Intertextuality and indoctrination: Why do we read Golden Age detective fiction?

Settle in, this will be a long one 😉 I do not intend to give away too much specific information about any particular work of detective fiction, so no spoiler warning will be required, just this once.


Some months back I published an essay on intertextuality and detective fiction, suggesting that it was one of the reasons we liked to read Golden Age detective fiction (henceforth “GAD”). In that essay I used the term “intertextuality” (which has different meaning depending on whose work you’re reading, so please refer to what I’ve said there if it’s important) to refer, among other things, to the idea that every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery. And I noted that this is the kind of thing to which Raymond Chandler may have been referring in the following quotation:

“It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.

Emphasis mine. What I’ve suggested is that the reading public may not be able to recognize intertextuality in its GAD, but it likes it.

I also promised you a disquisition on “indoctrination”, which I think is another crucial “intellectual and artistic overtone” that goes into the enjoyment of Golden Age detective fiction, but I didn’t define it. I said that it’s one of the two reasons that I actually DO think that people read detective fiction; I’ve since come up with a third, for which I use the general heading of “ingenuity”.  So, so far, the three “I”s of detective fiction.

Why Do People Read Detective Fiction?

bloody_murderJulian Symons, in his ground-breaking 1972 history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel suggests — and I am very loosely paraphrasing here — that people read detective fiction because they like the way that the genre breaks order and then restores it at the end. The crime is committed (order is broken), the detective investigates, and order is restored when the criminal is caught and punished. It is true that detective fiction, if it hopes to be taken seriously qua detective fiction, must solve any mysteries that it has raised during the course of the story; “law and order” will generally prevail, especially in the context of GAD. I’ve always found this suggested motivation of the restoration of order hard to accept on more than an intellectual level; frankly, it never echoed with me viscerally. Did you ever pick up a murder mystery and think, “Oh, good, now I get to see order broken and restored!”  No, neither did I.

I’ve been looking for reasons that make more sense about why people read detective fiction. My mind kept returning to the idea that GAD detective fiction in general is one of three immutable genres; that is, every story in GAD is almost exactly the same at a very basic level. (The crime is committed, the detective investigates, the criminal is caught and punished.) Of all the genres I can think of, there are only two others of which this is the case; romance and pornography. Science fiction and westerns, adventure and fantasy, espionage and thrillers and “chick lit”, all of these genres have plots and characters that range widely and are impossible to predict. But in the three immutable genres, the basic stories are always the same.

So if the story is always the same, then what must be differentiating good GAD from bad is some other quality that is carried within the story, or around the story, or above the story — essentially, something not-story. Symons suggests that it’s the restoration of order, and previously I’ve suggested that intertextuality is at least one such quality.

At this point, I went looking on the internet for what people say is the reason they read GAD. I found some of that, to be sure. But what I found within the boundaries of that search was a great deal of material about why women read cozy mysteries. I say “women” not in some overlooked residue of sexism, but because I was impressed by the sheer omnipresence of women’s commentary outweighing men’s by about 99% to 1%. And there are an awful lot of women writing about what it is that they like about cozy mysteries. I started to get interested.

There’s a primitive level of reaction to their chosen literature, by the least literate stratum of aficionados, that I’ve actually seen represented as “Well, I love the plots and the characters.” (As opposed to heaven knows what else — theme?) This is enthusiastic but not very useful because all books have plots and characters. But since the mystery genre is the written word, its aficionados are more literate than many, and I soon found a reasonably high level of discourse on the Internet.

10e1b3c02220a489a82fcf2175a32f3e--nook-books-read-booksOne comment on Goodreads I found particularly interesting: “Why are we particularly interested in the sleuth’s job/craft/hobby?…We could certainly research knitting/cooking/cats on any website. So what makes the combination of characters, occupation and mystery so interesting–and so addictive?”

I think this is the quote that allowed me to make a connection between the cozy mystery and GAD, in terms of why people read it. I started to look at the qualities of GAD that the present-day reader might suggest draws them to the sub-genre. Over and over again, it’s the puzzles and/or the characters. Oddly, to my rough-and-ready estimate after encountering hundreds of mystery readers over the years, the men like the puzzles and the women like the characters (and I emphasize, this is nothing more than a generality). But a lot of GAD fans like locked-room and impossible mysteries, all plot and no character, and a lot of GAD fans revere the great romances of Peter and Harriet and Troy and Alleyn and who, like Dorothy L. Sayers, were “tired of a literature without bowels”.

That allowed me to reduce down to the simplest level by striking the responses that had to do with plots and characters. All books have those things, and there has to be something about those plots and characters that lets us tell good ones from bad ones. What was left, from my commenter on cozies, was … “occupation”. The sleuth’s “job/craft/hobby”.

