Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What is it about modern detective stories?

Time was a writer, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Freeman Wills Croft, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Emma Lathen would create a detective in a story, add a few friends and, possibly, relations as well as other details; then if it all worked, write another story with the character; then, maybe another, until there was a series and, quite often, a feeling of surfeit in the author.

Notoriously, Conan Doyle tried to kill off his detective but did not succeed; Christie invented other characters, then wrote a novel in which Poirot dies but, in a cowardly fashion, put it in a bank vault to be published after her death (she did not kill off Miss Marple, I note); Sayers married off Lord Peter eventually, then kept him going for a bit, then dropped him, leaving an unfinished novel behind together with notes for another one.

Matters seem to be otherwise nowadays and they are detrimental to the genre. I have just read a very recent American detective story (though it has already found its way to a charity shop where I purchase all my detective books now that Murder One in Charing Cross Road is no more). Called “Homicide in Hardcover”, it is by Kate Carlisle and is already billed as the First in a New Series.

Ms Carlisle, in other words, sat down and created a character and a milieu around her in order to write a series of books of, one suspects, increasing improbability.

The character is quite acceptable. She is called Brooklyn Wainwright and she restores antique books. The field of antique books is open to all kinds of skulduggery, there being so much money involved but this first of a new series goes off the rails on a completely different plot that has nothing to do with the fantastic value of some of the mentioned volumes.

Ms Wainwright was brought up in a Californian commune and we get a few descriptions of that happy place – a most unlikely scenario as is its apparent economic success. Why is it that all these detective stories that centre round groups and communities have to be on the left when the genre itself is about the most conservative one can imagine.

She has parents: the father is a slightly unknown quantity but the mother is entirely “lovable” and dippy who goes in for Buddhist chants at inappropriate moments though she is actually studying various forms of Hindu mysticism. Presumably, neither character nor author can tell the difference as few Californian New Agers can.

There is a best friend who is in love with the brother and they seem to be getting together; there is a good friend, director of a fabulous library who has only just come out as being gay (even Brooklyn thinks that is weird in San Francisco where it is almost compulsory according to her).

There is an improbably sexy and handsome British security agent who plays at being James Bond but seems to use only American slang; there are the police officers who will undoubtedly turn up; the supportive neighbouring lesbian couple; and the slightly sinister guru of the commune as well as a much hated enemy who is out to get our heroine.

One can see what will happen as it happens in numerous highly regarded series of detective novels. The characters will reappear and the heroine will come across endless murders for no apparent reason. Will the author ever get tired of her pert cuteness and sub-Chandlerian wisecracks? Will she be thrown down the Reichenbach Falls? Alas, probably not. Will there ever be a tightly plotted adventure that made some kind of sense? I suspect not.


  1. You sound just like Mr. Chandler himself in "The simple art of murder". By shocking coincidence I have been reading it this afternoon, with a grin glued to my lips.
    Improbability, engagement in politically-motivated template-molding, sloppy plots. Nothing seems to change since he pointed to it in the Atlantic in 1950.

  2. Talking of sloppy plots, few have been sloppier than Mr Chandler's but what fun those books are to read.

  3. Ah, here I think you're wrong (I'm a newly-devoted fan, you see).
    His plots might be convoluted and some of the characters not very believable (especially women), but he always know the particularities of business, details of life he describes, specifics of the professions and lifestyles, material residue that provide total natural logic for the turns of the plot.
    Besides, he didn't think himself that the plot matters; what mattered to him was the formal method of writing that conveyed internal message, or mood, or outlook of the writer. The genre happened to be detective story and that had imposed certain technical limitations of form on him, but generally it was not terribly important.

  4. There is no point in arguing with people who are complete Chandler fans. ;)

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