Categories for Private Eye novels

January 12, 2016

Impulsive behaviour, free will, and psychological thrillers  

A fascinating article in New Scientist (link here) discusses research that shows that free will may be illusory – and that there are neurological differences between individuals that account for variations.

It has long seemed  to me that some of us have more free will than others, that we all likely have less than we think, and that what little we do have is hard fought for…

But I think we are attached to the idea of individual agency for broadly two separate reasons. Firstly, because we want to believe we have control in our own lives, and secondly, that we want to believe others have control in their lives so we can blame them and punish them when they do something wrong.

This reminds me of an idea posited by the late Colin Wilson, that there’s often a moment when we have a choice, between whether to cope or not cope, for instance. I certainly have experienced both sides of that – when I’ve been sensible and realised that I can make life easier for me and everyone else, and those moments where I’ve been enraged by some perceievd misdemeanour, and started a fight when a more rational version of me would let it go.

It does seem more apt to think of this as “free won’t” – a term mentioned in the linked article.

I would guess that it’s something that we can strengthen by practice, but I know in my own case it’s harder when I’m overwhelmed by stress or pain. But now I wonder if some people may have more of the neurological equipment for self control than others, too.

I am also reminded of a controversial statement once made by the wonderful PD James, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog.  She argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.

Perhaps this is actually the idea that she was imperfectly expressing – that crimes which are consciously chosen and planned make for better fiction than crimes of an impulsive nature.

While she saw it as a class matter – which I find somewhat disturbing – I can more easily see it as a neurological issue. I suppose that in some ways it is true that poverty and deprivation have long term effects on health, which likely includes neurological development – but it is clear that most poor and lower class people are not criminal, and that many middle class people are. And that’s without a careful analysis of how crime is sociologically constructed.

There are crime novels which explore what could be called disorganised crimes which arise out of impulsivity – but in general they’re not the ones I’m interested in reading or writing.  Like PD James, I am interested in moral choices – though I don’t link the freedom to make those choices to a social class.

Moral dilemmas are often at the heart of the best psychological thrillers.  Some of the most interesting characters are morally ambiguous – from  Raymond Chandler’s shop-soiled Galahad to Highsmith’s sociopathic Tom Ripley. The best heroes and villains are morally ambiguous.  That’s the kind of fiction I enjoy – where not just the plot is complex (I am addicted to story), but where the emotional landscape is too.



New Scientist. Impulsive people may have less free will

The Independent : P D James, Snobbery and Violence

August 18, 2015

Private Investigations  

crime fiction

So what is this fixation I have with fictional private eyes? It’s been with me a long time.

Of the male detectives, I loved Roger Moore as The Saint, Simon Templar. I practised for hours in front of the mirror until I could raise a single eyebrow. My Dad let me use his library ticket to borrow the original Leslie Charteris novels, before I moved on to reading John D. McDonald and Chandler.

But even back then, I loved the female detectives more. I was transfixed by black and white films with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, and from there I read the books. I got hooked on Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane – who was far too good for Lord Peter Wimsey – initially through the TV series with Harriet Walter.  Then I borrowed the novels from the library – always in the right order. Working my way through the crime fiction section I discovered the psychoanalyst sleuth Dame Adela Lestrange Bradley – an old witch of an investigator created by Gladys Mitchell. Later I devoured the Women’s Press feminist crime fiction list of the 80s and 90s – far too many of them to mention.  And they are all so different – the village busy body Miss Marple, through the sophisticated academic Kate Fansler, to the tough and streetwise working-class-made-good VI Warshawski.

Some years ago, PD James argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.  I love her novels – especially the stand alone Innocent Blood – but I think she was very far of the mark there.  The moral choices may be different but they are no less stark in the mean streets of VI Warshawski’s Chicago than in one of PD James’ locations – whether English country house, theological college or private plastic surgery clinic.

Issues of class have always been at the heart of crime novels. Miss Marple commented on the invisibility of ordinary working people – the maid, or the postman.  I recently re-read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and was fascinated by how relevant it still is today – asking questions about working women, motherhood, and marriage. Unusually the crime isn’t a murder, but is a series of poison pen letters aimed to discredit a women’s college at Oxford – and (spoiler here) – the culprit is a servant, who is avenging her husband who she feels was wronged by one of the academics.

Amanda Cross’s detective Kate Fansler is an academic – a Professor of English Literature – who is a feminist and frequently obstructed by male professors and irritated with her status as “the token woman.” Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of real life Columbia University Professor Carolyn Heilbrun – whose non fiction is also worth reading – I recommend her article about Gertrude in Hamlet, her biography of Gloria Steinem, and her book about old age. Later in her life she resigned from her post over the discrimination against woman in the University. So it’s interesting to see how she quite deliberately used her crime fiction to make a critique of academia many years before she made her more public protest.

Like male private eyes, the female of the species are outsiders.  They see the world from a different perspective – they’re not part of the establishment. Where in the original detective novels the point was to restore the world to order, the private detective has long questioned the basis of that order.  Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of all modern crime fiction – but it originated with the private eye novels.

I am contemplating the creation of my own private investigator, I even have a name for her, and something of a backstory. But I have a lot of thinking to do first – and another psychological thriller is beginning to take shape…

Who are your favourite fictional private eyes? Or do you prefer crime novels that focus on the police investigation?


Just after I finished writing this post, I found an interesting article about Agatha Christie and gender –“If Not Yourself, Who Would You Be?”

So these are some of the books on my reading list at the moment

The latest Sara Paretsky novel Brush Back – the 17th in the VI Warshawski series.

The first three Amanda Cross novels – starting with In The Final Analysis

Val McDermid’s non fiction book – A Suitable Job for a Woman, about real life female private investigators. She has a couple of her own fictional ones too – Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan.

Perhaps I might add the PD James An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – featuring her female private investigator Cordelia Gray.

And the next of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels is due out at the end of August. Simply called X – I’d been wondering what it would be. X is for Xylophone would have been a challenge to plot.

Sources – PD James Snobbery and Violence in the Independent

Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross

Remembering Carolyn Heilbrun : Feminist Scholarship and Suicide