Why do people read detective stories?’ asked Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker as the Second World War was beginning to show signs of petering out. Wilson, a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald who counted among his correspondents Vladimir Nabokov and John Dos Passos, was arguably the pre-eminent American critic of his age. What is beyond doubt is that he was a hard man to please, resisting, for example, the charms of Joyce and Proust and Virginia Woolf.
In his New Yorker essay Wilson disclosed that he himself was not a reader of detective fiction, apart, that is, from a few stories by G.K. Chesterton, presumably ones featuring Father Brown, for which he did not ‘much care’, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, to which he gave his seal of approval because of their ‘wit and a fairytale poetry of hansom cabs, gloomy London lodgings and lonely country estates….’ It was about time, Wilson reluctantly reckoned, to see what all the fuss was about. Almost everybody he knew was reading detective fiction and talked non-stop about it, leaving him out of the conversational loop. Moreover, ‘serious public figures’, such as Woodrow Wilson and W.B. Yeats were suckers for the stuff.
Wilson was not impressed by what he found. Among the books he read were Rex Stout’s Not Quite Dead Enough, whose hero, Nero Wolfe, he compared unfavourably to the blessed Holmes, Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie, whom he swore never to read again, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which he assumed to be ‘a classic in the field’ because Alexander Woollcott said it was but which he felt was ‘not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.’
Three months later Wilson returned to the subject, in an essay whose title -- ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ -- is as famous as the novel it impugns. There is no evidence that Wilson had ever read Christie’s novel. Indeed there is little evidence that he read much detective fiction at all. What made him write again about it was the response he got to ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’, which was indignant. This time he tackled Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (‘one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field’), Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death (‘unappetizing sawdust’) and John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court, which he rather enjoyed.
‘My experience,’ reflected Wilson, ‘with this second batch of novels has, therefore, been even more disillusioning than my experience with the first, and my final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles. This conclusion is borne out by the violence of the letters I have been receiving. Detective-story readers feel guilty, they are habitually on the defensive, and their talk about “well-written” mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can produce for a drink.’
The reaction which Wilson, an alcoholic, got to his pieces would, one assumes, be little different today. Discussing detective fiction with its devotees and creators is rather like talking about religion to fundamentalists: nothing you can say will convince them that the books they read are other than wonderful, that it is beyond comprehension that such novels never feature when prizes are being handed out. Bestsellerdom, it seems, is not enough for those who write what must now be labelled ‘crime fiction’; they want critical recognition and association with writers whose sales are in inverse proportion to their reputations.
Having said all of which, the term ‘crime novel’ is relatively recent. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing dates its use from 1970, noting that it ‘marks out important areas of differentiation, particularly between a story concerned primarily with discovering the identity of a criminal and one dealing chiefly with criminal psychology and the reason for the crime, The difference is between the whodunit and the whydunit. At the heart of the detective story is a puzzle, while the core of the crime novel is a criminal’s character.’ Writers such as those lanced by Edmund Wilson fell generally into the former category. The appeal for many readers was to unmask a murderer before Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or Hammett’s Sam Spade did so. Their heyday was that of the intelligent amateur detective who, it seemed, had carte blanche to interfere wherever his fancy took him. In America, where class was less of an issue, cases were pursued by private eyes, hired by clients to investigate mysterious disappearances, cheating spouses and suspicious individuals.
This so-called ‘Golden Age’ came to an end when it became clear how preposterous it was for amateurs to be involved in the solution of crimes in the latter part of the twentieth century. The current trend, both here and in America, is for policemen to take the leading role in conducting enquiries, whether it is PD James’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Endeavour Morse. It is, of course, axiomatic that these characters have traits which distinguish them and make them more interesting than they might otherwise be. Thus Morse loves Rigoletto and real ale while Dalgliesh writes poetry. Their Scottish counterpart is William McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw who first appeared in print in 1977. Laidlaw is ‘potentially a violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding’. He also reads Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno. Glasgow is Laidlaw’s bailiwick and he moves around it like Marlowe did Los Angeles, drinking and quipping and cleaning up the detritus left by society’s dregs.
