Sunday, April 1, 2012


An entire approach to writing was, for quite a long while, labeled with a compound word that was ungrammatical, condescending, and ultimately, damaging.

The "whodunnit" was a product of what is often called the "golden age" of mysteries, the period that can be said (although probably not very accurately) to have begun in both England and America in 1920-21 with the publication of Agatha Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The book set a whole slew of parameters for much of what was to follow: country houses, a closed world which only a small number of people could enter or leave, an aristocratic victim and suspects, a classless detective, exotic murder weapons, and a welter of motives, suspicious actions, creaking stairs, and the rich, ripe smell of red herrings.

Raymond Chandler would later characterize this fictional environment as one in which the suspects "sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other while the flat-feet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs with their derby hats on."

The problem with the classical mystery was that it really was a whodunnit, and little more.  The whodunnit had at its steely little heart not love and longing, but floor plans and timetables, tos and fros, the ticking of the clock.  When all was said and done, Lady Furtheringham and the Earl of Fogwart and the racy young Mr. Peffington-Smythe exist only to help the detective penetrate the truth of, as Chandler says, "bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window."  As characters, the people in most of these books are cogs and wheels, and the mystery itself is a machine.  Human motive and individual behavior are oil and gears.  The whole thing is a bit like one of the elaborate cuckoo clocks in which a surprising panorama of simulacra parade by, doing the same things over and over.  The books are puzzles, no more and no less.

And they sold in the billions, and, yes, that's billions with a "B."  Christie's sales alone account for approximately four billion books.  So when we look back and get the impression that the golden age had the stage to itself for a long time, it's easy not to see, beneath the avalanche of secretive butlers, shady vicars, and curare darts, that Dashiell Hammett published Red Harvest in 1929, only eight years after the English publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and followed it up only a year later with The Maltese Falcon.

Red Harvest was a game changer, the modern world arriving on a bolt of lightning.  Hammett, as Chandler says, "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it."  In doing this, Hammett paved the way for Chandler himself, and with him, for a whole new kind of writing.  It looked directly at dark impulse and dark sex, at people with no money and no power, at neighborhoods that most literature of the time drove through quickly, with the windows rolled up.  This world was--unlike Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a fifth-century Greek curling-iron--real, at least in the hands of good writers.

Some people could tell the difference. There was Chandler, of course, and in 1945 the lion of the day's literary critics, Edmund Wilson, wrote a famous New Yorker piece, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" eviscerating one of Christie's most famous books and, by extension, the entire genre.

Today we live in a new golden age in which the heirs of Hammett and Chandler can explore virtually any aspect of human life, and set it anywhere in the world.  Some of the best writing of our age is being done by writers working in what's usually called "crime fiction," in which, broadly speaking, a crisis caused by crime brings character to the fore, revealing unexpected strengths, weaknesses, and moral codes and exploring the mysteries of life, death, and the often rocky interval between.  It has become one of the world's great literary forms.

Unfortunately, "crime fiction" is looked down upon as a sort of literary ghetto by the loftier critics, writers, and editors engaged in what they think of as "literary fiction."  These labels, of course, are mostly shelving devices aimed at helping bookstores and libraries decide where to put things, but there's an implied hierarchy, too.

And I blame the term "whodunnit" in large part for that hierarchy.  The idea that there's something mechanical, formulaic, and two-dimensional about crime fiction persists -- especially among those who can't be bothered to read it.  And you know what?  Too bad for them.  Think what they're missing.

Let's not tell them about it.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Tim, Thank you for explaining why I stopped enjoying reading Dame Agatha's books after I turned twelve. I still enjoy the stories as movies if they have great art direction, as many of them do, but books have to give more. As for the categories, I take my cue from the great Duke Ellington, who rejected categorization of all sorts. To paraphrase him: if it reads good, it is good!

  2. Fascinating historical look at the term and the genre. I always though whydunnit was more appropriate for the best crime fiction.

  3. "Unfortunately, 'crime fiction' is looked down upon as a sort of literary ghetto by the loftier critics, writers, and editors engaged in what they think of as 'literary fiction'" reminded me of Agnew's "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." That remark is quite similar to one in a short story to be found in The World's Best 100 Detective Stories (1929). No, I don't remember, after near 40 years, which one, but, in 1973, it seemed significant.

