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Vol. 14 No. 11 · 11 June 1992
Diary

On Missing the Detective Story

Nicolas Freeling

1717 words

The pensée that no woman has ever given more pleasure in bed than Agatha Christie, now mildly feline, is much too kind, we would have said in the early Sixties when trying to write crime fiction under that then-monstrous shadow, doing the splits in the process. Everyone then mouthed the inanity that ‘the plot must come first’: a sense of character in crime-writing was a Gothic gargoyle, an afterthought.

So it had been immovably since the early Twenties: of all those dreadful ‘rules’ invented for the detective story the most inescapable was that the personages should be cardboard, jiggled about to follow the Plot. The capitals are deliberate, for character was thought indecent, like taking off one’s trousers in church, and the Christie juggernaut was there to make the message felt. The heap of Crime Club volumes is now an Assyrian monument; would make a fine pyramid of skulls but who would be bothered? ‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ shouted Edmund Wilson, exasperated, but it would barely be a mutter today. For who, sleepless in the guest bedroom in even the dankest of shires, is going to pounce gleefully upon Freeman Wills Crofts? But in 1930 – name to conjure with.

Does a name survive of that then splendid regiment and do any deserve to? But there is a distinguished gentleman competent to answer this rhetorical question: historian, critic, poet, and incidentally a delicate practitioner in this art of detective fiction we had all consigned to musty attics. Julian Symons has brought scholarship to this historical phenomenon, technical skills to a preposterous idol (symbolised by the Poe statuettes, still distributed yearly by the Mystery Writers of America). He has illuminated it.*

This is no straight-faced academic joke, even when Mr Symons feigns the mannerisms of a 1930 paper gardenia like The Poisoned Chocolates Case. The Blackheath Poisonings is impeccable in the sense of a closely-plotted intrigue, but it is much more. It is written in shapely English where the other’s every page is a bundle of dead cliché. The historical research is as meticulous as the social observation. Every detail speaks to a lively, well-furnished mind; this witty romp amid gaslit Victorian trappings is a delight. What then is missing? One has to say ‘the true mystery’: life. Of those rules invented by luminaries like Ronald Knox, ‘Thou shalt not bring to life’ was the foremost. Death was a plot mechanism and Miss Christie could execute ten little niggers in a row without missing a heartbeat.

Crime novelists – and of major rank – existed, to be sure, in the Twenties. Joseph Conrad had just died and Graham Greene was a young man getting published under the apologetic label of ‘entertainment’, but one glimpse of Minty shows the quality. Character is an elusive quality, but without it crime writing wouldn’t exist, any more than any other kind would – say, Boswell’s Johnson. When, to take a well-known example, in the opening pages of The Big Sleep Marlowe reflects, ‘One could see that thinking would always be a trouble to her,’ Carmen has come instantly to life. When Mildred Haviland appears in her assumed character of ‘Mrs Fallbrook’ she comes to life, disturbingly and frighteningly so. When Mrs Murdock, belching lightly, says, ‘I drink this port as medicine,’ we see her as a very probable murderer, with sinister undertones: a horrible woman – but undeniably of strong character.

Why choose Chandler, to illustrate this truth? Because Chandler was taught, at Dulwich College, how to write straightforward English prose. He was taught how to read, and read he did. Taught how to think, and think he did. In his most neurotic and drunken moments, in his never-never land of California, he did not lose sight of his essential, basic grounding as a craftsman. These qualities Mr Symons most abundantly has. But drunk, asleep, or lusting after blondes, Ray could call spirits from the vasty deep, and they’d come: Symons can’t, and they don’t. And there’s the rub, even if he can clothe every page of his writing in easy mystery, expressed without that toilsome polishing which Ray (nourishing his wastepaper basket with painful labour) felt himself condemned to. The main adverse criticism of Chandler is that his work smells strongly of the lamp. But he is a major novelist in the sense that a crime writer in the Forties needed immense talent to escape the baneful, sterilising shadow of Christie. From which Symons for all his gifts does not escape.

It is thus (as I believe) a failure of confidence that leads him to adopt complicated narrative devices: the as-told-to of Death’s Darkest Face (1990) is deftly done but unavoidably tedious. Here he purports to have received a manuscript from an ageing actor; himself to have put this into readable form, cutting the narcissist bits and the tendency to ramble. But why bother with such a threadbare mechanism, so topheavy and laborious? One is reminded of Conrad’s Marlow, of the clumsy convolutions of that admirable crime story spoiled. Chance, since these elaborations slacken, fatally, the tension. Geoffrey Elder is a sad drink-of-water, and Symons, quite aware of this, has taken great pains to conceal this lifeless personage behind a farrago of diaries and interviews. In vain, for the book drags more and more until we come with relief to the obligatory twist of surprise – managed as always by Symons with polish. But alas, nothing can mask the central weakness of the concept. If one must rely upon plot (the deductive method of the detective story makes it ineluctable), a writer of this experience should avoid such fiorituri. The need to manipulate lay-figures invites the temptation towards sleight of hand.

