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.





Clue as Carrier Wave

14330145_964495950345839_2469714263963758410_nI encountered this commercial product recently; it’s the “Harry Potter” edition of Clue (my UK friends will know it as Cluedo). My reaction was, if you’ll pardon my saying so, “WTF?” To me, there didn’t seem to be any rationale as to why there would be a Harry Potter mystery game; the two genres don’t overlap and  there is no natural brand affinity that would make this an obvious product. I understand the idea of a “Sherlock” edition, there’s common ground there, but Harry Potter … no.

imagesThat piqued my curiosity sufficiently to do a quick search, and I found there are a number of such brand crossover editions, some of which I’ve pictured here. The edition that relates to the movie Clue does seem to have some rationale, but — The SimpsonsFireflyThe Big Bang Theory? None of these make any sense to me.

cluedo-sherlockIt does serve as a little corroboration to a theory about detective fiction upon which I’ve been ruminating lately; this just seemed to be a very bare-bones approach to my idea, and thus was more interesting. For my regular readers, this is what I hinted at recently when I suggested that one of the reasons people read detective fiction is because of indoctrination; I’m still not prepared to
clue-simpsons-edition-580x410define that term, it might take quite a long blog post. Suffice it to say here that my idea of indoctrination means that the basic elements of detective fiction are used by writers as a vehicle to carry information about society in an entertaining way. Golden Age detective fiction carried less about society and more about committing a crime in a clever way; modern crime fiction can very nearly ignore the crime and focus on characterization and milieu.

650x650_0684b4dbc9c1a09983731913dd49f37c1c10bc3de428b2e562b76039What I see suggested here with these various board games is that the basic structure of a murder mystery — the death of Mr. Boddy, a faceless and personality-free victim, and the attempt to solve the who/what/where questions surround his death — is now so familiar to consumers of fiction that it is essentially a cliche that requires no explanation. The
174096_s0branded characters from other franchises are superimposed upon the basic plot of who killed Mr. Boddy, providing some amusement for children who were bored with Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum. Alternatively there are people who collect everything stamped with, say, the Firefly brand, whether it’s an edition of Clue or a stamped metal lunchbox or a swizzle stick, and thus those brands gain some small extension. And Clue/Cluedo here is the carrier wave that carries the superimposed brand.

ff_cl_flatbt_web_0What I’m moving towards is trying to explain why people like me and my readers still find the structure of mystery fiction entertaining. After all, let’s face it, it’s exactly the same plot over and over and over again. Mr. Boddy gets killed, various people could be guilty, someone investigates and figures out who is guilty, that person is punished. We
81gtzlei-l-_sl1500_know what’s going to happen with an inevitability that approaches 100% (just as we know that at the end of a Harlequin romance that the male and female will become a couple). I’m suggesting that Golden Age detective fiction, and particularly the Humdrum school, are no longer viable precisely because they contain mostly plot and little or no characterization; GAD that contains
movie-edition-prototype-covinformation about the social backdrop against which such crimes are committed is considered “better” when it contains more such information. (I’m thinking here of Dorothy L. Sayers; I don’t enjoy her work as much as others do, but I recognize that a novel like Gaudy Night with no murder and a huge romantic subplot was groundbreaking.) I admit that “all plot no character no milieu” detective fiction was occasionally fascinating in its day — people still know Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? — but when it comes to the less well written outputs of a Farjeon or a Rhode, the mystery plot is like a carrier wave for dead air. Half of John Rhode’s oeuvre is like trying to work the same three elementary-level Sudoku puzzles over and over again, against a background of snobbery, racism, and social elitism, and no one will ever manage to bring that back successfully to the market today. As Julian Symons so accurately notes in Bloody Murder, those pure-puzzle exercises really died with the brief hegemony of the dossier novel.

ptruca1-11966168dtAnd what does an edition of “SpongeBob SquarePants Clue Jr.” tell us about the social backdrop? Merely that, if you’ll pardon my saying so, some people will buy anything. I suspect that quite a bit of the market for such things is people investing in “collectibles” towards a projected coup on eBay 20 years from now … or adults buying toys for children without any idea at all about the semiotic overtones of having a “Family Guy” Clue game, because they have no idea of the social milieu that produced Clue in the first place.  Those ideas are also interesting to me as a student of branding, but I don’t find them particularly pleasant to contemplate (the first is venial and the second is ignorance).  It makes me want to dig out my 30-year-old version of Clue that merely has Mrs. Peacock and Colonel Mustard instead of Marge Simpson and Sheldon Cooper and have the pure Clue experience!