Murder and mystery: the craft of the detective story

Tags: detective story, the detective, characterisation, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Adam Dalgliesh, Sherlock Holmes, Anthony Trollope, Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Original Sin, forensic science laboratory, Raymond Chandler, amateur detective, crime story, William Godwin, Wilkie Collins, Reginald Fortune, Caleb Williams, Monk Lewis, detective stories, recognised place, Humpty Dumpty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, publishing house, physical clues, Innocent House, Cordelia Gray, Charles Paris, Adam Helms Lecture, Professor Henry Robinson, popular literature, Stockholm University Library, James Murder, Stockholm University, popular art, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Dick Francis, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, The detectives, murder investigation, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, Francis Pettigrew, Josephine Tey
Content: Denna digitala version дr tillgдngliggjord av Stockholms universitetsbibliotek efter avtal med upphovsmannen, eller i fцrekommande fall dе upphovsrдtten har upphцrt. Fеr anvдndas i enlighet med gдllande lagstiftning. This digital version is provided by the Stockholm University Library in agreement with the author(s) or, when applicable, its copyright has expired. May be used according to current laws.
P. D.James JdHtT Murder and Mystery: the Craft of the Detective Story T H E A D A M H E L M S L E C T U R E 1997
P. D. James Murder and Mystery : the Craft of the Detective Story PUBLISHED BY Wahlstrцm ^Widstrand Svenska Fцrlдggarefцreningen Stockholms universitetsbibliotek
THANK YOU, Vice Chancellor, for your warm and flattering introduction. It is a very great privilege as well as a pleasure for me to be here this evening to deliver the 1997 Adam Helms Lecture, and I am only too aware that I follow a line of distinguished and learned lecturers. I can only hope to be worthy of the honour. It is also, of course, a great joy to be again in your beautiful and historic city and to experience the warmth of a Swedish welcome. The title of my lecture is "Murder and Mystery: the Craft of the Detective Story". If much of my talk is personal I hope you will acquit me ofwriter's egotism, but I feel that, in discussing the techniques of her craft, a writer can only speak with real authority of her own work. The theologian, Dr Erik Routley, in his book The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story, tells the story of Professor Henry Robinson, principal of an Oxford theological college and one of the great Old Testament scholars of his day. Professor Robinson was very fond of detective stories and, travelling from Oxford to London for a meeting, he called at the station bookstall to find one for the journey. The professor looked at the paperbacks at the front and said, "I have read them all". The assistant, who was new to the job, directed him to 3
the ones on the side. The professor peered at those and said, "I have read those too". The assistant then suggested that there were some at the back. The professor rummaged there, then came back and said, "I have read them all". The assistant then said, "In that case, sir, may I suggest it is high time you turned your attention to serious literature." I think that story is typical of the ambivalence with which the detective story is viewed by critics, readers and, sometimes indeed, by writers themselves. Conan Doyle wrote, "I believe that if I had never troubled with Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at present be a more commanding one." One is tempted to ask, what higher work? Dorothy L. Sayers, in the words of a schoolboy essayist, "turned to religion from a life of crime", virtually repudiating Lord Peter Wimsey in her later life. Henry James said of Edgar Allan Poe, "To take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness betrays a lack of seriousness in oneself." We should not, of course, wish to attract that imputation, but I do invite you this evening to take the detective story with that certain degree of seriousness which I feel it deserves. The detective story is one of the most versatile, fascinating and resilient forms of popular literature. It is also one of the most paradoxical. The detective story has at its heart a crime, usually the crime of murder, often in its most horrific form, and yet we read the novels primarily for relaxation, entertainment, a relief from the traumas and anxieties of everyday life. Its raison d'кtre is the establishment of truth 4
