Series in which Andrew Marr explores the books we read. He investigates detective fiction, a genre whose most famous heroes are now embedded in our collective psyche.
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When it comes to stories of crime and detection,
we have long been a nation obsessed.
But why do we British so enjoy reading about a spot of murder?
Detective fiction isn't simply a story.
It's a carefully crafted mechanism,
made up of a particular set of parts.
These familiar components give us that comforting feeling
of the classic whodunnit,
a reassurance that we know precisely what we're going to get.
We know that we're being set an entertaining puzzle
which revolves around a mystery,
typically an ingeniously despicable murder in an exotic milieu,
and we know that after sleuthing around,
investigating some very dubious characters,
and 250 pages of puzzling,
there will be a solution.
The paradox is, yes, it's a mystery,
but there is nothing at all mysterious about the product.
It's completely reliable and incredibly addictive.
The great poet WH Auden said that these books were
"as addictive as cigarettes or alcohol",
two subjects on which Auden was a world-class expert.
In this series, I'm looking at three genres of popular fiction -
spy novels and,
for this episode, detective stories.
I want to get inside these books and understand how they work.
It's so simple. It's...
It can be summed up, I think, by the equation A + B = C.
I am A, you are B,
and C is the reason why you want to murder me.
I'm meeting crime writers to talk about pioneers like Agatha Christie,
geniuses who figured out how to keep us compulsively turning the pages...
She was almost like a sort of philosopher of the crime novel.
You can see in many of her books, she has thought to herself,
"How much further can I take it than I've taken it already?"
..and to find out why we are drawn to stories of murder and crime,
dispatches from the dark side of human experience.
We get that buzz, I think, of excitement, of controlled fear.
Same as when you go on a roller-coaster. You know,
you go on the roller-coaster, scream your head off,
and then you join the queue to do it all over again.
It's so easy to develop a habit for these books,
because they are underpinned by a specific set of rules,
elements you will find throughout detective fiction,
regardless of whether you're reading Conan Doyle or Ian Rankin.
When these elements are skilfully assembled,
manipulated and rearranged,
they become a machine -
a storytelling machine.
Here's one way to begin a detective story.
'Guv, there's a body.'
Tell you what - how about this?
More like it.
There are, of course, many ways to begin a murder mystery,
but the acknowledged genius was the Duchess of Death herself,
It's very rare for Agatha Christie to start any of her stories
with something as plodding and obvious
as the discovery of a dead body.
Instead, what she tends to do is to give the reader an incident
which suggests that the rules of ordinary life
have suddenly been suspended.
So, for instance, there's a woman in a train,
she's passing another train,
a blind goes up on the other train window, and -
is that a woman being strangled?
Or there's a young girl having a conversation,
and she swats aside a wasp, except it's not a wasp -
it's a bullet.
Or there's an advertisement in the local paper,
in the classified ads, announcing that a murder will take place,
and giving the time, the date and the place.
In each case, Christie is saying to the reader, "Do you know what?
"Life is as you thought it was, except that I, Agatha Christie,
"have just altered it, tilted it, in a deeply unsettling way."
This initial mystery introduces us to the setting,
where the crime will take place.
Traditionally, this should be somewhere enclosed.
A country village, perhaps.
But the quintessential location is the country house,
popular in the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction.
Yes, the isolated country house is very useful
if you're planning a murder.
Here, the outside world is kept well away.
I think there's no surprise at all
that the Golden Age of detective fiction
comes in the 1920s and '30s.
Outside the gates of the grand country houses,
Britain was in a state of suppressed trauma.
The very same people who were building a new modern age
had just a decade before experienced
the sheer hell of the First World War.
These are people who have been soaked in the horrors of death,
who have seen it all in the trenches,
and have limped back, maimed, afterwards.
So, one way of dealing with this pervasive atmosphere of fear
and the memory of slaughter is to domesticate it,
to turn murder itself into an entertaining intellectual puzzle.
We read them....
I think, for entertainment,
and very much for relief
from some of the traumas of everyday life,
which is why the detective story is so popular in ages of war
or ages like the present, of great anxiety.
It really flourishes then because of the comfort that it brings,
and you enter into this world where the morality is so settled.
There are no great problems of right or wrong,
and when Poirot says,
"My attitude to murder is simple - I disapprove of it."
The stories of Golden Age writers like Christie,
Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh are peopled with characters
who are moved around like pieces on a chessboard.
Why don't you come and join me on my father's estate?
To begin with, there's the dead man walking,
the corpse in waiting.
Often unlikeable, they've made enough enemies to...
well, fill a stately home.
And among the suspects the reader might encounter,
the suspicious doctor with a comprehensive knowledge of
poisons and pharmaceuticals.
The charming but ruthless young man,
mysteriously back from overseas.
The glamorous young lady,
not at all all she seems.
The secretary, middle-class,
but caught between worlds,
an employee, not an equal.
More disposable are those below stairs.
They're likely to be falsely accused
or end up as a second or third body.
