Saturday, 25 March 2017

Crime novels... part 1

This is terribly late. It seemed like such a nice project and then.. well it was harder than I thought.

Some time ago I planned (and said) I would write some genre related posts – genre is a thing I’m not too keen on as a concept, largely because while it’s useful for those people looking for something specific, and for bookshops who need to shelve items in a way that lets them find them again, I feel it influences not only the way books are read, but sometimes even how they’re written (I’ve read a few ‘how to write a novel’ type books now and they’re pretty clear that you pick your genre and deliberately shape your writing to it. This may be good marketing, but I’m not sure it makes for great books.) 

But I’m in danger of repeating myself, and anyway crime fiction more than any other is I think written deliberately within genre. No-one puts a dead body in a book by accident. 

Commonly crime books are subdivided even further; into murder mysteries, cosies, golden age, hardboiled, puzzlers, the Ian Rankin sort with unrealistically mad and sadistic serial killers.. and so on. Again I think this is so readers can find the kind of murder they want (I'll admit to avoiding Rankin's after giving one - Knots and Crosses - a go. It was unremittingly grim).  

I also realised, after beginning this post back in the mists of time, that although I’d read a lot of crime fiction it was incredibly heavily weighted towards still published authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Conan Doyle, and was already trying to do something about this, and had begun a reread (and gap-filling exercise) for Agatha Christie too, when I acquired a copy of Martin Edwards’ book about the Detection Club and realised I hadn’t even remotely begun to make a whisper of a scratch on the surface of crime writing in the era. 

This (with apologies for the cut and paste) is what I wrote on the Guardian TLS blog in September last year:  

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards. Which is all about what you’d expect but more specifically the Detection Club which banded together with Chesterton as president, with Sayers advocating, and with dinners and collaborations. The forerunner of the current club of which Edwards is now President. 

The book is fascinating, just small portraits of the individuals, then references to their work. Sayers comes through particularly clearly, a publicist and advocate for the whole gang, secretary of the club, a bit daunting on occasion. Christie is more elusive, not just here but in the BBC archives and even her own autobiography. All accounts suggest she was shy throughout her life, and spent much of her time daydreaming and travelling. 

 And then, more interesting still, there are the people I’d barely heard of, with their own take on the genre, their own politics, their own private lives.. 

Edwards is upfront that the book doesn’t cover the whole of the genre. There are about 35 author photographs in the front pages of this book, and these are only the members of the Detection Club elected from 1930-49. There were far more actual writers, and a wider culture of radio puzzles, magazine competitions and murder games. We get a flavour of all that, and the wider historical context, and the (to me slightly ghoulish) interest so many members had in real life murder cases. 

I’ve also, now I’m tuned into it, noticed the prevalence and popularity of crime elsewhere. In fact, everywhere. Orwell wrote an essay about the changes in crime fiction titled Raffles to Miss Blandish and when I was at Sissinghurst I noticed that Harold Nicolson’s study contained a copy of The Anatomy of Murder, the Detection Club’s book attempting to analyse and solve real life murders. (Nicolson had it in hardback, but the book is available in a paperback reprint, and more sympathetic that you’d imagine.) 

I actually own The Anatomy of Murder, but Kensington Central Library has furnished me with my recent rash of Gladys Mitchells and two of the other British library reprints. You can find a review of Death on the Cherwell here, and my comment in September 2015 on The Floating Admiral, by Christie, Sayers, Chesterton and other mystery writers now less well known was this (again cut and pasted from elsewhere, sorry): 

It's a book written in the fashion of those paper games you play as a child, where one person draws the head of a person or animal and then folds and passes it along and then the next person draws the shoulders. It gets very involved, which presumably is what would happen in a real case: The Inspector thinks, the Inspector thinks better of it. The Inspector crosses and recrosses the river and drives the long way round again and again and talks to the same people repeatedly. 

It's huge fun – not least when a new chapter starts and the new author proceeds to demolish all the clues in the last chapter – either because they don’t like them or (as Sayers freely admits) struggle to make sense of them. 

Christie doesn’t appear to have taken part in any more of these exercises, but in any case I’m going to leave Christie (as far as possible) to one side for now. As well as her crime novels I’ve been reading the five or six other fictions, some plays, the autobiography and so on, and in fact had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of what I had and hadn’t reread. Christie is a blogpost in herself. 

I will say though that in my own personal reading history Christie came before Sue Grafton, but after Conan Doyle. I was still in my teens when I read the former, but just 10 or 11 when I picked up the Sherlock Holmes stories and puzzled, as I think everyone does, about the way A Study in Scarlet has a story embedded within it in that odd, disjointed fashion that seems almost designed to break the narrative.  

Prior to the Holmes stories we can blame Blyton, whose mysteries aren’t usually considered a part of the crime genre, but do seem to me to be a part of what was happening in more grown up fiction. 
Being books for children however they tended to be about smugglers or secret plans, and the same held for other series such as the Three Investigators (purportedly written by Hitchcock but not really) and Nancy Drew (who I never thought much of). 

Sue Grafton was a find from the age of 13 or 14 when I started bunking off school and haunting the local library. Part of the appeal of the books was – and is - that her heroine so clearly does not have her life sorted out, which married up with my observation of most of the adults around me; however much they all felt the need to pretend they had everything under control and were qualified to give advice. 

Grafton’s heroine, Kinsey, is one of the most engaging characters in any book I’ve read. She has her own ideas about what she likes (small spaces) and her reasons for those things. She probably wouldn’t stand up independent of the narrative – there are precious few detectives who would – but she’s far from 2 dimensional. 

More strangely there are long periods of narration where Kinsey does her laundry or tells you what she ate. These annoyed me enormously when I began reading but they’ve grown on me over the years. There are worse ways of giving you a sense of time passing. 

Later I seem to remember I started reading Ann Granger simply because she was on the shelf next to Grafton. It made it very easy to pick it up and flick through, although that doesn’t marry up with the first book of Granger’s I read being secondhand. And I know it was secondhand because it was a copy that had come free with a magazine at some stage, with ‘not for resale’ on the back where the isbn should have been. 

However I first came across her my opinion of Granger then is my opinion now. Her books have a lot of charm and her detectives, both the amateur and the professional, are extraordinarily incompetent. Fortunately the murderers are even worse, leaving clues to be stumbled upon, giving themselves away by their behaviour and going to strangle the heroine two seconds before the police break in the door. 

It’s necessary to the narrative that they do this because there’s no trail of clues such as Christie or Ellery Queen might leave for detective and reader alike. It’s all reliant on coincidence. 

Perhaps this is why I fell out of love with Granger somewhere in the Fran Varady series. Even if (according to Martin Edwards) The Detection Club’s light-hearted motto about playing fair with the reader was only ever a guideline, I still prefer feeling that the clues are all there and the author is giving me a chance to solve the thing. In fact when I clearly can't I even feel a bit hard done by. 

Probably this is the reason why my favourite, still, is Agatha Christie. About who (and others) there will be more in my next post.

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