yet it deals in deceit; the writer sets out to deceive the reader, the murderer to deceive the detective, and the better the deception the more effective the book. The detective story is concerned with great issues; life, death, justice, retribution, remorse; yet it uses as the instruments of that justice the ephemeral clues and incidents of everyday life; torn scraps of paper, traces of lipstick, a drop of blood. The genre is concerned with justice, yet often, particularly in America, it is less than confident in its affirmation of organised law and order and the amateur detective is seen as a symbol of triumphant individualism compared with dull orthodoxy and official incompetence. The detective story deals with the disruptive crime of murder, yet the form itself is formularistic, orderly, contrived, providing a secure structure within which the imagination of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable. But first, perhaps, I should define what I mean by a detective story and how this genre differs from crime writing generally. If we use the words "crime novel" we can be thinking of a wide spectrum of writing extending from Agatha Christie's Mayhem Parva - that cosy village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its peace and innocence - through novels by Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene and John Le Carrй to the nineteenth century Russian novelists and some of the highest works of the human imagination. The crime novel may indeed have murder at its heart, but there is frequently no mystery and therefore no detective and no clu- 5
es. We may know from the beginning who is or will be responsible for the crime and why, and the interest is less in ratiocination or the logical solution to the puzzle than in the effect of the crime on the perpetrator and society. In the words of Robert Browning: Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things, The honest thief, the tender murderer, The superstitious atheist... In my view the detective story at its highest should also operate on the dangerous edge of things, but there is nevertheless a highly organised structure and recognised conventions which differentiate the detective story both from main-line fiction and from other forms of crime writing. What we expect is a central mysterious death, a closed circle of suspects with motive, means and opportunity for the crime, a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it and by the end of the book a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness. One of the criticisms of the genre is, of course, that this is mere formula writing, but what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula is able to accommodate and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of the creative imagination. To say that one cannot write a true novel within this structu- 6
re is as absurd as to say that no great poetry can be written in the form of a sonnet since the poet is restricted to fourteen lines, an octet and a sestet, and a strict rhyming sequence. All fiction is artificial, a re-arrangement of the writer's experience, internal and external, in a logical and compelling form. The detective novel may be more formularistic than so-called straight fiction but it need not be formularistic in its treatment of character and theme. It is the structure of the detective story and the challenge which this presents to a writer which for over thirty years has fascinated me as a novelist. So how did it all begin? Here there is no easy or generally accepted answer. Stories which combine excitement with mystery, which offer a puzzle and a solution, or in which truth is elicited by logical deduction from demonstrative facts, can of course be found in ancient literature and legend, and were probably told even earlier round the cave camp-fires of our remote ancestors. They can be found in the Bible. We recall the deception of the old blind Isaac by Rebekah and Jacob in Chapter 27 of Genesis, "the voice is Jacob's but the hands are the hands of Esau", and in the Apocrypha where the story of Susannah and the Elders would suggest that Daniel has some claim to be regarded as the first detective. One line of ancestry, the horror element in modern fiction and our fascination with murder, can be traced in England to eighteenth century broadsheets and ballads with which the mob indulged their fascination with the more spectacular and morbid details of famous crimes 7
and criminals, and in the tales of mystery and horror written by such eighteenth century writers as Mrs Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. Voltaire has a chapter in his book Zadig, published in 1747 entitled "Le Chien et le Cheval" in which the hero is able to describe the King of Babylon's dog and the Queen of Babylon's horse from traces they have left behind them. This anecdote can be found in even earlier literature and appears again as late as 1983 in Umberto Eco's medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose. There are critics who have claimed that none of this is really relevant, that the detective story proper could not exist until society had organised an official detective force, which in England would be in 1842 when the detective department of the Metropolitan Police came into being. But, according to Julian Symons in his book Bloody Murder, the first authentic note of the detective story proper was struck even earlier in 1794 with the publication of Caleb Williams by William Godwin, Shelley's father-in-law. Certainly this novel has many of the elements of classical detection; a central mystery, physical clues, an amateur detective, a pursuit and disguise; but Godwin's purpose in writing Caleb Williams was primarily political. As the intellectual leader of the English Radical Movement, he believed in an ideal anarchy in which there would be no crime, no administration and no government. Caleb Williams was intended to show the corruption inherent in any formal legal system and to that extent it is a most unusual early detective story since it denies the primacy of formalised human law which is the basis of most later mysteries. 8
