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.

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Review: The Crime of Julian Wells

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The Crime of Julian Wells

Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press, 2012

Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!

After finishing this book, the reader is left with an almost overwhelming desire to hit someone. The problem is that they will, quite probably, be unsure who. Because in The Crime of Julian Wells either the narrator is supposed to be a pretentious, boring twat or the author genuinely is a pretentious boring twat. The problem is that the only way to find the answer would be to read another book by the same author: which would require a streak of sadomasochism beyond most mortals.

The narrator, Philip Anders, is one of the most boring Everymen you’re ever likely to come across.  But this doesn’t matter, as he had an exciting best friend, the eponymous Julian. At least, we’re told that they’re best friends: their relationship seems more akin to a man and a loyal puppy. Julian, supposedly a dark and troubled genius, commits suicide one day by slitting his wrists in a boat in the middle of the lake. [There are several logical flaws here. Slitting your wrists in water goes back to slitting your wrists in a hot bath, and this is because the heat, rather than the water, makes your blood flow more easily. There is very little reason to row your boat out into the middle of a pond unless you were particularly worried that someone was going to find you and rescue you. In Julian’s case, this begs two questions: 1) why bother with the boat at all if you lived a solitary life alone and 2) why then commit suicide on the one day you’re sharing a house with your sister and she sees you rowing away?] Why did he do it? Does his suicide have anything to do with the ‘crime’ he keeps mentioning to anyone that’ll listen? Does this ‘crime’ have anything to do with the lovely but mysterious Parasol Marisol the friends met in Argentina? Do we care?

The mystery itself can best be summed up like this: some characters we don’t know and don’t care about meet the narrator and explain things relating to characters we never meet (and so don’t care about). This goes on for about seventy pages, until Our Protagonists – it’s stretching the point to call them heroes, as throughout the book they don’t actually do anything – finally end speaking to a former fascist general (despite being someone who spent their life professionally torturing people, he’s quite easily the most charming and appealing character in the novel) who tells them that Murder Mysteries Begin At Home. Well. That was pointful.

The novel appears to be trying to be an intellectual piece. We can tell this because every chapter contains a reference to a far better novel that is almost, but not quite, relevant to the situation the characters find themselves in.

 ‘In literature, the unopened envelope occupies a privileged place. Most famous, perhaps, is the one Angel does not find in Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and the lack of its discovery causes a deeper tragedy to unfold.’

It’s like being repeatedly battered over the head with an English Literature textbook. This reaches its height of page 188 of the UK edition where Loretta, Julian’s sister and the narrator’s love interest, reflects that she should have seen the warning signs of her brother’s depression. Fair enough; a very natural and human response. Indeed, we quite often miss obvious things until it’s too late. It is therefore extremely unfortunate that Loretta’s reminiscences go something like this:

‘You know, he said something quite disturbing a couple of days before he went out in the boat [to commit suicide]…Just as a matter of conversation, I said ‘So, how are you doing Julian?’ I expected him to answer the way he usually did, something like ‘I’m fine, Loretta, how are you?’ But instead he quoted that line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You know, the one where he says, ‘A thousand slimy things lived on and so did I.’…. I should have known that he was in a very bad place.’

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The poor man could have been balancing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge screaming ‘I have nothing to live for, I may as well just die!’ and this bright spark still wouldn’t have noticed. Just to add to her charm, Loretta also gets the worst luck with the endless pseudo-meaningful dialogue in the book, leading to lines like:

‘I guess we all leave a trail of little pebbles scattered on the forest floor,’ she said. ‘But I always wonder where those pebbles would have led to with Julian’.

Which is perhaps the most meaningless things ever put to paper. Julian, allegedly, is a genius. His particular talent is writing books that, apparently, cross the line between philosophy, history, religion and literary fiction: he writes life stories of serial killers. He claims that ‘the pain of others should not be made thrilling’: why he bothers to write about serial killers at all is therefore slightly unclear. But in showing Julian as brilliant, we stumble across another problem. You can, in a film, show a brilliant writer. You can, in a book, show a brilliant musician or artist. But you can’t tell us, in a book, that a character is a brilliant writer because we expect to see evidence. Cook makes the fatal mistake of showing us a sample of Julian’s ‘brilliant’ writing: suspiciously, it turns out to be very similar to the style of the rest of the book.  His supposed ‘genius’, coupled with the general pretentiousness of the novel, leads to statements that are not only terribly written by also thunderingly, thunderingly obvious.

‘The guilt of whipping a great man would be terrible’

‘Or an innocent one,’ Julian said.

‘It all comes down to people in the end, Loretta. All the global policies and grand schemes. They all come down to what we do to people, whether we help them or harm them.’

The reader is left with the horrible, horrible suspicion that the novel would only be useful if you needed a lot of quotes very quickly for a very bad English Lit essay. And this pretty much sums up the problem: The Crime of Julian Wells wants to mean something. Which is seldom a problem with mystery writing, but a very great problem with modern fiction, and it’s then that you notice quite how familiar the plot is. In the hope that pointing out the narrative’s failings somehow negates them, the narrator at one point reflects  that ‘this could not be the ending….as a literary route towards dark discoveries this one was way too familiar.’ He’s damn right about the second part because, in “modern classics” like The Secret History or The Sense of An Ending, we’ve seen all this before. The  ‘tortured pretentious individual does Something Bad , which later turns out just to be pathetic and sordid, then commits suicide and the story is uncovered by his curious and mundane best-friend and hanger-on’ should by now be its own genre.

