Crime blogger Kate Jackson – whose fantastic work over at Cross-Examining Crime puts my own pale attempts at getting my thoughts online to shame – reviewed Kel Richards’ The Corpse in the Cellar a little while ago, which was serendipitous at the time because literally two or three days before I’d seen it in my local Waterstones. The bland and slightly innocent-looking cover – intentionally or otherwise calling to mind the recent and deservedly successful British Library Crime Classics – and its billing as ‘A 1930s Murder Mystery’ got me excited for another resuscitated classic and forgotten author whose work was enjoying a reprint for the first time in 80 years on the back of the revival of interest in our beloved Golden Age. Except that, upon inspection, Richards turns out to be a contemporary novelist and the book was in fact originally published earlier this year.
Now, I cast no aspersions on Kel Richards with this – Kate’s review is very positive and has convinced me to give the book a go at some point – but at the time my immediate reaction was one of disappointment (and it even contains an impossible crime!) and a deflation of interest. It could well be an excellent book, but there is something about the aping of that classic era that leaves me a little cold. Richards is by far the only person from doing it, if he were I’d have been more likely to give his book the benefit of the doubt for sheer chutzpah, and it seems that of late that the publishing industry has developed a proclivity for putting out anything that will fit into this ‘cozy’ niche. And, honestly, none of it interests me.
I look at the Golden Age as being so called because of the diversity and the richness of ideas it produced – the elevation of the puzzle plot, the challenging of conventions it encouraged, the establishing and then smashing of the acceptable rules of conduct, the genre-muddling weirdness of romance and horror and satirical self-awareness all tied around someone being killed – as much as the quantity of quality books it produced. Christie and Carr – unarguably among the luminaries of that period, standard-bearers for everything I love about this genre – frequently put out several books a year in their earlier days, and produced some timeless classics while doing so. The enthusiasm for this work and the hunger for something more to supplement the appetites of their faithful has led to ‘continuation’ novels to the work of Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others (some of them more successful than others) which have failed to cause the same kind of stir, but were guaranteed to sell nonetheless.
Take Fantasy fiction as a counterpoint. I’m starting to read more and more of this now, and each story seems to involve an orphan or societal outcast (thief, bastard son, etc), a complicated political system (typically ruled over by evil men) and usually some magical element. It’s the magical element that sets them apart, as each author is able to bring their own concept of magic to the world they create. The same could be said of the Golden Age – each author was able to bring their own twist or skew on the ideas central to a detective novel – and so I don’t see what is left for modern authors to add.
Only one other explanation occurs to me. There’s a scene in John Dickson Carr’s Fire, Burn! in which the modern day detective, having been swept back in time to the late 19th century (yeah, it doesn’t sound great, I know), decides to use his futuristic knowledge to get one over on the innocent rubes he’s forced to work with. This new ‘cozy’ fiction gives me that sort of impression: there has been some scientific of technological discovery that can be used in a crime novel set in the past, because the innocents back then won’t have been aware of it and so it’ll make a good crime Macguffin. Fine, but it raises two problems: first, it shows a remarkable lack of respect for your readers who are presumably aware of these things, and second, how is your detective going to explain something that couldn’t be understood at the time of your story? It would be like setting mystery in the Stone Age and having Detective Inspector Ugg waxing lyrical on the workings of the motor engine.
Now, as ever, I must keep in mind that I could be (and probably am) wildly off-track. All I’m seeking to do here is explore my indifference for these books, without – it must be noted – having ever read one of them. The counter-argument goes that if people want to write these stories, why shouldn’t they be free to? It’s a perfectly valid point. But I’m curious: does anyone else share my aversion to these books? And can anyone explain it in clearer detail than I’ve managed in these rambling 800-odd words? Better yet, do you write or publish books that fit into this niche? Would you care to challenge my perspective? No judgements here, I’m just trying to understand my own prejudices…