Modern Murder Mysteries Pt 1: Razors & Rozzers
Recently I wrote an article for US website CrimeReads, trimming it for space, so I thought I’d revisit the piece here with new information.
Interviewed after ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, Leonardo DiCaprio complained that he’d seen a lot of his heroes disappear. He was not referring to his own role as a stock fraudster who becomes the embodiment of greed but to role models in general. It’s not just our mentors who have vanished but the very structures in which they existed. Clearly we need new guidelines, especially when it comes to crime fiction. The world has grown more complex. It’s all very well updating Sherlock Holmes for each successive generation but there are many criminal elements we simply can’t tolerate anymore.
The rules of crime fiction started to crystalize as early as 1862, when ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ by Charles Warren Adams began serialization. They were set in stone soon after and remained in place for the next century – but there were always mavericks who tested them.
EC Bentley, the inventor of a peculiar form of satiric poetry, the Clerihew, first ignored the crime guidelines in 1913 with ‘Trent’s Last Case’. Thirteen years later Agatha Christie committed the sin of omission in ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which caused a public outcry for not playing fair with readers. The French essayist Pierre Bayard pushed the boundaries of the author/reader relationship further in ‘Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’, his brilliant dissection of Christie’s book.
It was the Catholic priest Ronald Knox who really set the cat among the pigeons with his ‘Decalogue’, a set of tongue-in-cheek fair-play rules for the crime reader of 1929. His seventh rule is, in fact, the one that Christie first traduced.
Although the fundamental tenets of crime fiction remain, gone is the moral certitude of the cocksure detective who bases judgement on class and appearance. Gone are the days of the unironic snowed-in, bridge-down, lines-out country house murder, where everyone dutifully assembles in the library to unveil the killer (except in the film ‘Knives Out’ and in my novel ‘Hall of Mirrors’). On stage Detective Sergeant Trotter still treads the boards in that fustiest of guessable mysteries, ‘The Mousetrap’, which Christie herself reckoned would last a mere eight months, and only survives on its tourist-delighting Englishness, in much the same way that a fifty quid English tea still exists in hotels featuring baroque sandwich stands and teapots.
American crime had never been forced through the same moral minefield of the English mystery novel, partly because it had not been required to deal with so many complex, barely visible issues of class. If British crime was a string quartet, its US counterpart was jazz. Scenes which would have caused a mass clutching of pearls in the UK cheerfully annihilated the status quo across the Atlantic. Perhaps now there should be some new rules of engagement for crime fiction in the 21st century.
First we have to consider that the old stereotypes have gone. Safecrackers, razors, rozzers, ‘Find the Lady’ sharps, Black Marias, jelly-men, conners, cosh boys and tarts with hearts were all familiar characters in British crime novels. ‘Racketeers’ were children who distracted punters while their pockets were being picked, but the term came to mean wartime wide-boys who hawked stolen stockings and cut blouses from parachute silk. Avid crime readers were wise to all this.
In Margery Allingham’s ‘The Fashion in Shrouds’, reformed criminal Magersfontein Lugg says, ‘It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide’, and readers knew what he was saying; it’s crazy to bribe a cop with fake money. The past is a foreign country, but Golden Age writers would be just as lost reading say, ‘Dodgers’ by Bill Beverly, and what would they have made of ‘The Wire’? Instantly recognisable archetypes are hard to use when your friendly priest is under investigation and the avuncular banker is an embezzling hedge fund manager.
We’ll take a look at what else has gone and what’s replacing it tomorrow.