So, I’ve been thinking recently about why exactly I enjoy the old-fashioned detective novel and there are many reasons: the intriguing nature of a puzzle, the intellectual challenge of playing along, the humour which is prevalent, the fascinating period details and those rare, but special, moments when you discover a member of the working class who is portrayed as a reasonable human being.
And there is another, more elusive reason, which I’m going to try to explain below: the appeal of artificiality.
By this, I don’t mean stilted dialogue or irritatingly fake stereotypes – these are certainly present in a good many detective novels, but not as many as detractors would suggest: nor are they confined to this genre. What I’m intending to convey is that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.
After all, most detective novels are concerned with murder – often multiple murders – and, if dealt with at all realistically, then the weight of genuine emotion and suffering would somewhat smother the idea of having some good, investigative fun. (This is, in fact, one reason why many modern crime novels do not appeal to me personally: I can appreciate that the realistic treatment of the psychological and emotional repercussions of crime from all points of view is a valid area of writing, without actually wanting to read it).
And, it’s important to add that complete implausibility, whether of plot, character, scenario or all of the above, is not acceptable. This artificiality is a mutually agreed upon circumvention of reality in certain specific instances, not a wholesale invitation to absurdity or plain bad writing.
I will attempt to illustrate how this artificiality is created using some common tropes. Just to emphasise, these are by no means universal, just scenarios that occur frequently enough to be worthy of mention.
Trope number one –abominate your victim
In the majority of detective novels that I’ve read, the victim of, at least the first murder and very often secondary ones, is a Nasty Piece of Work (and there is an argument to be made that the genre’s widespread ‘blame the victim’ mentality is rather horrific – this is one of the reasons I believe that the acceptance of artificiality is a good thing, assuming that it’s fully realised on both sides that this is Not How It Really Works).
Mrs Boynton in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death is a supreme example of the type, but there are many others, ranging from those just not very much liked, through to veritable Spawns of Satan. Blackmailers come a frequent cropper and this particular crime is often suggested to be worse than murder. Often a character – even one intended to be likeable – will voice the opinion that the world would be better off without (Victim X) or, after their death, declare that they would like to shake the killer by the hand.
Along with this, goes the tendency for the victim to have nobody who’s really that upset at their passing, so that grief doesn’t become a troubling issue.
It all tends towards the presentation of the murder as either plot device, pure and simple, or wish-fulfilment, as opposed to the actual loss of an actual human being.
Trope number two – exaggerate your detective
Creating a memorable and, hopefully, appealing detective serves two purposes. It secures the interest and loyalty of your reader, who will frequently forgive the occasional dud in the plot and ingenuity departments, in order to spend some time with a character they enjoy. And it also adds a note of comforting unreality.
To take just a very few examples:
Lord Peter Wimsey would never have really been on such intimate terms with the law, brother-in-law or no brother-in-law (not to mention his occasional magical powers of being a cricket-god, diving into puddles and driving with that recklessness which is lauded in a hero, but sensibly condemned in all other mortals).
Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe and Dr Gideon Fell are all excellent characters but a little – okay, in Dr Fell’s case, a lot – larger than life.
Father Brown does not speak in human.
Gervase Fen is very deliberately a ‘character’ and knows it.
Philo Vance would have long ago been quietly and thoroughly shot.
And, most importantly, no real detective would have had such an infallible ability to solve the crime, each and every time, and provide that necessary resolution for the reader.
Trope number three – everybody lies
Dr Gregory House might have it that this is strictly realistic, but the practice of having half or more of your suspects up to some sort of murky goings on the night of the murder – or covering up for someone else whom they suspect was up to murky goings on (but was, in fact, a member of the secret police or just going to the toilet) – leading to lies, shiftiness and a whole plate of fat red herrings, frequently stretches the limits of plausibility. Quite often somebody turns out to be somebody else, which might have the effect of being a satisfying revelation, a complete non-surprise or an insufficiently clued reason to throw the book across the room (agreed artificiality only goes so far here – if two or more people are pretending to be someone else and this is not a Wodehouse novel, then disbelief comes crashing to the ground and limps off in a huff.)
But generally, all this makes things nicely complicated and gives the detective a chance to exercise his/her little grey cells as well as uttering cryptic warnings right, left and centre.
Trope number four – frustrate the lawyers
The actual scenario of all the suspects being gathered together by the detective and picked on, rather cruelly, one by one, to point out their various lies and shortcomings (see above) before the true villain is unmasked may not actually occur as often as implied by parodies, but the scenario of the murderer being confronted and either confessing, committing immediate suicide or both, does happen far more frequently than would ever occur in reality.
But – and this is the crux of my argument – reality is not wanted here. The detailed processing of the victim; the holes or violations in the prosecution’s case (I’m looking at you, Inspector French); the uncertainty left by the victim’s refusing to plead guilty, will tend to leave the reader feeling frustrated and unsatisfied; while the instant death of the perpetrator by either suicide or deus ex machina, gives a sense of justice served, as well as relieving the detective from involvement in that unpleasant business of the death penalty (although this particular reality is sometimes allowed to obtrude, for example when adding depth to a character (see Lord Peter) or making a point, either for or against.)
And there are, of course, plenty of other possible tropes, but I think I’ll stop there before my fingers bleed and merely hope that this all makes some sort of sense.