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.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The downside of free downloads

Apparently, the free offer of Murder By Magic was taken up by thousands, on both sides of the Atlantic. Great - except that it means no money for either Accent Press or me. In the week after the free download, Murder by Magic and Murder in Steeple Martin were both put up as 77 pence downloads and sold a reasonable amount. The downside is that people who would normally never buy your books trawl the free download charts (and I got as high as number 8 in the top 100) and that's the problem. I have now attracted two lousy reviews from people who, by their own admission, would not normally buy my books, even accusing me of lifting the idea of the series from another author. As the other author and I actually discussed the similarity of our series before either of them were written, this was infuriating. I have subsequently had a comforting email from that author (albeit from the Pelopponese where he and his wife are sunning themselves - sigh) and I know it shouldn't worry me. But it has shown me the problems free downloads can encounter. If my books are at a normal price, then people who like them and other books like them will find them and buy them. If they are cheap or free, anyone will download them, possibly to their detriment. So I think, perhaps, we won't do it again!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Exciting News!

First - Murder by Magic got to number 8 in the Amazon free downloads, and number 1 in Women Sleuths and British Detectives. Heavens above! Subsequently, Accent Press have put it out at the special price of 77p, with the first in the series, Murder in Steeple Martin at the same price. A week or so back, a friend of mine, author Gilli Allan, got in touch to say that another friend of hers ran painting courses in Umbria, Italy, and was looking to add writing courses. And lo and behold - guess who's their first tutor? ME! Arte Umbria is run by Sara Moody and her husband David, and I shall be there telling people how to write (ha!) next June. I can't wait, and I probably won't ever come home again. Do have a look at their wonderful website, which I can't seem to give a link to, but as soon as I can, I will. More updates on when the print edition of Magic comes out as soon as I have it. Update: to check the wonderful Arte Umbria, see comments below.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Amazon Bestsellers

I haven't been constantly tweeting my FREE ebook, but lots of other people have, and guess what? I'm currently number 17 in the top 100 free downloads, number 1 in British detective and number 2 in Women sleuths. Just shows you what a free offer can do! Only today, Wednesday, and Thursday to go, then we will see what happens. Obviously it will come out of the free download charts, but we're hoping it will translate to backlist sales. Click on the cover to get it FREE!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Murder By Magic Free to celebrate Libby's 10th Jubilee!

Accent Press, my esteemed publishers, have decided to try an experiment and offer Murder by Magic free as an ebook for five days. Click on the picture of the cover, as the link I inserted here doesn't seem to work. There are members of the RNA and the CWA I know who have self (or indie) published books and done this, and I believe it has benefits, but I'm not sure how to let people know. I have, of course, put the link on Twitter and Facebook and a few people have retweeted and shared the link, but I'm wary of going on and on about it. I've unfollowed and un-friended (gosh, the language we use) others for doing that - even people I know quite well. I suppose I should go off on a blog tour, but preferably for readers, not writers. Most of the people I know on Twitter are other writers or people in the industry. Facebook is mostly friends and family - and other writers! Hey-ho. Queen's weather today, for the Royal Jubilee Pageant/Flotilla. Spent a lovely afternoon with a few friends yesterday, and thankfully the sun made an appearance. Today it's wet, grey and cold and I am NOT going to a street party. Good luck to all those who are. So - as I wave Murder By Magic off into the great wide world, Murder in the Monastery takes its place on the computers. The first chapter of which you can read at the end of Murder by Magic, should you be minded to buy it. And of course, it will be available in print next week.