I have been improving my mind with sensational fiction for twenty-odd years. I started with Sherlock Holmes, as a lot of people do, at the age of ten; went on to Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, and later to John Dickson Carr. I came to Doyle and Christie from Tintin and Doctor Who (set in China, Mexico or Tibet as much as in outer space), at a time when I was reading Gerald Durrell.
I liked adventure stories that were set in other places and increased my knowledge of the world.
That, to me, was one of the great appeals of the detective story.
There was a bizarre crime, a clever detective who said things like ‘The game is afoot!’ or ‘Six hours in the spiritual abyss, and all because I never thought of the dentist!’, and a surprise solution; they were set in exotic places, or described life in different settings; and there was a gripping story.
And, of course (this is very important and very easy to forget) they were fun to read.
So, of course, when I was eleven, The Big Four was one of my favourite Agatha Christies. This is the one in which Hercule Poirot stops a Chinese mandarin, an American millionaire, a mad French woman scientist and “the Destroyer” from taking over the world. There are lots of good murders, narrow escapes from death, and globe-trotting.
(At that age, I also liked Biggles Hits the Trail, about death rays and giant centipedes in Tibet – which must make me one of the few kids of the ’90s to have read W.E. Johns!)
As a teenager, I read a lot of fair play puzzle plot detective stories. Later, I read a lot of English humdrum mysteries. I’ve drifted in and out of detective stories for the last few years.
“In discussing ’em, gentlemen, I am not going to start an argument by attempting to lay down rules. I mean to speak solely of personal tastes and preferences. We can tamper with Kipling thus: ‘There are nine and sixty ways to construct a murder maze, and every single one of them is right.’ Now, if I said that to me every single one of them was equally interesting, then I should be – to put the matter as civilly as possible – a cockeyed liar.”
So why do I like detective stories, and what do I like about them?
“I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque. I like some vividness of color and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened. All these things, I admit, are happy, cheerful, rational prejudices, and entail no criticism of more tepid (or more able) work. I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life; I much prefer to hear the chuckle of the great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St Paul.”
(John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins)
I like surprise solutions. I want to be fooled – not just mildly surprised, but floored. As Chesterton wrote: “The detective story differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool… The essence of a mystery story is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true.”
A good detective story should give me the same feeling of amazement and disbelief that a magic show does. When I see a woman levitated to the ceiling or sawed in half, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, and my jaw’s somewhere around my ankles. That’s what I want from a detective story. I want to shout “WHAT?!” and burst into applause.
I want the same stupefied joy I got from Ellery Queen’s Tragedy of X, Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case, Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, or from Chesterton’s own Father Brown stories. Read “The Mirror of the Magistrate”, “The Sign of the Broken Sword” or “The Dagger with Wings”, for choice.
And the complete works of John Dickson Carr. When the solution hinges on the audacious premise that the murderer has no legs; when Sir Henry Merrivale’s arithmetic proves that there are Nine—and Death Makes Ten; when Dr Gideon Fell explains the true meaning of the “Hollow Man” and the three coffins in Transylvania, all I can do is gape in astonishment – and heartily applaud. (Hell, even H.M. sticking his head out of a car in the middle of a French swamp in The Unicorn Murders is cause for celebration.) In these books, and in a score or so of others – including The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Unicorn Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Emperor’s Snuffbox, The Reader is Warned and The Nine Wrong Answers – the solution is one that I never considered, but which is both breathtakingly simple and obvious – once I know.
The whole point, of course, is that I don’t know. If I read the book again, I should be able to spot all the clues I missed. But I shouldn’t spot them the first time I read the book. I should be led by the nose up the garden path.
A good detective story is also a good story. Look at Sherlock Holmes. Despite the great detective’s objections, the stories are not coldly clinical descriptions of bravura displays of reasoning. They’re adventure stories.
Hansom cabs hurtle through the foggy London streets. American gangsters chalk dancing men on the sundial and send orange pips to their victims. A whistle is heard in the night, and a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, slithers down the bell pull onto the bed where a young woman is sleeping. European confidence tricksters add beautiful women to their collections. South American dictators are hiding in the depths of the English countryside. Bonhomous blackmailers with the cold, unblinking eyes of the snakes in the reptile house at London Zoo stalk London society. African ordeal poisons conjure up the most terrifying, phantasmagorical visions and drive men mad.
Unrecorded cases smack of the grotesque, with “some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible”. Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science. The repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker. The Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow. The cutter Alicia, which sailed one morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. The shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which nearly cost Holmes and Watson both their lives. The dreadful business of the Abernetty family, and the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day. And, of course, the giant rat of Sumatra.
