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The Making of a Murder Monday

For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: Firstly, the intensity of the craving — if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity — the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And, thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.

-- W. H. Auden, "The Guilty Vicarage"

Do you want to read an article by W. H. Auden on detective fiction? The Guilty Vicarage is available online. I've decided I need to read some Freeman Wills Crofts; his chapters in The Scoop and Behind the Screen were good, and Auden names his Inspector French as one of only three "completely satisfactory detectives" (with Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown). I do not agree with Auden that Father Brown is a completely satisfactory detective, though the ideal version of Father Brown that exists only in my head is completely satisfactory.

What I've Finished Reading

Partners in Crime is 100% silly fluff, with the advantage over The Secret Adversary that no one attempts to explain the political context to any level of detail. Tommy and Tuppence goof around a lot and pretend to be different fictional detectives, and mostly manage not to bungle most of their cases too badly. At one point Tommy is rescued from an unscrupulous tough by Albert, the office boy, who just happens to have been practicing his lasso skills ("Albert watches a lot of movies" is the weak running joke). In the end they catch a spy in typically blundering fashion and retire from the fake detective business because Tuppence is going to have a baby. Awww.

What I'm Reading Now

The House By the River has overrun its slow start and become a genuine page-turner. It's also alarmingly efficient. In the past hundred pages, our intrepid typist Alison Cleveley has fallen in love at first sight, witnessed a murder, provided evidence for the police, been shot at by a mysterious assailant, moved to Manchester to avoid interfering in the "interests" of her beloved (his family wants him to marry an earl's daughter to shore up their social position and dwindling funds; he would rather marry Alison but she's disappeared for his own good), befriended a bookie (and former private investigator) at her boarding house who seems overly interested in her mysterious brush with murder, allowed a different fellow boarder to coax her into marrying him and coming with him to Australia, despite her total indifference, mentally justifying her action with the thought that at least now Noel will have to marry the rich woman he doesn't like. They've just left the church and Sydney, the sacrificial husband, has gone off to see to the luggage. As Alison sips coffee in the hotel lounge and wonders where Sydney has got to, a message arrives for her: his sister is dying, and he's been summoned home immediately, so she should just head back to the boarding house and wait for further correspondence. SORRY ALISON. This neatly avoids any wedding-night awkwardness, but leaves Alison understandably confused and even more underwhelmed than before. Would this be the perfect time for the bookie/PI to reappear with the results of his investigation? Probably!

The library is closed for repairs until January 15, so I've been unable to replenish my Christie supply. I decided to give Erle Stanley Gardner another go with the first chapter of Murder Up My Sleeve. It's bracingly silly! A sarcastic man of the world, recently returned from China, is called into the district attorney's office and questioned about a mysterious Chinese weapon, the sleeve gun. It's a tube with a spring you hide in your copious Eastern sleeve and activate by leaning your arm against a table. Wikipedia informs me that this was, in fact, an experimental British weapon during WWII (several years after the publication of Murder Up My Sleeve), and also that it wore out quickly and didn't work very well. This book already has a lot of thoughts to share about The Oriental Mind, and I can tell there are plenty more to come.

What I Plan to Read Next

I'm not sure! I'm looking forward to the next two Christies, when the library opens back up.

One of the differences between me and W. H. Auden: Auden never re-reads a detective story and forgets them the minute he's finished: this is, he says, one of the things that separates "literature" from the detective genre. For me this is true some of the time, but not always. I'm finding Christie pretty reliably re-readable, even books that depend heavily on deception and surprise, like Roger Ackroyd and Orient Express; reading the structure while knowing the ending is an auxiliary pleasure to having been surprised by the ending. But I also enjoyed re-reading The Secret Adversary, which is not a brilliantly plotted book by any means, and will probably feel the same about the equally silly The Seven Dials Mystery.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 9th, 2017 03:16 pm (UTC)
I must read that Auden article! I have long meant to read something by Auden (he's one of those early twentieth century authors I've seen quoted a lot and therefore feel I know something about, except when I reflect upon it further I realize I actually have no idea what he wrote), and that is clearly a good place to start.

The House by the River sounds like breathless good fun. Oh Allison! I predict her new husband is involved in the mystery somehow, will meet an unfortunate demise, and then she's going to marry her true love after all, probably after he gives her a talking to about abandoning him to marry the Earl's daughter he doesn't like.

ETA: I've been reading the Auden article, and it's fascinating. I mean, fascinating in a way where I think perhaps some of it is bosh, but some of it rings very true, and even the bosh I wouldn't want to dismiss out of hand.