Not for nothing have these books been dismissed as
"snobbery with violence".
15 years? No, ever since I was four...
Because of the emphasis on the puzzle,
the murderer had to be capable of ingenious devising,
which means that the butler didn't do it,
because in the novels of the 1920s and '30s,
murder was a genteel game, and the lower classes,
according to the deeply unrealistic attitudes of the time,
simply weren't clever enough to play it.
This did not, however, affect the secretary.
According to the fictional detective Gideon Fell,
the secretary was the most dangerous person to have about the place.
Now, there are rules for all kinds of imaginative writing,
of course, from haikus and sonnets right through to sci-fi,
but the rules for detective novels are the rules of a game.
It is a game being played out between the writer and the reader,
and it's a game in which the writer,
having written the thing, holds all the cards.
But that doesn't really matter, as long as the writer then plays fair.
So what does playing fair actually mean?
Well, in the very famous introduction to
The Best Detective Stories Of The Year 1928,
Father Ronald Knox sets out his rules for fair detective fiction.
Aficionados call them the Decalogue.
I won't give you all of them, but here's a flavour.
"Rule number one.
"The criminal must be someone mentioned
"in the early part of the story.
"Rule number two.
"All supernatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
"Rule number three.
"Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable."
I like, particularly, rule number five.
"No Chinaman must figure in the story."
And Knox says, "Why this should be so I do not know,
"but it's a rule nevertheless."
Very important, rule number seven.
"The detective himself must not commit the crime."
And on it goes.
Finally, rule ten, it says,
"Twin brothers and doubles generally
"must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."
And you can see already, what he's basically saying is,
"No unfair tricks."
Again, the novelist must play fair
and allow the reader the possibility, at least,
of honestly and deductively solving the problem.
Detective stories were the original interactive entertainment.
Dennis Wheatley and JG Links
took the form to its logical conclusion
when they published Murder Off Miami in 1936.
Instead of a novel, readers got a ready-to-solve case file,
complete with crime-scene photos,
transcripts of interrogations
and bloodstained evidence.
Detective fiction reduced to its most essential components.
And the most essential of all -
the crime itself.
Of course, we don't really get to see this.
MAN SCREAMS We get the aftermath.
One of the great questions when writing about a murder is
where to place the corpse.
WH Auden noticed that an idyllic setting
amplified the horror of the dead body.
"It must be shockingly out of place," he wrote,
"as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing-room carpet."
But writers who want to set a ferocious puzzle
can do something really devious.
They can lock the door.
The locked room is the most fiendish and tantalising of clue puzzles.
The premise is very basic.
The dead body, the room locked from the inside,
so now it becomes not simply a whodunnit,
but also a "howdunnit".
Master of the locked-room mystery was John Dickson Carr,
whose detective Dr Gideon Fell
specialised in solving impossible crimes.
In The Hollow Man, Fell gives a lecture
in which he lays out all the possible ways
that a body can end up in a locked room,
and here's just a few of them.
First, there's what Fell calls "low tricks" -
A removable panel. Through something like that,
somebody in the room above could drop a dagger,
and then replace the panel.
But this is not the locked room proper,
and is regarded as cheating.
And then, there's the murder in the locked room
that isn't really a murder,
just a set of coincidences with somebody dying accidentally,
for instance, by bludgeoning themselves on a piece of furniture.
And then, there's murder by suggestion.
The victim is alone and made to kill themselves.
(Do it. Do it.)
Thinking that the room is haunted, or being sent berserk,
the victim hits himself on the chandelier
or stumbles and strangles himself on a conveniently placed piece of rope.
And then, there's murder by mechanical device.
The gun concealed in the phone receiver.
The clock that fires bullets when it's wound,
or the bed that exhales poisonous gases when it's warmed up.
But we're not finished yet,
because there's also the long-distance murder.
A gun fires an icicle through the window,
kills the victim, and melts.
Or maybe the victim hasn't been murdered at all.
He's just out for the count.
The murderer is the first one into the room afterwards,
and then stabs him.
Fell's lecture is a tour de force,
but in giving all the possible locked-room permutations,
the writer John Dickson Carr can't avoid the ultimate absurdity
of what he's doing.
Flying icicles and poisoned beds -
this is murder in Wonderland.
So, how does the best detective fiction avoid simply becoming
some kind of endlessly complicated and bizarre mechanical puzzle?
The answer is in the multilayered and mercurial characters of
the great detectives themselves.
The first great sleuth in detective fiction is Sherlock Holmes -
that much, at least, is elementary.
Other fictional detectives had come before,
but it was Holmes, with his prodigious intellect,
his quirks and eccentricities,
that captured the public imagination and spawned an army of imitators.
So, what makes Sherlock Holmes so irresistible?
I think we read a Sherlock Holmes story because we want to stand
with his friend Watson and watch the great man as he solves the mystery,
and when we do this, we are actually recreating
Dr Arthur Conan Doyle's own experience as a student,
when he observed Joseph Bell,
his mentor at Edinburgh University, display his powers of reason.