And what does Holmes do when the world thinks him dead at the foot of the thundering Reichenbach Falls? He goes to two countries closed to Westerners. He spends two years in Tibet, disguised as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson; and, following in the footsteps of Johann Burckhardt and Sir Richard Burton, becomes one of the few non-Muslims to visit Mecca. He also goes to Persia and visits the Khalifa at Khartoum.
That love of travel, that interest in the world, is one of the distinguishing features of the detective story. The detective story is cosmopolitan. It says that the world is a big place, full of adventure and mystery, that the world can be experienced, and that people can use their brains to solve mysteries.
Agatha Christie lived half her life on archaeological digs in the Middle East, achieving her lifelong dream of travel. Two of her most famous books are set in Egypt and the Balkans, while the Mr Quin short stories and The Labours of Hercules are set on the Continent.
Father Brown travelled to South America, the United States, France, Germany and Italy – where he solved such black businesses as the fantastic duel of Dr Hirsch, the garden where died the man with two heads, and the curse of the monkey’s tail.
John Dickson Carr believed wholeheartedly in “Adventure in the Grand Manner” in the style of Dumas, Stevenson and Doyle, and was disappointed he couldn’t find it in the world after WWII. His heroes are men of the world – writers, historians, journalists – who know their way around Europe and the States. He detested realistic and naturalistic novels which “claim to depict life as it is” – particularly those of such Modernist idols as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Proust and Joyce. They were cynical, depressing and unimaginative, and dealt only with the mundane and the banal.
Leslie Charteris said much the same thing in his Saint stories. I’m reading my fifth Saint book in a row, having joined Simon Templar Around the World, in Europe, on the Spanish Main, and now Under the Sun.
“I’m mad enough to believe in romance. And I’m sick and tired of this age – tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called life. I wanted something more elementary and honest – battle, murder, sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress, and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer. It mayn’t be life as we know it, but it ought to be.”
The detective story, at its best, celebrates curiosity, open-mindedness, tolerance and an interest in the world. Detective writers are intellectual in the best sense – not abstract theoreticians, but cultured and cosmopolitan, shrewdly observant and worldly, and interested in their fellow human beings.
A.E.W. Mason’s sophisticated Hanaud thrillers are set on the Riviera and in the vineyards of the Gironde. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley is in Greece when a crazed archaeologist tries to re-enact the Mysteries of Eleusis, and in the Canary Islands when a modern victim joins the mummified kings in a mountainside cave. Elspeth Huxley’s four detective stories take the reader to East Africa in the 1930s and ’60s. C. Daly King’s Obelists books show what it was like to travel by steamship, train and aeroplane across America. S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen show New York in the Jazz Age.
Ngaio Marsh, Helen McCloy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen and Nicholas Blake set their detective stories in the world of theatres, museums, art galleries and artists, writers, poets and publishers.
Philo Vance, in the twelve novels by S.S. Van Dine, is a polymath and an aesthete. “He had reconnoitered the whole field of cultural endeavour. He had courses in the history of religions, the Greek classics, biology, civics and political economy, philosophy, anthropology, literature, theoretical and experimental psychology, and ancient and modern languages. But it was, I think, his courses under Münsterberg and William James that interested him the most.”
Vance is a connoisseur of art – “not art in its narrow, personal aspects, but in its broader, more universal significance. And art was not only his dominating interest, but his chief diversion. He was something of an authority on Japanese and Chinese prints; he knew tapestries and ceramics; and once I heard him give an impromptu causerie to a few guests on Tanagra figurines…”
“His apartment in East 38th Street … was filled, but not crowded, with rare specimens of oriental and occidental, ancient and modern art. His paintings ranged from the Italian primitives to Cézanne and Matisse; and among his collection of original drawings were works as widely separated as those of Michelangelo and Picasso. Vance’s Chinese prints constituted one of the finest private collections in this country. They included beautiful examples of the work of Ririomin, Rianchu, Jinkomin, Kakei and Mokkei….
“Vance’s catholicity of taste in art was remarkable. His collection was as varied as that of a museum. It embraced a black-figured amphora by Amasis, a proto-Corinthian vase in the Ægean style, Koubatcha and Rhodian plates, Athenian pottery, a sixteenth-century Italian holy-water stoup of rock crystal, pewter of the Tudor period (several pieces bearing the double-rose hall-mark), a bronze plaque by Cellini, a triptych of Limoges enamel, a Spanish retable of an altar-piece by Vallfogona, several Etruscan bronzes, an Indian Greco Buddhist, a statuette of the Goddess Kuan Yin from the Ming Dynasty, a number of very fine Renaissance wood-cuts, and several specimens of Byzantine, Carolingian and early French ivory carvings.
