To understand how crime fiction changes with every passing generation, let’s compare Kingsley Amis, the top-selling comic novelist, with his son Martin Amis, the ironic 1980s postmodernist who was one of the most fascinating speakers at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year.
Martin notes in his autobiography, Experience, that “Kingsley really did like terror”. He narrates a childhood episode that took place after his father had watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—young Martin asks his mum why dad is making her go into the bathroom with him. She replies, “Because we saw a very frightening film last night about a man who thinks he’s his mother.”
Although the Amises’ detective novels are among their lesser works, it is nevertheless interesting that they both tried their hand at the genre. It is also evident that both know the rules of the game, and enjoy playing around with these.
The rules themselves are investigated by Kingsley in his 1975 detective novel The Crime of the Century, which was a part of his larger exploration into genre fiction. Already in the 1960s, in the years of 007-mania after Ian Fleming’s death, Kingsley was roped in to work on the franchise and wrote one (or possibly two) “James Bond” novels. Then in the early 1970s he published a “proper” detective novel, The Riverside Villas Murder.
1980s’ man: Martin Amis, who wrote Night Train, a bleak noir story.
Without strictly doing a parody, he cheekily plays with the conventions of old-fashioned British crime fiction. Of The Riverside Villas Murder, he said: “It had a period, inter-war setting, a complicated method of murder, a great detective figure with eccentricities, including an obsession with jazz, and plenty of clues and misdirections on the classic model. It was also appropriately domestic, small-scale, involving a limited local community.”
A mixture of homage and parody, then. Next, in The Crime of the Century, he took up the idea of an evil mastermind planning to destroy London. In his foreword to a later edition, Kingsley observed that the crime writer “is in the business of (among other things) getting away with pretending to know everything about what he only dimly and partially apprehends, and to know enough for his purposes about what he could never even begin to imagine. The procedure is known in the trade as the tip-of-the-iceberg con.”
Early on in The Crime of the Century he lets the protagonist, who happens to be a mystery writer of the traditional type (roped in by the police for his insights into the psyche of a criminal!), complain about “the rules”, viz.: “Early mention of the criminal, so that roughly if it were a serial he’d have to come into the first instalment—no real problem as long as it need only be a mention. All clues shared with the reader—if you can think of some. No vital coincidences— you can do quite a bit with non-vital ones. No secret passages, poisons unknown to science, twin brothers—yes, yes, yes. The really boring one is never being allowed to show what’s in the criminal’s mind even when it’s nothing to do with the crime. You have to plug away with twitching mouths and fleeting expressions and sharp looks.”
Incidentally, these rules of “fair play” were laid down in 1929 by the Roman Catholic theologian Monsignor Ronald Knox, who in his spare time was a leading light of the Detection Club and whose rulebook meant that early British detective fiction was reduced to puzzles—the reader’s mind pitted against the writer’s scheming (for an extended discussion on this issue I recommend the essay collection Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James).
The Crime of the Century was cooked up as such a brain puzzle, originally serialized in The Sunday Times. On the other hand, Martin Amis grew up when the American noir had given us gritty gumshoe novels in which tea, poisoned cookies and scrambled eggs had been traded for bourbon, bullets and hard-boiled ballsy shop talk (the theory of this paradigm shift is posited in Raymond Chandler’s seminal essay The Simple Art of Murder).
So two decades after his father’s detective novels, when Martin decided to write Night Train (1997), it turned out to be a bleak noir type of story in the American fashion—set in a nondescript west coast US city. With his trademark penchant for brilliant literary gimmickry, Martin experiments within the confines of the genre and messes around with reader expectations. He also writes from a woman’s point of view, in first person: The protagonist, a recovering alcoholic female detective who goes by the macho name Mike Hoolihan, is investigating a suspicious death, apparently suicide but possibly murder because the dead girl didn’t have any obvious motive to kill herself.
Martin notes (in his autobiography): “I find I have written a great deal about and around suicide. Suicide, the most sombre of all subjects—the saddest story. It awakens terror and pity in me, yet it compels me, it compels my writing hand.” Referring to the mystery writer G.K. Chesterton (who was also a famous theological thinker), Martin points out that “suicide was a heavier undertaking than murder. The murderer kills just one person. The suicide kills everybody.” So although he uses the form of the hard-boiled noir, as the plot unravels the novel becomes a work of existential fiction instead.
This illustrates perfectly how, from one generation to the next, crime fiction expanded its scope—from having been a nice puzzle to exercise your grey cells while drinking your Sunday morning cuppa, to a high art form which attempts to make sense of an increasingly soulless existence in a sordid world in which there are no neat solutions, no cosy denouements, only lots of loose ends.
Incidentally, Kingsley never got to read his son’s detective novel because he died before it was published, but it is said that he chucked Martin’s postmodern classic Money without finishing it, complaining that one mustn’t be “buggering about with the reader”.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.