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Introduction to a course on GAD by Jon Jermey

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 6 months ago

Introduction to a course on GAD

 

The detective story is easier to recognise than describe. A fan can leaf through half - a - dozen pages of an unfamiliar book and know immediately whether it falls into the genre; but to come up with a set of rules that will identify all detective stories and exclude others is much harder. Librarians and bookshop owners, for instance, often lump detective stories in with true crime stories and thrillers, when the genres are totally different in style; and the use of the term ‘mystery’ is not particularly helpful, coming as it does with connotations of the weird and occult. Detective stories are not about mysteries; they are about solutions.

 

One way to define the classic detective story is by looking at what it is not.

 

  • It is not a thriller. The protagonist is not in grave personal danger and nothing of international consequence is at risk.

 

  • It is not about a crime. Often the crime has already been committed when the story begins; if not, it usually takes place off - stage and is recounted only briefly at the end of the book.

 

  • It is not about a criminal. The criminal is only one of a group of suspects who are all treated equally till the end of the investigation.

 

  • It is not about the detective as a character. The author uses the detective’s statements and actions to recount the solution of the case, not to describe a rounded personality with virtues and flaws. Talented writers can often do both, but some of the best detectives are colourless and virtually anonymous.

 

  • It is not about violence. Long and detailed descriptions of precisely how humans (or animals) are attacked, injured, killed and mutilated are entirely out of place.

 

  • It is not about death. Reaction to death in a detective story is usually muted; most grieving takes place off - stage, and the motive for investigation is always justice, rather than revenge.

 

  • It is not about romance. Romances may arise or be thwarted within the book, but their outcome is secondary to the successful investigation of the crime.

 

  • It is not about ‘hunches’, intuitions, clairvoyance, or telepathy; the investigation is carried out by going places, talking to people and reading documents. The detective may have special sources, but the steps in the investigation are ones that could be taken by any normal person in the same position.

 

In short, the classic detective story is about investigation – finding things out, discovering the truth and repudiating lies. It is about looking for clues, verifying statements, tracing hidden connections and uncovering histories. It is about uncovering the secrets that ordinary people have buried in their pasts, their genes, their wardrobes and bookshelves. It reveals that every family, every group of people, have a ‘secret history’ of things they would rather keep to themselves. And this is enormously disruptive – often much more so than the murder itself. We see characters reacting as their own and others’ secrets emerge, as the assumptions on which they may have based their lives are challenged. And all the while the detective is gathering together the ‘real story’ – the actual facts that account for what happened before the crime, during the crime, and afterwards.

 

At the end the ‘real story’ is revealed – sometimes to all the suspects, sometimes just to a selected few. The criminal is caught, killed, commits suicide or flees, and the remaining characters are free to resume what’s left of their everyday lives.

 

These are the ground rules that a story must meet to classify as ‘detective fiction’ – though of course each of them has been broken at one time or another by writers of genius. The one unbreakable rule, however, is this: a detective story is a story about an investigation. At the end, things are revealed that were hidden; things in shadow are brought out into the light. And for this reason a detective story is often also a puzzle: the reader is given some or all of the same facts as the detective and can try to equal or even beat the detective’s record in solving the case.

 

The history of detective fiction

 

Origins The forefathers of detective fiction are generally recognised to be Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. In four short stories Poe introduces the professional investigator and the baffled police, sets the reader a cryptographic puzzle, and creates the first ‘locked room’ story. Here are the stories:

 

  • The Gold Bug
  • The Mystery of Marie Roget
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • The Purloined Letter

 

Interested readers may want to obtain and read these for comparison with more modern detective stories. All are available electronically via the Internet.

 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes rightly dominates the popular view of Victorian fiction. Earlier Victorian novelists like Dickens, Trollope and Wilkie Collins had produced crime - related plots and some memorable investigators, but the sheer size of Victorian novels means that any investigative plot is buried under masses of extraneous material. Although Holmes made his first appearance in a novel, he occupies only a third of the book, and comes into his own in Doyle’s short stories: after Doyle, the short story was the main form of detective writing for several decades. Holmes was an astonishing creation: partly modelled on Doyle’s mentor Joseph Bell, he has a clearly defined physical presence and a marked personality. Though his intellectual superiority is obvious, he has enough foibles and human traits – including compassion for his friend Watson – to let us feel that he is one of us.

 

In four books of short stories and three more novels, Doyle introduced the apparatus of professional detection: a hero who is not a policeman but who is respected by the police; professional rivalry with individual police officers; an unintellectual friend to whom things can be explained for the reader’s benefit; a forensic laboratory and files on criminal cases; the meticulous examination of crime scenes for overlooked clues; secret messages to be decoded; wily opponents who seek to hamper the investigation; even an occasional failure. A large part of Holmes’s charm is that he does get it wrong sometimes.

 

Holmes was enormously popular, and a whole industry of films, plays, literature and spin - off books has developed which continue to this day. He can be said to have formed the public’s view of what a detective is. The Holmes stories are out of copyright and readily available in both printed and electronic form. I urge you to read them – or re - read them – and marvel at what classic detective writers were up against in trying to produce rivals for Sherlock Holmes.

