#5: Why I love… classic crime fiction

I am not the most practical of men.  Put me in the garden and ask me to dig you a hole of any size, I’ll do so happily.  Give me an unlimited supply of timber and ask me to build a rabbit hutch, however, and you’re going to be waiting a very long time indeed.  I’d theorise the hell out of it – internal height = average rabbit height + 3 standard deviations + largest recorded vertical rabbit hop from rest – but the application of saw to wood is going to go very wrong.

I remember reading an interview with Lee Child in which he likened writing mystery novels to designing a house; if you decide you want an extra window in a room then that’s going to involve moving the sockets you’ve got on the wall, possibly moving the door and so the light-switch, etc.  If when writing the final chapter of your novel and suddenly decide someone else should be the killer but you change nothing in the preceding pages…well, catastrophe.  My love of theory married to this appreciation of plot construction is what drew me to crime novels in the first place, and the more I read the more I liked it.  I began to recognise that, the further back you went, the more of a factor the plotting became and that for sheer joyous planning you really couldn’t beat the classics.  There’s a moment in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun where a bottle being thrown out a window is surprisingly significant – remove that one simple action and a lot of stuff elsewhere doesn’t make sense.  Honestly, I think that’s awesome.

Obviously there are exceptions – those houses where you can add all the extra windows you like but you’ve stil got a hole in your back garden filled with terrible, terrible rabbit hutches – but for my tastes I increasingly found a joy in the construction of Golden Age crime novels.  There was an intricacy that manifested itself in the sinister oppression of John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch as much as the untethered absurdity of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop.  The idea of everything being so finely balanced, of each ingredient stirred in just the right amount, seemed no more perfectly realised than in these books and their ilk.

The counter view here is, of course, that it reduces these things to little more than an intellectual puzzle, suddenly the idea of a murder becomes trivial because you’re trying to make your jigsaw look nice.  Firstly, frankly, that doesn’t wash with me.  No-one has actually died, that’s how fiction works.  And I fail to believe that readers of more honorable tomes are clutching their hands to their hearts or biting a knuckle to fight back the tears, or that they experience something more profound, every time a character dies in an Orange Prize-shortlisted novel.  There are many superb non-GAD novels, and I do not seek to diminish them, but don’t tell me their characters’ deaths are any more meaningful or respectful.  Your bathroom isn’t more of a bathroom just because it has a bidet in it, after all.

Secondly – and much more simply – yes, that’s the point.  I want a puzzle, I want something to engage with outside of my normal life that demands my attention and rewards my own reflection.  I have enough gritty realism in my waking moments, deal with non-fiction seemingly every minute, and am besieged on all sides by modern perspectives.  Am I harking back to simpler times as a way of rejecting our modern excesses?  No, I just want something well-constructed and I’m more likely to find it there.  The machinations of a plot tooled to a particular end, that moment where different aspects suddenly lock gears, winching up a trapdoor for the revelations to come tumbling out, everything that contributes to that captivates and delights me, and that’s why I keep coming back.

I’m less likely to embarrass myself at book signings, too.

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