Category Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t Go Around Tonight*

Scarey StoriesA really interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about really frightening stories. You know, the ones you can’t put down, but at the same time, scare the wits out of you. Of course, each of us is frightened by different things, so the stories that have scared you probably won’t be the stories that have scared me.

That said though, and because it’s Hallowe’en, here are a few stories that I found really chilling:
 

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

You’ll probably already know that this is the story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Usher is suffering from several complications from anxiety disorders; Madeleine is also ill and seems to fall have catalyptic seizures. Usher writes to a friend – the narrator of the story – asking for his help. The narrator arrives and right away is sobered by the grim physical and psychical atmosphere of the home. But he settles in and tries to help his friend. Little by little, the house and grounds seem to take on an eerie life of their own, and although the narrator doesn’t quite want to believe Usher’s claim that the house is sentient, some strange things begin to happen. It all ends in tragedy, and to me, what’s creepiest about this story is how things we imagine can take on lives of their own. In this case, they turn out to be all too real, but even when they aren’t, the mind can conjure up some terrible things.
 

The Trial – Franz Kafka

This is the story of Josef K., an ordinary enough junior bank manager who is accused of a crime by two unidentified agents. They won’t detail the crime, nor will they tell him who employs them. K. isn’t imprisoned, but he is told to wait for further instructions from the Committee of Affairs. K. is summoned to a hearing, but every indication is that he will not really have a chance to make his case – that he has no idea what he might have done wrong, and that the court has made a mistake. Everything about the hearing seems engineered against him. He hires an Advocate who ends up doing no good, and as the story goes on, matters spin more and more out of control. As those who’ve read this story know, the more K. tries to make sense of it all and find out the truth, the more surreal things get, and the more obvious it is that there is only one fate for him. And that’s part of what’s very chilling about this story: that lack of control. There’s also a haunting question of what is and isn’t real, as well as the question of whether our fates are decided for us.
 

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story takes place in what seems like a normal small town. Everyone’s gathering for an annual lottery, a town tradition. The way the lottery works, each family chooses a member to draw from a black wooden box – the same box that has been used for the lottery since anyone can remember. The story follows the fortunes of one particular family that’s drawn this year’s ticket. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. I can say this though: what’s chilling about the story is how normal everything seems.
 

Don’t Look Behind You – Fredric Brown

Brown involves the reader directly in this short story, and that adds considerably to its chill. It begins like this:
 

Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’
 

Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some dangerous people. The end in particular is very creepy – or was to me.
 

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

This story starts off normally enough. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train ride to visit his estranged wife Miriam. That’s when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey. The two get to talking and begin to commiserate: Haines tells Bruno about his wife and Bruno tells Haines about his father, whom he hates. Then Bruno suggests that each one should commit the other’s murder. If Bruno kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills Bruno’s father, there’s no motive to connect either murderer to either victim. Haines jokingly agrees, sure that Bruno isn’t serious. He is though, and as the story goes on, we see how Haines is drawn deeper and deeper into Bruno’s dysfunctional, mentally twisted world. And that’s what’s chilling about this story, at least to me. Oh, and I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 flim adaptation of the story. It’s a little different, but no less haunting…
 

A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell

This novel has one of the most famous first sentences – and I think one of the most powerful – in the genre:
 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
 

Right from there we know that the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family is doomed. The story tells how George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. Tragically, they don’t find out much about her, but she seems to suit, and at first, all goes well. But the new housekeeper is hiding something that she is desperate not to reveal. As the story goes on, she gets more and more paranoid, and the Coverdale family gets closer and closer to danger, although they are eerily unaware of it. When one of the family members accidentally finds out the truth, this seals their fate. One of the truly frightening things about this story is how easily everything goes horribly wrong. The Coverdales aren’t stupid, but you could say they’re comfortably unaware of the danger that awaits them. They’re not too different really from a lot of everyday people, and that’s creepy too.