Bell would amaze his students by looking at a patient
and, simply using his acute powers of observation and deduction,
revealing the underlying story of who they were.
So, he'd turn to the patient and say...
IN SCOTTISH ACCENT: "Well, my man, you've been serving in the Army."
Because the man was respectful, but hadn't removed his hat,
an Army trait.
"But not long discharged."
Because if he had been long discharged,
he'd have picked up civilian ways.
"And you served in a Highland regiment."
He's picked that up from the accent, of course.
"And you served, I think, in Barbados."
Because the man has elephantiasis,
a disease prevalent in the West Indies.
By picking up on these tiny details, Bell wasn't simply showing off -
though he was certainly doing that.
He was creating the method that would be used by Holmes himself -
small, apparently insignificant details,
which, when woven together, told the true story of a human life.
Thanks to Bell's methods,
Holmes had the superhuman ability to extract information from anyone,
and there was something omniscient about him.
In the modern Victorian city,
the detective could go everywhere, speak to everybody,
from the top of society down to street level.
As Holmes says himself,
being a professional voyeur is a lot of fun.
"'My dear fellow,' said Sherlock Holmes.
"'If we could fly out of that window, hand-in-hand,
"'hover over this great city,
"'gently remove the roofs and peep in at the queer things
"'which are going on, it would make all fiction,
"'with its conventionalities and forcing conclusions,
"'most stale and unprofitable.'"
And it's a telling image for Holmes to use, because that is,
in a sense, exactly what he does -
hanging over the throbbing metropolis,
peering into people's lives,
uncovering their innermost secrets,
like some kind of cocaine-powered Edwardian drone.
But here's the odd thing about Holmes -
although he takes us into other people's lives,
the privileged access doesn't extend to
the drug-taking brainiac himself.
In detective fiction, the sleuth can know everything about
everybody else, but we are never allowed to know too much about him.
Conan Doyle has Watson tease us with the titles of other Sherlock Holmes
adventures the good doctor will never get round to writing up.
So, there's the Paradol Chamber, the Camberwell Poisoning Mystery,
the Amateur Mendicant Society,
and best of all, the Giant Rat of Sumatra...
IN SCOTTISH ACCENT: ..a story for which the world is not yet prepared.
Conan Doyle withholds in other ways.
What we know is filtered through Dr Watson,
the quintessential sidekick in detective fiction.
The writer Anthony Horowitz had to master this,
and many other conventions that Conan Doyle perfected,
when he was chosen by the Doyle estate to revisit
the world of Holmes and Watson.
The sidekick is invaluable in detective fiction
because, without him, we don't know what the detective is thinking.
That's the first thing. And again, you know, in these stories,
we only get inside Holmes's mind when Holmes tells Watson
what he's doing.
The voice of Watson is part of the genius of the whole construction.
You get this very affable, warm, humane voice
commenting on this character who is anything but,
and it's the contrast between the two that works so perfectly well.
When I came to write The House Of Silk,
the first thing I had to do was to acquire the voice of Dr Watson.
So, the detective is the kind of genius.
As it were, he's the great...the great artist,
and between us and the artist, we need an interpreter.
We need the critic.
We need somebody who gets us from ourselves to the genius.
We can't do it in one lump ourselves.
Yes, but the clever writer also uses these sidekicks to
do the exact opposite of that.
I mean, I write detective fiction,
and I use my sidekick always to distract.
So, for example,
in this room we are sitting in now, the sidekick might ask you about
why the logs are arranged in a certain way in a fireplace,
but, as the author, I'm only doing that because I don't want you
to be looking at the picture over there, which is the real clue.
The sidekick always is the sleight of hand.
He always takes you in the wrong direction.
Now, it all starts, as we've said, with Holmes and Watson -
just take us from those stories to, I guess,
the Golden Age in the 1920s and '30s of Agatha Christie,
and Dorothy Sayers and so forth.
Is there a lineage you can trace through?
I think what you have is a basic template.
You have a person who is extremely clever and who is unworldly.
He may be a Belgian refugee, or he may be this extraordinary
unfathomable genius that is Sherlock Holmes, or he could be
a member of the aristocracy, Lord Peter Wimsey, or whatever.
He's somebody who is special and different and bigger than we are,
and cleverer than we are.
There is the sidekick.
There are murders and there are solutions.
I mean, at the end of the day, I think what I most like about
detective fiction is how very, very simple it is.
There are very, very few reasons to murder somebody.
That's one of the fun things about this, as well,
and as I sit here looking at you now, I do ask myself,
"Well, why would I want to murder you?", for example.
Yes, I'm wondering about that, too.
I think it boils down to, basically, three emotions.
One is fear,
two is desire for something,
and three is hatred.
And so, what do I want that you have?
Well, your success as a broadcaster, your programmes, your books...
If there was a chance that I could get Anthony Horowitz On Sunday,
for example, in the case of your demise,
there's a motive for murder.
I'll swap for your novel writing.
Well, maybe, but then again, you know, a secret shared.