  4. How do you come up with this stuff? Screw Wheaties and its "Breakfast of Champions" schtick, I want what Tim Hallinan eats for breakfast!

    My favorite, on the money analysis of crime fiction (sans the noir), also came from you: "The return of order to a broken society is the basic underpinning of virtually all mysteries."

    Now that's what I call literature.

  5. Jeff's comments are exactly why I enjoy mysteries. In this chaotic world we all need to feel that there is a return to order, not a perfect return, but a return nevertheless.

  6. I agree with Annamaria that Christie is too awful to waste time reading. Unfortunately, many people don't try crime fiction because they think all of it is just like her books.

    At some point in years past, I read that most crime/mystery fiction is read by women and those who are interested in history. I fall into both categories so I can agree wholeheartedly with this theory.

    Crime fiction is generally not open-ended. For most women, the tasks that fill our days, especially if we have young children, rarely have an end. Laundry is a perfect example. Before a load of towels gets to the rinse cycle, there are already more in the pile. As a teenager, my son had two dinners. Finish clearing up after one dinner and he would already be loading up a plate for the second one. Crime fiction provides endings.

    History buffs appreciate the excavation of motives. This is the point at which those questions take center stage. The "where" is one of the pleasures of reading the authors who contribute to this blog. "To what purpose" can be phrased as "so what?" and answering that question is what keeps us reading until the last page.

  7. Literary critics ALWAYS look down on ANYTHING that's popular. Obviously, if it's enjoyed by the unwashed masses, it can't be worth lifting up into the rarified strata.

    Science fiction, which developed pretty much in parallel (time-wise) with mysteries, suffered the same treatment. If you view mysteries as the "restoration of order," then science fiction is the "transformation of order." Romances, of course, are about the creation of the one and only order that is of any importance (cheek in danger of rupture from internal pressure of tongue). Histories are about the imposing order on an inherently unordered heap. Fantasies are about escape from the current order.

    Ah, ghettos. A great place to live!

  8. When I was a kid, I loved Christie. I knew what to expect. I never cried over a character. I never laughed out loud or even smiled. Now I appreciate the depth and brilliance I read on a page. Of course, it's still wonderful escapism.

    The evolution of crime fiction is masterful and sweeping. Literary fiction has pretty much made itself so exclusive it's elusive and unbearably dull. The authors who envision themselves as writers of literary novels have no choice but to try and feel better than the rest of the world, even though the rest of the world barely know they exist.

    That must be why the ghettos are so crowded!

  9. Gee . . . I expected a few howls of outrage because I didn't make excuses for, or at least acknowledge the strong points of, the books of the Golden Age. I have to confess that I read them from time to time, in much the same way I would do a crossword, and with about the same amount of emotional engagement. Chandler, from whose THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER the quotes above are drawn, says, "The English are not the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the world's best dull writers."

    Peg, I came to mysteries through Christie, swiped from my mother's bookshelf. For years, the murder in the English country house was the reading equivalent of comfort. But now, I literally can't read them. And CONGRATULATIONS on your first novel, RED TIDE (free today on Amazon!) takes off like a rocket.

    Everett, that's both funny and striking. Shakespeare must have viewed the restoration of order as a paramount concern because it's the progression of virtually every play he ever wrote, from the frothiest to the most blood-soaked. I love the application of the idea to other genres, and the Romance joke isn't far from the truth.

    Hi, Beth -- Women do indeed comprise the majority of mystery readers (and writers) -- a return from the age of the hard-boiled that really began with Hammett, Chandler, and the pulps, to the female-dominated "golden age" - although women now are writing every possible shade of dark, all the way to pitch-black. I love the contrast between women's open-ended lives and the satisfaction provided by endings and resolutions in mysteries, although I would argue that most men's lives seem equally repetitive and open-ended. Do the job, go home, do the job -- and I'm sure many women in the workforce are sharing this frustration.

    Lover of words, I think that much of "literary fiction" strives to be taken seriously precisely by withholding resolution, as though it's somehow more consistent with daily life to weave the concepts of entropy and the ultimate heat-death of the universe into every family meal. This fries my coochies and makes me wish I was the person who had described some literary fiction thusly: "Nothing happens for 300 pages and you still feel bad."