And that, as you can imagine, was temporarily baffling to me, until I took a step back and realized that, yes, the modern cozy is focused on the occupation of the protagonist. Whether it’s a series about a yarn store or a dog grooming business or a cookie bakery, there are literally hundreds of series of novels about a woman running her own business. Was this a focus on what I have called elsewhere the “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery?

Although I personally enjoy the information mystery form, I can’t accept that this is a huge motivation for people to read mysteries. I’ll cut some of my logical trail short here and suggest that the quality that the respondent identified in the specific was “occupation”, but what this is really about, in larger scale, is “the transmission of social information”. Aha! People read mysteries because they transmit social information.

Parenthetically, I realized that the cozy mystery is actually designed to allow its readers the experience of agency: that is, they get to live vicariously in the persona of someone who has the desire and ability to control their surroundings. The woman who runs a yarn store and solves mysteries has the ability to take a few days off in order to investigate her neighbours — not a common experience in today’s economic environment. So that’s a very specific transmission of social information.

The kind of transmission of social information that I think people enjoy about GAD — and enjoyed, in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s — is subtle. It seems to consist of a repeating pattern; a GAD author has a “voice” that is making authorial observations in the background while the mystery plot is playing itself out in the foreground. The author is, in a sense, teaching the reader how society works, according to the author’s point of view. If the reader likes the author’s voice, and/or agrees with the observations, then the reader will continue to read that author’s books.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean; from Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962).  First a quote from Chapter 1-II, an internal monologue by Miss Marple, then an explanation.

“[T]here had been Amy and Clara and Alice, those ‘nice little maids’ arriving from St Faith’s Orphanage, to be ‘trained’, and then going on to better paid jobs elsewhere. Rather simple, some of them had been, and frequently adenoidal, and Amy distinctly moronic. They had gossiped and chattered with the other maids in the village and walked out with the fishmonger’s assistant, or the under-gardener at the Hall, or one of Mr Barnes the grocer’s numerous assistants. Miss Marple’s mind went back over them affectionately thinking of all the little woolly coats she had knitted for their subsequent offspring. They had not been very good with the telephone, and no good at all at arithmetic. On the other hand, they knew how to wash up, and how to make a bed. They had had skills, rather than education.”

be85ca85cd891c86d13e7e3dd9933cdcI must acknowledge here that Miss Marple is speaking about the past, so although the date is 1962, she’s talking about the ’20s and ’30s. There is so much social information within this single paragraph that it’s almost too much to go through, but here are some bullet points that illustrate what Agatha Christie is saying about Miss Marple’s society — indoctrinating the reader — in that paragraph:

  • Orphanages contained young women who received an education that was suitable for their lowered station in life; they weren’t trained to be teachers or doctors, but servants. Such people in training received lower wages than their trained counterparts.
  • It’s socially acceptable for a member of the middle or upper classes to compare a member of the lower classes to a “moron”. Miss Marple is a “nice person” and she does it.  (Technically it indicates an IQ between 51 and 70, or possibly a mental age of between 8 and 12.)
  • Orphanages are associated with Christian religious organizations named after saints. Although the word “charity” is not used here, it’s likely that Miss Marple saw the training process that she was administering as being connected with church-related charitable work. Orphanages exist because there are sufficiently large numbers of children without parents that they must be managed in an organized way by society.
  • Fishmongers still called themselves that, and had young male assistants; similarly, grocers had young male assistants. These young men were of the lower social orders and it was suitable for them to associate romantically with female orphans/maids. People still ate enough fish that a small village would have a store entirely devoted to selling fish.
  • Supermarkets were not yet known and the economic pattern of a village was such that one went to separate stores for fish and “groceries”.
  • The provision of gardening services at certain estates (the “Hall”) was sufficiently economically viable as to allow young men of the lower classes to work as “under-gardeners”.
  • Certain residences are so well-known that they take a capital letter to distinguish them from others.  The Hall employs under-gardeners, and presumably their supervisory gardeners; therefore it has grounds that require full-time employees to maintain them, and someone can afford to pay them to do that.
  • “Walking out” is a nebulous process that we would know today as “dating”, but it had the implication of constancy. If you were “walking out” with someone you were progressing towards marriage, or at least towards having children.
  • It’s appropriate for elderly middle/upper-class women to knit handmade woollen clothing for the infants of the lower-class maids who had been in their employ. The word “subsequent” indicates that they left Miss Marple’s employment when they got married. Knitting is an appropriate occupation for a member of the leisure class that employs household servants to “wash up”.
  • Adenoidectomy and widespread use of antibiotics to cure adenoidal infections had not yet become commonplace. Having an “adenoidal” voice or presence was somehow undesirable and apparently associated with the lower classes.
  • If someone knows how to “wash up”, it indicates they have experience at washing dishes by hand. Dishwashing machines were not apparently used in the home.
  • Elderly ladies without a large income can afford to have a personal maidservant in their homes. It might be that Miss Marple is trading off lower wages with the training function that she is supervising.

