On crime fiction and saviours

Crime fiction…it inhabits the darkness.

It starts with fracture, ‘the zero hour’, as Agatha Christie called it; the chase, the fear, the scream, the killing and the cover-up.

And then into the darkness comes the detective – trying to make sense of things; trying to bring order to a disordered world.

There’s something redemptive here, something about a saviour. We enter the darkness with them – but only because we believe we’ll be led back to the light.

This is why murder mystery, in all its awfulness, is somehow reassuring. We know, in the end, our saviour will take us home.

And as we enter the dislocation, our choice of detective says a lot about us; and all sorts are available.

What do you look for in your saviour? You might like Jonathan Creek and find Vera really irritating – or vice versa.

Does your saviour need to be a chain-smoking ex-alcoholic, with a disastrous relationship history and an awkward teenage daughter, who has just got back in touch?

Or do you like Miss Marple or Columbo – who come with no baggage at all?

Does the emotionally-repressed Foyle do it for you?

Perhaps you like the irascible and moody Inspector Morse – or perhaps you just wish he’d get his shit in order and stop taking it out on everyone else.

What do you look for in your saviour? And what sort of mood do you want, what sort of darkness?

Raymond Chandler once said that American writers of hard-boiled detective stories like himself had taken murder out of ‘the vicar’s rose garden’ and dropped it in the alley.

His tough, hard-edged crime fiction was a clear departure from the more refined, genteel detective stories of British writers such as Agatha Christie, in which there were a lot of vicars; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his violin-playing Sherlock Holmes.

Hercule Poirot, Christie’s fastidious armchair super-sleuth, can find the solution to any mystery with his ingenious faculties of deduction, his ‘little grey cells’.

After he solves the case, some upper-class fellow says:

‘Thank God for Poirot – and I don’t often say that about the French!’
‘I’m Belgian’
‘Well, wherever, Poirot – jolly grateful and all that! Sherry, anyone?’

Philip Marlowe, however, Chandler’s detective –  his world was different; a different sort of darkness. Los Angeles in those days was still something of a frontier town – rough, corrupt, and teeming with immigrants in search of the American Dream.

The universe of pulp fiction had no country houses and no butlers but was ‘a shadow realm of crime and dislocation, in which benighted individuals do battle with implacable threats and temptations.’

This is the world in which Philip Marlowe functions in The Big Sleep.

But while the environment is dislocated, Marlowe is not. He is an honourable man and keeps his moral footing in this world, because he is a man of conviction, of principle, who can withstand and overcome the forces of social disruption and personal greed.

With crime fiction, we choose both the colour of the dark and the nature of our saviour.

(My Abbot Peter murder mystery series is my own attempt at this wonderful genre.)


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