You're a journalist. What do you know about me?
In researching this programme,
what did you find out that I might want to have concealed?
A very good reason for a motive...for a murder.
And the third one, well, passion and such.
You're married, I think,
and, you know, maybe your wife and I could be discussing this
behind your back - that sort of thing.
So, in fact, at the end of the day,
there are very few reasons to murder somebody -
for me to murder you - but they're very easy to find.
The detective novel, by its nature, is a fantastical confection,
but to suspend our disbelief,
it helps if the plot is devised from the template of the real world.
This holds true even for that least gritty of detective writers,
as can be seen when you look at one of her ideas folders,
which I have been lent by her personal archive.
Now, it's often said that Agatha Christie's novels are far-fetched,
but she really liked to get her facts right,
and what I've got in front of me is a kind of dossier
that she would pore over and use.
It's got newspaper cuttings.
It's got journals and clippings.
There's blueprints for potential characters.
From the Daily Mirror in 1954,
an article about a gambling cheat known as The Banker,
caught after a spree through Europe's finest casinos.
There's an article about the odds of a child having been born
with brown eyes to blue-eyed parents -
the return of the secret offspring being a Christie standby -
and advice on arcane points of law that dictate
who receives an inheritance.
Everywhere around me, as I say, there are cuttings,
there are journals, there are briefings,
and a great deal about poisoning.
Let me read you this from somebody who describes themselves
simply as The Chemist.
"A strychnine ointment with lard,
"applied to the shaved scalp of a 12-pound dog, killed it in 20 minutes,
"but a similar ointment made with Vaseline produced no effect."
And on it goes about the different ways of killing people with
strychnine, and concludes,
"PS In the event of this document falling into the hands of
"the police, be it hereby understood that the interest displayed in
"the more deadly alkaloidal poisons is of a purely academic nature,
"intended for literary use only.
"PPS2 It was beastly to try it on the dog, anyway."
Christie used poisons more often than any other crime writer,
and in her hands, the stages of toxic poisoning were vital clues.
"The patient has pupils dilated and reactionless,
"dizziness and sounds in the ears,
"and death in from four days to sometimes sooner."
I think what this somewhat unsettling dossier demonstrates
is that although Agatha Christie's imagination was macabre
and tilted towards the unexpected -
that's the whole point of the books, after all - it was grounded in fact.
The details of English law.
The medical effects of different kinds of poison, as demonstrated
by the British Medical Journal and specialist correspondence.
Details of what actually happened in the outside world as reported
in the newspapers.
This is a dark, dark world, true,
but it's based on brute - and very often brutal - fact.
Reality may provide inspiration, but the machinery of Christie's
novels is assembled from repeated elements.
Techniques like misdirection, where the reader's attention is
deliberately diverted, crop up time and time again.
The first authorised Poirot novels to have been published since
Christie's death have been written by the crime writer Sophie Hannah.
She has taken Dame Agatha's storytelling machine apart
and examined it thoroughly.
Agatha had certain tricks that she used regularly.
One of them was the obvious suspect, who everyone...
You know, five minutes after the murder, everyone's going,
"Well, of course, it must have been him."
And then it seems to be proved that it can't be that person,
because of something.
Either they were somewhere else, or someone alibis them,
and so everybody rules out that character from suspicion.
But then it turns out that whatever it was that ruled that person out
is proved to be invalid,
and therefore that person was the one who did it.
There's also a thing in reverse.
If there's a caddish, very handsome young man,
who burns through all the family money...
leaves a string of heartbroken women in his wake
and everyone thinks he's a rotter,
he will very rarely turn out to be the murderer,
because Agatha had a slightly soft spot
for caddish, handsome young men.
So he will be a rotter, but fundamentally decent,
because he is, at least, not a murderer.
But I think, in a way, the boldest thing she does
is not the misdirection -
it's the active direction.
She tells you what you ought to be thinking and when,
and she gives you clues and help, and she says,
"Think about that phrase that was overheard under the window,
"and then think about the wax on the candlestick.
"Surely, now, you can see everything."
And we go, "No, no, no. Still can't see anything.
"Still completely in the dark."
So that is a sign of her confidence -
she knows that she is one step ahead of you
and will remain one step ahead of you.
She is dancing in front of us.
Yes, absolutely. I think I've only...
I've read all of her books more than once,
and there's only one where I guessed what was going on.
Now, you're going to want to poison me after this confession,
but I have to say, I don't terribly like Agatha Christie,
because I find the characters, too often,
too cardboard, too two-dimensional - I don't care about them very much.
Tell me why I'm wrong.
Agatha writes in a certain style and her style is
to show the characters presenting as two-dimensional,
because they're all about keeping up their respectable facades,
and it's a mystery - you don't know who anyone is yet.
You don't know who's done what.
Everyone is portraying themselves as they want to be seen,
so you see the two-dimensional version of everybody.
So it's not that they're two-dimensional.
It's that they want you to think they're two-dimensional.