And many more, most less securely expressed. (Why is it associated with the lower classes to be poor with arithmetic? Etc.) Of course, no author actually sits down to tell you these things; they form part of the unspoken backdrop and the author at the time of writing assumed you know these things.

Janssen_Reading Mysteries for Romance Lord Peter WimseyI’ll suggest that every mystery from the Golden Age of Detection contains such material, spoken and unspoken. And of course immediately I expect you’re thinking, “Well, every single book I’ve ever read does that.” Undeniably so. What I’m suggesting is that this is a particular reason why people enjoy reading Golden Age mysteries. Whether the plot and characters are illustrating a “pure puzzle” plot or Peter is proposing to Harriet on an Oxford bridge in Latin, the authorial material about how society works — what I call “indoctrination” — is always present and, I’ll suggest, forms a significant part of the reader’s enjoyment. (I’ve called it “indoctrination” because it imparts “doctrine” — the rules and processes of social behaviour at a certain time and place.)

imagesMy understanding is currently that this takes place specifically in mysteries because people read mysteries in order to “figure out” the plot. If there’s a corpse on the library hearthrug, and a button lying nearby, the reader knows because of the mystery form that that button is significant and must be explained before the end of the book. The size and shape of the button will tell the detective and the reader whether the button comes from a glove or a raincoat. And when the raincoat is discovered from which that button has become separated — the astute reader will be reading carefully to note if that button comes from the right or left face of the garment, because the astute reader knows, as a matter of societal information, that men’s and women’s raincoats have the buttons on opposite sides. Usually the author finds a way to have one character explain the difference between men’s and women’s raincoats explicitly, for the benefit of the reader, if it’s important to the determination of the identity of the murderer. British raincoat habits are not automatically known by readers in, say, Tahiti. But there’s always a level at which the author assumes that the reader shares an understanding; we all know that buttons are generally from human clothes and not, say, from pets or vacuum cleaners or books, to mention three things that could have a legitimate function in a library.

1930s-dinner-party-©-Bert-Morgan-PG-3As we get further and further away from the publication date of a mystery, the number of unspoken assumptions grows larger and the amount of background knowledge required must usually be accumulated from other reading. Take, for instance, the idea that when dining at an aristocratic country house, there is an explicit but unspoken precedence that takes place as people enter the dining room. People of higher social rank enter before people of lower social rank. This process is referred to as “going in” — the third daughter of an earl, being an “Honourable”, goes in before a famous but untitled movie star. And the younger daughters of impoverished earls are sometimes very zealous about their exact place in the social order if it happens to be higher than that of wealthy commoners.

Nearly a century later, it is almost necessary to explain the concepts of higher and lower social rank to someone born in the 21st century, who has absorbed from the cradle the credo that everyone is created equal. In the GAD context, it can be thought of as an attack on the established social order to “go in” before someone of higher rank; certainly if the author tells us that Mr. Jones pushed his way into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, we know something important about how Mr. Jones feels about the social conventions IF we know that the correct order of “going in” is important to the people involved.

Whether or not the social gaucheries of Mr. Jones have anything to do with the later murder of Lord Bumbershoot is a matter for the author, of course. But the reader of a murder mystery is conditioned to examine such things to see if the author is telling them something that bears upon the mystery. Suppose that Lord Bumbershoot left a half-completed letter on his writing desk suggesting that he and his wife had been gravely insulted by some unidentified person’s behaviour. That will not be a clue to anyone who doesn’t know about “going in”; the person aware of the “going in” rules will suspect Mr. Jones. The truly experienced GAD reader will, of course, look for someone other than Mr. Jones, who is perhaps a red herring in this context. What I’m getting at is that the “going in” rules form a part of the plot and are important to the characters; but if you don’t know what they are or even that they exist, you won’t be getting the maximum amount of information from the author about the plot necessary to solve the mystery.

Ultimately, the constant reader of GAD amasses a large amount of social information that may or may not be useful in the context of any particular mystery novel. Perhaps in a different novel, people go in to dinner without anyone remarking upon who goes in before whom, or why. That particular piece of indoctrination isn’t relevant to this novel, but perhaps the fact that British pubs closed early on Sundays, or that gas rationing was in place during the Second World War, may have something to do with the mystery’s solution. Sometimes you’re told specifically; sometimes it’s assumed you know without being told.

