The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

As always, spoilers ahead.





2. And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None.jpg


In one of the best thrillers of all time, ten people are lured to an island by the mysterious ‘U.N.Owen’. All of them have something to hide. And then they begin to die…one by one. Eventually they realise that U.N.Owen is one of the ten – and he or she intends to kill them all.

The island is a mile out to sea. Thanks to a storm, they can’t signal for help or swim back to the mainland. All they can do is wait for the inevitable…

…damn convenient storm, isn’t it?



Spot the Mistake #2

The Cuckoo’s Calling is about the death of a model, Lula Landry. A good part of the subplot concerns her life in the public eye, which the photo manages to convey brilliantly: the cameras surrounding her, above her head; the set of her shoulders; the vulnerability in depicting her in nightwear.

A slightly smaller part of the subplot concerns her attempt to find her own identity: as a young woman growing up, working in an isolated profession; as an adopted child; as someone of mixed race heritage trying to get in touch with black culture, struggling against the family who had tried to wash her identity white.

The Cuckoos Calling

Yes…about that last one…

What We Learn About Robin: A Defence

Spoilers! Please do not read on if you haven’t read Career of Evil. 

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Throughout the three Cormoran Strike books, we’ve been learning steadily more about Robin Ellacott, his golden-haired secretary. In A Cuckoo’s Calling, she is a fairly bland character. A nice girl, with a nice house, nice family, and a boring fiancée. Working as a temp, she wanders into Strike’s office and stays.

In The Silkworm, Robin grows as a character a little bit more. We see layers that we didn’t know were there, and that she had forgotten about completely. She turns out to be a naturally good investigator, an adept driver, amateur psychologist…slowly, Strike comes to give more of his work over to Robin, until she steadily becomes his partner. We find out that Robin was studying at university, with dreams of working for the police, before mysteriously dropping out. The tensions between her and her accountant fiancée, Matthew, become greater as Robin grows away from him and spends more and more time at the office. 

Matthew’s theory is that Robin is in love with Strike. The hours spent at work, the new light in her eyes…We, the reader, don’t see an affair. We see that Robin is simply in love with her job. And, by Career of Evil, she is taking on cases as well as, if not better than, her boss.

Ah, yes. Career of Evil.

Midway through the book, there is a ‘revelation’: a ‘revelation’ that seeks to explain Robin’s claustrophobic relationship with Matthew, why she left university, why such an intelligent, driven woman is working as a temp…

We find out that she was raped as a teenager.

This leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Almost certainly Rowling’s intention. Career of Evil is intentionally a darker book than its predecessors. We go beyond cartoonish violence into seeing the impact of crime on real life: fair enough that it should involve our main characters.

But with that said, sexual violence has become a cliche in detective fiction: a cheap, easy, gratuitous way to make a story dark or adult.  As we are repeatedly told by Strike’s internal narration, it makes Robin into someone whose life has been defined by those twenty minutes.

What Rowling is doing is admirable, but some of the implications are a bit unsavoury.

But, leaving all of this aside, there is an alternative explanation.

We are far from the sunlit, uncomplicated days of Poirot and Marple. To be a detective nowadays, you need some kind of backstory, some kind of motivating trauma. It’s probably quicker to name those who don’t have this, but to give a flavour:

Adam Dagliesh, Tony Hill, Thomas Lynley, Quirke, John RebusLisbeth Salander, Scott and Bailey, Vera Stanhope, Kurt Wallander….Strike himself has his father, his mother, his leg and Charlotte.

When we met Robin originally, she was an archetype: the nice girl with the nice job and boring fiancée, who discovers another, more exciting life and runs headlong into it. The nearest parallel in popular culture is probably a Dr Who companion: it’s a typical ‘gate to another world’ story, except that the world Robin discovers exists (sort of) in real life. The cliche of past trauma actually gives Robin more independence, because it takes her away from the archetype and back to one character, with one story, making one specific set of decisions.