This quote in particular really struck me:

I can, to some degree, resist yielding to these or similar desires which tempt me, but I cannot prevent myself from having them to resist; and it is the fact that I have them which makes me feel guilty, so that instead of dreaming about indulging my desires, I dream about the removal of the guilt which I feel at their existence. This I still do, and must do, because guilt is a subjective feeling where any further step is only a reduplication — feeling guilty about my guilt. I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.

Edited at 2017-01-09 03:34 pm (UTC)
Jan. 10th, 2017 02:16 am (UTC)
That was the part of the Auden article that I zeroed in on! I don't know what I think about the guilt business - I'm not sure that the appeal is quite the same, for me and Auden, but it is an interesting thought.

If I ask myself why I cannot enjoy stories about strong silent men and lovely girls who make love in a beautiful landscape and come into millions of dollars, I cannot answer that I have no phantasies of being handsome and loved and rich, because of course I have (though my life is, perhaps, sufficiently fortunate to make me less envious in a naïve way than some). No, I can only say that I am too conscious of the absurdity and evil of such wishes to enjoy seeing them reflected in print.

I don't think his account of it is quite the one I'd give, but it ties in with things I've been wondering about. Where was I going with this? Maybe I'll be more coherent tomorrow.
Jan. 12th, 2017 01:49 am (UTC)
I definitely think part of the appeal of mysteries is the idea that things can be and will be put right at the end of the story; the murderer will be caught, the young lovers will be united, and, well, the dead person will still be dead, but as Auden points out the dead person was usually a bit of a jerk to begin with (else there wouldn't be so many people with motives for murder), so that's not a dreadful tragedy. As Auden puts it, innocence will be restored.

So I'm not sure if I read mysteries out of a sense of guilt, precisely, but out of a desire to escape from the messiness of injustice in the real world. Sometimes it's nice to visit a place where everything will be put right by the end of the story, and everyone will settle down to drink tea and toast crumpets over the fire.
Jan. 9th, 2017 05:27 pm (UTC)
I re-read Christie, and other crime author's all the time! Parner's in Crime is so silly! And I never remember's the stories, so re-Reading is Always a bit of a surprise. :)
Jan. 10th, 2017 01:49 am (UTC)
I think with Christie I only remember the killer if the misdirection and reveal was really spectacular. So I remember Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express, The Mirror Cracked - things like that. In an ordinarily adept Christie I'm just as likely to forget. She's very good at tricking your mind into doubting itself! And there was nothing very spectacular plot-wise in the Tommy & Tuppence books, but I've already forgotten most of what happened in the ones I've read.
Jan. 9th, 2017 08:25 pm (UTC)
There are a lot of people who seem to read detective fiction as some sort of abstract puzzle that has no relation to any other fiction and therefore is Other. I find it baffling. It is a genre, as are many other genres, but definitely may contain perfectly good characterisation and other reasons to re-read - but it seems to have been a consistent response from the first time Wilkie Collins supplied the details of railway timetables as clues till now.

Alison seems to be very busy! I am ever more intrigued. :-)

I hope your library opens and allows you more Christie soon!
Jan. 10th, 2017 01:41 am (UTC)
I have seen a bit of that around! I don't know. I came to the detective genre with very few expectations, except maybe a vague expectation of lightness? and for me it has been a little bit Other from other kinds of fiction. Not a totally different thing with no connection, but now if I pick up a book that I know is a murder mystery, I expect different things and respond a little differently than I would if it were some other kind of book. So I don't see it quite the way Auden does, but I see where he's coming from, I think? That may be misguided, I'm not sure.

Alison is just a lightning rod for incident. There's a lot of very restrained emotion and we're up to at least one serious plot twist per chapter. I only wish the book were less badly constructed (as a physical object: it's held together with giant metal staples and doesn't open all the way. Cheap sensation indeed!)

Jan. 10th, 2017 08:55 am (UTC)
It is a genre, and there is a formula, but that's true of certain other genres, too - so I don't see why detective fiction is then held further at arm's length. I think less so these days, because of all the serious bleak grim longer things, but you still come across it. I mean, I read that Seven Stories book (which is weird in his conclusions, but the first half is still interesting) and he maintained that crime was not actually fiction and was in fact only a mental puzzle and therefore didn't fit into any of his patterns. But I was re-reading Agatha Christie to provide some light relief and it struck me how well a lot of hers (and indeed other detective novels) fitted into his "Hunting of the Beast"/Beowulf pattern (right down to the murderer often being described as an animal - a snake, a tiger, in Christie's case - and the hero refusing payment (which when you're a private detective isn't good business sense - but think how many times they do it: this one's personal! For a poor person! I've just been sacked from the Force but I've still got to solve the mystery!) It hit every beat, so it was kind of surreal to have the author simultaneously blithely telling me it was just a puzzle, like a jigsaw and not a work of fiction at all.

