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.

20 comments on “Who Killed The Classic Murder Mystery? Verdict”

  1. snowy says:

    I’ll have you know that I will have absolutely nothing to do with book-binding. It is the preserve of perverts, all that leather and tight binding and being restrained in clamps *shudder*.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    I had a friend who had done a book binding course at a college, and he said that the lessons had that same peculiar stifled sexual feeling that sitting in a library trying to read or make notes, but being put off by the close proximity of a very attractive woman, has. He was an odd guy.

  3. Bernard says:

    I don’t know how fair it is to generalize as broadly as Wilson does.

    Many American writers do follow the formula in which the “crime hero is proactive, decisive and always suffers a loss before winning.” Westlake/Stark, Connelly, Coben, Crais, etc. And many British writers are discursive: Reginald Hill, Martin Walker, Michael Dibdin, etc.

    But there are plenty of British writers who move the story along without deviation, repetition, or hesitation: Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Magdalen Nabb, Christobel Kent, John Lawton, Peter James, etc.

    It is also worth considering cross-overs.

    Two American authors of British crime fiction come to mind immediately: Martha Grimes and Charles Todd (a pseudonym); and there are others. The former is discursive and the latter is not. I confess to strong reactions here. There are numerous vocabulary errors which any British editor should have identified at once and, particularly with Todd, there are many anachronisms which even a few moments research could have avoided. For me these make the books unreadable.

    And Lee Child (also a pseudonym) is a Brit writing an American series who follows the American formula formulaically.

    Anyway, Wilson was an interesting character and independent thinker so I do not dismiss his conclusions.

  4. snowy says:

    His complete ignorance of one of the most popular fictional genres of the preceding two decades is astonishing given his claim to be a Literary Critic. And he compounds this failing by conflating everything with a ‘Detective’ in it as being part of the same form.

    To recount my thesis, he was a literary snob, hated women and anything English. The latter two seem to colour, if not form the basis of his argument since English authors, the majority female had siezed the high ground, [and were fending off all-comers with poisoned hat-pins, coal pokers and the occasional Ming vase].

    If we rip out from his argument everything he doesn’t like, perhaps we can gain a measure of the man behind it.

    He does admit a past fondness for the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is what they primarily are, adventure stories that happen to have a ‘detective’ element as a motor for the plot, very short and very tightly written. Seminal arguably, but not representative of what the detective story would evolve into.

    The only book of those he condescended to read that earns any praise is ‘Farewell, My Lovely’, which in describing as “does not really belong to this school of the old-fashioned detective novel”. In the very next sentence he reveals why he likes Chandler’s work: “What he writes is a novel of adventure…”.

    [NB. Italics above added.]

    It is at this point the Prosecution not only rests, it has got its feet on the table and is spinning its wig around on the end of a pencil. He just hates one of the most popular literary forms of the period and nobody is going to convince him otherwise.

    Sadly the text of “Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound”* eludes me, [the perils of borrowing a quotation for a title]. Which is a shame because those that reference it state that it is an absolute corker of a thing.

    From such scraps as I can find, the letters he received “confirm me in my conclusions that detective stories are actually a habit-forming drug for which its addicts will fight like tigers”.

    But he then goes on to reveal that “in my turn, that since first looking into this subject last fall I have myself become addicted, by spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes”. [So to the existing charges we can further add hypocrite.]

    [ * The full text is paywalled at Harper’s, apparently.]

  5. Helen Martin says:

    In defense of my perverted interest in bookbinding I would advance two volumes which, unless I do something about the, will likely end up in the dustbin. I have a paperback volume of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (much better than any of the tv versions) which has separated itself into about six sections and another whose title I don’t remember. I won’t use Scotch Tape or any of the modern glues and the book will last a very long time. I may even do a new cover. Good works involving books is surely a good work indeed.

  6. Brooke says:

    @Helen. Good works indeed. Bookbinding is a craft to be valued.

  7. Brooke says:

    @Snowy, Mr. Wilson is laughing at you. And if we are not all literary snobs, why are we following/commenting on Mr. Fowler’s blog site?
    Hugs and kisses and enjoy the first day of summer.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    Curious that in English Bookbinder is a (rare) surname but Printer is only a surname in German.

  9. snowy says:

    Mr W. is very welcome to chortle away at his leisure, [I might then hold the singular distinction of being the only English person he ever found funny].

    As to the charge of snobbery, I shall allow others to defend themselves against that particularly outragous slur, it might not be pretty… hard confectionary may be thrown!

    H & K in return.

    [A lot of the books that flooded onto the market during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction are absolutely dreadful, but in their favour they would have been read at least once before being foisted on the public – just to check that none of the ends of sentences had gone astray during the edit… unlike my previous comment. *Bows head in shame*]

  10. SteveB says:

    John Lawton is American I think, though he captures British idiom amazingly well. For an American he’s also very subtle and funny!