But if one is to award the distinction of being the first detective story to any single novel, my choice would be The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins published in 1868, which T.S.Eliot has described as "the first, the longest and the best" of modern English detective stories. In my view no other single novel of its type more clearly foreshadows the later development of the genre. Wilkie Collins created one of the earliest fictional detectives, Sergeant Cuff; eccentric but believable, shrewdly knowledgeable about human nature and based on a real-life Scotland Yard inspector, Jonathan Whicher. Collins is meticulously accurate in his treatment of medical and forensic details. There is an emphasis on the importance of physical clues; a bloodstained nightdress, a smeared door, a metal chain; and all the clues are made available to the reader, foreshadowing the tradition of the fair-play rule whereby the detective must never be in possession of more information than the reader. The clever shifting of suspicion from one character to another is done with great adroitness and this emphasis on physical evidence and the cunning manipulation of the reader were both to become common in succeeding mysteries. But the novel has other and more important virtues as a detective story. Wilkie Collins is excellent at describing the physical appearance and the atmosphere of the setting, particularly the contrast between the secure and prosperous Victorian Verender household and the eerie loneliness of the shivering sands, between the exotic and accursed jewel which is stolen and the outwardly respectable privileged lives of up- 9
per-class Victorians. The novel provides an interesting insight into many aspects of its age, particularly through the truth and variety of its characterisation, and this reflection of social mores and contemporary life was to become one of the most important virtues of the modern detective story. But The Moonstone, of course, is a single, if remarkable, novel and I think that most critics of the genre would agree that the credit for having, as it were, invented the detective story and laying down its main conventions must be shared between two writers, one an American and the other British. The first is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, born in 1809, the American poet, critic, editor and short story writer. It has been argued, and I think rightly, that in five tales alone Poe anticipated virtually every type of succeeding detective story. These stories met only with moderate success and Poe returned to the themes of the occult and the macabre for which, perhaps, his name is chiefly famous, but his place in the history of the detective story is unchallengeable and assured. Eric Ambler has written: "The detective story may have been born in the mind of Edgar Allen Poe, but it was London that fed it, clothed it and brought it to maturity". He was, of course, thinking of the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in literature, and of the London of Sherlock Holmes, of yellow gaslight glimmering through sulphurous fog, of the jangle of cab reins and the cries of street vendors, of suburban villas with blood on the laurel bushes, of a veiled woman climbing the 10
stairs to that claustrophobic sitting-room at 221b Baker Street, of the haunting strains of Holmes' violin. The influence of Sherlock Holmes on the detective story has been lasting and profound. He bequeathed to the genre a respect for reason, a non-abstract intellectualism, a reliance on ratiocination rather than on physical force, an abhorrence of sentimentality and the power to create an atmosphere of mystery and gothic horror which is yet firmly rooted in physical reality. Above all, of course, more than any other writer he established the tradition of the great detective, that omniscient amateur whose personal, sometimes bizarre eccentricity is contrasted with the rationality of his methods and who provides for the reader the comforting reassurance that despite our apparent powerlessness we yet inhabit an intelligible universe. The impetus which the Sherlock Holmes saga gave to the detective story refuted the contemporary view of many that this was a passing fad. The short story flourished before the First World War - G. K. Chesterton and his Father Brown stories is perhaps the most notable example - but then the novel became dominant. The detective story prospered, encouraged by social and economic changes. These included the growth of circulating libraries, greater leisure, particularly for women, a larger educated reading public which demanded books which were exciting and entertaining. In general the detective stories of the so-called Golden Age were marked by a dominant detective, usually amateur, with emphasis on the ingenuity of the puzzle and the brilli- 11