So, yes, there's a formula, Golden Age is lighter (modern stuff not so, I think), but it's still a story that works as other stories and can be read happily as fiction! I mean, I've heard people hate on Romance, and Fantasy a lot, but not maintain that they're not actual stories as such. Whereas the "I can't read detective stories, I can't be bothered with putting all the clues together and remembering train times!" baffles me, because I rarely bother to try and piece the clues together. I just hope X didn't do it, because I like them. (Guess what? X did it.) I think sometimes people say some similar things about hard SF, although not quite in the same way. (Too technical, not actually story.)

I did feel like writing to that author and breaking down Agatha Christie using his model for him, but I didn't, because I don't do things like that. But srsly. The Hunting of the Beast, beat for beat.

Edited at 2017-01-10 08:58 am (UTC)
Jan. 11th, 2017 01:56 am (UTC)
It's interesting that that happens, and only(? primarily?) with detective fiction. Do you think it has something to do with detective readers tending to be guilty readers, like Auden said? Or is that not real? I don't know if what Auden says about guilt is true of me or not.

Clearly some people do read for the pure puzzle and have a great time working everything out, and maybe that's why it doesn't feel the same as other stories? I never do; I like the detective to do the work for me. Sometimes I try to guess, but it's very sloppy guessing.

Sorry, this isn't adding much to the conversation; my new job is tiring me out (just tired enough to want to read a murder mystery without trying to solve anything) (not awake enough to reply to comments properly).
Jan. 11th, 2017 08:53 am (UTC)
It is interesting. Romance gets despised (but it's very obvious why, including the inherent sexism of it) and Fantasy, interestingly, attracts the greatest hate - people who don't just think it's not lit, but actually hate it, think adults shouldn't read it, want to burn it and practically foam at the mouth at the idea of it. (What is it, I wonder? They can't comprehend metaphor? Somethings makes them not just bored by it but repelled to the nth degree).

Horror gets a lot of criticism (again, for obvious reasons, because easy target via violence etc.) and genre just generally - but it differs as to which genre attracts which kind of criticism and it's interesting. I mean I'm sure there are people who are merely bored by fantasy but loathe detectives with a passion (your Edmund Wilson chappie for a start!) but it does tend to go that way, I think.

I don't really have serious thoughts, either. I'm just rambling from what is more anecdotal evidence and my own reading than anything else!

And, aww - new jobs are always very tiring. At least the newness bit will wear off in a couple weeks. I hope it's good, though! ♥

ETA: Also W.H. Auden's poetry is v good.

Edited at 2017-01-11 08:56 am (UTC)
Jan. 10th, 2017 02:54 am (UTC)
Jan. 10th, 2017 04:56 am (UTC)
I've got to go back and finish reading Partners in Crime sometime soon- I remember it being amusing fluff, and I could use some of that these days. (I'm also thinking of re-watching the Tommy & Tuppence TV series from the 80s too. Francesca Annis played Tuppence and she was great, the whole series was a lot of fun.)
Jan. 11th, 2017 01:59 am (UTC)
Do it! It's just a big pile of cotton candy and poorly thought-out Christie espionage. Tommy and Tuppence keep setting fake cases for each other to keep the fake detective agency afloat, and then there are some real ones. Lots of jewel thefts and things. Sometimes they get shot at, but the shot always misses.
Jan. 10th, 2017 02:51 pm (UTC)
The House by the River sounds a good 'un and one that will pull all it's loose ends together. I hope Alison gets to have a lie down at the end too.
Jan. 11th, 2017 02:03 am (UTC)
It's so good and just keeps getting better. I'm impressed by Alison's quick thinking and her overdeveloped sense of duty and her amazing ability to always be in the right (wrong) place at the right time, and also by how fast-moving the writing is and how totally unfazed the author is by multiple coincidences.

Alison will definitely deserve a rest after navigating this forest of shenanigans.
Jan. 11th, 2017 03:57 pm (UTC)
Trust in the God of Coincidence and they will look after you!
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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