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