ance of the detection. Bizarre methods of murder were invented and writers tantalised the reader with increasingly outre methods of death and implausibly ingenious clues. And the methods of murder in the Golden Age were ingenious indeed. Webster tells us that death has ten thousand doors to let out life, and the detective story between the wars made use of most of them. It was not sufficient that the victim was murdered; he or she must be mysteriously, ingeniously, bizarrely murdered. Unfortunate victims were dispatched by licking poisoned stamps, being battered to death by church bells, stunned by a flailing pot, stabbed with an icicle, poisoned by cat claws, and not infrequently found dead in locked, barred and windowless rooms with looks of appalling terror on their faces. Not surprisingly these between-the-wars detective stories attracted, and still attract, their share of criticism. Detractors allege that the Thirties writers were purveying a popular pabulum of snobbery with violence; that all psychological interest in character and motive was subjugated to serve the dominant interest of the plot, that the writers, who had no understanding of the reality of real-life crime, invented detectives who were too often highly-educated, middle-class figures of fantasy, and that servants and the working-class generally were treated as buffoons and simpletons, mere foils to the brilliance of the omniscient detective. Much of this criticism is as inappropriate as disparaging P.G.Wodehouse because Bertie Wooster has an imperfect appreciation of the Marxist dialectic, or rejecting Oscar Wilde's The Impor- 12
tance ofBeing Earnestbeczuse it takes a trivial view of romantic love and does not sufficiently explore the basics of Victorian marriage. And although we may return with a sense of relief to the cosy novels of the 1930s with their simple unquestioning morality, their respect for hierarchy, their happy ignorance of the gritty realities of real-life murder or the sophistications of forensic science, they are not being written today. The modern detective story has moved much closer to the mainstream novel and, while remaining within the conventions I describe, casts an ironic and sceptical eye on modern society. The mystery novel today is more violent, more sexually explicit, less assured in its affirmation of official law and order. The detectives are often professional policemen, hard-working human beings with their own domestic problems and uncertainties or, like Adam Dalgliesh, only too aware of the trauma which a murder investigation can cause to the innocent as well as the guilty. So how today does one set about tackling this difficult and intriguing form? I knew from earliest childhood that I wanted to be a novelist but, for a number of reasons with which I won't bore you now, I was very late in starting. But when I settled down to begin my first novel in the mid-Sixties, it didn't occur to me to write anything other than a classic detective story. I very much enjoyed this form of popular literature and as an adolescent I was particularly influenced by the women writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey. I didn't want to use the more dramatic events 13
of my own life in an autobiographical first novel. I felt that I could construct a credible mystery and, if so, as a popular form it would stand a good chance of acceptance by a publisher. I suppose, too, there is a sceptical and morbid streak in my imagination; as I have often said, my response to Humpty Dumpty as a young child was "Did he fall or was he pushed?" But there were two main reasons. The first, as I have mentioned earlier, was my fascination with the structure, that Aristotelian perfection of form which is so artistically satisfying. The second was my ambition eventually to be taken seriously as a novelist. The detective story is easy to write badly, very difficult to write well and I felt that tackling its technical problems would serve me as an ideal apprenticeship. Then, as I progressed in my craft I came to believe that I could stay within the conventions of the detective story and still say something true about men and women and the society in which they live. Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can never make reparation. Murder destroys all privacy, both of the living and the dead. It ruthlessly tears down those carefully constructed psychological defences behind which we hope to live our lives in safety and comfort. Murder has appalled, puzzled and fascinated the human race since Cain struck down his brother Abel. Small wonder that it has been part of oral and written story-telling since man first found a tongue. One of the earliest decisions which faces the writer who embarks on a detective story is whether the detective should follow the English tradition of the talented amateur, 14