Which mirrors, quite nicely, Robin’s transition from secretary to detective. In the first book, we know nothing about her character; she mainly makes the tea. In the second, as she goes out investigating we learn more about her life with Matthew. It is in the third, when she finally gets a full backstory, that we see her following up her own leads and detecting in her own right.

The increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory come as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does.

It’s a subtle point: perhaps a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone. But ours not to judge.



The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

Detective fiction plots are a little bit like clockwork. Sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot into Resolution, intuition into clue into deduction, multiple cogs spinning and clicking to produce one final resounding tick.

Only sometimes they get it wrong. Only a little bit wrong, but a little bit of dust in the machine that clogs up the mechanism and then it all suddenly doesn’t make any sense. One thought of ‘hmm…’ springs into the reader’s mind and the entire edifice comes crashing down.

Reading a writer such as Christie, these are pretty rare; to take a lesser writer to task for common mistakes would be a little unsporting. For this reason, these posts will deal exclusively with the good works of Christie in her heyday: the ones we remember and cherish, not the ones we prefer to forget or just think ‘eh?’ For all their inconsistencies, Elephants Can Remember or Passenger to Frankfurt will not be dealt with here; as will cases such as Peril At End House where an ‘inconsistency’ is acknowledged and dealt with in the text.* And so, Five Minute Mysteries is tackling the greatest of them all at the height of her powers to show one thing: how damn difficult writing a good detective story is.

Obviously, spoilers ahead. You have been warned.






4: After the Funeral

After the Funeral


After the Funeral is one of the lesser known but most underappreciated Christies. Written fairly late, it has the darker tone of late Christie in its setting, a Britain ravaged by the wars and idyllic dreams of teashops and old family houses lost for good, yet keeps the whip-sharp characterisation and plot of the best. It’s rare, perhaps unique, in being a country-house murder that knows that age of the country-house is long-gone.

We begin the story with our introduction to the Abernethie family, before the war self-made millionaires with a big house and children playing in the garden. Fast-forward thirty years, and all but one of the Abernethie children is dead and their grandchildren have moved on. The family gather one last time for the funeral of the head of the Abernethie family, Richard, who died peacefully in his sleep…we assume, until his sister Cora, the last of the original Abernethie children, perks up her head and speaks:

“But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’

Cora Lansquenet, nee Abernethie, was a gawky child who always spoke at the wrong moment, now grown into an overweight, ungraceful woman who always speaks at the wrong moment, so no-one at the gathering pays her too much attention until, a few days later, she is found by her companion, her head smashed and very dead. Enter Poirot.

At first, the case seems impenetrable. There would be reasons to kill Richard Abernethie, but no-one can find any evidence to prove murder. If Richard Abernethie was not murdered, then why kill Cora, a batty old lady who lived alone with a companion and spent her days buying old paintings at charity sales? The answer is one of Christie’s most ingenious.

1. Cora was killed, not for her money, but for something valuable in her possession: an unrecognised Vermeer, bought at a charity sale and left as a gift to her paid companion, Miss Gilchrist, who battered in her employer’s head in order to get enough money to found a genteel tea-shop. (It is one of the more darkly amusing Christies).

2. The Cora who made the comment at the funeral of Richard Abernethie, the comment that began the suspicion that Richard Abernthie was murdered and so threw suspicion away from the murder of Cora Lansquenet, was…not in fact Cora Lansquenet but her companion, Miss Gilchrist, dressed up.

This in itself is not too implausible (and there’s a far more egregious use of this device in Christie yet to come). None of those present at the funeral were close relatives, all close relatives being dead; Cora had changed from a skinny girl into a heavy woman, and only her easily-mimickable mannerisms were the same. Miss Gilchrist being able to pass herself off as Cora makes sense, but what she says while in disguise does not.

By suggesting that Richard Abernethie was murdered and then allowing Cora’s body to be discovered, Miss Gilchrist essentially begins a murder investigation. This is exactly the sort of thing that a sensible murderer does not want. Either they convict the wrong man, and someone, somewhere keeps looking. Or, more likely, without a plausible culprit, the case remains open and, as Miss Gilchrist admits, she remains under suspicion for the rest of her life. The big burning question is this: Why allow Cora’s murder to be discovered at all?