They are absolutely not two-dimensional,
as is made clear by the constant examining
of what they might be hiding
and who they might really be under the surface.
By the end of the book, that is when the facade falls
and the three-dimensionalness of the characters
is most powerfully felt.
Behind the level of psychology - as it were, underneath it -
there is a pervasive and strong sense of evil in Agatha Christie.
Where do you think this comes from?
You know, people wrongly describe her as a cosy crime writer,
because there's not much blood and guts to be seen in her books,
and the crimes have often happened offstage, as it were.
But she's not at all cosy, because pervading all of her writing
is a powerful awareness of evil,
and not of evil as, you know,
this monstrous thing that comes in from the outside, but...
..the danger that any one of us might cross that line
and do an evil thing.
So, evil is like a little, bubbling, dark thing
inside all of us which can be suppressed
-or allowed to...
I do think Agatha saw evil as something
that...that any of us, actually,
could succumb to in a moment of great pain or weakness.
If the classic murder mystery
is about evil being unleashed into the world,
then the ending is about it being vanquished.
Have no fear, reader -
everything will be made right.
At the end of the first Poirot novel,
the Belgian detective gathers the suspects together.
Here, Christie established that classic whodunnit set piece -
the drawing-room denouement.
And this, she realised, presents the opportunity
for a wonderful moment of theatre -
a performance in which Poirot drops the masks on all the characters
before revealing the identity of the killer.
And it is a convention used time and time again in detective fiction -
the sleuth eliminates all the suspects one by one,
before coming to the real nub of the question...
The detective is telling us what's really been going on.
They're bringing order back from chaos
and dispensing justice.
What's even more remarkable about Poirot
is that he is able to do all of this in a very silly voice.
AS POIROT: And so, ve know zat ze killer vas left-'anded
and had access to ze library and also zat the pauvre milord,
he has changed his will one more time, which leaves...
YOU, Miss Ross.
Curse you, Andrew Marr!
And so the killer is revealed, the mask slips,
and we have an entirely satisfactory resolution.
It's been said that these Golden Age detective stories
offer readers something of a reassuring ritual -
the established order is thrown into chaos by a horrendous crime,
but we know that, in the end, everything will return to normal.
There's no mention of those other little grey cells, the prison cells,
next to the gallows where, undoubtedly, the killer is headed.
The detective has arrived and dispensed justice
and for almost everybody, life is again tickety-boo.
The Golden Age detective stories had served as an escapist retreat,
but with the violence and horror of the 1930s and '40s,
this genteel fantasy began to feel more and more marooned.
Different times called for different crimes -
across the Atlantic, writers were making the case
for a new kind of ultraviolent detective fiction,
and it was an Anglo-American writer
who was the new movement's minister of propaganda.
"The English may not always be the best writers in the world,
"but they are the best dull writers."
So said Raymond Chandler, as he pulled out his Browning
and took aim at the Golden Age,
the creaking Golden Age detective stories.
GUNSHOTS AND SCREAMING
Raymond Chandler argued that
the rules were showing their age, that they could be made to work
with the addition of fast women, blazing guns and, in particular,
the gumshoe sleuth in trench coat and hat.
Chandler saw that the future of the detective novel
lay with the detectives themselves,
and not with ever more complex, elaborate puzzle plots.
For him, Dashiell Hammett had pioneered the way forward
with his hard-boiled detective stories.
Hammett founded the hard-boiled genre -
stories that felt real,
where detection was a dirty business,
born from vice and corruption.
Detective writers aren't usually professional sleuths.
Conan Doyle had been an ophthalmologist,
Chandler an executive in the oil business.
Agatha Christie certainly did her research,
but she never had to catch a killer.
Dashiell Hammett was rather different.
He'd been a newsboy, a railway messenger,
and worked in the docks
before joining America's famous Pinkerton detective agency
at the age of 21.
It was tough, dirty and sometimes dangerous work.
On one occasion, he became infested with lice
after working undercover in a San Francisco jail.
Another time, he followed a suspect into an alleyway
and had his head smashed in with a brick.
Alongside a prodigious drinking habit...
..Hammett picked up TB,
which meant that writing became the only career left open to him.
He churned out detective stories for a pulp magazine called Black Mask,
creating a laconic private investigator
who led us into a world shaped and coloured
by Hammett's own lived experiences.
Hammett created The Continental Op -
fat, 40-ish and the Continental Detective Agency's toughest
and shrewdest officer.
The Op became the protagonist of Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest,
a story originally written for Black Mask,
that was inspired by the writer's time as a union buster in Montana.
Called into a town run by crooks, dubbed Poisonville,
the Op discovers that his client has just been murdered.
"I'm opening up Poisonville from Adam's apple to ankles",
declares the Op.
The law is corrupt and he decides the only way to clear up the town
is to set the gangs against each other.
"It's easier to have them killed", he says coldly. "Easier and surer."
The Op doesn't work for the law.
The hard-boiled private eye works for cash.
On the side of the angels, but only just.
Hammett made detective fiction less about solving a puzzle
and more about the detective's - often bloody - quest for justice.