following in the steps of that first great amateur, Sherlock Holmes, or should be a member of the professional Force. There are advantages and drawbacks both to the private eye and to the professional detective. The former has the merit that he or she can be of any age and either sex, is free from the shackles ofjudges' rules, Force procedures and the constraints of hierarchy and Force boundaries, and can have a fascinating hobby or interest - usually that of the writer apart from the detection. Our national cult of the amateur, which isn't confined to our detective fiction, has spawned an impressive shoal of distinctively British private-eyes. Lord Peter Wimsey, younger son of a duke; Hercule Poirot, admittedly an ex-Belgian professional policeman but I think we can count him as an amateur and British by adoption; the formidable Miss Marple and Miss Silver, spinsters of this parish, peering from behind lace-curtains at the reprehensible goings-on in their village; Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton's shrewd, gentle but implacable priest; Gervase Fenn, Professor of English literature at the University of Oxford; Albert Campion, gentleman adventurer of aristocratic if unspecified lineage; Reginald Fortune, pathologist; Francis Pettigrew, lawyer and, bringing the list up to date, the jockey heroes of Dick Francis, and Charles Paris, the actor-hero narrator of Simon Brett. But I began by creating a professional detective, Commander (then Inspector) Adam Dalgliesh, feeling that a professional detective would be a more credible choice for a writer aiming at realism. After all amateurs, however talen- 15
ted, do not commonly fall over murdered bodies and if they do they lack both the professional resources and the authority to investigate. If one of this distinguished gathering this evening should crumple in his or her seat with a stiletto protruding from the lower vertebra - a fate not uncommon in my kind of fiction - the Stockholm detective force would be most unlikely to say, "How fortunate, Lady James, that you happened to be present this evening", nor, I think, would they greet my offer to help with the deferential gratitude with which Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion was always welcomed into their inner councils. The choice of a professional detective is, of course, not without its own particular problems. The writer is restricted to one age group and until recently, when Women Police officers have taken a more active part in criminal detection, to one sex. The writer must be meticulous in his research into police organisations and procedures and there is sometimes an uneasy compromise between the reality of professional detection, with its emphasis on teamwork and its periods of dull and plodding routine, and the fictional convention that the hero, symbol of triumphant individualism, solves the crime virtually unaided. Readers today, educated in the realities of professional police work by the comparative realism of television crime series, may return with a comfortable feeling of nostalgia to the policemen of the so-called Golden Age, but are unlikely to accept them in modern fiction: Dorothy L. Sayers's Inspector Sugg (the name itself is significant), guaranteed to get the answer 16
wrong until rescued by the superior intelligence of the amateur detective; bucolic small-town superintendents unable to speak grammatical English but always ready with an apt quotation from the Oxford Book of English Verse; the village constable cycling to the scene of the crime while deferentially touching his forelock to the gentry. The policemen of the 1930s were frequently stupid, plodding and over-reverential but they could be relied upon to be totally honest. Today the crime writer is less wedded to the incorruptibility of the police. Now we accept that corruption can sit at the very heart of law and justice. In the end I have created both a professional detective, Adam Dalgliesh, and a young private eye, Cordelia Gray, thus, I hope, getting the best of both worlds, and I am able to call on either depending on the demands of the investigation. In this I have an advantage over Scotland Yard. When I am talking in the United States I am frequently asked if I am about to marry them off. I admit that the thought had not occurred to me but I suspect that they do occasionally meet. As far as my hero's sex life is concerned, I take the view that what he does in private with a consenting adult is no affair of mine. So how does the individual novel begin? The question I am most often asked is, from where do you get your ideas? Is it from a real-life crime, a newspaper report, an original method of death, from character or from incident? For me it is nearly always the setting which sparks off my creative imagination and sets in motion the complicated process 17