I’m going to suggest that we read GAD partly in order to collect these little snippets of indoctrination and that we enjoy that process enough to keep us returning to the GAD form. We may think, “Oh, if *I* was living in England in the 1930s, I would know not to push into the dining room in front of Lady Bumbershoot.” We might speculate on the whys and wherefores of early closing day and wonder how it would affect our everyday lives, or whether the potential loss of one’s hereditary title due to an undisclosed illegitimacy would be sufficient motive for murder. It can be a kind of cultural archaeology; trying to understand, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, why it is that female scholars are treated differently than male scholars — or indeed what it is that “illegitimacy” meant in a modern time when many people’s parents are not married. We think about how it might affect our romantic relationships in 1930s England if the object of our affections were of a different social class — or the same gender.

police and fire awrds 1938 in oldham
cc ah mayall.And for the person who reads a lot of GAD, as I think most of my readers do, there’s another kind of pleasure available; that of “mastery”. It’s pleasant to realize without being told that Mr. Jones should not have pushed into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, and why. In a meta-sense, it’s pleasant to be aware that if Jones’s faux pas is important to the murder plot, the author will make sure you are aware that Lady Bumbershoot has been insulted, and precisely how — then in your attempts to solve the mystery, you can focus on more relevant things, like the button on the hearthrug (without having to look up the meaning of “hearthrug” like a millennial might have to).

I wonder if I’m reading too much into this provision of background social information; as I noted, it’s certainly a part of every novel. But I think it’s peculiarly a part of the mystery genre because the informed reader tries to assess the meaning of events and objects in respect to the mystery plot in every such story. I’ll maintain that indoctrination is at least worth considering as one of the reasons why people still read mysteries from 90 years ago, and enjoy them, and keep the best ones in print.

When I did my piece on intertextuality, I left the reader with a hint that a future piece would be this one about indoctrination. I’m happy to say that I’ve identified a third term that begins with the letter “I” that I regard as an element that explains in part why people read mysteries; ingenuity. You may have an idea already what I’m getting at, but I intend it to be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, your comments on the concept of indoctrination are welcome below.










23 thoughts on “Intertextuality and indoctrination: Why do we read Golden Age detective fiction?

  1. Brad says:

    Part Two is as fascinating as Part One, Noah, and I look forward to the eventual talk on ingenuity. One thought that struck me is a point of similarity between the three genres you pulled out of the pack: they all require the same climax (within their genre) to qualify as a part of that genre. What comes before and the final resolution may be completely different (although I follow your premise that all mysteries have that same three-part structure). A mystery must contain a solution or it fails. The killer can be punished and social order truly restored, but the killer can also get away (often with the detective’s blessing). The crime may be presented as an inverted story, but it must be successfully detected or it becomes farce. (Even if the inverted killer gets away with it, somebody must figure things out.) In romance, the couple must get together at the end over what they mean to each other. Even in something like The Bridges of Madison County, where the love affair lasts three days, both parties agree that the other is the love of his/her life. There must be agreement at the end, whether the couple lasts or breaks apart. And there must be climax in pornography – lots of it – or it ain’t porn! Pornography is by nature episodic, unlike any other type of fiction I can think of, and each must contain its own climax. I would also venture that nobody reads porn to gain social information, which to my mind removes it from the class of true literature and proves your point about mysteries.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m going to respectfully disagree with your final point; I suggest that people DO expect pornography to contain social information, it’s just that most of it is erroneous, mostly in its tacit assumption that more people would perform various sexual acts than would actually freely do so. It also, except in its crudest forms, contains social contextualization which is meant to involve its consumer. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was sexier because of class differences… what Peter Wimsey calls the “Cophetua complex”.
      I don’t especially wish to champion the cause of pornography — truth to tell I see it as a sub-genre of romance, just without any romance LOL. But I’d defend it as a form of literature, merely an extremely low-level and uncomplicated form (like, for instance, the Harlequin romance). In terms of sales, it is responsible for more money changing hands than all other genre fiction combined, I think, and that alone means it’s interesting to me.
      Your point about pornography being episodic by nature — I think that’s merely the dominant context of today, and what sells. I’m aware of filmed material from the 60s and 70s that breaks that boundary and is what’s called intensively recomplicated, where you see a number of people in different scenes and the camera moves between the scenes without anyone climaxing until the end. It’s just that that storytelling modality doesn’t please the consumer as much as more direct types, and those are easier to produce. There’s even pornography that takes on the trappings of detective fiction; you wouldn’t believe what Holmes and Watson are said to get up to!! 😉

      • Brad says:

        I would imagine an intense build-up of suspense at the Reichenbach Falls, followed by a massive explosion where Moriarty gets his comeuppance over and over again.

