Who Killed The Classic Murder Mystery? Verdict
The story so far: Critic Edmund Wilson damned the classic mystery writers, but it turned out that his verdict was biased against the British proponents. Discussion ensued here and in one mighty bound, courtesy of Snowy in the Comments of yesterday’s article, we went from bookbinding to foot fetishism, thus beautifully proving the point about classic murder mysteries that Mr Wilson was unable to grasp; written properly, they can act as springboards into a host of topics and themes, although they can be read regardless of literary value.
Even stripping away his Anglophobia (something I too suffer from whenever I imagine myself an outsider looking in at British newspapers) Wilson clearly doesn’t understand the different between Micky Spillane and Miss Marple, each of whom is buried deep within its respective national psyche.
When it comes to crime we rather perversely prefer erudition over thuggery, the formality of the former over the excitement of the latter (which is why the British never made a decent action movie while America was brilliant at them.) The things Mr Wilson hates in crime novels are the very things we like most of all.
Fine, that’s just Atlantic mistranslation, but it goes deeper. The American crime hero is proactive, decisive and always suffers a loss before winning. The British equivalent is largely untouched by the experience, which is regarded at a distance with dispassionate amorality, although since the Golden Age there have been many exceptions, from the Red Riding books by David Peace to the Scottish school of damaged, bent cops.
The accidental/reluctant hero is a traditional British character, the Guy Crouchback in the wrong place at the wrong time – or indeed any Waugh character. From Pamela Branch to Edmund Crispin, ingenuity and cynicism take preference over the forwarding of the action.
But if British spy novels consisted of ‘middle-aged men in ugly offices’ then our crime novels favoured the drawing room over the jail cell, the village high street over the back-alley stand-off. Indeed, in many of our finest mystery novels the action, such as it is, comes to a grinding halt so that the investigators can potter about discussing entirely irrelevant subjects. In this way the mystery itself becomes a carriage for many other bits of baggage.
I can imagine that this would be deeply frustrating to some US critics. If it doesn’t further the action the scene shouldn’t be there, runs the thinking in those Joseph Campbell-style guides on writing. But biffing and chasing is boring to write, and frequently dull to read. Better a duel of wits than weapons.
Mr Dan Simmons wrote a fact/fiction historical hybrid called ‘The Terror’, a mystery with a few supernatural trimmings based on the ill-fated expedition of the ships Erebus and Terror seeking the North West Passage. It’s 700+ pages long, and as it’s set upon a marooned ship I assumed there would be swathes of irrelevant material – but no. He tells the story without deviation in earnest, excruciatingly repetitive detail. Simmons is a good writer and therefore we must assume that this is a literary device. The book attains gravity from its styling. By way of comparison, Pamela Branch’s ‘The Wooden Overcoat’ is 190 pages long and stuffed with deviations, flights of fancy and nonsense conversations. That works too, but it’s as light as coffee froth.
Not that US writers can’t be just as flippant. Josh Bazell’s ‘Beat the Reaper’ is outrageously cavalier – but it obeys what seems to be the cardinal rule of US crime fiction – Keep your hero at the centre.
I have to admit I can’t stand Dorothy L Sayers, and I’m not that keen on Ruth Rendell. The former is too long-winded (what would ‘The Nine Tailors’ be like with an editor who removed all but its essential details, I wonder?) too class-ridden and too Christian, and the latter too genteely domestic for my tastes, although ‘A Judgement in Stone’ is a powerful book. There’s an interesting article about Sayers and her Jewish characters here.
Perhaps the question we should ask is; if the book deviates from its subject, does it matter so long as we enjoy it? Margery Allingham was unreadable to Edmund Wilson not because she’s a bad writer but because she’s an astounding condensation of English crime writing at that period. The books need unpacking to the modern mind, but doing the unpacking is fun.
Perhaps I’ll vanish down that particular cul-de-sac in years to come, and be considered unreadably ‘deep English’ to critics like Mr Wilson. It matters not to me.
The ‘Girl on a Train’ school of writing replaced those dispassionate murder mysteries of the past. For me the problem with these is that while they have no linguistic merit, nor do they have much of an interest factor in their plots.