Laidlaw, it’s routinely suggested, was the prototype of Taggart but the latter is a pallid imitation of the former. John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s detective, also owes a debt to Laidlaw, though he prefers rock music to twentieth-century philosophy, which may account for the woodenness of his wit. A few years ago Rankin said that it was perhaps time Rebus retired which in turn resulted in a newspaper articles whose authors seemed to believe that he was a real person rather than a fictional character who can be resurrected as and when his creator pleases. In Standing In Another Man’s Grave, Rebus, now in semi-retirement, is reluctantly allowed by his superiors to investigate the disappearance of several young women, the key to which is the A9, up and down which Rebus yo-yos like a white van man who can bore for Britain on the subject of roads. The plot is neither taut nor tantalising and stretches in and out like elastic. Siobhan Clarke, who is still gainfully employed as a cop, is Rebus’s female foil, feeding him lines, as Ernie Wise once did Eric Morecambe, as they make their way from A to B:
‘“You ever played golf?” Clarke asked from the Saab’s passenger seat.
“You must have tried.” “What? Because I’m Scottish?”
“I bet you have, though.”
Rebus thought back. “When I was a kid,”
he conceded. “Couldn’t get the hang of it.”
“It’s an odd little country, this, isn’t it?” Clarke was staring out of the window.
“Not so much of the ‘little’.”
“Don’t get all prickly. I just mean it’s hard
to fathom sometimes. I’ve lived here most of my life and I still don’t understand the place.”
“What’s to understand?”
Quite what that dialogue is intend to convey other than slow down the ‘action’ is hard to tell. What is clear, though, is that whereas in the past freelance, amateur detectives were under no obligation to follow procedure, their 21st century counterparts are suffocated by it. Some writers, such as Denise Mina, are more nimble than others are at negotiating it and explaining it to readers who don’t have degrees in Scots law or forensic science. Mina’s Gods and Beasts is set in Glasgow which may have cast off its No Mean City straitjacket but which, for crime writers at least, remains a place where you take your life in your hands queuing for a stamp in the local post office. One of her characters is a politician, Kenny, who in is encouraged by his wife, Annie, to sue for libel after being accused by a newspaper of having an affair. Arriving home, Kenny finds Annie in the loo, with the door open and her skirt around her waist:
‘He looked down at her. She wasn’t who she used to be. And it wasn’t all new either, these were massive flaws that she had hidden from him, her sense of entitlement, her craven need for money, her burgeoning bourgeois pride.’
From the reader’s point of view it’s patent that crime fiction makes few intellectual demands. You know who thinks what about whom and no stray thought is left unuttered. Moreover, the rules of the genre ensure that no last minute surprises can be sprung. Whoever did what to whom is always well signalled and the cliches come thick and fast and without embarrassment, as in Gillian Galbraith’s The Road to Hell. This is the fifth novel featuring DS Alice Rice who has been dubbed ‘the new Rebus’, as singer-songwriters were once said to be ‘the new Dylan’. Formerly an advocate, Galbraith cannot be faulted on her fluency in legalese and she does not stint when relaying the details of a post mortem. Her well-padded plot features a kirk minister who, until he is found dead and naked in Dean Gardens had harboured hopes of becoming Moderator. ‘Someone’s granddad,’ thinks a detective constable, ‘was splayed out on the ground in front of her, face down, in the buff, subject to the scrutiny of all and with a strange, greenish, leopard-spotted slug lodged between two of his toes’. Someone’s granddad? How could she tell?
GODS AND BEASTS
ORION BOOKS, PP291, £12.99, ISBN: 9781409140689
STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE
ORION BOOKS, PP458, £18.99, 9781409144717
THE ROAD TO HELL
POLYGON, PP289, £14.99, ISBN: 9781846972256