        But that would just be a guess . . . 🙂

  2. JJ says:

    There’s a difference in the various types of indoctrination, too, isn’t there — I mean, typically people will have a sense of what goes on in the running of a yarn shop or a bakery, but the modern cosy mysteries don’t really focus on that aspect. We’re not learning about how to run a small business — as you point out, there’s that vicarious pleasure in being able to take time off when you want, moving away from the matter of the business itself — in the same way that we’re learning about societal hierarchy from that paragrah of Christie, or the whole “going in” example you use.

    I’ve just read a short story from the 1960s which relies on chequing accounts to perpetrate financial fraud, without going into the detail of how and why this works since, at the time of writing, it would have been perfectly understood. In about 20 years that’ll be completely lost as a process that can be understood, and the diea of indoctrination as you use it comes in: people will learn from context or from wider research that some element of bank (and these things called “cheques”) was obviously done in a different way. I you pick up a contemporary cozy mystery in 70 years time in which Missy and Chas have uninterrupted access to every aspect of a police investigation…well, the appeal of (not) seeing a small business owner have the ort of freedom the audience at the time would have yearned for is going to be somewhat lost.

    Ineivtably I’m building to some point about the validity of the indoctrination sought, but I think the real examination lies in the purpose behind the writing in the first place: if the insult of someone going in earlier than was deemed appropriate is to be used as a red herring, the purpose of the writing is to utilise and record this idea; my understanding (I’ve not read one, which is simply a fact rather than a boast) is that cozy mysteries rely on nothing quite so specific, and can at times almost be a chance to show off some obscure knowledge under the guise of a novel that happens to be about the author’s specialist area (I Shot My Bridge Partner, which you so hilarious took apart before, comes to mind).

    In short, “proper” GAD contains information as a matter of course, whereas this aping that has sprung up with cozies is often written purely to showcase a type of specialised knowlegde in a niche area. Each may still be sought out for these ends, but the ethos behind what’s being found out is very different indeed, almost to the point of not really being the same thing.

    I’m more of an Ingenuity guy myself, so I’m eager to see part 3. Great work; thanks, Noah

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Very interesting ideas (this is the type of discussion I was hoping for!). I think there is a close relationship between the modern cozy — what my Facebook friend Ann Lamb called the “cupcake cozy”, which I think is a great term — and what I’ve called elsewhere the information mystery, but that they’re not the same thing. ( is where I discussed that relationship. The thing is, though, I have frequently observed that the cupcake cozy may create the impression that it’s trying to be an information mystery about, say, the process of running a cupcake shop — but the author knows bugger-all about it and makes the plot take the protagonist away from the shop constantly. My oft-quoted example is a novel by Leslie Meier in which an “interior decorator” asserts that shoji screens come from China. And having run a mystery bookstore, I can tell you that no cupcake cozy ever got THAT right. Do you have a cupcake shop or a yarn store or an Edwardian B&B in your town? If there is, check it out. It will be teetering on the verge of bankruptcy or else it will be a franchise. Neither would yield the pleasant experience so beloved of the cupcake cozy aficionado.
      The true information mystery, in the hands of, say, Emma Lathen or Dick Francis, is a wonderful thing that leaves the reader hugely informed about biotech or glassblowing. But for the cupcake cozy, the “obscure knowledge” appears to be how to have a happy and fulfilling life as an independent woman with intellectual curiosity — and it’s clear that neither the writer nor the reader knows much about that. I don’t take any pleasure in that analysis, and I wish those women had something more fulfilling to do. (When I was researching why women read cozies, a word that kept coming up was “escape”.)

      • Brad says:

        I recognize that this is a very snotty thing for me to say, but one “good” thing that can be said about cupcake cozies is that they provide a niche market for not-very-good authors to write not-very-good books (by the thousands!) and have them published and read (by the millions). Barnes and Noble has massive shelves at the front of the mystery section dedicated to these books. I think you’re absolutely right, Noah: these books do the same thing as romances do in showing a woman having a fulfilling and independent (but not too independent since that good-looking sheriff has his eye on you) life. I would never claim that these books are easy to write – I have learned from experience that no writing is easy – but the plotting is formulaic, and the attention to mystery conventions, like clueing, is minimal. As a lifelong mystery fan who relishes cleverness and imagination in the plotting department, I resent that these books get to wear the label of “mystery” when they are pretty much anything but! In the non-cozy department, I am similarly enraged by James Patterson’s success.

        Sorry for the rant, but how many booksellers do I know?!?