    Jeff, you're really too nice to me. I started to write several geologic eras ago under the spell of Chandler, and took some time to read about the kind of books I was writing. Chandler is the clearest of the amateur historians, especially in flagging Hammett as the seed from which so much grew, although I think an argument can be made for the pulps, too -- the list of important writers who began with the pulps is jaw-dropping.

    Jenny, I think the journey from whodunnit to whydunnit encapsulated a lot of the journey crime fiction has taken. Whydunnit has its answer inside the characters -- presumably both murderer and victim. What causes someone to commit a drastic act, and how does it affect the lives of those in the emotional neighborhood? Big difference from the "golden age" in which characters existed primarily to be paraded as potential suspects.

    Annamaria, thanks for the comment, and you're right about genres -- they're useless except as a shelving convention.

  10. I consider Agatha Christie fun and soothing. Not too much work there. Unfortunately, most of the world does not want to think too much, and you see this in all the arts. Many of our modern crime novels deal with people as they really are, and how they got there, and how they shift and change during the course of a narrative. The popularity of junk food does not mean it's good for you, but every once in a while...I have learned to say I never read such and such, because I inevitably find myself eating my words, and on a dreary, rainy night, sometimes I want cotton candy. In truth, I immediately seek out something far more engrossing. Sometimes, there is a surprise in the Cracker Jack box that makes the light read worthwhile.
    Maybe I'm just feeling ornery and stubborn this morning. And mixing my metaphors.

  11. An Agatha challenge:

  12. I've always thought your work straddles literary fiction and crime fiction because your prose is so elegant.

    I read Murder on the Orient Express recently to reconnect with the Whodunnit and found it very mechanical by today's standards.

    Thanks for the fantastic post.

  13. Hi, Liz: (Sorry I didn't respond to your first note -- I have to figure a way to get more of the reply chain onscreen so I don't miss one (or two -- Hi, Jenny!) hopping back and forth. I agree completely that some of those who disparage crime fiction have the same mindless negativity of Agnew, and imagine being compared to Agnew.

    And I might not take the Christie Challenge, but I'll bet I AM the only writer you know who's blurbed her: I'm all over the back cover of the HarperCollins trade paperback edition of ONE TWO BUCKLE MY SHOE.

    Thank you, CJ -- I appreciate the praise, and the kind words about my prose. That's just how it comes out. And I can't actually read Christie any more, but Munyin (my wife) and I liked the ORIENT EXPRESS movie, although it was mainly because of the phenomenal cast and the direction of Sidney Lumet/

  14. OK I'll take the bait with...if not a howl of outrage at least a puff of mild rebuke.

    Firstly though I agree with your larger point - that the best crime fiction - indeed some of the best fiction - being written today is of the 'whydunnit' kind that incorporates a crime merely as a device to explore some social ill or political theme or other and it is sad (for them) that the literati look down their noses at the genre as a whole. As I'm not a writer I don't happen to care two hoots about this but I can appreciate that it must irk those of you who know you are writing good stuff that would be enjoyed by a wider audience if only they could take their blinkers off.

    But I find the crux of your argument less compelling. I'm no scholar of the genre by any stretch of the imagination but I reckon Chandler could go toe to toe with Christie for the use of cliches and implausible endings (if you take into account the entirety of both writers' canons). And while Christie's world of privileged people and their faceless servants might not seem realistic to you I'm sure it depicted a slice of someone's real life (not the least of which being her own). But Chandler's world of one-dimensional villains and almost complete lawlessness is, I think, a perspective on an equally small sliver of society. The whole world might not comprise the English upper classes but neither does it comprise the underbelly of a few large American cities.

    I can't see much evidence for your theory that what's stopping non-crime fiction readers from picking up a crime novel is the whodunnit label and/or some early negative experience with the writings of Dame Agatha. For one thing her stuff is still HUGELY popular both in written and adapted form which suggests there are many people out there willing to consider her stuff but not other crime fiction.

    I think the plethora of crap crime fiction being published today is far more likely to turn people off in their droves. I know in my book club (that generally sticks to literary fiction) the most common thing I hear when I suggest we might stray into crime territory is "I don't want to read about serial killers". If we could somehow rid the bookshop shelves of all the James Patterson bilge and Hannibal Lector wannabes we'd be off to a good start.