Has Symons’s new book conquered this tendency? Yes, for it is simply told. But he has assumed, deliberately, a heavy responsibility. To bring the detective story out of anchorage long silted-up, to send it out on the bumpy high seas of crime fiction – the project is audacious. One might recall that it has, sometimes, been done. A.E.W Mason, nigh-forgotten writer of the Twenties, turned the ‘Hanaud’ figure (ostensibly just another detective) into live character. And some readers can stomach Chesterton’s purple rhetoric and detect metaphysical value in the mannerist posturings of Father Brown. But it’s a rarity. As Hanaud says, ‘I deal with very great matters, the liberties and lives of people who have just that one life in that one body.’

Mrs Lassiter is a suburban housewife whose daydreams take the form of self-pity at her own arrested development. Faintheartedly she scratches about for some romance in her life, and the best she can do is the young instructor at the driving school, a lovely young boy with the mental age of ten, which is her own. A lack, anywhere in the book, of anyone capable of an adult emotion (her husband is another ten-year-old, a closet homosexual, and incompetent architect engaged in incompetent fraud, fussy about his honey at breakfast) is fatal to the Symons enterprise. Her fantasy is to get this feeble figure done away with, in order to run away with the boy, whose fantasy is wealth-and-ease in sunny California. To this end he produces yet another mental-deficient whose favourite dream role is that of ‘contract killer’, thrilled to act this for poor simple Mrs Lassiter – with the sad results for all readily imaginable. It is a meagre tale of small-town pathos, such as Simenon was accustomed to enrich with his incomparable sense of atmosphere. Could their be, behind this, some sociological parable, and expression of outrage, an invocation of the Furies? Even ‘Come kindly bombs and fall on Slough’? But the tale tricycles to a conventional conclusion: the Fraud Squad moves in on Mr Lassiter’s cronies, and the local Inspector goes unprofessionally out of his way to warn poor Judith; he’d rather fancied her at school, aged ten ... No novelist can build a house with only Lego blocks to work with.

I prefer to see Julian Symons as he more surely is – as the scholarly critic of an interesting historical phenomenon, as in Bloody Murder. The detective story was a mannerist offshoot of late 19th-century fiction, largely Gothic like the architecture, and it grew to a considerable volume, if in a thin and shallow soil, the flowers pale and anaemic. Between the wars it became so widespread and popular a nursery plant that it deserves a good historian, which Mr Symons most satisfyingly is. Crime fiction is another matter entirely: there is scarcely a major novelist anywhere uninfluenced by the universality of the theme. There is, still, in England a strange blindness to this self-evident truth. Perhaps we cherish especially the detective story as ‘all our own invention’, which it very largely is. The French version is a wilted, not to say stilted shoot, whereas the crime novel – can it be forgotten how much Graham Greene owed to François Mauriac? Few good writers have refused to nourish themselves at this source.

Dating as it does from Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the detective story became a symbol of the decline of empire, a gratification of post-imperial nostalgia. It can be seen now to have flourished most abundantly – even rankly – in conjunction with the last imperial trappings: the friendly flatfoot bobby and the chinless young man from the Foreign Office, the Brideshead Oxford College and the rural pub embowered in horse-brasses and meadowsweet, the fat, red crowned pillar-box and the cosy, stuffy steamtrain, the bells chiming for Evensong, Miss Hunter-Dunn beating the shrubbery for a lost ball. No wonder that Mr Symons should now look bleakly at his seaside town in Kent and mutter bleakly ‘Ichabod, O’Man’ like Mr Polly.

As late as 1970, my editor, Roger Machell of Hamish Hamilton (the editor of both Simenon and Chandler), used to give one lunch in his Albany flat (rat-tail silver, grilled sole, excellent claret). Slightly flown, he would lecture me about the necessity for Action in novels. ‘Like Raffles.’ One could not resist teasing him a little: ‘Roger, who’s Raffles?’ And Roger would launch forth, into his abundant memories of Sir Gerald du Maurier playing Bulldog Drummond. One wonders how Jan Morris, who so skilfully assembled the imperial nostalgias, came to miss the detective story.

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