So there you have it – a few stories that I found really frightening. What about you? Do you dare to share?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Hey, folks, have a look at Moira’s list. And while you’re on the hunt for terrifying tales, you’ll also want to visit Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews every Tuesday for Tuesday Terror!! Lots of frightfully good suggestions! You may not want to be alone when you do, though….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

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Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Follow Me Now to the Vault Down Below*

Today would have been Bram Stoker’s 165th birthday. Interesting enough factoid, but why bring it up on this crime-fictional blog? After all his most famous novel Dracula isn’t, strictly speaking, crime fiction. And no, I’m not going to mention novels with vampires in them. Promise. The fact is, Dracula is a very well-known example of the Gothic tradition in literature, and it’s interesting to see how elements of that tradition have found their way into crime fiction. People disagree about what counts as the Gothic tradition, but a quick look at crime fiction will show I think that it’s a definite presence in the genre.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, is the story of the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead one day in the park of the family manor. Family friend Mr. Mortimer believes that Baskerville fell victim to an old family curse: a demon in the shape of a hound. The curse is said to have been brought on the family by an ancestor Sir Hugo Baskerville, who sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Mr. Mortimer is afraid that the curse will claim another victim when Sir Henry Baskerville comes from Canada to claim his title. Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the curse and the family history, and he agrees. At Holmes’ request, Dr. Watson travels to Baskerville Hall to do the ‘legwork’ on the case, and later, Holmes himself goes there. In the end, Holmes discovers that Sir Charles’ death had nothing to do with a family curse. In this novel, we have the family history, the dark atmosphere and so on that we see in a lot of Gothic novels. And the family home Baskerville Hall is, in my opinion anyway, a Gothic setting:

 

‘The avenue opened into a broad expanse of turf and the house lay before us. In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare and there where a window or a coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil.’

 

While Conan Doyle’s work isn’t always thought of as Gothic, there are certainly some elements of that tradition in this novel and in some of his other stories too.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook also has elements of the Gothic in it. That’s the story of Tad Rampole, an American who’s just finished his university studies. On the advice of his mentor, he travels to England to meet famous lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, who welcomes him warmly. When Rampole arrives, Fell tells him the story of the Starberth family. Beginning many years earlier, two generations of Starberth men were governors of Chatterham Prison until it fell into disuse. It’s now a crumbling ruin, and of course the Starberths haven’t worked at the prison for a very long time. But they are still associated with it through a ritual that each Starberth heir goes through on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Each heir must spend that night in the Governor’s Room at the old prison, open the safe in that room, and follow the instructions he finds there. A few Starberths have died mysteriously, and there is talk that the family is cursed. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth and Rampole takes a special interest in this ritual because he’s fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy. When Martin dies tragically during his night at the old prison, Rampole works with Fell to find out how and why he died. There’s no real curse involved in this novel, but there are elements of the Gothic novel here. There’s the crumbling building, the hint of romance, the family history and the dark atmosphere.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t really thought of as crime fiction, but if you think about it, it has so many elements of mystery fiction that I think it ‘counts.’ And it’s definitely got elements of the Gothic novel in it.  Maxim de Winter marries for the second time and brings his new bride to his home at Manderley, where both are hoping to be happy. It’s not long though before the new Mrs. de Winter is made to feel very unwelcome. Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers was fanatically devoted to de Winter’s first wife Rebecca, now deceased, and does everything in her power to undermine the new lady of the house. Even Manderley itself seems haunted by the ghost of Rebecca. De Winter’s second wife, whose name we aren’t told in the novel, begins to wonder if she’s imagining things or if she really is unwelcome in the house. Although she begins to doubt herself and her husband’s love for her, we find that there was more to Rebecca’s life and death than it seems. Manderley has the brooding, dark presence that we see in many Gothic novels. There are also the elements of family history, troubled romance and horror, too.

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence has several elements of the Gothic novel about it too. In that novel, we meet the Argyle family. Two years before the events in the novel, matriarch Rachel Argyle was murdered. Her adopted son Jacko was arrested for and convicted of the crime and has since died in prison. At first, the family thinks the matter is settled. But then they get a visit from Dr. Arthur Calgary, who’s recently recovered from a bout with amnesia. He alone can prove that Jacko Argyle was innocent, and when he arrives at the family home Sunny Point (an ironic name, really) he plans to do just that. But as it turns out, no-one in the family wants him to re-open the case. Only Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law Philip Durrant seems to have any interest in pursuing the matter, so he and Calgary work together to find out who really killed Rachel Argyle. This novel has the atmosphere and the setting we often associate with Gothic novels. There’s the family history element too, and a touch of the question of one’s own motives and sanity that we sometimes find in Gothic novels. There’s a hint of romance too.