“His Egyptian treasures included a gold jug from Zakazik, a statuette of the Lady Nai (as lovely as the one in the Louvre), two beautifully carved steles of the First Theban Age, various small sculptures comprising rare representations of Hapi and Amset, and several Arrentine bowls carved with Kalathiskos dancers. On top of one of his embayed Jacobean book cases in the library, where most of his modern paintings and drawings were hung, was a fascinating group of African sculpture—ceremonial masks and statuette-fetishes from French Guinea, the Sudan, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo.”
Vance is an amateur psychologist, “gifted with an instinctively accurate judgement of people, and his study and reading had co-ordinated and rationalized this gift to an amazing extent”. He is fluent in several languages, including French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Ancient Egyptian. He is, in addition, an expert fencer, golfer, archer, poker and chess player, a keen marksman, and musician. “He went occasionally to the more modern operas, and was a regular subscriber to the symphony concerts and chamber-music recitals.”
Be still, my beating heart.
I’ve always wanted to live in one of those houses in early 20th century adventure stories (Tintin, Blake and Mortimer) with a private art collection, full of objects from around the world – Tibetan masks, totem poles, African fetishes, Chinese vases and jade horses, Maya stelae, and Egyptian sarcophagi. And, of course, jivaro tsantas! (Shrunken heads to the uninitiated.) They had several at a château outside Brussels I visited as a kid, and I thought they were awesome.
H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune, scientific adviser to Scotland Yard, is the supreme generalist. “It is his opinion that the specialist is inevitably a rather absurd and unhappy person, doomed to narrow thought and incomplete appreciation of the world. In pensive moments he will mourn the fate which made him one. But against specialization he has steadily protected himself, keeping touch with all kinds of knowledge and everything which the natural man enjoys.”
“The modern specialization which exalts criminology into a separate science he smiles at as a pedantic and delusive arrangement. All the sciences from astronomical physics to palæobotany, he will maintain, are required in criminal investigation, and in addition every other department of human knowledge, millinery or mountaineering, from the garden of Eden to Russian films. The real specialist in criminology would be omniscient.”
Fortune is civilized, and delights in nature, food, music and poetry. The stories in which he appears appeal to the senses; they dwell long and lovingly over light and color. The descriptions of the Alpenglühen in Shadow on the Wall are particularly fine. Fortune and French policeman Dubois talk of pictures and music, of poetry and sculpture – “a lesson in the art of life”. He listens with pleasure to Rossini (who would appeal to his gourmet hedonism); he makes a marionette play of Tannhäuser; and goes into raptures over Swiss hazel ices and cakes made with saffron and filled with clotted cream and fresh berries.
Many detective writers had progressive views. S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, Helen McCloy and Stuart Palmer were (as Mike Grost discusses) American liberals, committed to civil rights. In Britain, G.D.H. and M. Cole were prominent British Socialists; their detective stories deal with white collar crime, Fascism and Communism, factories, and profiteers. Bailey was probably a Socialist; his works side with the working class against the Establishment; politicians, businessmen and the aristocracy use blackmail, drugs, slander and vice to destroy their rivals; while the police are often agents of officialdom and the ruling classes. Nicholas Blake (C. Day-Lewis) was a Communist in his youth. E.R. Punshon denounced Fascism and the Nazi treatment of the Jews as early as 1933.
And, finally, the detective story is Protean. So long as there’s a murder and a fairly clued solution, it can do anything. Do you want literate comedies of manners or wild tales of skulduggery among mad Scottish lairds or vanishing horses in the middle of the Amazon? Do you want a sober look at life in a lawyer’s office c. 1950? Do you want a tale of nail-biting suspense, a drunken screwball comedy, a swashbuckling Satanic adventure in the court of Charles II, a ghost story, a science fiction story set in an over-crowded world of claustrophobes, or a psychological study of unpleasant people being nasty to each other in suburbia (why would you, but it’s there)?
Or do you simply want a good, baffling problem, with a dozen or so well drawn characters, a plot that twists and turns like an anaconda having an epileptic fit, clues that mean nothing to you and everything to the detective, and a couple of chapters that’ll leave you reeling as though you’d just done five rounds in the ring with the Chicago Kid?
Then look no further than a detective story.