It’s a common scenario. Reader meets genre on a scented summer evening – or a dank, dull Tuesday in the library – and it’s love at first line. As the mystery deepens and the body count rises, the infatuation only increases until, with a last satisfying twist, two hearts beat as one and an eternal bond is formed.
Or is it? Even in the best relationships, there are bound to be bumps on the road, not all of which are corpses rich with intrigue. But don’t despair! You are not alone (or else, why is that floorboard squeaking and the footsteps coming closer, ever closer?) and even the most hopeless cases may be turned around with just a little effort and the adoption of selective blinkers.
Here are a few of the most common problems and how to deal with them.
1. You cheated on me!
You may not want to believe it but in any serious relationship with detection, there will come a point of betrayal. Your detective will calmly pull from their sleeve, pocket or fundament a vital clue which they have accidentally-on-purpose forgotten to share with you. The culprit will turn out to be the least interesting suspect, deservedly forgotten by chapter ten. That impossibly locked room will have a secret passage, a spare key or a basic impossibility, so large and gaping, that an entire army of assassins could have waltzed through it on elephants.
It is a blow the first time this happens (have a tissue) and you may feel that you can never trust again. But take heart and persevere. Don’t go into your next novel with a bitter heart and an eye for misinformation but with trust and forgiveness and, if necessary, a voluntary astigmatism. After a few more reads you will find that, either your faith has been restored or the pain has been softened by repeated blows to a kind of bearable ache, which can safely linger in the background of a relationship without destroying it outright.
2. The spark is gone
In the beginning there seems to be no end to the twists and tricks that your darling can play.
Gasp! It’s the narrator! Gosh! It’s the detective! Stap my vitals, it’s the whole damn boiling!
Or again: that remark wasn’t really what you thought it was. We knew who did it from the start .We thought we knew who did it, but oh hey, hang on a minute…
But, as the books mount up, familiarity strikes. A first you may find it perfectly comfortable – settling into the same old clichés, like a well-worn jumper which is still warm and cosy despite the holes in the elbows and the more-sag-than-waist. But after a while you become restless and bored. You read through another unreliable narration and you just feel stale and flat.
Where has all the excitement gone? What happened to that element of surprise that first sprung upon you, with a knife to the throat, and drew you together?
It is tempting, in these circumstances, to indulge in yet another cliché by wallowing in a heap of those classics that first seduced you and a 2 litre tub of ice-cream, trying to recapture that old magic.
This is a mistake. In that frame of mind you run the risk of spoiling even your best-loved and most sparkling pieces of construction and well-sprung surprise, by memories of later over-use; not to mention, you’ll be throwing up ice-cream for a week.
No, the best method to deal with this slump is to go out and have yourself a good, solid affair.
Flirt with fantasy. Sidle up to sci-fi. Let a few spy thrillers in from the cold. And, then, just before your new love gets to the stage of either wanting to elope or vanishes in the night with your wallet, passport and puppy, storm back to detective fiction with a box of poisoned chocolates and a bunch of lilies and take it on a wild weekend in Paris, reading passionately on the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomph and while wandering through the Champs Elysees, until you forget why you ever left (or get run over).
3. Oh, the shame of it…
You may have had this experience, when all your friends are discussing Dostoevsky or Proust or expounding on the greater psychological realism of modern day crime and then they politely ask, so what are you reading now –and then stare at you as though you’d produced ‘The Adventures of Noddy’.
But if you have ever felt to urge to bury your GAD in a dust cover of ‘Wuthering Heights’ or to cough and explain that, of course, you’re just reading it for the irony or for a bit of light relief between ‘A la recherché du temps perdu’ volumes five and six, then hold off for a moment and think it over.
Is all the richness of human experience laid bare within the pages of your GAD collection? Probably not (but feel free to argue otherwise).
Is reading quality detective fiction a stimulating and enjoyable experience, which tests your ingenuity, broadens your general knowledge, frequently makes you laugh, sometimes makes you think and, more often than expected, provides a little genuine insight?
Most importantly, do you and Detective fiction have a ball together?
If so, rip off the dust jacket and the excuses, bring out your best lecture on the seventy-three ways of creating impossible footprints in the snow and walk out together proud and unashamed.
4. I can’t believe you just said that!
It’s an unpalatable truth that within all the wild and wonderful mixture of exciting adventures, baffling occurrences, intelligent plotting and satirical commentary of the spectrum of detection, there lurks a core of prejudice, sexism, class division and ‘I may be old-fashioned, but…’.
It’s not universal – not even as common as frequently suggested by detractors – but there is no getting around the fact that a lover of the Golden Age must deal with embedded attitudes of the era in which they were written, for good or ill. So, you may be enjoying a beautiful candlelit supper, when your dearest beloved throws out something unconscionable about Jews or foreigners, women or the servant class, before trying to stick their tongue in your ear.
This can certainly put a strain on the relationship. Your only options, if you wish to stay together, are to acquire a thick blue pencil, grit your teeth and bear it or come to some acceptance of the fact that to enjoy the innate qualities of a period of writing, you must also bear with the flaws.
Though, you’ll probably still want to keep that tongue well away from your ear.
5. You’re not the detective I fell in love with
Everybody’s done it. You go to bed one night with Poirot and wake up with a headache and Ellery Queen. One minute you’re flirting with Miss Marple and the next Miss Silver is delicately coughing back. In all the panoply of detectives, whether Great, passable or was -there-a-detective-in-that-one? – not to mention all the Watsons and assorted sidekicks, plucky lovebirds and ‘comedy’ yokels – you are sure to find a dozen or so that, at best, bore you and, at worst, cause you such exasperation that you heave the book right across the room and dent the cat.
But wait: before you give up in despair, after the allure of a well-written theatre opening has led you to forget Handsome Alleyn’s appalling morning breath and flatulence one too many times, consider the good times. Those happy moments in the company of a detective who woos you with your preferred brand of wit, charm, a refreshing earthiness or, simply, a genuine intelligence and deductive flair.
In exploring the world of detective fiction, you will find much that doesn’t appeal. But, someday, rest assured, your Prince/princess will come.
(And you can finish, if you wish, on a song, but I don’t recommend it).