Many years ago, when I was in my early to mid-teens, I was for a while addicted to the novels of Agatha Christie. I had nearly all of them, in those slim Fontana paperbacks, on the shelves above my bed. Though I’m not sure that I ever read any of them more than once.
Christie was the benchmark for a view I would form later, that what was important in a crime novel was the solution of the crime. It was, as many have said, a moral issue: committing the crime is to rend apart the moral order, and solving the crime is to restore that order. To that extent, as I have said many times, the crime novel is a deeply conservative genre.
Well I was partly right: committing a crime is still, I believe, to rend apart the moral order. But I have come to see that solving the crime does not restore that order. Indeed, the solution of the crime is far from what is important in a crime novel; in many ways I think it is the least important part of the novel. It triggers the plot, it is the excuse for telling the story, but in most cases it is not what the novel is about.
Christie, you see, is a very poor model for the crime novel; she is actually something of an aberration within the form. For Christie, for the teenage me, the crime novel was an intellectual exercise: how do you structure and then solve the puzzle? Indeed, for Christie churning out book after book the issue was often how do you twist the formula simply to make the familiar intellectual puzzle a little more puzzling (Murder on the Orient Express where everyone is the murderer; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where the narrator is the murderer; Ten Little Indians where the murderer appears to be one of the victims). Yes, in all these instances solving the crime does restore order, but it is an artificial order artificially disturbed. There is no resonance even within the tiny compass of the novel, so there has never really been any damage to the moral order.
I have, in recent years, been venturing back to the crime novel, but it is a very different crime novel to the Christie model I had been aware of. I have, over the years, been dipping in to the Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, the Falco novels of Lindsey Davies, and most recently the Quirke novels of Benjamin Black (John Banville). I will come back to these last shortly (this post was, after all, prompted by reading the latest and perhaps best of them), but let me begin by picking up on something I have noticed in the Sayers and Davies books, then I will apply that observation to the Black.
Sayers was a contemporary of Christie (it was, after all, the heyday of the women crime writers, think also Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh), so I suppose you expect a Christie-esque model. I certainly did; when I tried a Sayers novel as a teenage I put it down disappointed because it wasn’t just like Christie. Coming back to them now, I see why I was disappointed and why that was a failure in me rather than in Sayers.
There are, I would venture, two broad types of Wimsey novels, those (Five Red Herrings, Busman’s Honeymoon) in which the ingenuity of the crime or the solution is paramount, and these I find relatively unsatisfactory, and those (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Murder Must Advertise) in which the crime fades into the background. These are social novels; The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, for instance, is a devastating account of the social consequences of the First World War, the unexpected whirl of a changing social role mixed up with survivor guilt felt by those who came out of the trenches. Murder Must Advertise, on the other hand, is a remarkably perceptive comedy about an advertising agency, whose types, roles and manners I recognize from my own experiences in an advertising agency in the 1970s. Murder, in these instances, really is a moral disruption in the social order, because there is a moral and social order to be disrupted. And the solution of the crime is satisfying, intellectually, but it doesn’t mend anything. And it is the fact, particularly in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, that the old order is so fragile, so open to disruption, that is what is interesting about the book.
Lindsey Davies also seems to write two broad types of novel, which appear pretty much alternately; those set in Rome and its environs and those set in the provinces. Again I find one type, those set in Rome, far more satisfying than the other, but it took me a long time to work out why that might be. In the end, though, it comes down to pretty much the same reason that I find some of Sayers’ novels more satisfying than the others.
If you are not familiar with the Falco novels, he is a private informer in the Rome of Vespasian, and narrates the novels in a style not dissimilar to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. They are not high art, but I find them strangely pleasing, particularly for the way Falco provides a modern perspective on everyday life in Rome. His environment is one of fire-trap apartment buildings, insalubrious fast-food joints, laundries that provide buckets in the street where passers-by can urinate so the urine can be used in cleaning clothes. It is, in other words, a vivid account of what it might have been like for ordinary people in ancient Rome, how it smelled, how it tasted; it is a social world, and though the crimes are almost incidental they do, through their disruption, highlight the world that has been disrupted. Falco is a native of Rome, which means that in the Rome-set novels you see that disrupted world from the inside. When he travels, to Britain or Palmyra or Libya or Greece, he is as much a tourist as we are, we do not see the society from the inside, so the crime reverts to being an intellectual puzzle rather than a social revelation.
So what I get from Sayers and from Davies is that the crime novel is primarily a novel of place. What is important is not the crime, certainly not the solution of the crime; it is the setting. Remember when Chandler admitted that he did not know who committed one of the killings in The Big Sleep? That is because the identity of the killer, the solution of the crime, really was unimportant. His novels were, literally, about the mean streets rather than the man who was not himself mean. Because it is the mean streets, the crumbling apartments of ancient Rome, the corridors of a London advertising agency, that provide the moral and social world that is to be tested and examined by the disruption of crime. Solving the crime, finding the killer, only provides an excuse for examining the context.
