Modern Murder Mysteries Pt 2: The Butler Didn’t Do It

Reading & Writing

Yes, that’s Bryant & May in Lego, sent by superfan David Bond. Apart from anything else, the lighting is perfect. He tells me he’s working on another one. This sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in crime novels.

‘You can say whatever you like so long as you keep a straight face’ is an old rule in murder mystery writing. Imagine the curse of the writer who uses comedy as a tool. At festivals we get sat at the back with those who don’t pay attention in class. In fact, when adding comedic elements to a drama, it’s hard to get the balance right. The trick is treading a line of believability, which I try to achieve by writing accurately and in detail about locations and people.

I read a lot of past crime too, and I’ve noticed there are some authorial tricks that no longer work. For example, putting ‘I have no phone signal’ in a book no longer cuts it.

So much more can happen when your protagonists can’t easily contact each other. Sherlock Holmes was forever dashing off letters to make appointments (it helped that there were eight posts a day and corruptible telegraph boys). Protagonists were tied to a single communication line. The noir thrillers ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Detour’ both hinged around victims using corded phones. Entire plots were hung on railway timetables. Authors can still use the old ‘My battery’s died’ routine because sometimes it actually does, and miscommunication remains a valid plot-point; Last month I received a packet of letters from the Royal Mail dated September 2012.

Better technology meant an end to the mystery night caller. GPS, facial recognition and hi-res photography has thrown light on hidden identities. When you can name a stranger walking past you by simply checking your Bluetooth status, how can a killer escape detection? Building plots around technology has proven disastrous. There’s nothing more boring than a copper at a keyboard, which might account for the recent rise in period crime fiction, in which a dogged PC still has to wear out shoe leather and fill a notebook.

Today’s detectives need more than a suspicious mind. In an age when your washing machine talks to you and your shave lotion sends you online messages, crime investigators have to raise their game. No longer can they act on mere hunches. The kind of deductions that were blithely accepted in older novels are not admissible anymore. In Michael Gilbert’s ‘Mr Calders and Mr Behrens’ an arrest is based on this: ‘It had to be either you or Rivers. You were the only two disreputable characters in the neighborhood.’ Try flying that in court today.

Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, Edwardian barrister and man of medicine, solved puzzles that would scarcely interest today’s police. He did it because something felt wrong; a collapsed man vanishes, a fingerprint looks forged. Now one of his office juniors would check a travel card and track a sneaker via an online database, and who needs fingerprints when there are DNA samples? Technology is the great leveller, so new detectives need new skills. As Arthur Bryant points out, ‘Once we used to stand on a street corner and shout, ‘Did anyone see who did it?’ That won’t work now.

And no more ‘The Butler Did It!’ either. The butler didn’t do it because there are no butlers anymore, and ‘The cleaner did it!’ sounds exploitative. We no longer have live-in staff, ‘a little man in the village’ or visits from the vicar. There’s a new range of types to use as suspects, from the tiger mothers of Liane Moriarty’s ‘Big Little Lies’ to the self-harming journalist in Gillian Flynn’s ‘Sharp Objects’. And how about the accused in ‘Knives Out’, all of whom sport freshly-minted characteristics? Characters created by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Jane Harper are flawed in ways our old crime novelists could not imagine.

‘He’s the Best Slow Bowler In The County.’ That’s how Raffles the oxymoronic ‘gentleman thief’ was described by his creator EW Hornung. The square-jawed, wavy-haired, clean-cut chap didn’t look like a criminal. It’s taken us a long time to realize that physical attributes cannot signify goodness. Raffles wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the streets today. Our new heroes are angry, autistic, alcoholic, addicted to drugs and bad relationships. First they were superhuman, then merely human, and now they’re human flotsam. The next logical step is to turn them into villains – although didn’t ‘Joker’ already do that? And what are superhero movies if not crime fiction in a streamlined, futuristic format?

This article concludes tomorrow.

22 comments on “Modern Murder Mysteries Pt 2: The Butler Didn’t Do It”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    Your packet of 2012 mail certainly puts the several ‘Your Postman couldn’t be bothered to deliver this item’ cards that were unironically put through the letterbox with half a ton of other post last week, to shame.
    Happy New Year! Your books have made my world a far better place. Thank You!

  2. Richard says:

    Love the Lego! Did you know if you get 10,000 online votes Lego will consider making an official set? The Lego PCU could become the must-have toy next Chrstmas.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    I thought the Postman always rang twice.