His private investigator has to get involved,
not simply solve the murder.
In this case, it means more than getting your hands dirty,
it means getting them covered in blood.
As Chandler wrote, "Down these mean streets a man must go
"who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."
The detective in such stories must be such a man.
He is the hero, he is everything.
Of course, the mean streets are as much a prefabricated convention
as the body in the country house library.
But the visceral language and imagery of Hammett and Chandler
made their urban noir feel authentic.
They have a reality. They described it extremely well.
There's a kind of vigour and originality in the metaphors,
in the similes used.
It's creative in a way that the detective story here is not.
It's really like strong liquor compared with milk
that's slightly gone sour...
this side of the Atlantic.
It's got that punch about it.
Audiences wanted their detectives to move around
in a world that was real.
On this side of the Atlantic, that created a problem.
With no real-world tradition of the private eye here,
how could British detective fiction achieve the authenticity
that readers now expected?
This is Fabian of Scotland Yard.
The answer lay in what people had started watching
on the small screen.
In the '50s and '60s, audiences grew conversant in police procedure
by watching shows like Z Cars.
Inevitably, this altered the way that detective novels were written.
The action moved into a police station.
The sidekick became a detective sergeant, his boss, a DI.
Even without the uniform,
the detective inspector was now the ultimate insider.
The way the story develops is now shaped
by established police procedure so that normally, for instance,
the detective arrives after the murder has been committed,
instead of hanging around in some louche country house or bouncing
about on the Orient Express.
Then there's the different texture to the narrative itself.
When the investigators are part of an organisation, the police,
known for its stifling bureaucracy and the terrible toll
this work can place on families,
these things have to become part of the story.
So too does the nature of the investigation.
This is incremental work - sometimes tedious, sometimes slow.
Progress through process.
1964 saw the publication of the debut novel from Ruth Rendell,
who, more than anyone, brought British crime fiction
into the modern age.
From Doon With Death began the Inspector Wexford series of novels
that were later filmed for television.
We follow Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford
around the fictional market town of Kingsmarkham,
a place where violence lurks amid the everyday,
and bodies are found under suburban hedges.
Wexford faces down the macabre by being reassuringly ordinary.
He solves his cases with patient persistence
and careful examination of witnesses.
As time is of the essence, let's be as succinct as possible.
And the series follows Wexford and his team as they slowly develop
from book to book.
There's the brusque but surprisingly liberal Wexford himself,
the archetypal tough-but-fair copper with hidden depths.
He's forever given to quoting Proust and Jane Austen, never a bad sign,
and he worries a lot about his daughters, Sheila and Sylvia.
Sylvia gets married and divorced and becomes a militant feminist
in the 1970s before going on to run a women's refuge.
Then there's Mike Burden, Wexford's sidekick.
More conservative than Wexford, Burden starts the series
being judgmental about anyone who doesn't conform to his own
white-sliced version of normal.
But then we see him fall apart when his wife dies,
and Burden begins to mellow,
becoming less judgmental of other people and their weaknesses.
To that extent, he's rather like Britain itself.
But if society was changing,
it was also becoming more fragmented and less innocent.
Over 24 novels, Wexford's team have to confront crimes
that have now come to seem depressingly routine.
Child abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence.
Ruth Rendell used detective fiction to hold
a mirror up to contemporary Britain and reflect back
the sinister stuff lying just beneath the surface.
So that's a bit weird, isn't it?
The very same way of writing we used to turn to
to escape the problems of the world has now made itself the expert
at anatomising the rotten heart of how things are.
At its most basic, if you strip away all the puzzles,
crime is really about individual motivation and choice.
One person does something nasty to another person.
But behind all of that, there are the wider social pressures.
What was the criminal's upbringing? What about class and money?
What about the corrupt elites who allowed all of this to happen
in the first place?
Thorny questions all that were taken up by
a radical generation who came of age in the 1980s.
One of them was Mike Phillips.
To tell the stories he wanted, he created Sam Dean.
With few black policemen in the force,
Phillips had no choice but to make Sam a private eye.
I couldn't imagine...
I really could not imagine a policeman being someone
that you could go and talk to.
I couldn't imagine a police station being
a building that I would go to if I was in trouble, you know?
So it was absolutely natural that Sam became a private detective.
Sam Dean is a freelance journalist come private investigator.
He's smart, urbane and sophisticated.
He's also streetwise and black.
Phillips uses him to show us a different London
to the one we normally see in '80s fiction.
Sam Dean was part of the landscape I was writing about.
He was so much part of that life.
He lived in caffs and pubs and rented rooms.
When I saw pictures of London in magazines or brochures,
I recognised the familiar landmarks, like Big Ben,
but they had little to do with the city I lived in.
To me, London was an endless succession of streets like this.
Their features continually altering and reforming.
Grimaces on the face of a toothless old man.
The figure of Sam Dean allowed me to talk about racism.
It allowed me to talk about identity.
He knew what it felt like to be racially abused, for instance.