Option 1: Kill Cora, apologise for not being able to make the funeral by letter, wander about dressed as Cora for a few weeks, then move. Steal the painting and open a teashop somewhere far away. Characters use this device successfully in A Murder Is Announced.

Option 2: Kill Cora. Attend the funeral, and any few-and-far between family functions, in disguise as Cora. Whilst there, explain that you’re moving to, say, the North of Scotland to paint and open a teashop but will keep in touch. Move to Scotland, steal the painting, open a teashop and maintain a double identity as Miss Gilchrist and her seldom-seen employer, the eccentric Cora Lansquenet. After a while, fake Cora’s disappearance to the South of France and remain in Scotland as Miss Gilchrist, whilst attending family functions on Cora’s behalf. Characters use devices such as these – impersonation and a hidden life in a foreign country – in Parker Pyne Investigates and After the Funeral itself.

Option 3: Kill Cora. Go to the funeral and launch a murder investigation. Then allow Cora’s body to be discovered and find that, once the case is taken over by detectives, that you are under scrutiny and not allowed to leave. Result?

It’s remarked in various Poirots, most explicitly Cards on the Table, that the most successful murderer is the one that is never caught. In all Christies the murderer makes a mistake in some shape or form, but in this one we are reminded of the lament of Mrs Oliver, Christie’s crime-writing alter ego: that, when thinking up the best crimes, the criminal has to be made to do something really stupid to allow the detective to catch him.






The ‘flaw’ in Peril at End House is in fact the same as that in The Cuckoo’s Calling, except that the former acknowledges it where the latter doesn’t: when trying to cover up a murder, it is a really really stupid move to hire someone you know to be a competent detective to investigate it. It is particularly egregious in The Cuckoo’s Calling, where the murder is considered to be a suicide until the murderer himself hires a detective to investigate. The points this gains for an unexpected ending are unfortunately cancelled out by the sheer stupidity that no amount of “he’s just a really arrogant character” can ever justify.



An Appreciation of ‘An Appreciation’; or Criticising Christie


A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie

Robert Barnard

Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980

Literary criticism, in theory at least, is not concerned with criticism, but rather shedding new light on a subject. Crime writer Robert Barnard takes this idea and runs with it. He acknowledges Christie’s flaws, then sets out in the next 30, 000 words why Agatha Christie is great. Robert Barnard likes Agatha Christie, and all he wants is to tell us about it. It is all incredibly refreshing.

But, for all this, we still learn things. The art of criticism is pointing out the obvious things that the average reader might forget, and it is in this that Barnard excels. We are reminded that, in Christie’s heyday, detective fiction was as popular as Coronation Street. A reference which ages the book a bit but, oh, for those days!

We also forget, in an age where no-one but the super-rich have servants, that Agatha Christie was a member of the middle-middle class who wrote almost exclusively about other members of the middle-middle class. And yet, despite this, her stories are universal. Her characters are sketches, and always secondary to the plot, yet Barnard reminds us that this is what makes Christie work: Miss Marple is equally evocative for an Italian grandmother or a Norwegian teenager, but in different ways. Each itineration of Marple is different, whether on stage, screen or in our minds, but because of Christie’s universality we fill in the gaps ourselves and they are all, somehow, Marple.

Christie herself isn’t studied in detail, her background – her marriages, disappearance, and Little England political views – are sketched in only to aid understanding of her novels. Because Barnard treats Christie the way Christies treats character: as secondary to the plots because Christie, in Barnard’s eyes, is all about the puzzle.

