Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Irresistible Charm of the English Murder by Christina Koning

‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ says Amanda in Private Lives. The same might be said of fiction – at least of a certain sort of ‘cheap’ fiction, variously known as the thriller, the murder mystery, the detective story, and the whodunnit. To this genre – or rather to a particular sub-genre, disparagingly referred to by aficionados of the grislier sort of crime fiction as ‘cosy’ – I am, I freely confess, addicted. In the past few months, I’ve polished off twenty-eight novels by Ngaio Marsh, fifteen by Dorothy L Sayers, eight by Josephine Tey, forty-four by Agatha Christie, six by Edmund Crispin, five by Margery Allingham, two by Nicholas Blake, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I include these last in the awareness that they were published around forty years before the ‘Golden Age’ of English detective fiction (roughly 1920 – 1940) which encompasses the others, but since none of these later works would have existed without Conan Doyle’s sublime creation, I feel they belong together.
Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget 1908

With his louche, but essentially ‘gentlemanly’, appearance, eccentricities of behaviour (violin-playing, cocaine addiction) and the forensic acuity of his mind, Sherlock Holmes – now enjoying a revival of interest, due to the cult success of a recent television treatment, starring Benedict Cumberbatch – is surely the pattern of the English detective, for the period leading up to and immediately following the First World War. Here he is, making his debut, in A Study in Scarlet:

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of an extraordinary delicacy of touch…

In this mesmerising piece of description can be seen the inspiration for a whole clutch of detectives – from Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, with his ‘sensitive’ mouth, and eyes whose supposedly ‘foolish’ expression can turn at the drop of a stiletto to lethal sharpness, to Marsh’s tall, ascetic-looking Roderick Alleyn, whose looks are a cross between those of a ‘polite faun’ and a ‘monk’. Tey’s Allan Grant is another aesthete-turned-policeman, with his ‘dapper’ good looks and his fondness for solving historical puzzles (not least that of who really murdered the Princes in the Tower (vide: The Daughter of Time). Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too, though lacking the dashing style of Alleyn, or the aristocratic demeanour of Wimsey, has, when on the case, ‘cat-like’ green eyes, that flash with intellectual fire. Most of these men – and they are (with one notable exception: the redoubtable Miss Marple) all men – conceal their ruthless intelligence beneath a veneer of absent-mindedness or ineffectuality. Crispin’s Oxford-academic-turned-private-eye, Gervase Fen, is a case in point, with his donnish fussiness and predilection for sixteenth century poetry.

Blue-bloodedness is another factor common to several of these characters – apart from the impeccably well-connected Wimsey and Alleyn (both younger sons of lords), there is Allingham’s Albert Campion, who has a title but prefers not to use it. Though born into high society, these gentlemen detectives seem to enjoy fraternising with the demi-monde – not only that of the criminal underworld, but of the theatre (cf Marsh’s Enter a Murderer; Crispin’s The Gilded Fly) the art world (Artists in Crime), and the bohemian world inhabited by the followers of cult religions (Death in Ecstasy). This is just as well, considering that so many of the crimes they are called upon to solve take place in these milieus. Not that there is any shortage of homicidal incident in the ostensibly more respectable walks of life, such as academia (Sayers’s Gaudy Night; Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding) advertising (Murder Must Advertise) and the House of Lords (Clouds of Witness).

Then there’s the question of the women. Because whilst Holmes – apart from a passing fancy for the beautiful but untrustworthy Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) – is famously wedded to his poisons and his different types of cigar-ash, a number of his fellow detectives seem to have found time not just for the exacting science of criminal investigation, but for love, and indeed, marriage. Given that these are men who spend a great deal of time hanging around police courts, it is perhaps hardly surprising that their inamorata should often be women on trial for their lives. The splendidly arresting beginning of Sayers’s Strong Poison finds Harriet Vane in the dock:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot face and his parrot voice were dry, like his old, heavily veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses…

Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover, an egotistical poet, and the evidence looks very black against her. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in court that day. He falls for Harriet’s ‘eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows’ – and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed Harriet, a best-selling writer of detective stories, proves a valuable asset when it comes to solving a number of Wimsey’s more intractable cases. That it takes him several books before he convinces her to marry him, only adds to the thrill, with the crime-solving, on occasion, taking second place to the romance. Inevitably, given both the author’s academic background and that of her characters, things come to a head in Oxford:

‘Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?’

‘Desperately?… My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.’

They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.


Ngaio Marsh in 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford

Roderick Alleyn also goes for the intellectual woman (can it be mere co-incidence that the authors of so many of these celebrated crime novels were themselves intellectual women?). His Agatha Troy is an artist – first encountered on a voyage back to England from the Antipodes – and prickly as hell when Alleyn interrupts her painting. (‘”How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously…’) Back in England, it isn’t long before she, too, becomes the prime suspect for murder – although luckily, not as far as Chief Inspector Alleyn is concerned:

‘Do you think for a moment,’ said Troy, in a level voice, ‘that I might have killed this girl?’

‘Not for a moment,’ said Alleyn…

Again, it isn’t until several books – and quite a few murders – later that the independent-minded Troy consents to become Alleyn’s wife, thus consolidating one of the more durable partnerships (Holmes and Watson notwithstanding) in crime fiction.

