The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.

 

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    Superb, Noah. Absolutely superb. As you reference above, LPW would say, you “absolutely whang the nail over the crumpet.” I would much rather see current authors write their own stories in the Golden Age style than try to resuscitate detectives who have been peacefully at rest. I hadn’t heard about the Ngaio Marsh continuation, but Ye Gads! Not another.

  2. cmikolj says:

    An excellent piece. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read it. I suppose publishers are keen to find authors who are willing to write ‘continuations’ of the work of well-known authors because the public are already aware of the existing canon, so half the marketing work is already done. I don’t believe that one should try to write like Christie or Marsh; it’s not possible. But authors can try to be as good in their own way as the giants of the Golden Age; and then, we might get a new Golden Age! I don’t believe it’s possible to write a really accurate pastiche of past works; authors writing in the 20s or 30s were writing from their own perspective and world view. Many times, as we see in their work, they had bigoted views that would be unacceptable today and so cannot be included in modern stories.
    Oddly enough though, I never mind authors who take original characters created by someone else and lead them in new and totally different directions.The works of Conan Doyle, H P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson have all provided inspiration for such writers, sometimes with very enjoyable results. I would love to see ‘The Further Adventures of Captain Hastings’, where the gallant captain, having lost his best friend in ‘Curtain’, re-marries and forms a husband and wife detective duo. Sadly, until Christie enters the public domain, I don’t suppose I ever shall.

  3. Hi Noah – as as my little nieces used to say, “ouchey”! It’s not a great article, I quite agree, but then I suspect it is trying to convey a very general impression in very general terms, one that a lot of consumers (I mean, readers) would recognise – so the issue is why that might be, even if it is incorrect in detail?. I mean, look, the British Library has never had a success like it has had with its crime classics line, they have definitely said that more than once, and no one is queuing up to reprint classic westerns, romance or SF in anything like the same quantities, so I think it is safe to say that it is a genre that has retained some of its appeal. And as for that pesky definition of ‘Golden Age’ (and I’m with Terry Carr and Peter Graham, who in the context of SF said the answer is ’12’), even our beloved friend Bev stretches it to 1959 🙂 And is it really hard to understand why they went with a photo featuring both Sherlock and Miss Marple? I mean, nobody is having their, ahem, nether regions actually ‘interfered with’ are they, old chap?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Perhaps I was in a cranky mood yesterday, that’s entirely likely … probably if I were to have ruminated for a day or two, my bad cess would have been dialed back a bit. It still does grind my gears, though.
      Actually I have noticed that the industry is gearing up to reprint classic SF, although as you say not in anything like the same quantities.
      I made a case a few years back for the end of the Golden Age being 1941, but I’m open to argument (https://noah-stewart.com/2014/03/20/the-end-of-the-golden-age/)
      And finally, to demonstrate how perceptive you are 😉 I have to confess that I went with the photo of Sherlock and Miss Marple for the same reason they did — to garner a few extra eyeballs. Mea culpa!

  4. JJ says:

    While I don’t disagree with a lot of what you said, do you not feel that a fair proportion of classic mysteries were “subversive, wickedly funny and modern” when published? I appreciate that these books being pimped here are an altogether different type of modern, probably not at all subversive, and unlikely to be wickedly funny, but the recognition of the spirit of a lot of what made the genre great back in its heyday is at least some cause for hope (I mean, it could also be a publisher spouting buzzwords, but I’m trying optimism this week…).

    The most surprising thing about the entire article is that both Sophie Hannah and Matthew Prichard said something that’s actually pretty much spot on. That’s the real story here!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I certainly agree that a small percentage of GAD was subversive, wickedly funny and modern. (I love Leo Bruce and Edmund Crispin, but most of their work doesn’t count as GAD.) I agree that there is actually some cause for hope — I’m not entirely pessimistic about the potential for a revival of GAD-type books, but I think it’s more along the lines of what Sophie Hannah said, that the authors and readers will take pleasure in the story-telling. I think the revival is not going to arise out of the modern cozy, though, since that whole sub-genre has hold of the wrong end of that particular stick. (The plots are bare-bones and personalities are everything.) I surely do hope there is that revival down the pipe, but I dislike being sold it by large publishers telling me what I should want rather than trying to find out what I DO want.
      And, yes, surprising about Hannah and Matthew Prichard. I am starting to have a great deal of respect for Sophie Hannah. I don’t like those Poirot books of hers, but I think she’s definitely capable of writing a classic mystery — she understands where they come from and how they work, she just has a contract that doesn’t allow her to write one with Poirot in it.

      • JJ says:

        I think the revival is not going to arise out of the modern cozy, though — couldn’t agree more. The modern cosy demonstrates a completely different set of expectations and rules for their plots, and is about a removed from the detective plots of the Golden Age as they are from the American harboiled novels of the 1950s. I’ve talked about cosy crime fiction and the damage it does to perceptions of GA stuff at length before, so I shan’t go on here, but I abhor it and despair at the way the two seem inextriably linked in the perceptions of so many people.

  5. The sub-heading to the article (which, like the title, will not have been written by the main author) mentions ‘Miss Marples’, which gives a clue to the level of knowledge involved. I found the article a depressing read on many levels, but I really enjoyed your rant.

  6. neer says:

    “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” I can’t tell you how much fun it was going through your post:) I wish you would one day write something in a similar vein about ‘cozies’, a word I have come to hate.

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