You might not think of ‘hardboiled’ PI novels as having Gothic novel elements, but they can. One example that comes to my mind is Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of the Laguna Perdida boarding school. Sponti is concerned because one of the school’s pupils Tom Hillman has run away. Tom’s parents Ralph and Elaine are wealthy and influential and are going to make Sponti’s life miserable and possibly ruin his school if their son’s not found. Archer is just about to leave to begin his investigation when Ralph Hillman bursts in, claiming that Tom’s been kidnapped and that his abductors have contacted the Hillmans. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with them – or try to – to find out where Tom is and return him safely. The truth isn’t as simple as a kidnapping for money, though. For one thing, the Hillmans are not as co-operative as you’d expect frantic parents to be. For another, hints come up that suggest that Tom may have joined the kidnappers of his own free will. Then one of the people Tom’s with is killed. Then there’s another death. Now Archer is looking into not just the disappearance of a teenager, but two murders. The element of family history figures strongly in this novel. So does the element of brooding and atmosphere that’s been associated with Gothic novels. The Hillman house is not the crumbling castle or mansion of traditional Gothic novels, but it’s no less forbidding for that.

In her own name and under the name of Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has written a number of novels that have strong Gothic elements. One that stands out (at least to me) is A Dark Adapted Eye, Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine. Investigative journalist Daniel Stewart wants to do a story on the long-ago execution of Vera Longley Hilliard for murder. He wants to know about the history of the Longley family and what led to the murder for which Vera Hilliard was hanged. Stewart approaches Faith Longley Severn, Vera’s niece, and asks for her help with the family history. As the two work together, we learn of what the Longley family was like, the secrets hidden beneath the family’s oh-so-respectable exterior, and the story of Vera Longley Hilliard. This Longley family home isn’t a castle but it is full of brooding, of family secrets and of atmosphere. There’s a strong Gothic element here of psychological suspense too.

Not everyone enjoys Gothic novels but there’s no denying the effect of the Gothic tradition on crime fiction, from the days of Edgar Allan Poe to now. What do you think? Where do you see Gothic elements in today’s crime fiction? If you’re a writer do you include those elements in your stories?

 

See? Told ya. No vampires ;-)

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. Yes, it’s a tribute to Poe’s short story.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, John Dickson Carr, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell

Pioneers That Time Will Not Allow Us to Forget*

It’s always a pleasure to discover new crime fiction authors and novels. Catching up with the latest release by a favourite author can be a real treat, too. So can finding out what other crime fiction fans think of what they’ve been reading. But the crime fiction we read now owes much to some pioneering authors who’ve taken the genre in new directions over the years and added to it. So it’s also good to pay tribute to those authors, too. Without their innovations and willingness to “boldly go,” crime fiction wouldn’t be the rich and varied genre that it is. Here are my suggestions for just a few of the crime fiction pioneers who’ve helped shape the genre.

When many people think of the first fictional detective, they think of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, and with good reason, too. Poe is widely regarded as the father of the modern detective story. In stories such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter, we are introduced to the concept of a story in which there is a mystery, someone solves the mystery, and that someone catches the culprit. More than that, these stories introduce the concept of the detective – someone who uses what Poe called ratiocination, or reasoning and logic – to solve a mystery.  There’ve been myriad detectives since Dupin, but they all owe quite a lot to him. It’s not too far of a stretch to say that there really wouldn’t be a crime fiction genre as we know it without Poe.

And then there was Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself paid tribute to Poe and to Dupin). In creating Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle added a critical piece to the detective story. Holmes didn’t just use reasoning to solve cases (although he certainly did use logic and deduction). Holmes also used scientific principles, observation and laboratory work. His deductions were grounded in science and concrete evidence. This innovation made the fictional detective more realistic. You could also argue that it laid the groundwork for later police procedurals and forensics-based crime fiction, which often have physical evidence as essential elements in the solution of the mystery. Conan Doyle also popularised the genre. In fact, Holmes became so well-loved that fans of his adventures refused to accept his death in The Adventure of the Final Problem. Conan Doyle eventually bowed to the pressure and brought his sleuth back.