  15. Have to weigh in with my opinion - I think wiping out the Golden Age writers with a swipe of the broad brush is too easy, too idealistic. Decades later, the works of these early crime writers still sell. Does the wide swipe include readers of these books as well? Has the world of crime fiction now become elitist? I hope not.

  16. My opinion is very different, but I'm afraid you've got a lot of errors in this piece. The most obvious one is that Edmund Wilson did not eviscerate anything by Agatha Christie in his piece. In fact, he doesn't even mention the book in question. The piece is utterly useless nowadays because all Wilson did was insult those who disagreed with him and act like a literary snob, only missing gratuitous Italian. He tore apart Chandler, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and more, but he didn't even touch Agatha Christie's ROGER ACKROYD.

    There are a lot of other points you make that are based entirely on misconceptions, but I don't have the time to sit down and point them out. But I think you should know.

  17. The comment linking with science fiction reminds me of a quote from Theodore Sturgeon that I always liked and seems apposite here. At a SciFi convention he was approached by a belligerent character who told him:
    "Mr Sturgeon, 90% of Science Fiction is crap!"
    TS retorted immediately: "Of course it is! 90% of EVERYTHING is crap!"

  18. Delightful perspective, Tim! Thank you. yes, the hard-bitten school definitely provided a needed astringic balance, but, of course, I still love that golden world Lady Furtheringham and the Earl of Fogwart and the racy young Mr. Peffington-Smythe inhabit precisely because it is only a dream world.

  19. In my view the author is rather unfair to the Golden Age detective novel. First of all, what's wrong with enjoying puzzle-oriented mysteries? Many highly intellectual people did and still do today. T. S. Eliot was a great fan of puzzle-oriented mystery fiction. I have written about this in CADS: Crime and Detective Stories ("T. S. Eliot: Detective Fiction Critic").

    Does Edmund Wilson trump T. S. Eliot (or Jacques Barzun, another Golden Age fan of traditional detective fiction, still with us)? Wilson doesn't really "prove" traditional detective fiction is bad, does he? It seems more that he is just saying that he doesn't like it. It's not the same thing.

    Chandler himself read and enjoyed the work of R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts. Chandler disliked what he called frou-frou in detective novels, but he didn't mind puzzles and detection with no frou-frou (hotiy-toity settings and aristocratic amateur detectives).

    On this subject of Chandler and the Golden Age detective novel I would urge people to look at my own blog essays at The Passing Tramp. Here's the first one:

    I think some people blame the traditional Golden Age detective novel for allegedly holding back iterary recognition of the crime fiction genre, but I think this is unfair today. Critics who still look down on modern crime fiction probably would do do even had the traditional puzzle novel not existed. Even Chandler's books, well-written as they are, are formally structured around the solving of a problem.

    But where comes this idea that all literary critics look down on hard-boiled/noir detective fiction? Chandler, Hammett and Goodis all have volumes in the Library of America series. Academics write serious books on the all the time.

    Indeed, academics also respectfully treat Golden Age works by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, authors Wilson and Chandler hated. There are plenty of academics today who will take great umbrage if you tell them Sayers is a terrible writer.

    Even Agatha Christie--if you want to reduce the criticism all to her--is treated with respect by many academics today. Writing books like hers is a form of art, I would say. The skill that goes into that shouldn't be discounted, even if it's a different type of skill.

    I think the bias some people do have against crime fiction is that it's read for entertainment (yes, people read Steig Larsson for entertainment just as much as they do Agatha Christie, even though the subject matters are hugely different). But surely entertaining people should not be viewed as a crime against literature!

  20. One more bit of self-promotion here ;) , but it might genuinely be of interest to some people (I hope!). I have a book coming out with McFarland Press in June called "Masters of the 'Humdrum' Mystery," which is about a certain group of traditionalist Golden Age English mystery writers. The introduction and first chapter get into the idea of these books being "mere puzzles," or to quote the author of the piece above, "puzzles, no more and no less."

    In my book I show that initially intellectuals tended to really enjoy these puzzles. Indeed, detective fiction often was seen at that time as a fad of intellectuals. Over time there did come a desire for the books to be more "literary." And a lot of genre writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, responded to that.
    A lot of people today take Sayers' Gaudy Night as seriously as a literary novel as, say, Chandler's The Big Sleep (admittedly, Chandler hated Gaudy Night--don't know what Sayers thought of Chandler!).