John Banville began writing his mystery novels after winning the Booker Prize for The Sea. His mainstream novels employ a delicate, in some places an etiolated prose, a subtle awareness of character, they are novels of sensibility rather than of action. Yet he had touched on crime (for instance, in The Book of Evidence) and even espionage (The Untouchable), so it wasn’t entirely out of character that he should turn to this subject matter again. What was unexpected was that, under the name Benjamin Black, he would write with so firm a grip on pace and plot, aspects of the novel that had enjoyed a less prominent role in the books he had written to that point.
I notice that, on the cover of the latest book, Elegy for April, it is described as ‘a new Quirke Dublin Mystery’, which puts the emphasis on precisely the point I have been making: these are novels of place. Quirke, the alcoholic pathologist, is an interesting character, but what makes the books fascinating, indeed what makes them mysteries, is the characterization of Dublin in the 1950s. The first novel, Christine Falls, is set entirely in Dublin and is a thoroughly engrossing work. The second, The Silver Swan, begins in Dublin but then moves to Boston for its denouement, and precisely in that shift, in that change from insider’s view of place to visitor’s view of place, it loses focus, just as the Falco novels set outside Rome lose focus. Benjamin Black then wrote a slim espionage thriller set entirely in the US, The Lemur, and that is by some distance the weakest of his books.
Now, Elegy for April takes us back to that cold, fog-bound, wintery city, it enfolds us within Dublin and the development and resolution of the mystery depends entirely upon coming to understand the particular mores of that time and place. Shift the focus to another city or another time and there would not be a story. It is the rent in the moral order of 1950s Dublin that this novel is all about. The damage to the moral universe is never repaired, the solution simply deepens the cut, but in so forensically slicing away at Dublin’s morality he reveals that time and that place as no other form of fiction could do. We understand more clearly how a community works, what they consider right and proper, if we see it torn apart in the moral upset of crime.
Dublin in the 1950s comes across as a narrow, limiting place. The influence of the Church is everywhere and unquestioned (in these novels we never see anyone actually going to church, but Quirke was raised in a Catholic orphanage, he works in a hospital with a saint’s name, at the beginning of this novel he is drying out at a place called ‘St John’s’), but what is worse is the smothering sense of what is proper exuded by those in power. It is also a place that is poor: we see plastic coats inadequate for the cold and the damp, we see dismal flats with single-bar heaters, we see puny coal fires inadequate for heating the entire room even in the offices of government ministers. Yet for all that this makes it a time and a place I would not want to have lived, there is a soft-edged quality, a conviviality about the place, that has its attractions. Everything happens over a jar in a seedy pub, or a glass of wine in a hotel bar; everyone has a cigarette permanently in place. One of the characters in the new novel is a black medical student, who enjoys both casual racism and the casual friendship of a small circle of white friends. Banville captures these contradictions in the place very nicely, and it is from them that we come to our understanding both of the place and of the exact nature of the disruption to the moral order that the novel recounts.
It is a city where those who acquire power never question their rights and authority; once you reach the height you can do anything. But what you do is bound by rules that are never laid down, rules dictated by the Church at its most puritanical and then taken to an extreme by people afraid of appearing despoiled if they are not rigid in their adherence. In such an atmosphere, sex is a greater crime than murder, and all three of the Quirke novels involve murder committed as the least troublesome way of hiding a greater sin. We have therefore seen, within these books, a trade in orphaned children, pornography, and, in the latest volume, abortion. So terrible would it be to allow any whisper to escape that a member of your family has had an abortion, that it is safer and less morally troublesome to kill her. Can you really understand the moral compass of 1950s Dublin any better than through such extreme despoliation of morality?
Of course, sex means family. It is a small city and all three of the Quirke novels are concerned with family, because morality is what concerns those closest to us. Quirke’s own family situation is complex (he gave away his own daughter when she was born to be raised by his step-brother, who happened to be married to the woman who was really the love of Quirke’s life; the daughter only discovers this during the course of the first novel). In both the first two novels the investigation of crime comes up against moral compromises within Quirke’s own family. In this way city and family are shown to be the same thing, and the moral disruption within the family caused by crime is made to stand for the moral disruption within the wider community. Elegy for April also involves Quirke’s family, but it is less close to home: his daughter’s best friend disappears, and as he traces what happened to her he finds himself drawn into the moral compromises of a different family, a family that stands for the social, political and medical establishment of the city.
In the end, the recognition of exactly what crime was committed, and the identification of the criminal, are perhaps skimped. They don’t matter. In the course of the novel we have come to understand something of Dublin in the 1950s, its foggy streets, its cheap rooms, its smoke-filled pubs, its sad little shops, its elite imprisoned within a sense of their own moral position, and below them a city even more rigidly straightjacketed by precisely those same moral assumptions. And it is that understanding that this novel is all about. It is a mystery only because it tells us about that time, that place. And that is what all the best crime novels should really do.