Writing a decent novel of detection is difficult enough, as evinced by the fact that the form virtually died out by the 1960s, so taking the classic detective story and turning into a pastiche of itself is even harder again — it has to be both a story of crime and detection and a cunning vehicle for transcending the tropes thereof while simultaneously wallowing in them. Leo Bruce did this near-perfectly in Case for Three Detectives (1936) and a great many luminaries of the form dipped their toe into such conceits with aspects of their books, plots, or characterisation, but for a full-length novel to take this on successfully is something of a challenge that it would be beyond the abilities of most mortals.
And then we must also deal with the belief that we understand something better because we have the freedom to look back upon it from a position of greater enlightenment, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the attitude displayed to Golden Age detective fiction by authors several decades later. Yes, their plots were convoluted and unlikely; yes, they relied on a webwork of Suspicious Behaviour and Hidden Motives that not merely borders but flat-out annexes the land of make believe; every time I see or hear these objections raised, it takes a tremendous amount of effort not to scream That was the fucking point, you moron! Anyone claiming now, in this day and age, to have a more enlightened perspective on the tropes of the novel of classic detective fiction than the people who devoted years of their life to writing them is so far wide of the mark as to be setting a new world record.
Which brings us to Runa Fairleigh’s An Old-Fashioned Mystery, clearly a pastiche from that title all the way through, and so overbearingly self-indulgent that it makes Augustus Gloop look quite the paradigm of abstemious abnegation. Reader, I hated it. You may say it winks at the classics, I say it leers at, slobbers over, gropes, and drunkenly propositions them and then dismisses them as a slut when they have the class to retain their dignity and forcibly reject such advances. You may say it cleverly subverts the expectations of such books, I say that actually — after providing several wedges of exposition in the first chapter, then having a character complain that such novels are filled with too much exposition, then going on to provide another two chapters of almost pure exposition — it’s really, really, embarrassingly poorly written.
This is a novel so ignorant in its intentions that I can honestly believe it will have put people off reading any proper detective fiction. Gather some people in a big house, have a Pompous Arse, a Bright Young Thing, a Foreigner, Some Overbearing Relatives, a Few Other Types, uh, then, I guess kill them one by one and have someone try to solve it. The young, attractive one, she’s the heroine. Boom, novel written. Except — and here’s something those old-timers with their dull sense of buttoned-up denial about how the world really is couldn’t do — then I’ll put a twist so devastatingly brilliant that no-one will have thought of it before. Which just goes to show how fusty and old-fashioned these old writers were — I mean, crikey, some of them are even dead themselves by now, can you believe? — and how clever I am that I’ve come up with something none of them thought of.
Now, look. There’s a lot of talk about the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, mainly because Knox or Van Dine are — hey! irony! — not fully understood these days in their intentions when it came to the writing of their respective lists. That is a conversation for another time. But the point was the innovation has to take place inside of certain accepted conventions, and that’s what made the writing and reading of such stories the delight it was: given the restrictions (it can’t be a dream, it can’t be aliens, or that the prime-numbered chapters are when the narrator suddenly just making stuff up that didn’t happen, or that there’s an extra person who’s been there all along that no-one has mentioned or spoken to) there was still so much scope to slide clever — borderline genius — developments past you, the reader. Fine, if you want to write a story unencumbered by what you see as these transgressive tropes, go right ahead, but you’re not writing a pastiche of detective fiction. You’re simply revealing your own inability to write such a book. That, my friend, is a different game entirely.
It’s like someone saying that toast is the best food ever because of the vast array of flavours that can be added to it — jams, chutneys, fruit, whatever the hell Marmite is — and someone else replying “Yeah, but when you want to move house you can’t pack all of your stuff onto a piece of toast — you need a car for that, so cars are better than toast”. And then mocking toast because it doesn’t fit easily in their car’s cup holder, or the glove box doesn’t keep it warm, or you can only fit twelve slices side-by-side across the back seat and then there’s no room for anyone else to sit in there…they are completely different things, and the more you force an overlap between them, simply put, the more of an arsehole you appear. And it becomes funny for the reason that you so clearly do not have any idea how wide of the mark your comments are. That, my friends, that is the experience of reading this book. Yup, toast and cars. You heard it here first.
Believe it or not, I take no pleasure in tearing something down like this. But when a voluntary undertaking such as this is so utterly wrong in everything it thinks it’s doing, and when a misinformed attack such as this is launched on something as dear to me as classic era detective fiction, well, I feel some alternative perspective is required. And yet, weirdly, if you want to read this I don’t dissuade you — it will give you a far better understanding of the genre to see someone mess it up so comprehensively — just don’t expect it to be good, well-informed, funny, clever, insightful, original, knowledgable, respectful of its targets, or relevant to anything that has come before and you’re all set. Dig in!
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I would recommend An Old-Fashioned Mystery the strongest to devotees of Agatha Christie and people who have read altogether too many mysteries. They’ll probably appreciate the book the most!