Which means that we’d be able to categorise everything within it, then burn the bloody lot of them.

Because it’s not just that The Crime of Julian Wells is bad. It’s bad because it thinks that every little thing that makes it so awful should make it great literature. Much in the same way that you don’t know if the narrator is meant to be so annoying or not, The Crime of Julian Wells could only be called a success if, reading it, Cook really did intend for the audience to be cast into a state of great depression and general ennui.

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Review: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

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He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dixon)

Heinemann, 1944

As motivational speakers are so fond of saying, we each have our own special talent. For John Dickson Carr, it was the ability to think up a series of increasingly unlikely ways people could be murdered alone in a room sealed from the inside. He’s the undisputed master of this, and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience doesn’t disappoint. The curator of a zoo is found dead in a locked room, sealed with paper from the inside: possibly murder, possibly suicide. Except that also found dead is one of his new specimens: and whatever he might have done to himself, the curator would never have hurt Patience the snake.

As a police officer in an Agatha Christie novels wisely said, most murders are dull:  domestic stabbings, shootings, poisonings, “accidents”, with a cast of two or three suspects at most. This makes detective fiction an improbable genre from the start, and howdunnits even more so. Locked room mysteries consequently have a tendency towards the slightly (very) bizarre from the get-go, and then we factor in the second greatest thing about John Dickson Carr: his genuine love of the eccentric and the arcane.  Writers such as Sayers or Innes sprinkle obscure quotations around like confetti and expect us to be impressed, but never once have they put a murder in a reptile house, with the Young Lovers investigating (a Carr staple, they begin at loggerheads despite never having met and end up a couple by the end) as the only descendants from rival warring families of magicians, the Quints and the Pallisers. Neither of these, naturally, are in any way vital to the plot.

He Wouldn’t Kill Patience wouldn’t know ‘gritty realism’ if it hit it over the head in a dark alley. Despite being set in the Blitz, the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as normal, even though there’s mention of longer-term effects. But neither of those things matter.  Because it’s killingly funny and one of those books that, while wearing its learning lightly (Crispin, take note), has a genuine intelligence and love of knowledge that shines through every page. It’s only a couple of paragraphs into the first chapter, paragraphs that centre entirely on the zoo doorkeeper’s complete loathing for humanity, that you realise that you’re reading a murder mystery written in the style of P G Wodehouse. Carr’s title as ‘Master of the Locked Room Mystery’ is well-deserved, but it causes us to forget that he can also do to other things if he chooses: character, and comedy. Sadly, his comedy is based on absurdism and so never mixes with character, while his character is based on cynicism and so never mixes with comedy. But it means, as the Young Lovers get into an argument on their first meeting and inadvertently set a poisonous snake loose in the reptile house, we get confrontations like this between Merrivale and the grumpy doorkeeper:

‘Don’t incite him sir! Don’t run from him! Stand still, I tell you! Just stand still and he’ll be all right!’

‘I ain’t got the least doubt of it,’ roared the travelling voice of the stout gentleman. ‘Given the proper amount of exercise, he ought to be absolutely O.K. The point is, what happens to me?’

Wodehouse-esque. Especially in that a) the brilliant dialogue is for the page, and this scene would be unworkable acted and b) that line is supposedly spoken as the obese Sir Henry is running for his life away from a venomous snake. Sir Henry Merrivale himself can sometimes fall prey to the disease of many Golden Age detectives: he’s a collection of eccentric characteristics, but never quite works as a character. I gave a copy to my dad as a birthday present [Five Minute Mysteries believes the adage ‘give as you wish to receive’, so its friends and relatives have grown used to being given a nice book each Christmas and birthday], and his one observation was that Merrivale’s background, in this novel at least, just doesn’t fit: a Sir who refers to women as ‘wenches’ and drops his haitches. It may well be that this is explained in other novels – I think The Judas Window mentions it – but it’s still jarring. And despite the brilliance of the opening scene, which works brilliantly by introducing the detective as a potential passer-by / antagonist, Merrivale always has the upper hand, and there’s never really a sense of peril. He’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a sense of humour. Which, in a way, fits, as Carr in essence has the humour or Crispin and the plotting of Conan Doyle, with the addition of lines like:

‘Death was flowing out of the windows, flowing away; but it left a corpse like a straw doll.’

But I say ‘as good as Conan Doyle’ advisedly. A writer such as Agatha Christie will lay out the clues in a way that the intelligent reader should be able to guess. Since no reader is ever going to be as intelligent as Agatha Christie, that rarely happens, but by the end of one of her novels you’ve suspected all the characters but you’re still surprised. Then, when you read it again, the solution seems obvious. With Conan Doyle or Carr, you’re surprised and you never see the solution coming, but that’s because it’s a conjuror’s trick, like a rabbit out of thin air. As with many Carr stories, there aren’t really any characters and the motive is spurious but then the solution itself is so utterly, brilliantly ingenious that it doesn’t matter, and it’s an entertaining read in its own right. Nowadays Carr is essentially out-of-print in mainstream bookshops, which is quite a shame. Because while he’s utterly, utterly esoteric, he’s also completely brilliant.

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Post-Script

Whilst anyone who calls J D Carr a misogynist is demonstrably an idiot, in approximately half of his books there’s a moment that makes you go ‘um…’, even though it’s almost always a sign of either villainy or simply a character taking the piss. Here, it’s in Merrivale’s romantic advice to Carey, one half of the story’s resident Young Lovers:

 “If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand”.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.