Sunday, June 24, 2012

Detective fiction - a short appreciation

This is an abbreviated version of an essay written in 2003, so things have changed in the subsequent nine years, but I think the essentials remain the same. This essay discusses the place of detective and mystery fiction within the literary world from its inception to the present, and where this particular type of novel fits. It also talks about markets, America, and includes a prĂ©cis of the rest of the story, including an explanation of why there are peripheral characters and their importance. Edgar Allan Poe is popularly known as the “father of detective fiction”, but in fact this genre, as it became known, was already in existence before the acclaimed The Purloined Letter, originally published in a magazine in 1845. The first group of American writers emerged in the 1830s, and examples have been recorded as early as 1790. In 1828 and 1829, in France, Eugene-Francois Vidocq published his Memoires, unfortunately acknowledged subsequently as largely fictional and written by two hack writers, but referred to by Poe’s Dupin as a “good guesser, and a persevering man…without educated thought.” Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno also came into this category at around the same time. In Britain, what came to be known as “Sensation” novels were appearing. Probably the best known of these was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. In America in 1878, Anna Katherine Green wrote, among other works, The Circular Study, a definitive work detailing the uncovering of hidden facts about the past and characters relating to the crime. Between The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, a now forgotten writer, Emile Gaboriau, enhanced the popularity of the detective story and further defined the genre with works including L’Affaire Lerouge and The Mystery of Orcival. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, with its respectable Inspector Bucket, falls into this category, and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood is considered to be his attempt to play his friend Wilkie Collins at his own game, with a first class mystery at its heart. Also in the mid to late nineteenth century a series of “yellowbacks” appeared to cater for the new generation of railway travellers. Series such as “Routledge’s Railway Library” were sold at railway stations including many “reminiscences” of fictional policeman in the style of Vidocq. Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, appeared in the late nineteenth century and inspired a huge range of imitators. Collections of these have been published in a series of books edited by Hugh Greene: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Arguably, the first “Locked Room” mystery was Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room, although Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue contains a sealed room. This is largely regarded as a cheat, however, and Leroux’s Yellow Room the first in the genre, an element of which is still found in modern crime and detective fiction. The greatest proponent of the “Locked Room Mystery” was without doubt John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson. Dickson Carr described the secret passage as a “low trick”, and continued to invent more and more convoluted plots in which victims could be demonstrated to be alive after they were dead and murderers to be elsewhere when their crimes were committed. The Hollow Man and The Ten Teacups are definitive examples of his art. After the “Great Detective” era came a very different breed of detective, exemplified by R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke and GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. Thorndyke gave history the inverted mystery, explaining how the crime was committed and devoting the story to how the detective achieves his solution. Both Conan Doyle and Austin Freeman gave us forerunners of today’s forensic detectives. Detective fiction at this point was the reading choice of the educated public, and the twentieth century saw the birth of the “Golden Age”. In Britain this has come to be defined by Agatha Christie, although there were many other writers in the first quarter of the century who were her equal, if not her superior, in literary achievement if not output. Some historians like to confine the Golden Age to the 1920s, but in fact it continued until well after the second World War, and the 1930s was a decade during which many of the detectives were created who have formed pattern cards for the future. Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, John Dickson Carr and in America, Rex Stout, joined Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Croft, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and others whose creations are not only still read today, but have become fiction classics. As with other “classic” writers, Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, Elliot and Hardy, their novels are still adapted for television and film. The development of what is now known as the “Noir” novel, the “Hardboiled PI” (Private Investigator) and the Police Procedural was achieved mainly in America, but is now just as popular this side of the Atlantic. In recent years, our own Police Procedurals have overshadowed other forms of the genre, although many of these owe more to the Golden Age than to their US counterparts. Dalgleish, Wexford and Morse are characters who lead the investigations, not components in the solving of a crime. They have also adhered to the convention of the “sidekick” first popularised by Conan Doyle with Watson and Holmes. Perhaps the most realistic procedurals are Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels, which, however, are still character led, and stick to the series partnership format. Gwendoline Butler was the first in this field with her Inspector Coffin, and, writing as Jennie Melville, has created the female police procedural in this country with her Charmian Daniels of Windsor. Apart from the main protagonists, there are other running characters in all these novels. The Golden Age still casts its shadow and the genre that most closely adheres to its rules and precepts is now referred to as “cosy”. There are excellent modern proponents of the “cosy” in Britain, Simon Brett, Hazel Holt and Veronica Heley to name three, but the sub-genre, having been created in England, has now become enormously popular in the United States. Hundreds of series have been spawned, using all the conventions established since the middle of the nineteenth century. In Britain, Val McDermid and Gillian Linscott could both be said to have overtones of this genre, although Linscott's Nell Bray series is set in the early years of the last century, but both writers have created series characters who are not connected to the police. A sense of place is also important, and in the gentler type of crime novel is almost a character in itself. This can be demonstrated by the popularity of the television series that grow from them, “The Midsomer Murders”, based on Caroline Graham’s excellent books, which are, in fact, far removed from the television adaptations, is an excellent example. The closed circle of suspects created in the 1920s by Agatha Christie and her contemporaries, the observations of Sherlock Holmes, the forensic detection of Dr Thorndyke, the sidekick character, as in Dr Watson, or Poirot’s Captain Hastings, all of these have become incorporated into the traditions of the detective story. In the United States hundreds of females, in all walks of life and of all ages, regularly become caught up in inexplicable murders, accompanied by their sisters, close friends, occasionally husbands and a cast of regular characters. Those that are single almost invariably become romantically involved with the local policeman, and rarely move away from their home town. These writers have recreated the essentially English cosy as far as they are able in modern day America, and some of them, with notable success, set them in England. Martha Grimes’ Plant and Jury series is a case in point, and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series is considered by many to be on the more literary side of detective fiction, as, indeed, is our own PD James. The detective story, and mystery fiction as a whole, fulfils all the requirements of a good novel. It contains suspense, conflict, tragedy, moral choice, questions and a ready made construct of beginning, middle and end. Justice almost always triumphs, not necessarily formal justice, but satisfying to the reader. Unfortunately, the word “genre” is used in a mainly pejorative sense, especially when the genre is either “romantic” or “crime”, to indicate something which is too lightweight and badly written to warrant serious study. However, both crime and romance are the basis of many mainstream novels which are considered to be “literary”, and in fact, when mystery fiction was in its infancy there was no such thing as “genre”. There were just novels. Crime, and muder in particular, is an outrage, whether in a quiet English backwater or the urban jungle. The solving of such a crime and the bringing of the perpetrator to justice restores balance and order. The popularity of the crime and mystery novel is, therefore, no mystery.

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