Session 2

Martin Edwards – Original Sinners

As anyone who has read Martin Edwards’ blog ( ) will know he is extremely well-read in the highways and byways of mystery fiction. This talk was therefore filled with allusions to writers both well-known and obscure (to me anyway). The problem in relation to the latter was that I was unable to make out the proper spellings or names referred to and the following account is therefore heavily abbreviated. The theme of the talk also only became clear when Martin explained it at the end but, in my view, it makes more sense to introduce it first. Martin’s contention is that the central development in the treatment of sin in mystery fiction over the past century or more has been from certainty to ambiguity. This was not to say that all Golden Age treatments were simple : he instanced the story ‘The Towers’ by E.V.Knox, bother of Ronald of the Decalogue fame, which is a parody, but also has a brilliant villain. Early examples of moral ambiguity may be found in the case of Charles Augustus Milverton in Doyle where Holmes refuses to handle the case because he has no sympathy for the victim; a theme Christie will repeat with Poirot in Orient Express. Edwards asserted that Christie has a passionate belief in evil and used Shaitana (Cards) as an example. Edwards’ own favourite Christie is And Then There Were None, which is full of debate about justice – ‘those whose guilt was lightest died first’ – the only non-murderer is the murderer, a brilliant paradox at heart of a great mystery fiction. Curtain is a highly underrated book with a flawless murder method; Ellery Queen adopted this as has Edwards himself.

Anthony Berkeley as Francis Iles reversed the concept in Trial and Error; Mr Todhunter kills evil man, innocent man is charged, Todhunter has to turn detective to prove himself guilty. The concept of justice being meted out by thwarting justice was introduced by C.S. Forester in Payment Deferred a very influential book whose influence has not been recognised.

Many French mysteries of 50s’ and 60’s explore sinfulness of victim – and were basis for films including Vertigo. Focus on motivations of victims [it was with the references to French writers, whom I do not know, that I got completely lost!]. Ross MacDonald and Margaret Millar were also concerned with sins from the past. Religious mania with a deranged killer punishing sinners featured in Clerical Errors from the 1930’s. In Woolrich the dividing line between guilty and innocent is very thin. P.D. James is of course preoccupied with sin. But the central account is that after the straightforward moral schemes of Doyle and Christie there developed the ironies and ambiguities which Iles introduced and were further elaborated after WW2 and in the modern mystery.

Having had some time to think about this I am less than sure about it. While certainly agreeing that Doyle’s morality is extremely – indeed limitingly in my view – simple, I would argue that Christie is a much more complex case and certainly not static over her long career. A detailed consideration of this would take far too long, but a book like Nemesis presents anything but a simple picture. However in more general terms it seems to me that a consideration of the place of sin in the mystery novel can only be placed alongside a further analysis of the general secularisation which has taken place over the last century; the very meaning of concepts such as sin and evil have changed and become far less theologically based.

Christine Poulson – Getting Away With Murder

This was a fascinating talk on books where the murderer gets away with it (the default has always been and remains that the murderer is apprehended). Poulson argued that the ‘getting away with it’ books fall into two categories…

  1. Where the writer goes for a moral justification (for letting the murderer escape). In effect the detective decides that there should be no punishment. These books might be described as ‘Natural Order’ books. Staring again with Doyle we can go to Abbey Grange where the husband is a violent drunkard who is killed in a fight and Holmes appeals to Watson as the ‘British jury’ as to whether the murderer should be punished (Watson decides of course that he should not). To work this kind of story must meet two requirements: first that the murderer is repentant, and secondly that the murder must seem justified. Christie pulls this off perfectly in Orient (Poulson noted how significant the use of the number of assassins – 12 – is). In Susan Gaskell’s 1917 Jury of Her Peers a man is found strangled and the wife is taken into custody. The book is then narrated by a neighbouring farmer’s wife who with the sheriff’s wife puzzle out the reason for the crime – which was domestic abuse. The women then concealed the evidence of the murder so that the wife walked free. It is important to note that there is no suggestion that the police are corrupt in any of these cases; stupid very possibly, but not corrupt. This latter aspect completely changes in the US in the 1930’s. In Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) the PI has to dispense justice because a corrupt police will not. In Hammett the good guy is just slightly better than the bad, but in Chandler Marlow is a ‘man of honour’. In The Long Goodbye (1953) Marlow befriends a drunk (Lennox) and drives him to Mexico. Lennox is accused of the murder of his wife. The whole justice system is rotten. When Marlow tracks down the murderer he allows her time to kill herself – his own justice. However having discovered the criminality of Lennox Marlowe does not betray him but he does end their friendship. The wages of sin here are not physical but moral and spiritual death.
  2. Where there is no moral justification. The locus classicus for this is The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) and Highsmith’s work in general. Poulson drew some interesting comparisons between The Long Goodbye (LG) and The Talented Mr Ripley (TMR): LG is all told as first-person narrative (by Marlowe) who is the reader’s moral centre and arbiter, while TMR is third person but everything is on shifting sands. Ripley is Tom while Marlowe is always Marlowe. Highsmith aims to disarm the reader with Ripley’s charm then appal with his coldness. the reader is constantly wrong-footed. In later novels Ripley becomes more sadistic. Highsmith appears to want to make the reader rejoice in the triumph of evil over good, but fails in this for Poulson who doesn’t sympathise. Highsmith is not wholly original and is to some extent prefigured by the Berkeley as Iles books.

On a slightly different but related topic Poulson said that ‘killer as protagonist’ mystery works well in two kinds mysteries…

  1. Dark humour – nothing taken very seriously, two- not three-dimensional characters, an example would be Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.
  2. In short stories.

Can this go too far? Yes in Poulson’s view, and she instanced the Dexter novels where you have a serial killer murdering other serial killers; line between good and evil wholly blurred.