This does lead to some contentious points; the copy of An Appreciation held by Five Minute Mysteries has been extensively annotated by a previous owner who liked Christie but disliked Barnard and repeatedly made their views known. Which goes to prove that, within any genre, opinions diverge. In Barnard’s case, like many ‘cold mystery’ fans, he doesn’t like Sayers and takes the opportunity to say so at length. And this is a pity. Barnard defends Christie by pointing out that the common criticisms of her – fill-in-the-blank characters, dull writing, cardboard detectives – may be true but they don’t detract from enjoyment of the novels. He then goes on to needlessly reiterate the criticisms of Sayers that we’ve all heard before – that she’s pretentious, that she over-writes, that she was probably in love with her main character – as if they are the last word on the subject. That Sayers ‘flings around quotations like ping-pong balls’ is undoubtedly true but, like Christie’s attitude to character, this is something that adds to the charm of the novels, and pitting the two doyennes of detective fiction against each other does seem needlessly cheap when, as Barnard tells us, it was Sayers who publicly defended Christie when the public cried ‘foul!’ over the end of Ackroyd.

But it is when speaking of Christie’s writing that Barnard comes to his strengths, acknowledging criticisms and turning them into eloquent compliments. He understands that Poirot, for example, is a pretty cardboard character, but turns this into a larger point about how all Christie’s detectives are observers. With no loves or family or friends themselves, they provide a far better window onto other characters than detectives who get involved do, and it is this that raised Poirot and Marple to the level of Holmes. Christie was, first and foremost, a puzzler and entertainer, and Barnard argues persuasively that writers who try to combine a good detective story with good writing are likely to fail at both:

One might cite an analogous case from another art. The opera singer who is hailed as a “great actress” would probably be tittered off the stage at a provincial rep.”

In short, criticising Christie for not being a good writer is missing the point as she isn’t trying to be. In Barnard’s words, Roger Ackroyd is not a failed Middlemarch. Much as, in Christie, a certain sidekick is not an inferior Poirot, but instead the supreme Hastings!

But Barnard doesn’t only believe that the strength of Christie’s fiction is murder-as-puzzle, he believes murder is only the puzzle. And he can take this too far. It is true that ‘Poirot and Hastings’ as a double act is an inferior version of ‘Holmes and Watson’. It is definitely true that Hastings isn’t a very good character. But what is undeniable is that first-person narration Christie has a verve to it that many of the other stories lack, and that there’s a human side to a detective with friends that we miss when it goes. But then Barnard is probably right to say that writing and character have never been the ultimate point of Christie. Does this make her better or worse?


It’s difficult to say, but one thing is certain. Fifty years down the line, we still care.


Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

The New Poirot: Stories, Names and Sophie Hannah


‘We shall not hunt together again, my friend. Our first hunt was here – and our last … They were good days, Yes, they have been good days…’ Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

The internet, or certain quiet corners of it at least, has been awash with opinions since the news that the estate of Agatha Christie has given permission for an unknown author named Sophie Hannah to write a ‘missing’ Poirot novel. Naturally, everyone has an opinion: as, of course, does Five Minute Mysteries.

There’s a scene in one of the early Poirots, possibly The Big Four, where Hastings laments that he’s unlikely to ever deduce anything as well as Poirot will (Hastings being, throughout the series, the embodiment of Ronald Knox’s maxim that the intelligence of the sidekick should always be below that of the average reader. Knox specified ‘slightly’: Christie missed that memo). Poirot’s reply is worth remembering. In typical modest fashion, he replies that Hastings will never be anything more than a sub-quality Poirot, however hard he tries – and then he adds that that doesn’t matter. In a lovely life-affirming moment, he says that everyone has their own talents, and everyone should be the best they can be. Hastings can never be Poirot, but far better to be what he is, the supreme Hastings, in a manner that Poirot never can.

This seems appropriate.

A blogger cleverer than I once outlined how writing a new Douglas Adams novel would be a bad idea. His argument is the same as Christie’s: however good a writer may be, they will never be as good at being another writer as that writer was. This happens to be true…and yet we have acres of successful adaptions of Holmes. Detective fiction is one of the genres, like children’s fiction, where the ‘brand’ is greater than the works it’s based on. We all know Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein or Winnie the Pooh, but it doesn’t follow that we’ve all read them: we may even know when popular culture is wrong, that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t wear a deerstalker and Frankenstein isn’t the monster, still without having actually read them. The Morse brand now goes beyond 13 novels, even beyond 33 episodes.  Lewis is the younger-than-Morse Geordie, not the stately 60ish Welshman in the novels, but the former is part of Morse-the-brand. Second to Holmes, the biggest brand in detective fiction is Poirot, followed closely by Marple. The Margaret Rutherford films bear almost no resemblance to the books, but they’re still recognizably part of the brand, just a different interpretation. So what’s the problem with a new Poirot book?