  4. John Griffin says:

    Crime novelists still overrate DNA. I have two coppers in my siblings and they always laugh at that one – both estimate that even in serious crimes, DNA is almost never uncorrupted or too fragmentary to build a case, takes too long/is unreliable/too costly in the era of outsourced and now staggeringly unreliable forensics.
    Most murderers report themselves BTW as they kill some abusive relative/friend, and serial killers outside of drug gangs rare. The paperwork for a street theft can take one person out for a whole shift. At one point this year three coppers were monitoring sex offenders and investigation domestic violence in the whole of North Birmingham, working 12 hour plus shifts thanks to cutting a 17 person team to 6 and illness striking (a mate is the inspector).
    Real life is both more mundane and occasionally more outre than most crime fiction.
    A couple of years ago my siblings voted Thin Blue Line the most accurate TV cop programme BTW!

  5. John Griffin says:

    Happy New Year!!!!!

  6. SimonB says:

    Technology is one area that can work really well in a visual medium but harder to convey on the page. Following the zooming in, enhancing, tracking people from CCTV camera to camera can be made to work really well OR show how agonisingly slow it is to piece the fragments together. So long as we don’t fall into the Blade Runner trap of seeing things that weren’t in the original image of course. But you are right about it dating so rapidly – I’m sure it won’t be long before Google Earth is actually showing live satellite images and we can all follow the movements of everyone in the world from our phones.

    (Oh, and Happy New Year to one and all, and hope you had a good festive season/Wednesday. Funny how I don’t find time to read here and comment when I’m at home, but can manage it now I’m back in the office…).

  7. admin says:

    Another point about DNA – it degrades to nothing, which is why a Jurassic Park-style dinosaur is not possible.

  8. Jo W says:

    Chris, may I wish you and yours a Happy New Year and that includes all the other reprobate commenters on this blog. Let’s hope for the best for 2020 (whatever may happen.) 😉
    Sending now cos I tend to go to bed with ear plugs in, at my usual ten of the clock.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    A DI I know who works a major city centre reckons that CCTV evidence is more luck than skill. You might have 2 officers viewing up to 30 cameras, so they can’t easily track anyone. If the camera is facing left you could have a riot to the right and no-one would spot it. Plus there’s no sound information so you can’t hear guns, screams etc. The best place to commit an offence is right below a security camera. This is why people are mostly spotted by fixed cameras on rail/tube/bus transport or stations or on ATMs. So police spend hours trawling through footage from poor quality cameras in pubs and retailers in the hope of picking up clues. In the UK a car licence plate is only admissible as evidence in court if it fills more than one third of the screen on a CCTV – no enhancement is allowed.
    Outside of big city centres and shopping malls its likely that 50% of official CCTV cameras don’t work because they’re too expensive to repair.

  10. Brooke says:

    “Better technology meant an end to the mystery night caller…” Unless your amazon ring data (housed in Ukraine) is stolen and the thieves decide to stalk you (refer to US pending lawsuits).

    “There’s nothing more boring than a copper at a keyboard..” Vera and other TV series make use of keyboards, creating interesting copper characters to use same.. I’ve introduced several people to Camilleri’s Montalbano series and what do they comment on…Cat and his ‘puters. Of course, there is the fabulous Signorina Elettra at the keyboard.

    “…’You were the only two disreputable characters in the neighborhood.’ Try flying that in court today.” Change disreputable to any person of color and it will fly in court. Walter Mosely has built a series around that fact.

    Dr. Thorndyke may not interest police but his methods interest district attorneys and defense lawyers– what else is CSI (I think you call it SOCO), a must have in modern crime stories/TV, except a large high tech version of the good Dr.’s lab?

    “..recent rise in period crime fiction..” with mixed results. The BLCC reissues (M. Edwards series) brings back some of the best. But period crime by today’s writers fails to capture anxieties, pietities and sensibilities, and are often an excuse to be cozy, romantic.

    We can be grateful there is no more Sayers, who has Lord Peter arrive at a crime scene ahead of the police and take away evidence..noting “he was careful to leave some for the police.”

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    Happy New Year to everyone!

    As John said, most crime is not very interesting to anyone not directly involved. It seems that less than half of what qualifies as crime is reported. Of that which is reported, about a half is actually recorded by the police. I guess that means there’s only 25% of all crime that is of much interest to both the police and the victim, never mind the rest of us. Since the police solve only about a quarter of the 25%, we are now down to 6%. On that basis, it seems safe to say that no one is very interested in the great majority of real life crime. The small amount of interesting stuff may well all fit into the vicar’s study.