      • I’m wondering as well if this idea of the cupcake shop / yarn store running well as a business is a form of escape in that it’s a ‘looking back on better times’ kind of thing, where it would be seen as better to have small independent shops, rather than chain stores. Or it could be that it’s a fake nostalgia, where by small shops are seen as more quaint and romantic than chain stores. Either way, these women working in them, seems an escaping formalising through the very context. It would interesting then to think about your term indoctrination when the social context you are being indoctrinated in (i.e the cozy cupcake shop) is a totally false and romantic view of what a shop actually is.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Brad, I think it’s worth considering that the act of writing and self-publishing a cupcake cozy is perhaps the closest the author can come to the self-determination available to someone who runs a small business. As you’ve observed, the threshold for publication is now extremely low and requires virtually no capital. And there is a vast industry devoted to putting groups of such authors in rooms and allowing them to meet the people who buy and read such books. I very much doubt that many of those authors are making minimum wage for the time they put in, but the experience must be satisfying, judging by how they gloat about it in their own blogs.
      Because the mystery is such a distinct form that never changes, as I noted above, it becomes a kind of carrier wave for other types of stories. Mystery merges well with other genres, like romance or science fiction. There have been acres of crappy mysteries published ever since the yellowback days; Edgar Wallace comes to mind. I think the cupcake cozy is currently the dominant theme but there is still a small core of people who appreciate the GAD form, and I *think* that small core will never go away. Someone will always pick up a copy of Peril at End House and be gobsmacked by its brilliance, I trust.

      • JJ says:

        It is to be posited that the idea of a “current,/i> dominant theme” implies a sense of change — people who read mysteries typically look for something more to add to the exprience of what they’ve read (I’m imagining that while many, even most, romance readers are quite happy with the stud and the virgin gettin’ it on at the end of every book in the genre, the average mystery reader is bored by the fifth time the killer turns out to be the best friend’s boyfriend who’s caught because he acidentally reveals the knowlegde that the third victim was killed at 4am) and this desire to find something more challenging will always lead a cozy reader onto “harder” things (usually via Christie, let’s be honest, who was pretty faultless for a huge chunk of her output and about as good a spokesperson as we could elect).

        It is unlikely to happen in the other direction — someone tiring of GAD and launching themselves into the hugely inventive and surprising cozy world; not impossible, mind, just unlikley. It will always be a net migration towards GAD, and the quality of what is to be found here, especially as reprints bring more and more accessible books back into print, precludes the notion of this end of things being a matter of currency: cozies may eventually lose their sheen, but the net migration towards GAD will always seek out the quality it offers, I feel.

        Though, of course, I am rather biased…

      • Brad says:

        Speaking personally, my tolerance for horror has decreased dramatically over the pst several decades. I used to drink in the latest Stephen King novel, and during the 80’s I could be found at a slasher movie marathon at the local cinema. But horror novels and films now resemble porn in terms of the depths to which they are willing to sink, and that combined with the slick advances in make-up and technology make these stories unreadable and unwatchable to me.

        I blather on like this because I’m trying to conjure up a picture of a person for which classic murder mysteries become too much, a person who craves their murders to be not only bloodless but preferably comical and inconsequential to the real matters at hand (i.e., getting the quilting store reopened and snagging a cup of coffee with the hunky sheriff). Or somebody might find the classic mystery too intellectually stimulating, and they want more of a paint-by-numbers experience. Gentlemen, if either of these things ever happen to me – if I start blogging enthusiastically about books like The Creamed Corn Culprit or A Knife for the Needlepointer – I demand that one or both of you cross the border, track me down, and smother me with an embroidered pillow.

        Incidentally, I popped into the local big box bookstore yesterday for a cup of coffee, and I noticed that Barnes & Noble has published its own edition, with forward, of Christie’s Styles. The introduction again offers the specious argument that Christie was the Queen of the Cozies! I’m sick of it!

        And now, back to Carr.

      • JJ says:

        You’ve recently abandoned Louise Penny despite enjoying the camaraderie of the population of her fictional small town, and it’s this that I can see someone seeking rather than the reduction in the sense of intellectual stimulation. If cozies do one thing — and this is a big if, as once again I’m yet to read one — I imagien they supply a sanese of community and collaboration that it may be possible to claim is not as easily found in your standard GAD mystery. The involvement in the fate of the local cat shelter, or the Boy Scouts’ three year fundraiser to re-open the old library (so that a body can be found there in book 4, naturally)…in short, all the things about a mystery that aren’t the mystery could well be what would draw people towards those types of books. But then the argument there is that these people probably didn’t want to be reading mysteries in the first place…

      • Brad says:

        I had an interesting knee-jerk reaction there: have I been reading a cozy author all this time? Yet, while it’s true that some of the trappings of a Louise Penny novel are relative to cozydom, I wouldn’t call her a cozy author. Yes, somebody decides to excavate the so-and-so and discovers a long-buried such-and-such. But rather than it being the corpse of the town floozie, it’s just as likely to be a missing WWII weapon or an artwork that calls to mind past sins. So that is the interesting thing about her. She is also attempting to tackle heavy subjects: how power breeds corruption, how the foibles of the heart (jealousy, fear, greed) can lead one to do terrible things (and these things aren’t always murder), how art and literature are the saving grace of civilization (even though artists suffer for this), and a lot of spiritual stuff. She is far better than a cozy writer to me, but then I’m a total p***k about this in making blanket generalizations about the quality of cozy writing. Still, I’m quitting Penny because her plots and themes are getting repetitive, her ability to craft a detective story, which was never great, is increasingly diluted by tired character folderol (there has to be at least one scene in each book where every regular character exerts his or her “beloved” traits), and her prose is getting on my nerves. I’ll probably still listen to her work in the car; I just won’t pay for it anymore.

      • JJ says:

        Oh, no, sure, I wasn’t saying Pennty was cozy per se, I was more just trying to draw out a parallel in your recent reading that would mirror what appeal someone could find in cozy mysteries…

      • Brian says:

        Well, I’m part of that small core who still appreciates the GAD form and in my opinion it defines the mystery genre and made it the popular genre it is today. I can’t take soft, fluffy, cupcake titles like ‘Mind Your Own Beeswax’ or ‘Buffalo West Wing’, of which I can’t take seriously, compared to the more serious titles of the GA like Strong Poison, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Sparkling Cyanide. In the GA era mysteries — the puzzle — were the meat of the story and though there were romantic subplots and comic relief, the mystery was the main focus. No, those who pick up a Peril At End House will still be gobsmacked and stunned by its brilliance and the way Christie neatly dispersed the clues and red herrings no matter how many years passed since its publication. Readers today are still surprised and the book’s been out since 1932. The only way readers won’t be gobsmacked is if they have read an abundant amount of mysteries and are used to its conventions or those who have been spoiled by the book by some other source.

  3. I love your list of items from Miss Marple’s short paragraph – excellent work. It also reminded me of the maid in Man in the Brown Suit, who is engaged to a sailor, but ‘walks out’ with the grocer’s assistant and the fishmonger’s boy in between times ‘to keep her hand in’. Her young posh female employer is rather envious, and regretful that she doesn’t have the same opportunities.
    And this is a marvellous unpicking of what we get from the books. I feel very much that characters’ clothes play much the same role – well I would, wouldn’t I? But we learn what it means if a woman wears trousers, or goes hatless, or wears tweeds as opposed to a silk dress. We need to either know these things or learn them.
    One of the things I have learned from GAD fiction – if a woman character is pondering how mourning will suit her, and what she should wear for the inquest, or trying on black hats with gusto – she is at best a bad woman, and possibly either culprit or next victim. Although inreal life this might be merely human and understandable…

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Oh, I think this is a great analysis, and indeed it’s why I find your blog so fascinating. There are MILLIONS of bits of information conveyed by clothes that many readers are not culturally equipped to have naturally and must be told them. By and large, I mean males, but there’s also a vast age-based gulf. Try telling a millennial that a woman in 1932 going out the door without at least cotton gloves on is like the millennial leaving the house without a cell phone! Just the social status things associated with different fabric choices — heavy tweeds, artificial silk, bombazine, gold lame, fur — all are mysteries that the hapless male must learn from women. And trousers — there’s a book there all on its own! Mysterious garments like spencers and camiknickers and Miss Silver’s omnipresent fichu … day dresses and brogues and choux hats … I think if you hadn’t taken clothing as your focus, I might have done, 😉 it’s a brilliant lens through which to look at cultural stuff in books.
      I wish I knew more about the boundaries of “walking out”. I had rather thought it the equivalent of what I’ve heard called “engaged to be engaged”, but from what you say, it’s not that strict an exclusivity. I wonder if the term itself comes from the idea that servants, on their days off, go for walks because they can’t afford much other entertainment.
      I’ve noticed in GAD that there is a trope about the getting of mourning after the death in the family. All of a sudden the female half of the bereaved country house is occupied with getting “my blacks” “sent from town” and “having my little woman come in and fit them”, and rushing back and forth to each others’ rooms swapping black gloves, and insisting that someone drive them to the village immediately to buy black veiling. (I *think* this is a feature in Mavis Doriel Hay’s “The Santa Klaus Murder”.) It’s a useful thing in mysteries to have a reason to have people milling about.