    But even books by Christie and others of her sort have more literary interest than the blogger thinks, in my view. There's a lot of good satire in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "The Murder at the Vicarage" for example (some intelligent critics in the day actually praised her writing). And Then There Were None, about which there is a fine series on Patrick's At the Scene of the Crime blog, is a very dark book--one could call it noir I would argue! Some of her forties books, like The Hollow, actually have some moving characters and situations. Robert Barnard, an English professor (before he retired to write mysteries) has acknowledged this, among others.

    I think the author too much generalizes about Golden Age detective novels, thus doing the same thing he criticizes snobbish literary critics of doing: over-generalizing about the crime/mystery genre. There's more of interest in those old Golden Age mysteries than he may think!

  21. My turn for some blatant self-promotion: the articles "The Passing Tramp" (aka Curt Evans) mentions can be found here on my blog:

    It's a ten-parter and on the link I've given, you will find links to articles on each of the ten major characters in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. It is a masterful book that really challenges a lot of the misconceptions about Agatha Christie.

  22. Tim,

    I shall look up your blurb.

    What I find fascinating are the phrases borrowed, knowingly or not, from prior works. Hence, the need to read so called out-of-date works.

  23. I'm afraid there are a number of errors in your post. One, you are not dating the Golden Age properly. It goes back to the early 20C, and some date it to the late 19C (featuring authors such as Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart). Two, although _Red Harvest_ is indeed a major work, the birth of the hard-boiled school is commonly attributed to Carroll John Daly, 1922. Three, although GA mysteries can have locked rooms, country houses, and timetables, they encompass a far more diverse realm (e.g., Marie Belloc Lowndes's take on Jack the Ripper in "The Lodger," 1911; appearance of serial killer in Josephine Bell's _Murder in Hospital_, 1937).

    You also should read _A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie_ by the multi-award-winning Robert Barnard. IMHO, it is one of the most articulate discussions of Christie's considerable skills. In addition, _Clues_ just featured an article on Christie as Mary Westmacott.

    Elizabeth Foxwell
    Managing Editor, _Clues: A Journal of Detection_ (the only US scholarly journal on mystery and detective fiction)

  24. Wow, look what happens when you stop paying attention. I think this is a record number of responses, and certainly a record number of negative responses.

    Just a couple of general comments. First, I'm flattered that some of you have taken this so seriously, as though it had been written for a grade or as a thesis of some kind. I gladly acknowledge that it would get a rotten grade. I wrote it in about 30 minutes, working from obviously flawed memory, and the only text I had in front of me was "The Simple Art of Murder."

    Second, I didn't work very hard to conceal my bias. By and large the classical puzzle mystery bores me senseless. That's okay -- that's my opinion. I'm not attempting you to convince you to share it. What I'm saying is that the long life of the term "whodunnit," which came into usage between 1925 and 1930 primarily as a disparaging description of these books, has contributed to the trivialization and ghetto-ization of crime fiction in general. And I still believe that.

    A lot of you (Patrick, for example) are dead right that there are mistakes in the piece. Most egregious is my mischaracterization of the Wilson essay, which I probably last read in 1960 and which I couldn't find in text form on the Internet, although I tried. Patrick is also correct when he says Wilson was a roaring snob, to which I would add that he was also a bore.

    So, sorry about that, Patrick.

    To the Passing Tramp, whose erudition I can only admire, I can only say that I didn't actually say that anything is wrong with enjoying puzzle-type novels. I personally don't like them, but I know and even like lots and lots of people who do. (I even belong to a group that's named after Sayers.) And there's no denying those sales: SOMETHING is responsible for Christie's four billion copies and the enduring archetype of the country house, largely upper-crust murder mystery.

    It's just not for me, and I do think (to get back to it) that a term coined to describe it has made it easier for some snobs to denigrate an entire genre without taking the time to read it.

    Nor did I actually say that all critics scorn detective novels, either classical or modern. Some do, some don't. (And, as this piece should make clear, I'm not a critic.) But I'd love to sit and talk with you for hours sometime. I'm sure you could make me see at least some things differently.