He knew what it was like to...
..to look for a job for a long time and not find one.
He knew all those things.
The Sam Dean books were published
during a particularly traumatic moment
in the story of multicultural Britain,
around the time of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
There's an underlying threat of violence around Sam,
barely acknowledged by his white friends.
What happened to you?
That was a very strong motivation in writing the thing,
that actually there was this experience,
there was this huge thing happening
and I could write about it,
and nobody else was doing it.
It was amazing.
He was an animal.
Say it, just like the rest of us.
Crime fiction does more than simply comment on contemporary society,
sometimes it goes further and becomes
the proverbial canary in the coal mine,
giving us the very first information
about something going seriously wrong.
In her 1997 novel,
The Wire In The Blood, Val McDermid features Jacko Vance,
a charismatic television presenter
who is also a serial rapist and sadistic killer.
No, he's not quite Jimmy Savile, but the echoes are uncanny.
He's adored by young women,
he runs marathons for charity and he volunteers in a hospital.
Sounds a tad familiar.
"He had learned not to show the currents that moved
"under the surface,
"to present a bland and acceptable face.
"Other men might have revealed some traces of the seething
"excitement that swirled inside,
"but not him.
"He was too practised at dissemblement."
McDermid invites us inside Vance's mind, and it's a spectacularly ugly
place, but she also shows how
he gets away with it by hiding behind his public persona.
He's just so very, very famous on television that
he can't have done anything that nasty.
Now what I find disturbing about this book,
apart from the story itself obviously, is that it was written
and published years and years before Jimmy Savile was exposed.
I work for an organisation, the BBC, which is meant to be filled with
hundreds and hundreds of trained observers, looking and listening.
Now we'd heard vague rumours about Jimmy Savile,
but it took a crime novelist, Val McDermid,
to look and look for long enough and then frankly,
to have the balls to publish it way before Savile himself died.
Val, can I ask about Jacko Vance, a psychopathic,
self-loving television celebrity.
I don't know where you come across these people!
Where did the idea for this monstrous, monstrous figure come from?
I remembered the stories that I had heard over the years,
working in newspapers, about Jimmy Savile and I thought that
is somebody that I can base a character on.
I'd interviewed Savile back in the late 1970s and I thought
he was a deeply unpleasant man, but his public face was very
different from the face that he showed when it was just the two of us together.
I thought celebrity now is the new shield,
you can do whatever you like if you're famous enough, if you like.
We could never tell the story at the time because we couldn't
get enough weight of credible evidence against him.
I thought, this is a story I can tell in fiction. And so I think...
-I thought I sailed very close to the wind.
-So did I.
But nobody got it!
Nobody said to me, "That's Jimmy Savile, isn't it?"
Because I made the character charming and handsome and
on that superficial level, people didn't see beyond that.
So the handsome and charming bit probably saved me from being sued.
Are you conscious of trying to write novels which tell us about
society right now in the 21st century?
The crime novel lets us shine a light on those things that maybe
could be done better or could be done differently.
I've sometimes said I've spent most of my adult life in a state
I think the desire for change,
the desire for things to be better, is something that fuels
a lot of fiction and is what underpins a lot of what we write.
It's about saying, "These things are wrong,
"these are not good things."
Val, in the novels of say Agatha Christie, there is almost no
violence, there might be a gentle tap on the back of a head,
there might be a glass of something arsenicy,
why has it become necessary to include
more direct violence and sometimes pretty horrible stuff in your books?
I think if you're claiming to write novels which have any basis
in social realism then you have to confront very directly the
nature of violence and the way it contaminates everyone who
comes into contact with it, the way it spreads out like a miasma
and infects people's lives.
I think if you're writing about these kind of things,
it's a bit disingenuous to say, "Tony looked at the body and thought,
"the killer is a left-handed man with a limp." You've got to show the
-reader what's going on...
-What the body looks like.
And what's happened, what's part of the process.
If you're actually going to investigate the process of someone's
mind that takes them to this point where they commit these acts,
then you have to know what the acts are, otherwise it becomes this
completely denatured thing. This is not a parlour game.
This is not the Agatha Christie crossword puzzle,
it's writers attempting to tackle difficult things and
the terrible things that happen in the real world.
As the body count piles up,
so greater emphasis is placed on the victim in the mortuary and
the fact this was once a living breathing individual.
I think now we're much more shocked
by death because we see it
less in everyday life.
People even in the 1950s used to stop as hearses went by
in the street. People had mourning clothes.
Now, death is removed from us in society and what crime
fiction does is to bring it back, is to remind us how present it is,
and how terrifying that is, but how we have to learn how to address it.
We have to add a much more complex moral dimension and that's
the task of the contemporary writer.
At the end of the detective story,
there used to be a form of consolation when the crime was
solved and order was restored,
but we all know that life isn't like that.
One criminal goes to prison, but another comes along to replace them.
But maybe modern detective fiction offers
a different kind of consolation,
that there are still people who
selflessly are willing to look into some very dark places on our behalf.
