A column from ages ago, first published here. I’ve been having unoriginal thoughts about narrative a lot lately.
The book itself was bought only because I like the Hogarth Crime books and their particular shade of purple, and I was in Barter Books and it seemed like a good use of my time. I doubt I’ll be rereading, alas.
One of the detective fiction conventions established by the Detection Club, a group for British mystery writers that included Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy and G.K. Chesterton and other genre greats, was that of “fair play”. Information was not to be withheld from the readers, who ought to, if smart enough, have a chance at solving the crime themselves. There were to be no bizarre twists, the solution could not be a supernatural one, unforeseen identical twins or doppelgangers could not suddenly be revealed to have existed the whole time. The detective must not commit the crime, and the thoughts of the ‘Watson’ figure must not be hidden (the rules were “codified” by Ronald Knox in 1929– after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
The importance granted here to giving the reader a chance to figure things out suggests that the detective novel is considered a kind of activity book, which in practice it often is. But it also renders the world of the book fundamentally solvable, and understandable. Everything makes sense, at a basic level, the police may not be as good at their jobs as aristocratic amateur detectives, but justice is eventually served (and we know what justice is) and order is restored. For a world full of random murder, it is nonetheless very soothing.
But in the real world, things are often concealed from us, the narratives we’re offered are occasionally manipulated by the people responsible for terrible things, violence is random and unexpected and things don’t fit together and the truth, if we have it, makes things messier and more complicated.
Two recent reads have reminded me of this, and of the fact that Fair Play or not, the world of these books is not always a comfortable one. The first of these is a reasonably well-known classic, Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, in which an amateur psychologist spends some time lecturing at a women’s physical training college. When an unpleasant girl is found dead in the gym it is assumed to be the result of a tragic accident, and no one but Miss Pym has any reason to suspect murder. But justice is complicated and perhaps nothing can be gained by ruining another life, and she chooses to let the murderer go because it is a person she likes and admires. And as the book ends we’re given reason to think she might be wrong.
Romilly and Katherine John’s 1933 Death by Request is less known—I only picked it up at all because it was a part of Hogarth’s crime series. It’s so packed with genre tropes to be almost a cliché; the small village, the country house filled with illustrious guests, the sinister butler, the handsome lord who is found dead in full evening dress, the blustering colonel, the amateur detectives who solve the case. The whole thing is narrated by the local vicar, an elderly man who is sometimes comically shocked by the current generation, sometimes dryly funny. The whole is set in an oddly brutal world, full of bullying and infidelity, and it seems of a piece with the awfulness of everything else that the amateur detectives should prove their case by setting a trap that kills the murderer. But as with Miss Pym Disposes, we discover soon after that perhaps even the brilliant amateurs are wrong about the identity of the killer and his motive (I do not wish to give the ending away, but the true killer has one of the best motives I’ve come across in the genre).
Even in something as groundbreaking as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, justice is served, the murderer found and exposed. Tey and the Johns offer us a much more sinister world; one in which the real culprits might be left free, innocent victims destroyed by fallible detecting methods; where the detective can be wrong.