Modern Murder Mysteries Pt.3: The Spy With Breathing Problems

The Arts

As much as I love Golden Age mysteries and 1950s thrillers, they have to be considered in the zeitgeist of the times. The shocking secrets hidden by murderers and their victims are no longer shocking.

The motives that women concealed from men and vice versa were once the stuff of great mysteries. Murderous impulses could often be traced to the covering up of sexual indiscretions; secret abortions, children born out of wedlock, ‘mad’ heirs, unmentionable diseases and promiscuity (especially among females – Agatha Christie seemed obsessed with censuring party girls and flighty numbers). It’s harder to power a story using these elements without turning women into victims – although Francis Iles managed to create a willing victim who is somehow heroic in ‘Before the Fact’. The domestic noir housewives of the fifties took their revenge for being shut back in kitchens after the war. They turned the tables on their gaslighting husbands and broke free. Margaret Millar showed that revenge is a dish best served to a husband demanding his dinner.

But all those subjects that could not be mentioned in polite company have now been forensically aired. Mercifully, gay men are no longer required to slope off somewhere and shoot themselves out of shame, and single motherhood is no reason for a blackmail plot. Child-grooming and sex traffic have become the new motors for many a modern thriller and the ‘missing child’ set-up has become a overworked cliché.

As for locations, well, exotic isn’t enough by itself anymore. Remember when James Bond stepped into Shirley Eaton’s Florida hotel room at the start of ‘Goldfinger’? Ever the snob, Ian Fleming was giving his fans glimpses of a lifestyle about which they could only fantasize.

Cheap travel made the exotic ordinary and turned the hideouts of the rich into overcrowded selfie spots. After low-cost airlines and Air B&Bs let everyone into Fleming’s world, spies became less interesting. In reality, the casino tables were not surrounded by beautiful spies but by portly dudes with combovers. Bond was exposed as an alcoholic heavy smoker with a condescending attitude to women.

There are still plenty of detectives solving crimes in picturesque parts, but the locations that work best for me eschew lifestyle-porn for a sense of otherness, as in Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry’, memorably set in the drought-stricken Australian outback, and in Jason Goodwin’s ‘Yashim the Ottoman Detective’ series we’re led into another world by an expert in Turkish history.

Here’s another problem; bank robberies now seem impossibly quaint. In the last two decades they have fallen by 90% in the UK thanks to the banks’ adoption of time locks, cameras and active combat systems. Hardly any guns are used because there are only a handful in the country and the police control the supply of bullets. We’ve come a long way from crooks laying maps on kitchen tables and planning their escape through backstreets with the aid of an A-Z and a bakery van. Now they’re tracked by drones and helicopters armed with laser-sight cameras.

There’s hope for the heist-writer, though. The real-life seniors who carried out the £200m Hatton Garden robbery in 2015 had the nation agog and inspired two movies and several novels, even though they were defeated by a misunderstanding of how license plate recognition works.

Teens (and Arthur Bryant) quickly discovered that the addition of a cheap hooded sweatshirt could foil a camera, and in TV’s ‘The Bridge’ a villain fools a busload of children with the addition of a false beard, an idea going right back to Sherlock Holmes. In ‘Off The Rails’ I staged a murderous attack on a crowded tube escalator surrounded by CCTV cameras just to show it could be done. Sometimes it’s better to confront the challenges of the 21st century head on. Necessity makes for originality.

The next book I write will be my fiftieth, and it’s clear that there are new mysteries to unravel with every tick of the clock. When the game gets tougher, you raise your game.

15 comments on “Modern Murder Mysteries Pt.3: The Spy With Breathing Problems”

  1. Joel says:

    There’s still mileage in old cliches, such as locked rooms – just change the nature of the room from an allegedly secured place in a premise to say a train or plane, not even necessarily in motion. Motivations don’t change, only moralities. The media made folk heroes out of the Hatton Garden villains because of the secondary story in the heist; the film (which I haven’t seen) only added to the myth. They are still greedy crooks and as above didn’t click modern technology. Look at the altered ending to the (original) ‘Italian Job’ film from the original script, only to keep the Yanks happy, to show ‘crime doesn’t pay’. Doesn’t matter in fiction, does beyond the book cover…. The story is everything.

  2. Jan says:

    I’ve read that Ottoman Turkish detective thingy series. It’s proper good The bloke who wrote that series of books is the son of John Michell the earth mysteries bloke. He was pretty weird but good also. Happy New Year Chris.

    Where did you get all that nonsense about firearms and police controlling the numbers of bullets available ? I’ll e mail you.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    In “Talking Pictures” last night on BBC2-a programme devoted to British war films of the 50’s and 60’s -it was suggested that Richard Todd was Ian Fleming’s 1st choice for Bond. I have seen him described elsewhere as Richard-Mr Balsa Wood-Todd, which just about says it all. I have also heard that David Niven was also considered.

    As a child I virtually lived in the cinemas, or pictures and/or flicks as we used to call them, so going to see a film I didn’t like was better than not going at all. However, even I never “got” James Bond and Sean Connery, and still don’t. I have never liked the glorification of violence, nor so called “action” with men running around all over the place and being silly and macho. I also found the “jokes” terribly arch and therefore unfunny. Though worse was to come of course-Roger Moore.