Then of course there’s the question of murder, and why it should be such an attractive subject for writer and readers alike. It’s not a question to which I can find a ready answer. Because there’s no escaping the fact that, delightfully old-fashioned as these stories might seem, with their titled detectives and their country house settings, and seemingly unassailable hierarchies of class and wealth, they deal with the darker side of human behaviour: fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, sexual jealousy, and murder. One could argue that it isn’t the crime itself that attracts, but the intellectual puzzle involved in unravelling what has led up to it, and that this – the murder – is merely a necessary convention. Murder is, one might say, the mechanism on which the story relies, and is secondary (surely) to the pleasures of detection. Certainly, by the gruesome standards of most contemporary thrillers, which revel in describing ever more sadistic killings, the murder mysteries of the Golden Age seem like pretty tame stuff. Almost cosy, in fact.

And yet one can hardly describe as ‘cosy’ a tale in which a man dies horribly from drinking nitric acid (Artists in Crime), or one in which the murder weapon is a peal of church bells (Nine Tailors), whose combined clamour, experienced at short range, is enough to drive the victim to madness and death. People are routinely stabbed, shot, strangled, bludgeoned, drowned and – on one memorable occasion – brained with a plant pot (Busman’s Honeymoon), but the favourite method of dispatch in these homicidal tales is often poison, with all the possibilities it offers of being slipped into coffee or strong drink, or substituted for the sleeping tablets or heart medicine of the victim.

Plaque in Torre Abbey Photo credit Violetriga Creative Commons

In False Scent, a leading lady dies after spraying herself with her favourite scent, into which a lethal agent has been introduced. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an autocratic matriarch expires as a result of drinking poisoned cocoa. Sad Cypress, another of Christie’s Poirot novels, begins with the trial of heiress Elinor Carlisle, for the murder of her rival, beautiful Mary Gerrard, whom she has allegedly poisoned with a fish-paste sandwich. Nasty. Very nasty. And yet one finds oneself reading on…

But – dashing detectives aside – what exactly is the appeal of the whodunnit? I suppose it comes down to one thing, really: the pleasure to be had from uncovering the layers of falsehood and half-truth with which the narrative has been overlaid, in order to arrive at the ‘real story’. Of course, readers of any work of fiction are to some extent playing this detective role, in as much as they’re searching out clues, as they read, about the meaning of the text; it’s just that in crime fiction the process is more overt. As George Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, nothing is so enthralling to the general public as a murder by a hitherto upstanding citizen, for whom ‘respectability – the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position through some scandal such as divorce – (is) one of the main reasons for committing murder.’

So perhaps it’s not just the excitement of the chase – of following up clues and unravelling a mystery – that makes detective stories so compelling. It’s their psychological complexity – the fact that they deal with the darker aspects of human nature; its hypocrisies and self-deceptions – which makes us avid to read them. Detectives, in these stories, often fulfil the role of psychiatrists, enabling those burdened with unbearable secrets to reveal them, and those guilty of terrible crimes to confess. There’s an inevitability to the narrative which somehow never seems to undermine the suspense. Even though one knows from the beginning that the murderer will be found and the crime punished, there is always the faintly subversive thought that this time it might not happen, and the forces of darkness will be allowed to triumph…

There are of course quite a few celebrated examples of murder stories in which the killer ‘gets away with it’ (Patricia Highsmith’s beguilingly nasty Mr Ripley series being amongst them), but in general, what one looks for in a good whodunit is for the agent of chaos (the murderer) to be caught, and for the social order to be restored. It’s this that draws one back, time and again, to these tales – ‘cosy’ or otherwise – of mystery and imagination. Bodies in libraries, shots ringing out, faces frozen in dreadful rictuses of terror… it’s just the kind of thing for a long winter evening, in front of the fire, or tucked up under the duvet. Who needs tiresome reality, when you can have Roderick Alleyn raising a quizzical eyebrow, as his sidekick Nigel Bathgate presents him with the latest piece of evidence? Or Jane Marple speculating about murder weapons, over the tea-table? I’m happy to say that my Kindle is currently well-stocked with several dozen pre-war thrillers, to see me through until Christmas.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Great post! I must admit, I prefer the old fashioned intellectual-puzzle stories to the gruesome thrillers. You seem to have had a wonderful crime reading binge! I like Lord Peter because, despite his "Bertie Wooster" style, he's sharp as a tack and Jane Marple plays the silly old lady(I see her as a female Columbo) to the hilt, so isn't taken seriously by the killer till it's too late.

I do suggest you take another look at The Mysterious Affair At Styles. It isn't poisoned cocoa at all, but I won't say what it is, in case someone reading this post hasn't read the book and wants to.

Celia Rees said...

Rather a good match with my post yesterday. Almost as though we had planned it!

Sue Purkiss said...

Terrific! I read a lot of detective fiction, but it's a while since I read much from the 'Golden Age' - am delighted to see from your list that there's quite a lot I haven't read yet. Thank you!

Christina Koning said...

Yes, you're right, Sue - I've obviously slipped up on the poisoned cocoa front (unless you call it a deliberate piece of misdirection)...

Mary Hoffman said...

I love Golden Age detective fiction though not so much Agatha Christie. I rate Marjorie Allingham and Dorothy Sayers very highly and above Christie. Must find some more Crispin because I loved the one I read.

Are there cozy? I know that's a technical category now. I'd definitely put Agatha Raisin in it.

Becca McCallum said...

I like Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Christie - I also quite like Georgette Heyer's mystery novels for a bit of light-hearted, golden-age crime.