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.





The Pale Horse – with Miss Marple?

I watched Masterpiece Mystery last night, featuring their new production of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. And I am very, very sorry to say that the producers have wedged Miss Marple into the story and removed Ariadne Oliver (whom I saw in Hallowe’en Party last week on PBS), Colonel and Mrs. Despard (last seen in the novel Cards on the Table) and Mr. and Mrs. Dane Calthrop (last seen in the novel The Moving Finger).  They have also invented a couple of characters out of whole cloth and sprinkled them over the production like dog turds on a freshly-cut lawn.

What on earth are they thinking? Russell Lewis, given credit for the screenplay, has a number of excellent credits to his name, including episodes of Inspector Morse, Wycliffe, Cadfael, and Lewis.  (Oddly enough he also has numerous acting credits to his name, including portraying Lucius in I, Claudius. ) Some of his work has been the creation of a screenplay from an existing work — Cadfael, Morse, Wycliffe — and others have him creating an original story in an ongoing series.

The point is, Mr. Lewis knows the difference between adaptation and creation; I can only assume that this production’s producers are to blame for this ghastly slumgullion.  Although I find it difficult to believe that the character of Jane Marple has to be added to an Agatha Christie story for its adaptation to television to be saleable in the United States, I can barely accept it. But why on earth did they need to tamper with the work of one of the best-selling writers in history in a completely unnecessary way?  It’s not as if they didn’t have Ariadne Oliver on tap — she was in the previous production that I saw a week ago.  Why strike out Christie’s characters and substitute your own?  I mean, Mr. Lewis is a good writer, but he’s no Agatha Christie.  In fact, nobody is Agatha Christie.  She sold well for a reason, and to simply substitute your own judgment about what the audience will like to see is both sublimely arrogant and horribly mistaken.

I have seen productions in this series that have slightly changed the motives of the murderer(s) in order to make them more interesting to a modern audience; for instance, adding a homosexual affair to the events of The Body in the Library and changing the identity of one of the murderersI actually enjoyed that production because, frankly, I’ve read the book a number of times and seen the original TV production with Joan Hickson, my favourite Marple, perhaps half-a-dozen times also.  It was amusing to have my expectations derailed slightly, and I am not one who regards every word that drops from any author’s pen as sacrosanct.  But subsequent productions have been pretty much a disorganized gang-bang in which anything is fair game.  This specifically includes any story Christie wrote which contained neither Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, all of which seem to be determined to add Marple during the TV process.  Miss Marple now has a history of unrequited love which is nowhere in the books and seems determined to pop up everywhere, in any context, like Russell Brand on talk shows. I mean, why stop there?  Why not re-purpose a few old creakers by, say, Freeman Wills Crofts or Ellery Queen, take out the detectives and add Jane Marple?  Why not re-make the entire Perry Mason series with her instead? Murder, She Wrote? The Sopranos?  Where in the World is Carmen Santiago?  Apparently the new watchword is, add a dash of Marple to any bloody thing, like onion salt.  Next they’ll be bringing in Chloe Sevigny to play her as a young woman, or Emma Watson, or Boy George.

Sorry for the outburst.  I actually had to stop watching this ghastly travesty last night because I was falling asleep and kept being awakened by a burst of anger as I realized the producers had made yet one more alteration to a perfectly good novel that deserved better.  I may go back to it, or I may just save my eyes. The acting and production values are certainly very high quality work. Jonathan Cake as Mark Easterbrook, the original protagonist, is very good, as is J.J. Feild as Paul Osbourne. And if the producers ever produce an Agatha Christie vehicle that sticks reasonably closely to the original material, I’ll be there.  But I cannot recommend this one.  Go read the book.

I am told that next week is The Secret of Chimneys, an adaptation of another novel which did not feature Jane Marple.  I rather liked that novel and will be watching to see how they mangle it with horrified fascination.