It’s not often we get to see an hour of TV discussing genre fiction, so this is well worth watching – even if mostly to argue with the narrative and conclusion.
But really, did so much of it have to be devoted to the Golden Age and those well worn rules of detective fiction? Not to mention the locked room mystery… Even Agatha Christie didn’t set much store by the rules, after all – famously not playing fair with the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
There were some real gems in there however – mostly the segments where Marr talked to crime writers.
It was delightful to see Agatha Christie’s research folder – how I’d love to have a proper rummage around in that little lot! My own version is less tactile these days, mostly being clippings and scribblings saved to Evernote. But it did illustrate one of his stronger points in the first half of the programme – that the best detective fiction is rooted in reality – that the crime had to be convincing.
The brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has now written her own Poirot novel, shared an intriguing theory about Agatha Christie’s two dimensional characters. She suggested that they weren’t actually carboard cutouts at all – that what is mistaken for two dimensionality are the social masks which cover each character’s deep and dark hidden secrets, which lie at the heart of crime fiction. It’s an interesting idea – but is altogether too mechanical a device for my liking – although it fits very well with Marr’s thesis that the detective story is a machine…
Marr’s focus is very much on the whodunnit throughout – which is the least interesting branch of crime fiction for me – precisely because too often it is a puzzle, it is a machine, a formula. In the crime fiction I enjoy the most, that puzzle is often there as an element of the story and I enjoy being outwitted by the novelist – but it usually isn’t in the foreground.
Marr reached the usual conclusion after his survey of the Golden Age – that detective fiction is comforting because it shows the established order being thrown into chaos and then the detective arrives and restores order.
We were briefly led down the mean streets of Chandler and Hammet – the main purpose of which seemed to be to explain the transition from the Golden Age to modern crime fiction where order is not so easily restored.
Sadly, he missed out one of my favourites – Dorothy Sayers – which would have illustrated the transition very well and shown that it didn’t just arise because of American fiction. The Peter Wimsey stories start off with all the trappings of the Golden age rules of detection, but they grow in complexity, especially after the introduction of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. Lord Peter – for all his aristocratic foppishness – does grapple with some of the difficulties inherent in detetcive fiction. He is tormented at times by the impact of the crimes he investigates on the victims, but also, at that time, the effect on the criminal. If he uncovers a murderer, he knows he will send him to the hangman. There’s plenty of psychological depth in Sayer’s novels.
And then there’s the quirkier Glady Mitchell, whose character Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is a consulting psychologist to the Home Office. She must also be considered as one of the forerunners of modern crime fiction, exploring the murkier depths of the psyche.
But Marr skips to Ruth Rendell, who he rightly points out uses detective fiction to hold up a mirror to society.
But doesn’t all fiction do that?
Maybe I’m carping, but Marr then marshalls Mike Phillips and his creation, black journalist Sam Dean, and Val McDermid’s creation of Savile clone (apart from being handsome) Jacko Vance, and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to show how detective fiction has changed, and is no longer about a comforting restoral of the community to order.
I’m not altogether convinced that previous generations were quite so easily comforted, personally.
One of the most compelling parts is the interview with Val McDermid and how she talks about being inspired to write about the Savile story, and how she disguised him as the attractive TV presenter Jacko Vance.
“I have spent most of my adult life in a state of rage,” she said, about her motivation to write.
That is something that Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus could understand. Marr suggests he is the ultimate flawed detective, who is all to aware that his job is never done, crime will never go away, and order can never be restored.
Even at this stage, Marr goes back to the “rule” theory of detective fiction – emphasising that the flawed detective is one of the many elements of the story machine.
He wraps up with a montage of scenes from what has been called the nordic noir TV series – The Killing, The Bridge and of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – these selections intended to prove that the “rules” are universal.
The only problem is, I don’t think they are universal – like most rules they are honoured in the breach as much as the observance. I would hardly describe Rendell’s Inspector Wexford as flawed, for instance. As already stated, Agatha Christie didn’t always play fair with the reader. And those examples come from the programme’s cherry picked examples.
I did enjoy watching, but I felt the whole programme was unbalanced. The focus on the Golden Age deprived us of opportunities to think about more recent detective fiction.
It would have been interesting to discuss Ruth Rendell’s dark psychological crime novels and the Barbara Vine books as well as the Inspector Wexford series.
I would have liked to see Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels mentioned – and we could have had a glimpse of the late, great Warren Clarke in action as the brilliantly flawed Dalziel. What I love about the books, though, is how Hill developed as a novelist – from the earlier novels such as A Clubbable Woman, which are excellent stories, but without much depth, to the later ones such as The Wood Beyond, which deals with the issue of soldiers in the first world war who were executed for desertion. If I didn’t hate the phrase, I would say some of the later novels transcend the genre.
As as aside, one of my favourite Hill novels also features Dalziel and Pascoe, and rather delightfully subverts the run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and pokes fun at the trope of the idyllic village which turns out to have a depraved underbelly. It also has some amusing echoes of Jane Austen, indicated from the very first sentence – “It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that all men are born equal, but the family Guillemard, pointing to the contra-evidence of their own absence from the Baronetage, have long been settled in Yorkshire without allowing such pholosophical quibbles to distress or vex them.” The twist at the end of the novel surely breaks all the rules of detective fiction.
It was great to be reminded of Mike Phillips novels (and the TV series) which used crime fiction to explore racial tension in Britain – but why no mention of the fantastic explosion of feminist crime fiction in the 1980s? It was after all, where Val McDermid started out, with her novels about journalist/sleuth Lindsay Gordon, published by The Women’s Press. PD James published the Cordelia Gray series, and Antonia Fraser created Jemima Shore – while in the US Sara Paretsky created a series of novels deeply concerned with issues of social justice featuring the private detective VI Warshawski.
Instead of a segment on the locked room mystery – why not a discussion of the brilliant Sophie Hannah’s own crime fiction. She was mentioned as someone who had written a Poirot novel, and interviewed about Christie. But her own crime novels are fascinating and structurally innovative – combining as they do two sub-genres of crime fiction. In each novel, one narrative strand is written from the first person point of view of a character at the heart of the crime – and the other narrative strand is a more conventional third person detective story, following the police characters who are investigating the crime.
Finally, I would have included Tana French’s series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad, where each novel follows an investigation by a different detective. Again, these are not detective novels which follow the “rules” blindly – they are as much concerned with the psychological effect of the crimes on the characters, including the investigating detectives, and where all the loose ends aren’t tidied up at the end of the novel.
Clearly I’ve singled out some of my favourite novelists here – but I contend they are my favourites for very good reasons – not least because they break the rules.
Still, I did very much enjoy the programme, even if mostly by arguing with the thesis and quibbling about the focus on particular eras and writers. I daresay the ones I’ve picked out will not completely satisfy any other individual reader of crime fiction, either. Please add your own favourites in the comments here, or on my Facebook page.
PS How could I have forgotten David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – and the TV adaptations? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why 😉