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July 12, 2006

Why do we read and re-read detective stories? Helen Szamuely argues that it is because detective fiction is a conservative art form

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Dr Helen Szamuely will be reviewing detective fiction for the Social Affairs Unit. Dr Szamuely argues that detective fiction is both important and popular because it is a conservative art form.

Edmund Wilson famously and sneeringly asked "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?" Well, as Pradeep Sebastian wrote in The Hindu on 1st June 1, 2003, "Well, some of us do, Sir. We most decidedly do".

Long before that there were rather angry responses, not least from W. H. Auden in his essay The Guilty Vicarage. The reaction of those responding to Edmund Wilson has been summed up as, "I care who killed Roger Ackroyd". Clearly, that is not precisely true. What Auden and many others are saying is that detective stories are a form of literature that must not be despised even though they remain very popular.

Christie, for instance, though sneered at by British critics, remains one of the most popular authors around the world, her books translated into most of the known languages (and probably a few unknown ones). Her work has survived better than that of her contemporaries of the so-called Golden Age, partly because she went on writing for longer but largely because her plots changed (though not her characters too much, because as Miss Marple is given to saying, human nature is very much the same wherever one goes).

While the critically more highly regarded Margery Allingham and, even, Ngaio Marsh found it hard to describe the post-war world and continued to populate their novels with servants and "enchanting" aristocrats, Christie got down to brass tacks. She had never written much about the aristocracy, more about the middle classes and in the post-war novels the few great houses she does describe are rented by film stars, bought by shady businessmen or become rest homes. Servants give way to dailies or refugees doing kitchen work, then to nobody at all. The world, she seems to say, has changed but some things have stayed the same.

This is, in a way, the point of the classical detective story that has had more changes and alterations since the days of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins than almost any other form of literature: underneath all that it is a very conservative form of art. By "conservative" I do not mean that it upholds some conservative or, even, feudal view of society, which is what some critics have accused it of doing, but that it insists on certain immoveable principles.

Chief of these is that human life is sacrosanct. Murder is wrong, no matter how you look at it. Murder is the ultimate crime; it destroys the balance of nature, which can be restored only by the discovery of the culprit and his or her punishment in some form or another. In a century that saw the almost casual elimination of millions of people, applauded by many a supporter of evil regimes, this highly moral attitude became and remained attractive to many people.

There have been stories of Christie's plays being performed by inmates of Nazi concentration camps; her books were read whenever possible in Communist countries. It is not just the attractive, orderly, cosy world that she describes that appeals to many when you read her books carefully you realize that the world is not all that cosy or orderly and violence can intrude at any time but the moral certainty coupled with the assumption of human fallibility. Anyone can be a criminal, she says but no criminal must be permitted to get away with it. This underpins the whole genre of the detective story, which, even in its more violent modern versions remains probably the most moral of all genres.

Indeed, it is not so much the violence of the modern stories that one finds frequently objectionable or the interminable bad sex scenes but the assumption that somehow the detectives of today are more moral than any of the past, their compassion is greater and their understanding of the complexity of human nature is unparalleled. Some of the authors should have another look at Conan Doyle's stories or Wilkie Collins's or, for that matter, Agatha Christie's.

P. D. James, who is considered to be the modern Queen of Crime (though some put Ruth Rendell on that throne) once got into trouble with the media for emphasising the moral and conservative underpinning of the detective story. Her words were, inevitably, twisted to mean that she did not think that any interesting crime could happen on a council estate and that the denizens of the latter did not have enough moral understanding to be of any value as material to a detective story writer. What she meant, she explained, was that for crime and detection to be interesting, there had to be a moral understanding first. Where this happened did not matter but mindless violence was of no interest to her. It had to be an orderly society broken up for her to investigate the crime and its consequences.

Without perhaps putting it like that the millions of readers of detective stories understand this. They may want a good page-turner or they may want to see a wrong-doer punished. Or, as some French intellectuals, like Pierre Bayard, the psychologist and literary analyst, author of Who killed Roger Ackroyd?", they may want to play mind games. But mostly as they read and re-read detective stories, the aficionados want to lose themselves in a modern morality tale.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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I look forward to this feature.

I would note that the detective novel has been more popular where the murder rate has been lower: in the Anglosphere to begin with, and in the American northeast (especially New England) more than the south, and in East Anglia more than say, Glascow.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at July 27, 2006 03:56 AM

I look forward to this too. Helen and other readers may be interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wiki ( and mailing list, where discussions on this and much else have been going on for some time. My modest goal as moderator of both is to get readers and publishers to take just 1 per cent of the interest and enthusiasm they currently show for Dame Agatha, and spread it around to the hundreds of other authors from the same period. They were writing detective fiction which was often just as good and sometimes better.

Jon Jermey.

Posted by: Jon Jermey at July 27, 2006 09:38 PM
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