It’s a mystery to me

Every mystery fan operates off a set of ground rules, in re: what they want from their ideal thriller. There are so many ways to lay out a puzzle, in so many combinations, that it’s nearly impossible even to browse the ‘Suspense’ shelves of the local library without boundaries.

Mine are pretty straightforward: I like the classic stuff. Fair clues and fascinating suspects leading to a satisfyingly logical solution; rather like an old-fashioned garden maze. Years of nurturing my fanhood on an aunt’s Nero Wolfe collection has left me with a fundamental appreciation for the well-turned, economical scene, also the leavening of humour. Characterisation is important, and I will sacrifice clarity of plot to it to a certain extent, but Byzantine literary flourishes can be dispensed with thanks much all the same. Especially if the author is British.

Noting that Raymond Chandler’s books caught on much more quickly in the UK than in the States, Colin Watson in Snobbery With Violence speculates whether years of cozy mysteries ‘had left the British…in greater need of an astringent than the Americans’. Certainly something has happened to sour the national thriller-writing temperament.
I read only in English, so there may be some greater European point I’m missing here; but as far as I can tell the British really don’t seem to like each other much. Honestly.

I know smart, sensible, kind and attractive UK natives exist. I have met several of them personally. So I’m a little baffled by the vague sense of repulsion, both physical and emotional, that suffuses their modern mystery fiction. It’s too pervasive simply to be a stylistic flourish. Suspects are inevitably ‘lank’, ‘spotty’, ‘pasty’;  when confronted they are contemptibly hapless at best and unpleasant cowards at worst. All of which is mere grist for the mill of the starring detective, who is himself dragging around enough baggage to make cargo carriers weep with joy.

Barring Ruth Rendell, who has raised the banality of evil to a legitimate art form, it all just seems so spectacularly pointless. Angst is fundamental genre seasoning, yes; but what to make of Mo Hayter’s Birdman, which features a police inspector who lives next to the paedophile he suspects but cannot prove abducted and murdered his young brother, and spends his evenings exchanging Dark Meaningful Glances with the monster over the back stoop? This has nothing to do with the plot, mind; this is merely Our Hero’s character arc. We won’t even get into the plot. We tried getting into a couple Colin (Inspector Morse) Dexter plots, and that was bad enough.

Anyway, call me a philistine Pollyanna, but I’d rather wind my way through a mystery story happily unencumbered by melodramatic mental theme music. (The major exception is oddly enough an American novel, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, whose entire plot is a spiral deeper and deeper into the mind of a serial killer. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the investigators are largely nice, normal people who react in kind to their discoveries; by the time the sequel – The Angel of Darkness – rolls around, they’re much more jaded, and so was I in re: their company.)

At that, it’s possible to find real depth and interest among the classic canon. Dorothy Sayers, for instance – although I must confess I know Lord Peter mostly via a short-story collection; I have never attempted a full Wimsey novel, having been frankly terrified by various reviews. I have even less interest in coddling a lordling’s neuroses than I do a police inspector’s. GK Chesterton, on the other hand, I enjoy simply because – regardless of your opinion of Father Brown’s methods – it is impossible not to be bewitched by the simple, serene way he holds and applies them.

Y’know what, let’s pitch this a bit lower. Agatha Christie, fr’instance. The Queen of Crime, her publishers dubbed her, and her books are still among the world’s most widely-read. She has a (well-deserved) reputation as a master plotter…and it must be confessed she sometimes glossed over the rest of the chapters in the Aspiring Novelist’s Handbook. Not by using stock characters, exactly; more stock character types, for whom she could vary the details but still be sure they’d behave appropriately when required.

This shows up especially in the earliest Poirot short stories, in which not only characters but entire scenes often seem copied wholesale from the pop-culture tropes of the day. On the one hand, as noted, the unfussiness is kinda nice; on the other, well, Captain Hastings. Exactly how do you read Conan Doyle and come away with the idea that the Watson character exists solely to be the dumb foil?

Still, in Christie’s best work, there is considerable depth of human insight on display. Like Chesterton, her authority is moral; Evil, when encountered in a Christie novel, is always understood to be capitalised. Anyone looking for the ‘fancy psychological motive’ is indulged at best and deluded at worst. Human nature is unchanged and unchanging. “I have a bourgeois attitude to murder,” Hercule Poirot explains. “I disapprove of it.” Miss Marple is equally uncompromising. “I have made it a habit to always believe the worst of everyone,” this fussy, gentle-looking maiden lady says, describing her methods to her worldly nephew and his friends.

Unlike the good Father, Christie may have real pity for those who fall short of the ideal; but she cannot excuse them – and therein lies the peculiar, almost profound charm of these novels, that these inhabitants of cozy little Mayhem Parva, playing out their ludicrously elaborate schemes, are somehow ultimately struggling against Life itself.

…OK, maybe not. There’s no denying it, though, there’s something about an Agatha Christie novel…just what it is, I plan to try and define further over the next couple weeks. Details to follow in this weekend’s post.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. briansiano
    Jul 09, 2008 @ 10:24:30

    I don’t think I have much to add to your comments, cept to say that we really have different tastes in crime fiction. I _think_ that the general run-down aspects of British crime writing may have something to do with the collapse of their economy since the 1960s; it’s hard to work up elegant and well-scrubbed crime stories when your country’s in the toilet and reduced to second-rate status.

    Conversely, I’ve never been interested in Agatha Christie. Ever see _Sleuth_, with Lawrence Olivier? I always thought of that as a dandy commentary on the country-house-murder stuff. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

    But my tastes ran closer to Raymond Chandler– or, rather, more modern writers like John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, James Ellroy and Richard Price.

  2. shoebox2
    Jul 09, 2008 @ 12:45:43

    Yes, I can see where social conditions would inform the British situation. Still…the loathing is just so vivid, and so personal, a general malaise wouldn’t quite seem to cover it. Christie is likewise pessimistic, but she’s not revolted by it in the same way.

    I’ve never been a particular devotee of the ‘hard-boiled’ thriller school. The only exception is James M. Cain, to whom I was introduced via Double Indemnity the film version, and enticed to stick around by Cain’s own hypnotically spare prose. (Given that Chandler actually wrote most of Indemnity‘s screenplay, I should probably be checking him out too). Mildred Pierce, the book, is another favourite.

  3. kalquessa
    Jul 09, 2008 @ 14:08:29

    Anyway, call me a philistine Pollyanna, but I’d rather wind my way through a mystery story happily unencumbered by melodramatic mental theme music.

    Would you mind if I tried iconing some or all of that? Because “Philistine Pollyanna” really deserves to be an Official Term, and I couldn’t agree more with you sentiments.

    Exactly how do you read Conan Doyle and come away with the idea that the Watson character exists solely to be the dumb foil?

    I don’t know, but Laurie King (or at least her heroine) seems to have reached this same conclusion. That was the only thing that bugged me about The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. (Well, that and I thought the clue–in the singular, because there was only one–to the antagonist’s identity was sort of unfairly tiny and obscure.)

    Oh, this post reminds me how long it’s been since I read a straight-up mystery story. I think I have the first Brother Cadfael novel languishing unread on a shelf somewhere…

  4. shoebox2
    Jul 09, 2008 @ 19:00:53

    You have my permission to icon whatever you like of my post – I’d be hugely flattered.

    Hmmm…Brother Cadfael. Y’know, I’m in the market for a new historical series to read…

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