which results in a novel. Setting is important to any work of fiction but particularly to a crime story. It helps to create atmosphere, the necessary aura of suspense, menace and mystery. One has only to think of Conan Doyle's The Hound oftheBaskervilks, ofthat dark and sinister mansion set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be. The setting can provide that contrast which both emphasises and provides the relief from horror. The poet W. H. Auden, who dearly loved detective stories, wrote that he could only really enjoy them if they were set in a village or small town. The setting must be the great good place; order, decency, normality contrasted with the horror of the deed. He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawingroom floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-ridden bodies down Raymond Chandler's mean streets. I have used setting in this way to enhance danger and terror by contrast in a number of my novels. In my first Cordelia Gray book, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a particularly appalling and callous murder takes place in high summer in Cambridge, one of Europe's most beautiful cities, where wide lawns and sun-dappled stone and the sparkling river recall to Cordelia's mind some words from the poet Blake. "Then saw I that there was a path to Hell even from the gates of Heaven." And setting - particularly architecture and houses - influences fundamentally the details of the plot and is important to characterisation since people react to their environment and are influenced by it. The setting, too, 18
can enhance credibility by rooting the somewhat bizarre events of the story in the firm soil of a recognised place. And setting and, in particular, buildings can have a symbolic importance, as does the black tower in my novel ofthat name, the church in A Tastefor Death, the nuclear Power Station in Devices and Desires and the publishing house, Innocent House, in my most recently published detective story, Original Sin. This novel began with my wish to set a story on London's river, and it was the dark historic Thames running as a unifying theme through the book and the inappropriately named Innocent House, a bizarre mock-Venetian palace on the river, which provided the original inspiration for the novel. The detective story is often most effective when set in a closed society, and I have used a nurses' training school in Shroud for a Nightingale, a forensic science laboratory in Death of an Expert Witness, and the publishing house in Original Sin to explore those tensions which can arise when human beings are flung together in involuntary and sometimes unwelcome proximity, and when reprehensible emotions ofjealousy, envy, dislike, can fester and erupt into the ultimate crime. The closed society, apart from its interest as a microcosm of the wider world, has one great technical advantage: it limits the stain of suspicion which cannot be allowed to spread too far if the number of suspects is to be kept to a manageable number, each suspect a living, vulnerable, credible human being not a cardboard stereotype to be per functorily knocked down in the final chapter. The classical detective story has to be carefully plotted 19
and planned. For me this process often takes as long as the actual writing. A book develops like a living organism with its roots deep in the subconscious. After the setting come the characters, and here the process of creation is to me particularly mysterious. I do not draw my characters directly from people I know in real life, but of course all characterisation must derive from life, from other people or from myself, life observed, pondered over and filtered through the imagination. I may describe a character's appearance from a stranger's face seen in a bus, a train, or observed on a long flight, may take a characteristic from one person, a trick of speech from another. But a writer's truest and most reliable source of characterisation must be herself, what she has experienced and remembered of the joys and miseries, the triumphs and failures, the terrors and the beauty of this our human life. For a novelist no experience, however painful, goes unused. Anthony Trollope, in his autobiography, wrote that the novelist can never know his characters well "unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep and as he wakes from his dreams". When I am writing a novel it seems to me as if the characters, their hopes and fears, their compulsions, their loves and hates, their childhood, everything that has or will happen to them, already exists in some limbo of my imagination and what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process less of creation than of revela- 20
tion. Perhaps the process of creativity has been best expressed by E.M.Forster who wrote: In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art... And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel (whatever it is) is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth. And then there is the necessary research. I return to the setting and make notes on the countryside, the architecture, the flora, the fauna. I try to be accurate with the medical and forensic details and here the Metropolitan Police and the staff of the forensic science laboratory at Lambeth are unfailingly helpful. With Original Sin I spent many days - and indeed nights - in a launch on the River Thames and spoke to watermen, historians and others familiar with the river. It was necessary, too, to learn something of Venetian architecture to create the exterior of Innocent House, and about late Georgian houses to describe the details of its magnificent interior. The problem with research is not the seeking out of information in areas where I am only too aware of my ignorance. To use an Alice in Wonderland phrase: it is what I don't know I don't know. In one of my earlier books, Unnatural 21