There are two things not right here, and only one of them is Hannah’s fault. The first is simple: the ‘brand’ of the Poirot books is not the character, while the second is a little more complicated. But let’s look at each of them in turn.

The appeal of Hitchhiker’s wasn’t the characters or the ideas, but Douglas Adam’s writing. The appeal of Agatha Christie isn’t Poirot-the-character, but what Poirot-the-brand represents: partly his world, but mostly the plots that Christie, and only Christie, could ever think up. However good Hannah’s twist is (and the word ‘twist’ is an ugly one, because it tends to imply revealing to the audience something they hadn’t yet seen. Christie revealed to the audience something they’d seen but hadn’t realised was important, and this difference is what sets her apart from every other writer of detective fiction) it won’t be as good as Christie’s. And it certainly can’t be as Christie-ish as Christie’s. And this is what makes Poirot different from Holmes, because Sherlock Holmes is a brand and Poirot isn’t. Bond and Holmes can change actor as many times as they want, and still stay recognisably the same character, provided one’s in a tux, the other in a deerstalker, one punching bad guys and the other sitting in an armchair deducing. The characters both heralded a completely new genre and it’s that that was popular. But when you think of Poirot, you think of David Suchet. And many other novelists wrote in the same style as Christie. The key point is that they weren’t as good.

“I know some people will say, ‘Once a writer’s dead, leave their characters alone.’ But so many famous dead writers are having this done – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes – it becomes a kind of weird omission if Agatha Christie doesn’t have that done for her. It almost feels it needs to be done. I think it is great that beloved characters from fiction don’t have to die.”

And there’s another aspect to this: when we think of successful continuations of writers’ work, we seldom think of direct attempts to mimic their work, which is what Hannah is trying to do. New interpretations, or even new adaptions, can be successful: by nature, they shine a new element on the story, add something new to the mythology, add another perspective that the writer at the time couldn’t. If a writer’s purpose is just to imitate the original in the same way…why?

“Hannah said she’d had a crime plot twist idea for about two years but had not been able to make it work in a contemporary thriller – but it could work, she hoped, in a Poirot-esque detective novel.”

We’re not told much about the process, or why a complete unknown was chosen to write it, as much credit as can be given to Matthew Prichard, Christie’s inheritor, for choosing a novelist on basis of plot not reputation. But if Hannah can write a good crime novel on her own, why not do that? It won’t be nearly as successful, if it’s successful or published at all, but surely this is about more than money? Why is ‘wouldn’t work in a modern setting’ a problem, when there’s enough of a market for nostalgia already, as writers such as James Anderson prove? Why? Why, why, why?

There are Sherlock Holmes books and Bond books specially for children, Sherlock Holmes books and Bond books given a female lead, Sherlock Holmes and Bond updated to modern times. These all do something new and radical with the concept: it’s why the completely bizarre and unlike-Miss-Marple Margaret Rutherford films were such a success. The same can even be said of the….creative Geraldine McEwan Marples. But the only thing that Ms. Hannah is offering us is a twist in a conventional plot. And that is unlikely to be good enough. To an extent, Barbara Reynolds managed it with Dorothy L Sayers – but then Barbara Reynolds was a scholar who could mimic Sayers’ style to the extent that she could merge her continuation of The Divine Comedy in with Dorothy’s original writing. And despite this, I still haven’t read anything by Reynolds because, fundamentally, if you want to sit down with a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery you sit down with one by Lady Dorothy.

In the grand scheme of things, the one good thing is that a detective novel based on plot, one that wouldn’t fit into the current market, is getting published. I’d very much like to read it. So go out and buy Ms Hannah’s offering by all means, but not because it’s got a likeness of David Suchet on the cover.

