Detective fiction: A summer escape (National Post, August 19, 2003)

The new Elizabeth George is in the shops, and I won't wait for the paperback. I must have it immediately, while there are leisure hours enough to enjoy it before Labour Day.

The days grow shorter. The detective fiction addicts amongst us are summoning strength to bid adieu to our holiday "high" of choice, the drug that takes us to that pleasant mental utopia where duty, order and justice always prevail over alienation, chaos and dysfunction.

Soon enough we will again be productive, and serious. Weekends, we will stoically return, in our reading, to novels where there is no closure, where there are no real heroes or villains (except white male Republicans), where morality is always relative, and where the very idea of justice and punishment for the "wicked" is a non-starter.

Time in short to return to our default Canadian worldview: non-judgmental, broody and self-doubting.

Addicts never forget their first "fix." I discovered detective fiction at the age of 20 on a flight to Chicago with a last-minute airport purchase of an Agatha Christie, I don't remember which one. What I do recall with clarity, after having perused the long list of Christie's oeuvre, was thinking: I wish this novel would never end, but even when it does, there are all these others! I can anticipate this exact experience again and again and again. Blissikins, as Nancy Mitford used to say.

Detective fiction is the one genre of literature that is read (and written) by intellectuals and proles alike. Mystery addicts share an ardent yearning to be transported to what David Willis McCullough, editor of Great Detectives, calls a "rarefied, elegant and always comforting world", where the Innocent are vindicated and the Evil discovered and punished.

Mysteries offer the straightforward worldview of a child, but animated by an adult story. The formulaic simplicity of the genre's dogma and the necessary subordination of character to plot arouse disdain in literary purists. Yet a good mystery plot is far more difficult to imagine and construct than the boilerplate stew of maundering introspection that drives the typical plotless modern novel. And as the genre evolves into a more nuanced hybrid of highbrow novel cum mystery -- Scott Turow's books spring to mind -- characters have become three-dimensional, and the story more sociologically ambitious.

The success of a mystery rests squarely on the character and intellect of the detective, whether professional or amateur. American critic Leslie Fiedler said that a fictional detective should be "the embodiment of innocence moving untouched through universal guilt" and that certainly fits Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn, to name the Golden Age tyros of the late '20s and '30s.

The Golden Age writers were my favourites. They were in a sense an anomaly because their stories took place in country houses and vicarages, while on the whole detective fiction functions best in society, in urban centres where the great crosscurrent of humanity can be found. Sherlock Holmes rarely left London for more than a day or two on assignment. The gritty realism of American detective fiction that began in the '40s demanded the raw and complex flavour of a dynamic city. I don't much care for that era; it is too violent for my parlour tastes.

Detective fiction is a Western obsession. W.H. Auden thought the form flourished mainly in Protestant countries because it had an appeal for readers like himself "who suffer from a sense of sin". The doyenne of Noblesse Oblige detective fiction, Dorothy Sayers, believed the genre was best suited to countries like England "where respect for law and fair play is stronger than admiration for criminal cunning." Perhaps that explains my lack of interest in classic American mysteries -- Americans really do admire alpha criminals.

In England P.D. James and Elizabeth George (an American Anglophile) carry the Golden Age's torch in their own ways. Their detectives, Adam Dalgliesh and Thomas Lynley, are more willing to expose their sensitive side, and they work at real jobs, while their relationship with the lower classes is more democratic than in days of yore.

The movie Gosford Park ostensibly recreated the Golden Age murder mystery but -- with postmodern ironic playfulness --broke every rule: The victim is killed very late in the story, clues are withheld from the viewer, the detective is a bumbling idiot, the murderer is a servant (a real no-no), he isn't really wicked at all, and he goes unpunished.

My great ambition was to write a murder mystery, so I did. My agent sadly informs me that mysteries are a tough sell in Canada. So far no takers, though one major publisher did say it was "entertaining" and "gripping." My hero is classically "bruised," but he ends up happy. Not Canadian enough, I suspect.

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