderer.
But in Chipping Cleghorn or St. Mary Mead murder is only a temporary embarrassment. The vicar may find a body on his study floor but it is unlikely to interfere with the preparation of the Sunday sermon. Poirot and Miss Marple still appear regularly on our television screens and it is a safe bet that, whenever detection fiction is discussed, the name of Agatha Christie will be mentioned either in praise or in disparagement. Her critics sometimes exhibit vehemence close to personal outrage, seeing her books as trivial, intellectually feeble and written without distinction of style 32 or subtlety of characterisation.
But one thing is certain: Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life in both peace and war for millions throughout the world and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect.
I suspect that a traveller, stranded in an airport hotel overnight and finding in the bedside cabinet two novels, the latest winner of a prestigious literary prize and an Agatha Christie, would reach for the latter to assuage the half-acknowledged fear of contemporary travel and the discomfort and boredom of a long night.