    I could go on with more figures about convictions and sentencing, but that would serve only to demonstrate our politicians lack of any honest interest in crime.

    Has the world moved on since some golden point in the past? Chris mentioned crime in the modern world of high finance. Is it new? The South Sea Bubble was 300 years ago and there were plenty of similar schemes in the Victorian era such as the railway adventures satirised by Trollope in ‘The way we live now.’

  12. Ken Mann says:

    There was a murder case not too long ago where the victim tried to write the murderer’s name in his own blood before expiring. Sometimes life imitates art.

  13. Jan says:

    Murder mysteries be they golden age tales or not have hardly anything to do with police methodology or investigation. Why should they? What crossover can or should there be between reported or non reported crime and this particular type of story? They are totally unrelated. They are like jigsaw puzzle fiction with elements or humour, eccentricities, class maybe but they are a sort of suduko with casualties!

    I see reading crime murder fiction as a particular form of reading requiring close attention in order to spot clues, red herrings macguffins (which I have probably spelt wrong) reading requiring a high degree of involvement and attention if the punter – the reader – really wants to “solve” the crime Then theres the sort of crime fiction written by Ed Mcbain and his successors a slightly different type of story. Where the reader feels exposed to selected bits of what seems to be a gritty reality. There’s an element of solve-the-crime built into these tales but its hardly the big issue in a sense. I always feel there’s an element of rubber necking RTAs in this type of fiction. Let’s hear all about the gruesome stuff. It’s gruesome but good.

    Most murders are basically domestics if they can find a Nick with a front office that’s open the perpetrators give themselves into police custody.

    I am still having trouble processing the fact that nowadays numbers wise the most dangerous hour in Britain’s Cities is about 1530-1630 skool chucking out time! Between the pubs shutting and the clubs getting going is apparently quite easy going in comparison. Schools officers organise systematic searches of park spaces, bin areas and front gardens in order to recover weapons concealed by schoolkids on their way into skool. Not all the the awful amount of injuries and deaths involving youngsters are drug related. Some are simply the sort of arguments kids have always had. That’s truly chilling. Scarier than any gritty police procedural. In a way it’s obscene.

    And the drug that causes the most grief + the most disruption to the UK? Well like most everywhere else its the perfectly legal alcohol.

    I’m old Bird now and getting out of touch with modern police tastes but the tv programme lots of Dcs and Pcs involved in safety units, and street policing loved back in the day well that would have been “Shameless” they saw more of the reality we dealt with in that than any cop show.

    Happy New Year to everyone may the New Year and the new decade bring the best to us all.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    So the police are cut back to a point where they are totally ineffective, politicians don’t care, the public doesn’t care unless they are victims (or one of the very few criminals nabbed presumably). Crime is rampant wherever there is no camera coverage and any evidence left disappears before police could find it.
    On that cheery note – Happy New Year – the very best to everyone out there for this last year of the decade.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    I find these days that so much time in crime/detection novels is taken over by the drama of the private lives of the detectives and their marital details which I find totally superfluous and irritating. While some fleshing out of the characters is welcome, it is often over done. I sometimes think some authors would rather be writing family sagas. One of the biggest offenders is Susan Hill in her Simon Serrailler series of crime novels.

  16. Peter Tromans says:

    Brian – I agree absolutely.

  17. Mike says:

    The Serrailers are a particularly unlucky family. I gave up on book 6, wasn’t much enjoyment wondering if an earthquake or a collapsing building or an accidental dose of septicaemia would finish another one off.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Authors have been trying to humanize the detectives because they are characters who continue through the series, but there is no need to have the poor souls go through one angst ridden episode after another. Vera’s sergeant has as much trouble as he needs in keeping his wife happy and looking after his kids but it doesn’t take over his mind. Fred Thursday (I loved that name, by the way) in Endeavour has had major difficulties but they are definitely aside from his job (which he seems unable to give up).

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Richard – how do you put in a request with Lego? I want a PCU set for myself and for at least the student I infected with the virus. I looked and all I can find is the sets now available.

  20. Richard says:

    Helen, the Lego Ideas website is where new sets can be proposed. David’s excellent Bryant and May could serve as the prototypes for people to vote on. Needs a fair amount of marketing to get the votes in.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Well, this is the place to start. The Ideas website is an interesting place indeed. So okay, David, let’s have the proposal.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    LEGO will also, for a not unconsiderable fee, make custom sets of yourself. A youtuber, Stuart Ashen (who’s a Doctor of some subject or other, writes books about computers, and reviews shoddy tat on a sofa) found this out, and got a set made.

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