Agatha Christie brought so much innovation to the genre that she still remains one of the best-known and most admired of all mystery authors. She pioneered a number of elements – so many that there’s an Agatha Christie example for just about every blog topic I post. Here are a few things that occur to me. She turned the plot twist and the unexpected dénouement into a fine art. All one needs to do is read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express to get a sense of her groundbreaking work with mystery novel plot elements. Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has posted a terrific review of Five Little Pigs, which was arguably one of the first “cold case” crime fiction novels. There are several Christie novels (no spoilers here!) in which the “someone with a secret identity” plot element plays an important role. And the list goes on….

Another crime fiction pioneer was Dashiell Hammett, whose Red Harvest is sometimes thought to be the first “hard boiled” detective story (although many people credit Carroll John Daly with the first “hard boiled” story). Hammett’s novels opened up the genre to include gritty themes and settings and “down and out” characters. This innovation took the genre to the streets, so to speak. “Hard boiled” detective fiction included unflinching looks at sex and violence and a toughness about the characters that hadn’t been present before. With the advent of the “hard boiled” novel, we also saw the beginnings of noir crime fiction in work by Jim Thompson and other early noir authors.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö didn’t write the first police procedural; that distinction is usually given to Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim. But Sjöwall and Wahlöö refined the police procedural and added innovative dimensions to it with their Martin Beck series. For example, this series integrates the “ensemble cast” approach to police procedurals. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also reconceptualised the police procedural series to include major characters’ development over time and to integrate stories-across-stories. Their series was limited to ten novels, but later authors who’ve written many more than ten novels owe much to this concept of a focus on characters’ home lives and personal development as well as the mysteries at hand in each novel. You could also argue that the reflective police detective that we’ve seen in so many excellent police procedural series in recent decades was a Sjöwall and Wahlöö innovation. Finally, there’s the weaving in of social commentary that we see in the Martin Beck series.  Sjöwall and Wahlöö had strong political views and used their series as a vehicle for social criticism. They didn’t write the first police procedural. They didn’t create the first fictional team to work together. They didn’t write the first novel that made social criticism. But they did pioneer the way all of these elements come together in the modern police procedural.

The modern cosy mystery owes a great deal to the pioneering work of Lilian Jackson Braun. Her Cat Who… series, which debuted in 1966, contains many of the elements that characterise today’s cosies. For example, the Cat Who… series features an amateur detective who never becomes a cop or a private investigator. There’s also an eccentric cast of characters and minimal use of violence, gore, explicitness and strong language. In the Cat Who… novels published after 1985, we also see the small-town setting that’s so prevalent in today’s cosies. Not all cosy series feature animal companions, but most of them have integrated many of the other elements that Braun pioneered.

And then there are Edward John Bruce and Arthur Upfield. These authors introduced the concept of the non-white sleuth. Bruce’s Sadipe Okukenu and Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte paved the way for a wide variety of modern sleuths from all sorts of different backgrounds.

There are, of course, other authors who’ve been crime fiction pioneers; I’ve only had room for a few in this one blog post. We owe much to them and if you look at modern crime fiction, you can see how much of it can be traced back to innovators such as these. Which pioneers do you see as having a profound effect on the genre? If you’re a writer, which pioneers have influenced you?

 

 

In Memoriam…

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs, a true pioneer in so many different arenas. He will be missed.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a bit from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Allan Poe, Edward John Bruce, Lawrence Treat, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall

>Call Me a Relic, Call Me What You Will*

>If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you’ve probably noticed that I mention the work of Agatha Christie quite a lot. Twice recently I’ve been asked about that and it’s got me thinking about why we read the classic mysteries, and what they still offer. Many of the classic mysteries (Christie’s work included) have come under criticism on several counts (e.g. the “isms” and stereotypes that run through them, the stilted language in some of them). And some of that criticism is justified; after all, no book is perfect. One could find something to object to in just about any novel. But here’s the thing; the older, classic mysteries also have a lot to teach us. There are (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me) a lot of good reasons to be familiar with the classics. Here are just a few that come to my mind:

They Started it All

What I mean by this is that what we now think of as de rigueur for crime fiction wasn’t always that way. The classic crime fiction writers who created the genre and later enhanced it also created, if you will, the basic structure of the crime fiction novel. For example, in C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe helped to create the detective character. Dupin’s been the inspiration for myriad detectives since then, and reading stories like The Purloined Letter helps us understand those later detectives.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories added another important feature to the detective story: the detective’s methods. In fact, it’s said that Conan Doyle created Holmes in part because he didn’t like the then-current fictional detectives’ habit of solving mysteries by what he saw as pure chance. He wanted a detective who used method and who arrived at conclusions logically.

