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