Besides, if you want to sit down and read a Poirot novel, it’s not as if there aren’t enough of them already.

Why Russell James is Mistaken: Defending the Golden Age

Russell James wrote the best guide to detective fiction imaginable in The A-Z of British Fictional Detectives. Most other guidebooks simply aim to give you a general overview of the genre, often from a quasi-analytical perspective: authors and novels are split by date, by type, by top-ten lists and you leave with an overview of the whole that never shows you the details. James, on the other hand, takes the simple road. He offers an introduction to every [most] British fictional detective ever put to paper, even if he does have to dance around with nationalities a bit to include the works of John Dickson Carr. He offers brief descriptions, tells people what’s worth reading and what’s not: but what this gives to the reader is their own sense of what exactly detective fiction means, and how it got to be what it is. James’s work is an encyclopaedia, where all the other works of literary theory are just published blog entries.

But then nobody’s ever perfect. There are a few factual errors that only a truly sad and pathetic case would spot – drop a line to Five Minute Mysteries for a list – and surrounding the A-Z part of the book are a series of essays introducing the reader to each stage on the way to modern crime fiction: from 40s pulp fiction to modern thrillers. And it’s his essay on the Golden Age that is one of the most fundamentally wrong things ever put to paper. And, hopefully, by explaining why the Golden Age wasn’t bad we’re in with a chance of explaining exactly why it was good.

James’s thesis is essentially that the Golden Age was a blind alley, a misstep on the way towards modern crime fiction. Modern crime fiction challenges the reader, whereas the Golden Age was just nostalgia for the days when butlers buttled, people had smoked herrings for breakfast everyday, and they hadn’t invented sex yet. Reading it is therefore just escapism: and a particularly nasty kind of escapism because the Golden Age is set in a world where the many worked for the benefit of the few and all were expected to know their place. Quoted in P D James’s Talking About Detective Fiction – she agrees – is the Irish novelist William Trevor. Despite not being a detective novelist, his opinion on Golden Age fiction is worth setting down in full because it’s essentially the same argument:

‘These novels are, of course, paradoxical. They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy with the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us…Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world. ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three?’ And is there arsenic still for tea?’

From a socio-political perspective, the Golden Age is an abhorrent idea; an objectionable fairytale: where class struggles, inequality, misogyny etc. were swept under the rug in favour of afternoon cocktails and the odd genteel murder. But this is a moronic way to judge detective fiction because the setting of the Golden Age is secondary, always always secondary, to the story and the backdrop is chosen precisely because it’s so anodyne. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a murder mystery set in ancient Egypt. And the first thing you notice is that the characters and their relationships and motivations are exactly the same as they would be in a novel set in the present day.   The Golden Age is essentially apolitical, though if you had to call it anything it’d probably be small-‘c’ conservative. Not because it’s right-wing, but because it believes in morality over the mythical concept of capital-‘p’ Progress.  Because the Golden Age isn’t interested at all in politics, yet remains fundamentally egalitarian in its belief that people are the same everywhere.  For the people that argue that the Golden Age should have been more interested in politics, you wonder quite how we’d view the Golden Age now: as a piece of history, something to be studied for GCSE coursework, something to be picked apart by English literature thesis: something completely boring, not loved by anyone. Political fiction never ages well, and it’s to the Golden Age’s advantage that it has nothing to say of political relevance. But this brushes over the more important fact: that the stories are simply, obviously, thunderingly moral.

Modern crime teaches us that the world is a worse, more horrible, more evil place than we can imagine, and that the only way most people can go about their daily lives without descending into drink or drugs (like most of the detectives who investigate it) is because they don’t know about it. Modern crime novels teach us that the world is evil, and that only stupid people are happy.  Poirot and Marple and Father Brown were perfectly aware of the existence of evil in the world, they just knew that there was also good. In Christie or Chesterton murderers are redeemable: it’s only in modern crime that we find psycopaths. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the worst crime novels ever written for a variety of reasons, but the one to mention here is the good/evil divide in it: the goodies are the goodies, the baddies are the baddies and there aren’t any shades of grey in between. But in the Golden Age Father Brown walks with a murderer. Poirot warns the initially good not to let evil into their hearts or else it will come in and make its home within. Modern Crime would laugh at the idea that Evil exists as a force, but its villains are black to the core and without either redemption or any sense that they weren’t always that way. The Golden Age believes in Evil as something that exists, mainly in desperation or selfishness, and traps ordinary people – it, consequently, has a better understanding of ‘good’ than any other genre.