 

The 20th Century

 

When Holmes finally retired to keep bees in Sussex, no one detective could fill his shoes. Some took over the active searching for clues; some the maintenance of records; some the useful friend. By 1910 a division between British and American mysteries had begun to develop. The British detective is a professional, like Martin Hewitt, Investigator, in the book of the same name by Arthur Morrison. He has an office near the Strand, with a secretary and an office boy, and his cases are brought to him by the gentry and upper middle classes. Out of seven cases in the book only one involves a murder, and one a violent assault; the rests are various kinds of thefts and kidnappings.

 

In America the early detective is more likely to be an amateur brought into cases by violent circumstances: Uncle Abner, created by Melville Davisson Post, is a sternly evangelical Virginian farmer, equally harsh on frontier lynch law and small - town corruption. Of the eighteen cases in Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, nearly all are about murders or attempted murders. Abner is the concerned citizen, grimly determined to see justice done for its own sake. Both Hewitt and Abner were only one protagonist among many created by their prolific authors.

 

The series detective, whose investigations recur in a dozen or more books, was yet to arise. One of the first of these was Dr. John Thorndyke, who appears in 23 books by R. Austin Freeman. One of these – The Singing Bone – forms the topic of our first week’s discussion.

 

A note on titles and availability: For some reason publishers feel free to change the titles of detective stories when they cross the Atlantic – and sometimes on other occasions. Thus A Surfeit of Lampreys becomes Death of a Peer, The Three Coffins becomes The Hollow Man, and – more understandably – Ten Little Niggers becomes Ten Little Indians. There is as yet no publication or site on the Internet that I know of which lists all of the changes, so be prepared to look for the book you want under different titles depending on whether it originates in Britain or America. Many great detective writers are out of print; others can only be found in specialist bookshops like Abbey’s, and these may come and go as publishers set up and go broke or are taken over. Many older detective stories can now be found for free on the Web, notably at Blackmask (www.blackmask.com), and steps are being taken for the electronic publication of others.

 

The end of the Golden Age?

 

Since 1960 the ‘classic’ detective story has gradually ceased to be a popular form of literature. There are many varied opinions as to why this might be; some of them are listed here:

 

Social and economic changes

 

The classic detective story often relies on a group of people – usually relatives – being isolated together while a murder is being committed. But families are smaller today, and better communications means that isolation is very rare. Classic detective fiction also often relies on the difficulty of divorce and the shame and social disaster of being caught in adultery – both of which are no longer significant for most people. The servant class has virtually vanished due to economic changes, and the increasing financial independence of the young – coupled with the effects of long-term inflation – makes inheritance less of an issue than it used to be. Thus a lot of the background and motive power behind the classical mystery is gone. In its place we find ‘suburban mysteries’ of the kind written by Julian Symonds and Elizabeth Ferrars; but these often teem with so many characters that the reader simply can’t keep track of who has done what, or why. On another level we find an increasing preoccupation with the serial killer who murders many people for trivial reasons or for ‘kicks’, making detection a routine forensic process rather than a search for motive or clues.

 

One way of dealing with this is to set detective fiction in the past, when the classical model could still be followed. This has been done successfully by Peter Lovesey and Ellis Peters, and copied by a host of imitators, but there is always a danger that the period trappings will submerge the mystery element in the plot.

 

Technological changes

 

Police investigations now have a host of new technologies to call on, from DNA profiling to tracking mobile phones to searching computer databases. None of this provides much scope for the deductive approach of the classic detective, who must now compete for space with forensic specialists and computer boffins.

 

Books becoming longer

 

Since the arrival of computerized word processing, books have tended to become longer; though whether this is due to publishers responding to public demand or vice versa is hard to tell. Classic detective stories have a maximum length of about 85,000 words – much beyond this and they are too hard to follow – and to fill a book of double or triple this size they must be diluted with other material. The Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter and the Adam Dalgliesh books by PD James are good (or bad) examples of classic mystery stories puffed out by extraneous matter.

 

The influence of TV and films

 

Most writers who hope to make money now write with an eye to TV and film sales; since classic detection is about thought, and thought doesn’t film well, it tends to take second place in current writing to visually interesting melodrama; car chases, romance, sex and violence. Well-done detective series can provide both intellectual and emotional stimulation; but these are few and far between.

 

Interest in other areas

 

While the interest in classic detective fiction has fallen away there has been a massive increase in interest in fantasy. Whether this reflects a flight from the realities of everyday life or the development of a genuinely new form of literature is an open question. Interestingly, some writers are managing to combine the two genres: notably Glen Cook, in the popular Garrett series.

 

Refusal to compete

 

Finally, there is perhaps a feeling among modern writers that the classic detective vein has been so well done in the past that there is little point in trying to compete. There will never be another Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, so why not try something different?

 

If this is true it means that it’s particularly important for us to preserve the Golden Age books and their authors that we have. Many are going out of print; some are in danger of disappearing from the public view altogether, as their books are pulled off library shelves and vanish out of bookshops. If those of us who love the genre want it to be preserved for our children and grandchildren we must take steps now.

 

Jon Jermey

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