    Liz -- my blurb focused on Poirot, whom I do genuinely believe to be a great character. I could write those words with a clear conscience: "All great characters are capable of entertaining us again and again, but only the greatest are new every time we read them. Hercule Poirot is a member of this very amall club."

  25. Sorry -- there are limits on the length of responses, and I was pushing them.

    Elizabeth, I actually did say that the dating the rise of the golden age at 1920-21 was probably not very accurate, so I wasn't trying to sound very authoritative. Nor did I actually suggest that hard-boiled detective stories began in '29 and '30 with Hammett -- for one thing, I don't think of Hammett's most salient characteristic being that he's hard-boiled. I think he wrote the first great American non-traditional, non-puzzle mystery and set the bar very high for those who would follow.

    But I'm not going to argue with you -- you're clearly many times more qualified than I. What I WILL do is to read Barnard's book on Christie and see how it hits me. I like Barnard quite a bit.

    An amazing response. Seems like there are as many people who have exposed nerve endings about Golden Age mysteries as there are those who fume every time less traditional crime fiction is slighted.

  26. Donna! Didn't mean to skip over you -- just a bit overwhelmed. But let me warn you, you've got to keep a close on on that young rascal Petherington-Smythe. I saw him in the library yesterday, rolling a very peculiar cigarette from a marbled end-paper. From an early edition of de Quincey, in fact.

  27. Tim, I admire you for getting a rip-roarer of an interesting, thoughtful conversation going here. It's something to be proud I admire you battling the flames from a distance:))

  28. You know, as long as I've been so conciliatory, I might as well piss people off again.

    First, for all the factual quibbling (and I acknowledge several errors of fact, although not all those, by a long shot, that were imputed to me), I notice that no one has actually stood up to say that Christie, or Sayers, or Marsh or Allingham, or even Edmund Crispin (whom I love) was much of a chronicler of human nature. No one has spoken of their insight into the human heart or their keen sense of the absurdity of daily life. Haven't heard much about how they illuminate the relationships between parents and children, or how they deal with mortality, other than as a plot device.

    And mortality leads me to another issue: I believe these stories trivialize murder. They turn the most vile of human acts into a sort of bad puppy who, after he's acted up, can be caged in an obscure corner of the house and ignored while we all take refuge in our timetables and bits of esoteric knowledge about Amazonian poisons. No one, in other words, needs to think about what murder MEANS.

    Third, while I acknowledge that not all these books take place in the country houses of the rich and vapid, I find a strong odor of classism in many of them, "Downton Abbey," but bloodier and duller.

    And finally, the argument about sales, even though I fundamentally agree with it, is difficult to make in the age of "Twilight," "The Hunger Games," and twelve number-one bestsellers every year from James Patterson. I give Christie all the credit in the world for being a great storyteller, and for telling her stories in a way that entertains hundreds of millions of people; but that doesn't mean that I personally have to enjoy it or to find the genre artistically satisfying.

  29. Tim, first, speaking for myself, you certainly haven't pissed me off. These are just aesthetic debates after all. Me, I'm kind of live and let live when it comes to genre literature choices. Personally I like pretty much everything--Christie, Crispin, Crofts, Symons, Simenon, Chandler, Rendell, Rankin and do on--though some of the modern violence gets a bit graphic for me.

    In the 1920s, for what it's worth, some of the puzzle advocates could be just as dogmatic as the anti-puzzle people, insisting that the puzzle type mystery was the only way to go. Today I think some people tend to go too much the other way and are too sweepingly dismissive of that form. I say let us celebrate both the detective story, classical form, and the "crime novel"! So much can be done within the mystery/crime genre, it's a rich and vital art form.

    But of course if traditional mysteries don't work for you that's perfectly valid. No one is obligated to like them. And plenty of people in fact don't!

    On your chronicler of human nature point, I would agree with you that Sayers, Marsh and Allingham tend to be lighter in tone. They went for the novel of manners or comedy of manners style of a Jane Austen say (and no I don't elevate them up to Austen's level), where you might compare Chandler and Hammett to a modernist like Hemingway, say.

    Sayers' Gaudy Night is not my favorite personally, but its passionate supporters (P. D. James, for example) would point out that it does explore issues of feminism and women's education in a serious way. And a lot of people really admire her organic portrait of an English village in The Nine Tailors.