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Mr. Wilson’s articles are opinion pieces and so be treated as such. From the start he states he doesn’t like detective novels and never changes his mind. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. He doesn’t present a case with many fact, so you either agree or disagree. At least he was honest and even stated how he skipped parts.

    When people compare US & UK crime they do not compare like with like. Thw Whodunnit should be compared with the American equivalent The Locked Door Mystery or How dun it. The only other author to get Christie’s sales over such a long period is Earle Stanley Gardner and his Perry Mason novels. Or the howcatchem like the Columbo TV series. Mason never really changes over years and the plot is usually the same. No Ellery Queen, at least Rex Stout’s novel are in the same area.

    Chandler and Hammet are more adventure stories with crime like Edgar Wallace or the Hannay novels. The pulp tales they spring from are more like the UK ripping yarns, in short as Snowy points out, they are adventure stories.

    Snowy the piece appears in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties.


  12. Ian Luck says:

    I think that you’re being a bit unfair on the seeming British inability to make an action movie – surely the greatest action movie series in history, which started as ‘Spy movies’, but since the cooling of the cold war, they have left that niche way behind – of course, I mean the James Bond films. Then you have stuff like ‘Get Carter’, ‘Villain’, ‘Layer Cake’, ‘The 51st State’ – I could stretch the envelope a bit to include the Pegg/Frost/Wright ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, which, on the face of it are comedies, but with a lot of action scenes, and some truly wince-inducing violence – ‘Hot Fuzz’ Timothy Dalton/model village church interface comes to mind. And I’d love to hear Bruce Willis saying Paddy Considine’s line used when the detectives are being attacked by the supermarket’s butchery counter staff:
    “Two blokes, and a shitload of cutlery!”

  13. Wayne Mook says:




    I’m not as good as putting links in Snowy, something posted the other day disappeared as I put a link in it.

    If you put the pieces together it should go t a copy of the book as pdf


  14. Wayne Mook says:

    The above link is for Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties.

    The 39 Steps ain’t bad either as a film, and many a war film like Zulu or The Bridge over the River Kwai, I’d count as action films.

    There are plenty of splendid films like Hell Drivers, Hell is a City, Violent Playground from the British Jaw of Awe, Stanley Baker.

    Also there are a number of Hammer Horror films are action films, The Devil Rides Out and Dracula (I know Hell is a City is a Hammer too.)

    I agree with the Bonds as well Ian.


  15. snowy says:

    Got it, a few moments of re-assembly and lo! Many thanks indeed.

    If that article, his third piece on Detective Fiction, had been the only work of his I had every read I might have had greater regard for the miserable old goat. Because it is what intelligent Lit-Crit. should be, a well researched description of both the good and bad points of a subject with reasoned argument why it is good or bad in the writers opinion. [Are we sure he wrote it?]

    US vs UK Action Films, it’s all very blurry a) British Directors are complete tarts and will skip over to the States at the first sniff of a shilling, b) it is possible to cherry-pick individual films to prove the point either way and c) there is a lot of ‘cross-pollination’.

    But as a first cut of a very, very, very rough workable hypothesis, for others to absolutely freely kick holes in.

    British action films, seem/seemed always to want to develop characters fully before the full action fully breaks out in the ‘third act’.

    Whereas in American action films you have barely enough time to ram the straw through the lid of your Kia-Ora before something explodes on screen* and characters are then developed through action, not in preparation for it.

    [ * In that bus film? …’Speed’, Keanu Reeves has only just enough time to pick up his cup of take-away coffee, before chunks of flaming-pedestrian start flying down the street. [I think it might come in at under 60 seconds!]]

  16. Ian Luck says:

    The Bond movies have always set out their stalls with brilliant pre-credit sequences that basically yell out: “If you liked that – then you’ll love this!”. The most iconic of these is possibly ‘Goldfinger’, where a frogman emerges from the sea, kills a guard, attaches limpet mines to a huge storage tank, detonates the explosives, and then removes the wetsuit to reveal a pristine white evening dress suit underneath. If, after that, you didn’t fancy watching the rest of the film, then there’s no hope for you, I’m afraid.

  17. gkbowood says:

    Got a good laugh with that last remark of yours, Ian! Thanks for that.

  18. gkbowood says:

    Also forgot to add that I agree with CF’s assessment of Rendell and Sayers- put PD James into that group as well.
    I do enjoy some of Minette Walters books. I get attached to the characters and can suffer through some pretty ‘meh’ stuff just to read a new book with a favorite character. I am finding Chief Inspector Gamache to be a little less interesting with time but I still buy the latest one…

  19. Helen Martin says:

    I sometimes think that C.I. Gamache is in Chris’ field, the same weird element and those continuing characters(!) Part of the story is the setting as well although a complete fantasy rather than real as Chris’ London is.

  20. DCote says:

    Rex Stout

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