And, more than this, the Golden Age tells you that the world’s an exciting place.  Golden Age solutions are sometimes out-of-a-hat, but what they almost always are clever. Read a book like He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and you won’t find out anything about life in the Blitz, but will instead discover how air-operated dummies work.  P D James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, points out that the Golden Age makes use of the ‘ten thousand doors to let out life’ with victims being stabbed with icicles, licking poisoned stamps and battered to death by church bells: her tone is gently mocking. She points out that the murder methods in Sayers’s Unnatural Death and The Nine Tailors probably wouldn’t work in real life. Which is true, but nobody should read detective fiction to find out how to actually murder someone.  A method of death that’s applicable to reality is a far, far worse thing to read than one that’s outlandish precisely because the latter is supposed to be unbelievable. The Golden Age contains outlandish happenings because it truly believes that the world is a magical and interesting place where strange and outlandish things happen all the time – but in ways that reflect the real world.

Let’s take G. K. C. again, and this time look at a non-mystery story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. For those that haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of an England five minutes into the future where democracy has become irrelevant and the King is elected by lottery as all politicians are the same. A workable system; until a King is elected who wants to split London into independent nations. Reading this description, the novel doesn’t seem overtly political, or even overtly relevant to anything. Initially, it just seems like a vehicle for G. K. C. to poke fun at the notions of progressiveness and civilisation (which he is) and how the most judgemental thing of all is to assume that you know what civilisation means and someone else doesn’t (which is true). But what makes the scene sing is the novel’s one tragic hero: the man who knows that wherever there’s a red sunset on a golden field, there’s Nicaragua. And that’s what carries the story: The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about patriotism, about the loyalty to a place or thing simply because it’s yours.

“When there is a field of marigolds and the red cloak of an old woman, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a field of poppies and a yellow patch of sand, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a lemon and a red sunset, there is my country. Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats. Blood and a splash of mustard can be my heraldry. If there be yellow mud and red mud in the same ditch, it is better to me than white stars.”

Which brings us back to the magic of the world. Fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to Skulduggery Pleasant, have people finding another world that’s hidden from this one: others involve people being transported from one world to the next; science fiction and fantasy base themselves in another, more exciting, world than this. They teach us that there’s another exciting world that’s hidden from us: detective fiction teaches us that the world we’re in is the exciting one, we just have to see it.  It’s not fantasy, because the exciting thing about is just showing us more clearly something that we could see every day. In the Ball and the Cross, both the protagonists are the sort of people who today would spend all day locked in their bedrooms arguing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free: but to Chesterton they’re heroes, because they care about the world. Chesterton writes magical realism not because there’s any magic in the stories, but because he believes reality is magic. There are minor escapades involving hot-air balloons over St Paul’s or escaping from madhouses, but the driving force of the novel is that caring about things matters. Turnbull is a hero, but he’s a person you could (and probably do) meet today. You wouldn’t appreciate him but, to Chesterton, that’s your loss.

Chesterton makes you see heroes in the sort of people you’d loathe if you met them. John Dickson Carr tells us that snakes can’t move on a glass floor. Christie tells you that all people are the same; and that this is a good thing. And you may not find out how to kill someone from The Nine Tailors, but you will get an introduction to basic campanology. Golden Age fiction fundamentally believes that people are interesting, that most people are decent, that evil isn’t something that some people are predetermined to, like a particularly horrible atheist Calvinism, but a choice. And overall, that the world is a wonderful and consistently surprising place. A far better message than that the world is an evil place, and evil people are born that way.