    Marsh''s Surfeit of Lampreys (great title!) is a charming satire of an impecunious aristocratic family that does, I think, have something to say about human nature. There are plenty of admirers of Allingham's portrayal of evil in The Tiger in the Smoke. I'm a great fan of her portrait of a decaying intellectual family in More Work for the Undertaker.

    Crispin I agree is light satirist, but he's a terrific writer. I did a five part series about him on the blog that I hope you read.

    I certainly agree with you that Chandler and Hammett explored different areas (those mean streets) from the Crime Queens and that was something that needed to be done. I love Chandler especially, he's an amazing stylist.

    One last thing: I personally find that of the Crime Queens it's Christie on the whole who takes the idea of murder and of evil most seriously in some of her books (granted a number of them are "mere puzzles"). I certainly don't find her a great stylist, but I think some of her books, like And Then There Were None or Endless Night or some of the forties titles, actually go to pretty dark places. Genteel, perhaps, but still dark.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to respond. I may do something about it on my own blog. It's a fascinating perennial subject!

  30. Thanks, Tramp -- I appreciate it and agree with you that there are good books and bad books in all genres and that all of us can probably be forgiven for preferring some genres to others,

    Glad you like Crispin, too. He's very loosely fictionalized, by the way, in Anthony Powell's A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME, a character based in part (it's alleged) on Crispin's secret identity, composer Bruce Montgomery. DANCE is one of my favorite works of the last century, so I'm not entirely opposed to country houses.

    I'd really enjoy a chance to talk with you -- are you by any chance going to Bouchercon?

    OH, AND BERNADETTE AND H.L. -- Once again, I had no intention of cutting you dead like that. I was just overwhelmed by the number of posts. I agree with both of you that I oversimplified my objections to Golden Age books, which was partly a function of lack of space and also of my desire to make a case. I do think, Bernadette, that comparing today's books to those of 90 years ago in terms of quality is problematic because time, in its infinite wisdom has sifted out the dreck of the 1920s and 30s, whereas today's books present themselves as an undifferentiated cloud of work, much of which is dreadful, just as much of the work from any period is dreadful. And I share your distaste for the serial-killer genre, even though I wrote one myself. But I avoided the temptation to psychoanalyze him -- which we've all read too many times -- and instead dealt with him from an attempted victim's perspective, as a sort of blunt-force object that suddenly forced its way into her life.

    H.L., you got me with the elitist remark, since elitism is what ticked me off enough to write the post in the first place. If I came across elitist, I'm sorry, but there just wasn't the space to sort out and assign values to a bunch of individual books.

  31. Tim, if you take the time to read the "Ten Little Indians" articles, you will see that one of my main arguments is that Christie is far better at creating characters and chronicling human nature than she is given credit!

    "I believe these stories trivialize murder. They turn the most vile of human acts into a sort of bad puppy who, after he's acted up, can be caged in an obscure corner of the house and ignored while we all take refuge in our timetables and bits of esoteric knowledge about Amazonian poisons. No one, in other words, needs to think about what murder MEANS."

    While you are entitled to your opinion, I do challenge practically all of it as inaccurate. I would call this bit I've quoted pure moonshine, but I detect a lot of bunkum and some hooey as well.

    While there are undoubtedly several novels that do just what you claim, you cannot simply make such a sweeping statement about the genre and its writers. I have addressed this question several times on my blog, most notably in a piece I called "A Rant Against the Word 'Cozy'". Agatha Christie has genuine tragedy in books like FIVE LITTLE PIGS or THE HOLLOW-- these characters are often confronted with the brutal fact of murder and they must learn to deal with it. Passionate emotions like love often lead to murder, and it isn't treated as some sort of game, with more tea, please, Vicar.

    I'm no fan of timetables and whenever one turns up I'm apt to skip over it. But that is a "cliche" that was present in a remarkably small proportion of books! The GAD age is often classified as one of time tables, maps of the premises, and so forth but it isn't present as often as critics would have you believe!