Causes, I have a suspect riding a motor-cycle, and I wrote that he reversed noisily down the lane. After publication I received a letter from a male reader, who wrote: "You are usually so meticulous in your choice of words, but by writing 'reversed' you give the impression that you think a twostroke motor-cycle engine can go backwards". Well, I did think it could go backwards. This has proved an extremely expensive mistake. I still get letters from gentlemen all over the world explaining to me in tedious detail, occasionally with a diagram, why a two-stroke motor-cycle engine can't go backwards. Salvation came a few months ago when I received a postcard bearing the words, "It can if it's a Harley-Davidson". One of the attractions of the detective story for a novelist is the number of interesting technical problems it presents. Chief among them, of course, is the difficulty of reconciling the three main elements; setting, characterisation and puzzle. There is the need to sustain a strong narrative thrust and avoid those mid-novel longueurs when the detective is interrogating each of the suspects. The motive for the murder must be credible. The sanctions against this ultimate crime - legal, psychological, religious and social - are very strong and readers today are no longer prepared to believe that the rational man or woman will kill to get rid of the difficult partner or to avoid sexual scandal. The lust for money is always a strong motive and so, too, is revenge and that long-standing hatred which so possesses the murderer that he can no longer happily breathe the same air as his victim. 22
There is the difficulty of that final chapter where all the ends are to be tied up, the mystery solved, the clues explained and the murderer and his motive at last revealed. How much simpler it was in the Golden Age when the crime invariably took place in mid-winter at Mayhem Manor where the squire would have invited his six best enemies to spend the festive season under his roof, all of them disliking each other as heartily as they hated him. Here the last chapter would invariably take place in the library where the brilliant amateur detective would summon all members of the house-party after dinner to propound the case against each of them in turn and finally point the finger at the least likely suspect. Today, of course, readers are far too sophisticated to accept this easy way out and we modern novelists have to find a more plausible method of ending our story What we aim to achieve is a culmination of intellectual and physical excitement and an ending which is both logical and satisfying. The reader must feel, yes, it could only have happened in that way, and given that character's past, his character, his compulsion and his motive perhaps I might, too, have been tempted. In the words of Ivy Compton-Burnett: "I believe it would go ill with many of us, if we were faced with strong temptation, and I suspect that with some of us it does go ill." But perhaps the chief technical problem is that of the writer's viewpoint in telling his story. The first person narrative, used so effectively, for example, by Dick Francis, has the advantage that it helps to create immediacy, realism and 23
credibility and encourages reader-identification with the hero-narrator. The disadvantage is that the reader can experience only what the hero experiences, can see only through his eyes, hear only through his ears, and can know nothing unless it is also known and experienced by the narrator. I prefer to tell my story from a number of viewpoints, moving from character to character, so that the reader can sometimes experience identical events but through different eyes. This change of viewpoint can add richness and diversity to a novel as well as an element of irony since the reader is often in possession of more information than the detective. But there is a major disadvantage; the story can never be told from the viewpoint of the murderer once the murder has been planned or carried into effect. Dorothy L. Sayers in her 1929 essay "The Omnibus of Crime" saw this inhibition as one of the reasons why the genre in her view could not hope to be regarded as the highest form of literature. She wrote: "Although it deals with the most desperate effects of rage, jealousy and revenge, it rarely touches the heights or depths of human passion. It does not show us the inner workings of a murderer's mind. It must not, for the identity of the murderer is hidden until the end of the book." So how indeed can the writer get into the murderer's mind and make his desperation, his motive, the inner workings of his mind, fully comprehensible to the reader without revealing that he is, in fact, the murderer? There are a number of devices for dealing with this difficulty but I still see it as the central technical problem of the detective story. 24