Sadly, when you look upon death, there's a price that must be paid.
No-one is more aware of this than Ian Rankin's
Detective Inspector John Rebus.
Rebus has put away countless bad guys,
but he's basically much more at home in the pub than the police station.
He survives just about on a bracing diet of booze and fried food
and cheese sandwiches.
He's had to deal with some pretty unsavoury types,
retired serial killers, dodgy policeman,
the very worst kind of politician, but we follow him,
empty crisp packet by empty crisp packet,
empty fag packet by empty fag packet because, although he's a walking
public health disaster on two wobbly legs, Rebus always gets results.
If something terrible has happened, you want a detective like Rebus.
Somebody who will go the extra mile, somebody who ain't going to give up.
You give Rebus a case, he's going to gnaw away at it until
he makes some progress. He ain't giving it up. Of course,
most cops in real life ain't like that.
They're not as full-on as he is,
they're not thinking about the job 24/7.
He's got no social life, he's got no family around him, he's got
nothing that would get in the way of him just focusing on the case.
He focuses on the cases I give him because it stops him having
to think too much about himself and what a, you know,
flawed human being he's been, a flawed husband,
a flawed father, a flawed individual.
But Rebus's flaws make him the perfect modern fictional
detective and even though the wheezing old bloodhound first
retired several books ago, the fact that crime will never go away
means that his work will never be done.
What modern-day crime writers have to deal with is this notion
that the world is still rotten and no matter how many times
Rebus puts somebody in jail or puts away as many bad guys as
he possibly can, he knows the next one is just around the corner.
That's become very frustrating to him through the course of his career.
He's a bit like King Canute, trying to keep back the waves.
So he piles it all on his shoulders, as with many fictional
detectives in crime fiction, he carries the weight of that around.
He carries around all the ghosts of the people who have been killed who
he's tried to find some justice for or closure for, for their families.
He carries around the weight of all the criminals he never quite put away.
Now, all this is beginning to seem just a tad unfair.
We started by talking about how detective fiction was
a game played between the reader and the writer,
but now it seems that whoever wins that game, regardless of that,
the loser is always the fictional detectives.
They have gone to the dark side on behalf of us,
our reading pleasure,
and perhaps because we've enjoyed ourselves too much,
I don't know, they always end up paying a deep psychological penalty.
I'm not going to get too worked up about this,
after all it is just a rule,
part of the mechanism that's kept the story machine churning for over a century.
And if you want an idea of how universal these rules are, you
only have to look at that unlikely explosion of detective
fiction that has erupted from those placid Nordic countries in
the last few years and turned crime
dramas and novels into Scandinavia's greatest export.
These are tales that are still powered by a puzzle,
that play fair, where detectives go everywhere, often with a sidekick.
That probe the dark heart of society and has there ever been
a more flawed detective than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?
Father Knox would surely have approved.
The late lamented PD James used to say that because the
detective novel relies on the tiny details of everyday life,
it's also a fantastic form of social history.
Historians in 100 years' time,
if they want to know what life was like at the beginning of
the 21st century, will turn to Ian Rankin and Val McDermid for
the smell, the tiny granular detail of how we lived our lives.
Those historians will discover the best of us and the worst of us,
and really how we lived,
and all of this delivered through the detective novel, a cheap,
disposable, interactive puzzle on paper.
A throwaway entertainment which will outlast us all.
Let's lose our grip on reality, to delve into the impossible world of
fantasy fiction, where magical stories of fantastical creatures,
heroes and dark forces reveal a surprising take on real life.
Now, has this uncovered the inner detective in you?
Find out by creating your own whodunnit crime plot or
simply learn more about how to write fiction by going to the BBC
website on the screen and following the links to the Open University.
In the first episode of a series that explores the books we (really) read, Andrew Marr investigates the curious case of detective fiction. This is a genre that been producing best-sellers since the 19th century, and whose most famous heroes - Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Rebus - are now embedded in our collective psyche. But how does detective fiction work- and how do the best crime writers keep us compulsively turning the pages?
Andrew deconstructs detective stories by looking at their 'rules' - the conventions we expect to be present when we pick up a typical mystery. Because detective fiction is an interactive puzzle, these rules are the rules of a game - a fiendish battle of wits between the reader and the writer. What is remarkable is that instead of restricting novelists (as you might expect), these rules stimulate creativity, and Andrew reveals how clever writers like Agatha Christie have used them to create a seemingly infinite number of story-telling possibilities.
The fictional detective is a brilliant invention, a figure who takes us to (often dark) places that we wouldn't normally visit. While we are in their company, no section of society is off-limits or above suspicion, and Andrew shows how writers have used crime fiction not merely to entertain, but also to anatomise society's problems.
Andrew interviews modern-day crime writers including Ian Rankin, Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid, while profiling important pioneers such as Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Ruth Rendell. Along the way, he decodes various great set-pieces of the detective novel such as Hercule Poirot's drawing room denouements, and the 'locked room' mysteries of John Dickson Carr.