The mystery plot elements (the crime, the suspects, the investigator, the solution) were also created by the classic crime fiction authors. For instance, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, we see the beginnings of the modern whodunit. There is crime, there’s an Inspector who investigates, there’s a collection of suspects and there’s the set of clues that leads to the solution.

My point here is that in order to understand how the modern crime fiction novel is put together, it helps to understand where those elements came from in the first place.

Their Focus Was On The Story

The classic crime fiction novelists were constrained by the taboos of their day. So you won’t find a lot of gore, explicit sex or rampaging serial killers in those novels. You may like that, anyway, if you’re not much of a one for graphic details. But even if you have a high tolerance for the “Ick” factor, there’s an interesting benefit (at least I see it that way) to reading books without it. The classic authors couldn’t “hide” a weak plot behind a bloodbath. So their focus tended to be on the plot, and that made for some fascinating and well-crafted mystery stories.

For instance, John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dickson) became best known for his “impossible” mysteries. In novels such as The Hollow Man (AKA The Three Coffins), he challenged readers and created fascinating mysteries. Agatha Christie also focused much of her work on plot. She developed all sorts of plot twists and was a genius at leading readers down “the garden path.” Her use of clues and “red herrings” and fascinating dénouements show a really careful attention to matters of plot. And Ellery Queen’s “intellectual puzzle” mysteries have kept readers guessing for over eighty years.

A tight, well-structured plot and intriguing mystery are still important in a good crime fiction novel; crime fiction fans want a plot that keeps them engaged. The classic crime fiction authors with real talent tended to be good at crafting engaging plots in part (at least I think) because they couldn’t rely on gratuitous “extras” to “pad” their stories.


They Created Memorable Characters

Of course, not all of the crime fiction classics feature unforgettable and well-developed characters. But there is a reason for which famous characters like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are still referred to today. They are unique characters with interesting quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, over the course of the novels that feature them, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane evolved and developed over time. They’re still beloved because Sayers focused on her characters (OK, I admit it: I am very fond of Mervyn Bunter, too :-)). And Ngaio Marsh was particularly gifted at creating interesting, unusual characters including one of my personal favourites, sculptor Agatha Troy.

There’s an argument that one reason for these memorable characters is that again, stories couldn’t include a lot of gore or other explicitness. So authors of the day focused their work on character as well as plot.


They Gave Us a Window On Their Worlds

Like any other novels, classic crime fiction novels are a product of their times. As we read them, we can get a real sense of the culture, the technology, the social structures and even the language of the era during which the novels were written. Some writers are even said to have “held up a mirror” to the societies in which they lived. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side) discusses several of the social changes that came to the English village after World War II, including council housing, supermarkets and changes in social customs.

Even when these authors weren’t deliberately using their stories as social critique, they were sharing the world they knew. For today’s readers, that’s a golden opportunity to learn about other places and times.

Classic crime novels are far from perfect. They are at times laden with “isms,” some clunky prose and sometimes they seem quite outdated. But do I love ‘em and read ‘em – and learn from ‘em? You bet I do. What about you? Do you enjoy classic crime fiction or do you find it too dated in language and ideas? If you’re a writer, do you use classic crime novels to guide you?


On Another Note…..

My sincere thanks to Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn for being kind enough to interview me. It was an honour and a pleasure. To view the interview, just click the “Writing” tab on my blog.

Also, thanks so much to Rayna Iyer for a kind book review. That really meant a lot to me, Rayna… That review’s also available by clicking the “Writing” tab on my blog.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from “The Dean of Detroit” Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carter Dickson, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Wilkie Collins