Poulson ended with what she took as a classic example of many of these themes – Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. Here Pym identifies the killer but cannot brings herself to send her to the gallows and therefore agrees to a different solution; but in a final twist the murderer escapes entirely unscathed – which the reader really cares and is outraged about. This is how it should be – we should not want people to get away with murder. [I have to say I have no memory at all of this twist in Miss Pym Disposes but then Tey always passes me by].

In the discussion I raised the question of Christie’s Five Little Pigs where you have both self-immolation ( a character owns up to murder to protect the person she thought was guilty – who of course is not really guilty) and the (real) murderer getting away with it – even when she is finally exposed by Poirot – but being condemned (very explicitly and in her own words) to spiritual and psychological death. As so often when you look for examples you find Christie has done it all with more depth and complexity and interest than anyone else. Although having said this, one of her earlier attempts in this vein – the short story Hunter’s Lodge – where the murderers escape justice but we are informed by Hastings later die in an air crash has always struck me as very unsatisfactory.

Session 3

Robert Barnard – The Burglar who also Played Cricket: a fresh look at Raffles and Bunny

Barnard (whom it was a genuine delight to see) opened by saying that almost nothing is known about E.W. Hornung, author of the Raffles books. He died after WW1. As Barnard hates biographical conjecture (‘he must have’) and that is all that is really which is really possible in the case of Hornung he said that he would pass to the work. The only connection between Hornung and Doyle is that they were the great Short Story writers of their day. But where Doyle is cerebral – the stories are puzzles – Hornung is the reverse; the Raffles stories are miniature thrillers, very action centred. In general Barnard prefers thrillers in the cinema but Raffles is an exception. Raffles himself is always in the story from the beginning and we get a lot of information about our protagonist. There are a lot of ’soapbox speeches’ to Bunny; these are rather absurd and bathetic because he compares art to jewel thieving. Raffles is an enormous egotist – he thinks (and the world does) that he is a wonderful cricketer but thinks theft is even better. Bunny was his fag at public school. When we first encounter Bunny he is on his last legs. Raffles rescues but uses him. Their relationship is a quasi marriage. Bunny is devoted to Raffles; while he has reservations about some of his activities he will do anything for him. The reason that Barnard hates Wimsey is that he has to be the world’s expert on everything! Public schools were depicted much more honestly in early 19thC than early 20thC fiction – see the homo-eroticism in Disraeli (Barnard read an absurd lyrical passage). Bunny dresses up as a woman – Symons questioned this story, but Symons Barnard observed is ‘generally wrong’, thought it was erotically charged when it was not. In fact Raffles and Bunny are not homo-erotic – or only in the most vague and undefined manner. Raffles develops in the novels. He is adept at using people, at attracting attention and loyalty; he has virtually no morality at all. Half way through the series Raffles ‘dies’ and Bunny goes to jail for Raffles. When Raffles returns to England he can only exist in disguise. The disguises become increasingly ridiculous and diminish his stature. So the third book goes back to the days before he was declared dead. Raffles never realises that his glory days in past. In the end it is Bunny who gets the girl while Raffles goes off to die in the Boer War.

Andrew Taylor – Anarchism and Anger : William Godwin’s Caleb Williams – the first crime novel?

Godwin, Taylor admitted, is not long on humour. When Poe and Dickens met in 1842 they discussed Godwin. Godwin was at the centre of English intellectual life in the 1790s. He was a radical philosophical anarchist seeing all sources of authority as wrong. Caleb Williams was his first, and much most successful book, published in 1794. Some 40 years later Godwin explained his composition technique – he wrote the third volume first, then second, then first; he thought this method would bring unity to the whole. The book was intended to convey his philosophical and political views. He eventually settled on first rather than third-person narration. The novel is not a whodunit but centres on murder and investigation; the plot is very important to the book.

It is mostly narrated by Caleb himself. Of humble background he is interested in cause and effect. Orphaned at 18 he is hired as secretary by the local aristocrat, Falkland. Falkland was once a happy man, with all the virtues, an honourable man; but he had aroused the jealousy of the brutal local squire, Tyrell and they fell out. When  Falkland tried to stop Tyrell marrying a young cousin of his off Tyrell is found murdered. Falkland is accused but is acquitted on the basis that he had wanted to fight a duel with Tyrell! A local farmer and his son are then accused, found guilty and hung. But Caleb, who owes Falkland everything, is suspicious and feels he has to investigate his benefactor. In the end Falkland admits that he was the murderer. At this point the narrative switches and  Falkland pursues Caleb who is thrown into jail without trial. Falkland has the wealth and power to corrupt the system. There is a vivid portrait of the physical conditions of the jail based on Godwin’s own research, but his real concern was with the philosophical/political implications – loss of liberty. By the end of the second volume Caleb has broken out of prison and in the third volume Falkland brings the whole power of the State to hunt him down. Caleb falls in with a band of thieves whose leader conceives a hatred for him. Caleb assumes all sorts of disguises including as an orthodox Jew but he can never really throw off his pursuers. Neither ending (there are 2) is in any way happy – Taylor believes that Godwin would have liked Caleb to triumph but the book wouldn’t work out that way, and in addition Godwin’s strong non-conformist conscience suggested the theme that we are all guilty. There is a sense that the book outgrew Godwin’s plans for it.

What has Caleb Williams to do with mysteries? (Symons says it is the first real mystery). There had been crime stories/thrillers, even deduction before; but they never came together before Godwin. However there are three other elements….

  1. interdependent psychology of hunter and hunter
  2. using crime to analyse society
  3. plot – and detailed plot – really important

All three elements are critical parts of modern mystery tradition in Taylor’s view.