      • I think that maid was a flirt, and ‘walking out’ did usually imply some exclusivity. The key fact here is that he was a sailor, so not there all the time! And yes, I think going for a walk on your afternoon out. (or not – that’s why the maid was in the house in Moving Finger, and saw something.)
        Since reading your post I have been thinking a lot about what we learn from books, and the importance of those details, but how you take them in almost without noticing. You have really enhanced the way I read things…

  4. This post really captured an element of my enjoyment of GAD that I’ve somehow never commented on in any of my reviews. It’s easy to work in the love for the cultural nuances when discussing a historical JDC title like Fire, Burn or The Witch of the Low Tide. For some reason, I’ve never actually commented on those same nuances in the more typical stories.

    My first encounters with locked room mysteries was in the short story form, and there I was purely focused on the tightness of the puzzle and the reward of the solution. As I stretched my legs to full length novels, I fell in love with the details of the time period that are so thoroughly worked into every phrase, sentence, and paragraph.

    At first this made for daunting reading – not in the expected form of big words, deep ideas, or twists of phrase – but in the knowledge that there were deeper cultural subtleties bubbling through every page. As you correctly point out, I’ve come to learn these details and now enjoy the work by recognizing or even anticipating them.

    The example that jumps out the most readily at the moment is Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. I’m sure this is funny to the older in the crowd, but I never really realized how customary it was for men to always wear a hat in the old days. I’d noticed that GAD authors constantly mentioned character’s taking off or putting on their hats, but it still hadn’t clicked. In TRHM, a key part of the mystery is how a murdered man’s top hat must have made it out of the theatre. The fact that every male would have a hat is crucial to the story, but seems so foreign to modern times.

    I’m midway through Carr’s To Wake the Dead, and your post makes me conscious of how much I’m loving learning the details of the hotel business in the 1930s.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’ve been thinking that the demonstration proof is probably the popularity of the “historical mystery”. They started slowly — JDC, although not quite first, leading the way — but today they’re everywhere, possibly due to Anne Perry and Ellis Peters. The more research you do, and *skilfully* insert it into the narrative, the more enjoyable the book becomes, I find. Carr was occasionally guilty of overdoing the research (a dozen pages of footnotes at the end are a bit much, I think) and many modern authors under-research or else can’t get the balance right. It’s a tough problem for writers, I think.
      I’m glad you associate it with enjoyment; so do I. And enjoyment is a quality that a more academic approach to literary analysis tends to ignore.

      • In one of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, a witness recalls two men on the sleeper train before it departs. Inspector Grant can work out that one of them is NOT travelling, because he still has hat on: first thing a male traveller does on a train (apparently) is take off hat and put it in luggage rack… Valuable clue.

  5. Finally found myself some time and a cup of tea to sit and read this. Great work sir. What struck me most was this concept of agency for women. In a sense I feel that agency in the GAD tradition is actually so much of the motive for female authors to have written their work. It was said in a panel discussion at the Bodies in the Library Conference at the British Library that detective books (even then) weren’t always taken seriously so therefore is ‘okay for women to spend time writing them’. But then women used that agency and subverted it and blasted it full of their ability, power and agency.

    I’m thinking for example how influential Sayers’ Times reviews must have been, to see a woman writing for a high ranking newspaper and doing worst grammar/latin of the week awards for the books she was writing. And having just read a Brand then a McCloy, they chock their books full of references to philosophy, modern fiction, Shakespeare, psychology, which seems to me to be because they were showing that is was possible for women to be intelligent!

    I also feel that I know you didn’t see eye to eye with the ‘broken order restored’ idea at the start of this, but actually I would say that is a big part of why people read detective stories, even if it’s subconscious, because at the absolute foundational level they are morality tales, in essence. They are tales of good triumphing over evil, and justice winning out. Which I think applies deeply to our humanity.

    There was also another thing mentioned at the Bodies From The Library conference that was interesting about the conext for GAD books in that they were seen to sterilise death. But at a time when most of the authiors and the readers would have lost a husband, son, father, daughter, mother to the war, they had experienced death face to face. And therefore putting death into a place where murder is meaningful not meaningless, and that people were killed for a reason and justice done, not just blown to bits in their millions for nothing, was deeply deeply important.

    Look forward to more!

  6. Noah Stewart says:

    I’m actually okay with the “broken order restored” idea, but, as you suggest, I think it’s operating at a subconscious level.
    The idea of “sterilizing death” is a point I’ve made myself in the past, occasionally vehemently … I think it’s okay to talk about murder but dangerous to trivialize it, and so the authors of cupcake cozies who try to keep murder offstage and not show its effects are doing the reader a disservice. Murder in books has to be meaningful. Interesting to contrast that with the massive number of deaths due to war — there’s a point there, that it’s good to remind people that each individual death is still meaningful and should be taken seriously by society. Good point, thanks, I’ll have to chew on that one.

  7. […] perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I […]

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