    And that being said, is it absolutely necessary to moralize on how wrong murder is? It's obvious that murder is wrong-- why rub it in the reader's face? You can do no good by complaining about how society is to blame, etc. and it certainly won't bring the victim back to life. So our attention turns to finding out whodunnit, and I find that it is on the whole a far better preoccupation than moralizing about how wicked the world is, how dull we all are, and when will it ever change (in 500 pages or more). But that, too, is a generalisation-- read Gladys Mitchell's THE RISING OF THE MOON-- it is far less a mystery than a coming-of-age story in which two young boys see a "ripper" murderer right before he claims his first victim. They then become involved in the investigation and through this, they learn a few things about life-- how deceptive our friends may be, etc. It's a very touching book with some of the best child characters ever written in *any* book.

  32. See, it's ironic, because your arguments are some of those that GAD authors themselves proposed to move away from the pure puzzle plot and become more literarily respectable. They broke "rules" every other week and experimented with the form in a plethora of ways that you seem to have completely ignored for the sake of basing your arguments on a fictitious straw man that never really existed.

    But even if GAD was nothing but puzzles, what of it? Some of the most ingenious stories of all-time were written then-- R. Austin Freeman came up with a brilliant way to identify two seperate samples of blood in the same group in a pre-DNA age. And I have far more respect for that achievement than for an author who wastes 500 pages of my life and can't even write a mystery into it.

    But before you write me off as some nutjob who spends his idle hours in a Fairyland with Lord Ragamuffin and amateur detective The Honourable Reginald Percival Lancelot Q. Hornblower, PHD, MCD, XYZ, etc. I'd like to say that my tastes are rather omnivorous. I love the Parker novels written by "Richard Stark", for instance. I have nothing but admiration for Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald. I adore the historical fiction of Paul Doherty and find Peter Lovesey one of the best talents in the field today. I can enjoy a pure puzzle plot as much as I can enjoy a hardboiled/noir novel, as long as it does what it sets out to do well. (The only author I hold nothing but contempt for is Mickey Spillane.) But no matter what your personal preferences are, the argument you have advanced is simply an incorrect one based largely on misconceptions. Perhaps you should read up a bit more on the GAD period before writing it off in as general a way as you have.

    On another note, I have written an article in which I respond to Edmund Wilson's essay and conclude that the author was simply being a troll. I hope it's published soon (I've written it for Mysterical-E) and perhaps you will find something of interest there.

  33. And by "incorrect" I do not mean that you are not entitled to your opinion-- I simply mean that it's based on so many fallacies that it doesn't hold together. I don't begrudge anyone their reading choices. Hopefully we all take something out of this controversy-- personally, my (rather long!) response is fuelled by nothing but enthusiasm.

  34. The New York Times periodically departs from the "important" and the ponderous to review "Crime Fiction." They even gave a full review to Stephen King's 11/22/63. And the earth continues to turn on its axis. Huh.

  35. Tim, I think the original post was your clever way of pulling the lurkers out into the daylight.

    Congratulations. Your plan worked. Now the newly identified fans should post all the time.

  36. Patrick -- not as many fallacies as generalizations and differences of opinion (beyond the howler about Edmund Wilson), but I'm through arguing. What I think is wonderful is that we can all get so wound up about books. There's hope for the world.

    Anon -- yes, but they do isolate them in their own little rectangles so as to contain the virus of readability.

    Beth, you've just won an ARC of THE FEAR ARTIST. Whoops, I've already awarded you one -- am waiting for the box to arrive from the pubs. I feel like the guy on the dunking chair, but isn't it great how many people showed up to lob hardballs at me?

  37. Tim, yes, I will be at the Bouchercon, hope to see you there!

  38. I'll be looking for you since I now have your name.

  39. Ah! Glad you got my name. I won't be in tramp regalia in the Bouchercon in all likelihood, I understand it's at a swanky place! Look forward to meeting you. Stay tuned on the blog too, I'll do something noirish in a few weeks!

  40. FWIW I thought the book about the murder of Roger Ackroyd was the only one where Christie created a real, true-to-life character.

  41. Wrong again, Tim, on the point about human nature. See Allingham, _The Tiger in the Smoke_ (1952), considered one of her greatest works. I can't say it better than the Margery Allingham Society: "it conveys an understanding of goodness and evil ... 'The Tiger' is the murderer known as Jack Havoc, out of jail and on the rampage. But what has he to do with Albert Campion's saintly uncle, Canon Avril? ... The tension is almost painful - but The Tiger in the Smoke is more than an outstanding thriller. In her intense depiction of character, place and event, Margery Allingham has created a major novel."