The writer who can solve it will write a novel. The writer who fails will produce only an ingenious puzzle. All the popular art forms - and detective fiction must certainly be counted among them - satisfy a number of basic needs of the human psyche; entertainment and a relief however temporary, from the responsibility, ardours and anxieties not only of our own daily lives but from the wider and more intractable problems forced on our attention daily by television and newspapers; a fantasy world peopled by well-loved, familiar and reliable friends into which we can escape for our comfort even while we know that it is a fantasy, that what it peddles is myth not reality; the excitement of vicarious danger, the knife in the dark aimed at our back but which we know will never strike, the footsteps on the stairs creeping towards us but from which we are ultimately secure, the terrors of the dark room which we can banish by putting out our hand to the switch. And popular art provides, above all an affirmation of identity and of our own deeply-held beliefs in goodness, in love, in reason, in order, in the possibility of happiness. It has been said that the detective story, which provides for so many of these needs and aspirations, flourishes best in an age of anxiety and pessimism simply because we then have the greater need of the solace it offers. And there is one function which the detective story performs which, I think, sets it apart from other popular artforms. I suggest that it provides a potent means by which both writer and reader can exorcise irrational feelings of 25
guilt and anxiety. Feelings of guilt are, of course, inseparable from being human. I feel guilty therefore I am. But whatever the shortcomings of our private lives, real or imaginary, when the detective in the mystery points his accusing finger in the last chapter we can be confident that it will not be at us. This at least is one crime for which we need feel no responsibility, one accusation to which we can return an honest "not guilty". But, despite the catharsis of this fictional and carefullycontrolled violence, the modern detective story is inevitably less reassuring than the comforting concoctions of the 1930s. Murder in Mayhem Parva may frighten but it never really hurts. The violence is sanitised, the blood is not real. At the end of the novel the innocent are vindicated and the guilty punished and we can echo the words of Browning's Pippa: "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world'". But all is not right with our world, and it is both the strength of the modern detective story and the measure of its maturity that authors today can still work within the conventions of this fascinating genre and try to tell the truth about ourselves and our turbulent world as we move towards the millenium. I would like to end with some words of Anthony Trollope's. In his autobiography he makes a distinction between what the Victorians called the novel of realism and the novel of sensation; that is, one with narrative thrust, strong action, excitement and mystery. He wrote: 26
"A novel should be both realistic and sensational, and both in the highest degree. Truth let there be, truth as to life, truth as to character, truth as to men and women. If there be that truth I do not think that a novel can be too sensational." It is for that essential truth that the writer of today's sensational fiction must constantly strive if she is to have any claim to be regarded as a serious novelist.
Murder and Mystery: the Craft of the Detective Story by P. D. James The Swedish Publishers' Association & the Stockholm University Library being the Trustees of the Adam Helms Collection of Books on Publishing and Bookselling are sponsoring an annual lecture on subjects related to the collection. This is the fourth Adam Helms Lecture, given at Stockholm University, April, 15th 1997. Published by The Swedish Publishers' Association, the Stockholm University Library and Wahlstrцm & Widstrand. Contributions from The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs (Kulturrеdet) and The Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and social sciences (HFSR). Printed in 999 copies. © by P. D.James 1997 PRINTED BY Faiths tryckeri, Vдrnamo 1997 GRAPHIC DESIGN by Christer Hellmark TYPEFACE Nordling BQ12/16 PAPER Lessebo bookpaper 120g COVER Tumba Tre Kronor 225g ISSN 1401-386X ISBN 91-630-6192-9 fl ABOUT THE TYPE The text is typeset in Nordling BQ, created by Цrjan Nordling in 1995. The typeface was awarded "Excellent Swedish Design" (Utmдrkt svensk form) in 1996.

File: murder-and-mystery-the-craft-of-the-detective-story.pdf
Published: Fri Apr 15 13:40:00 2011
Pages: 37
File size: 1.61 Mb


, pages, 0 Mb

, pages, 0 Mb
Copyright © 2018 doc.uments.com