    There was however, even worse in my mind than James Bond-“Westerns” or cowboys fillums as we used to call them.

  4. Jo W says:

    Best line of today – “revenge is a dish best served to a husband demanding his dinner”
    I think, if you don’t mind, I will use that one at an appropriate moment.
    Happy New Year Greetings, one and all !

  5. Theophylact says:

    We did get to see David Niven as the “original” James Bond in Casino Royale, but there were six other James Bonds, including Peter Sellers, in that one, including Woody Allen as Sir James’s nephew Jimmy Bond, a.k.a. Dr. Noah.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Bond might have made more sense played by Niven or Told. I certainly never understood Connery’s version or the general enthusiasm for him. He seemed to take the joke too seriously and made the violence unconvincing. I was happy to see Blackman toss him over her shoulder and disappointed she later succumbed to his dubious charms. I’ve been to Florida and found no attraction. And as for Miss Eaton’s bedroom, it remains a fantasy.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve read “The Dry” and really appreciated it, especially as the child of someone who grew up in the 30s prairie drought. I don’t think enjoyed is quite the proper word for it. Despair is a terrible prod. There is at least one book following that but I haven’t read it yet.
    Welcome to this bright shiny new year, everyone. We even have sunshine.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    For those of you who are not fans of James Bond – I am, being given ‘Goldfinger’ to read, when ill, aged about seven – I don’t have any problem with that. In Alan Moore and Kevin O’ Neil’s work of mad genius, ‘The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ (not the movie, which is fun, but not really representative), you will find, in the later books, a character called ‘Jimmy Bond’. He’s a distillation of all the screen Bonds, and, as such, a complete bastard. And it’s oddly perfect.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I was amused by the Richard Todd quote – to which my first act of pedantry of 2020 will be addressed. Balsa, despite it’s unique properties, is classed as a hardwood. Ithengyow.

  10. Brooke says:

    Jason Goodwin, yes! Evocative, clever plotting with nods to geopolitics of the time. Jane Harper…well, not so much. Like a cover of Arthur Upfield whose descriptions of drought, flood and vengeful fire seem prescient. Another locality of the mind–James McClure’s South Africa under apartheid in Kramer and Zondi series.

    Sense of otherness.. we’re missing crime and detective fiction from “others.”

  11. Peter Dixon says:

    Todd would probably have made a good 50’s black & white Bond, although Fleming described him as resembling Hoagy Carmichael. It strikes me that a good TV series set in the 50’s and following the books (rather than just nicking the title and making a confection) would be interesting.The exoticism of the Connery movies certainly brought a dimension to 60’s audiences – although you usually only got one country to be exotic in, now its not exotic without at least 3 continents involved.

    Watched the Steve McQueen / Fay Dunaway ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ the other day – great heist, great movie, great soundtrack, total hokum.

    Nowadays bank robberies are mostly done with a JCB removing a cash-point.

  12. Eliz Amber says:

    I enjoyed ‘The Dry’, too – living in the semi-arid American West, the setting of the story was quite familiar, even though I’ve never been to Australia.

    One element that is recurring in more modern mysteries is the smarter criminal – they all watch the crime scene shows, too, and are more careful about leaving evidence everywhere. Authors tend to concentrate more on how it was done (and the one bit the criminal forgot) than on why it was done. Unfortunately, the detectives often get the same short shrift, falling into either Holmesish omniscience or the overdone alcoholic maverick.

  13. John Griffin says:

    Remember Richard Todd at an English Schools Athletics Championship. I believe he was spectating a son or daughter. He had come straight from the stage apparently, and was a bilious orange colour – I assumed still in make-up. The only other person I’ve seen that colour is Trump.
    Never a Bond in a month of Sundays.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I am no stranger to Balsa, I use it a lot for model railway stuff. There-that’s me outed as an anorak. I loved your Arthur Askey finish, so from me it’s TTFN.

    John, R Todd had some terrible bad luck. Two of his children committed suicide. I quote from Wikipedia; ‘His sons’ suicides affected Todd profoundly; he admitted to visiting their adjoining graves regularly. He told the Daily Mail that dealing with those tragedies was like his experience of war. “You don’t consciously set out to do something gallant. You just do it because that is what you are there for.”‘

    The play you mention could have been “The Business of Murder” by Richard Harris. He must have the record for the longest run of an actor in the same role in a play-at least eight years. It would have driven me bonkers. I did see it, and he was very good, though I agree with the “Time Out” crit of the time- “Not so much a whodunnit as a what on earth’s going on?”

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – A TV series of the original James Bond books, in order, and set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is something I know a lot of people would like to see. If it was made with the same love and care that, say, the David Suchet ‘Poirot’ shows were, it woild be astonishing. For Bond, my ideal choice would be Jack Davenport. The only other thing I’d like, would be to include, in the run of stories, the first proper continuation – ‘Colonel Sun’, written by Kingsley Amis under a pseudonym. It’s a good story, with the right feel, and a perfect full stop to ‘proper’ Bond.

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