Photo: IMDB
Photo: IMDB

The beauty of a good detective story

Unvarnished visions of a deeply flawed society, language bordering on the poetic and unforgettable characters galore

If we look at the detective story, there are fundamentally two formats to it: the British and the American.

The British school of detective story was vastly popularized by Agatha Christie—if not invented by her with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1916. The hallmark of the British whodunit was that it was a “closed system" story. Typically, there is a mansion, and there are 10 people residing in it. One is murdered, and the murderer is one of the other nine.

There is no possibility of ingress or egress; it is definitely one of the residents who has committed the murder. A detective is called in—unless he is already there as one of the residents—and he investigates.

The novel ends with the detective calling all the living residents for the final denouement—usually in the mansion’s library—and giving a long speech, examining every suspect’s motive; Christie’s genius lay in the fact that almost every resident had a motive for the murder. Then he looks at the suspects’ access to the murder instrument and the victim on the night of the murder, and finally identifies the killer. The police, who have been waiting reverentially outside the door, rush in and arrest the culprit.

The typical American detective story, which found its definitive form a decade or so after Christie made her triumphant debut, is “open system". There is no room locked from inside in which a body is found, there is no limited set of suspects. There is no mystery about the cause of death—a rare poison, for instance. All victims are either shot or stabbed to death.

The detective starts with a particular crime—a murder or a disappearance—and is drawn into a larger plot, usually encountering more murders. He—like the reader—has no idea where he will be next and who he will encounter. He simply follows the leads and travels wherever they take him. The stories are open ended till everything falls into place in the climax.

Bullets fly, gangsters and organized crime may appear, the detective is often beaten to within an inch of his life—in essence, stuff that would have horrified Christie.

In America, the detective story was also an adventure story, with the sleuth often facing danger and death. In England, no one ever tried to kill the detective.

The reason why the American detective story deviated from the norms of the British can perhaps be attributed to the country’s Prohibition-era experience when gangster bootleggers ruled the roost, and there was widespread corruption in the police force. There was nothing genteel about crime, and cynicism seemed to be—rightly or wrongly—the only sane attitude for the common man to have. 

It is important to note here that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who we can certainly refer to as the pioneer of the detective story in the English language, remains above these classifications. The Sherlock Holmes stories are more or less equally divided between closed system and open system. Watson often carries a gun and occasionally has to use it, something that would seem quite unseemly to Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and would be impossible for her other detective, the elderly spinster Miss Marple. 

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Christie set her novels in various locations that were perfect surrogates for her mansion with 10 residents—Death on the Nile on a cruise ship on the Nile river, Evil Under the Sun in a summer resort, Death in the Clouds on an aeroplane.

Two of her most famous novels are And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. Both are wildly implausible stories, but in spite of that—or more likely, because of that—they sell in large numbers even today, and continue to confound first-time readers.

Christie loved playing cat-and-mouse with her readers, serving them red herrings at every opportunity and joyfully leading them up dead-end lanes. In And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, she is at her sadistic best—she does not even have to mislead readers, because the solutions to the crimes are so outrageous that no reader, however alert and however intelligent, can ever guess them.

These two novels represent the pinnacle of closed-system detective stories.

And Then There Were None is set on an island where 10 people find themselves as guests or recruits of a mysterious—and absent—owner, and one by one, they start getting murdered. It soon dawns on everyone that one of them is the killer. But who?

The events of Murder on the Orient Express take place in one coach of the legendary luxury train that plied between Istanbul and Paris. A rich American is murdered, the train is stalled in a snowdrift, and none of the other passengers in the coach seem to have a motive to kill him. Hercule Poirot happens to travelling in the same coach, and solves the case, providing the most unbelievable denouement in the history of mystery.

David Suchet (right) as Hercule Poirot in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
David Suchet (right) as Hercule Poirot in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Compare this with this well-known anecdote about the American detective novel.

In 1945, the great author William Faulkner, then a screenplay writer in a Hollywood studio, was working on a script for the inimitable American crime writer Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a novel that has several murders. In some puzzlement, he called up Chandler and asked, “But who killed the chauffeur?"

Chandler said that he couldn’t remember, and that he would read the novel again and get back. A few days later, he phoned Faulkner and admitted that even he had no idea who killed the chauffeur.

So what is the point here, if the writer himself can’t figure out what he had written? I have read The Big Sleep several times and I must also say that the chauffeur’s murder remains unexplained. But the point is that it has never reduced my enjoyment of reading the book.

Because it is literature. But we will come back to that later.

The American private eye works in a corrupt world. He gets scant respect from policemen, many of whom are thugs in uniform—in fact, they are hostile to him. They refer to him derogatorily as a “shamus" or a “gumshoe", and are happy to put him in a police lock-up at the slightest provocation. This is a state of affairs that a Holmes or a Poirot never had to face.

The detective is often hired by wealthy families, and by the end of the story, the reader gets to know what sordid foundations that wealth has been built on. In a Raymond Chandler novel (and I paraphrase from memory), someone tells the hero Philip Marlowe: “That’s the dirty side of the dollar." Marlowe replies: “I didn’t know there was any other side."

As Chandler wrote in his classic essay The Simple Art Of Murder:

“The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilisation."

The traditional British novel is set in a stable and generally honest environment where every evening, the gong is rung for dinner. Even though there could be a bounder or two among the cast of characters, people know what the right etiquette is. We rarely meet any hardened criminals. 

To quote Chandler once more:

“Personally I like the English style better. It is not quite so brittle, and the people as a rule, just wear clothes and drink drinks. There is more sense of background, as if Cheesecake Manor really existed all around and not just the part the camera sees; there are more long walks over the Downs and the characters don’t all try to behave as if they had just been tested by MGM. The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers."

In fact, if one takes a step back, the manors in which many of Christie’s Poirot novels are set resemble P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle. The only difference is that some of the residents in Christie’s castle are murderers, while in Blandings, the only worries are whether the Empress of Blandings will win the Fat Pig contest this year, and whether Sir Galahad Threepwood can be stopped from publishing his tell-all memoirs.

It is extremely interesting that Chandler was educated in England, and he went to the same school as Wodehouse did—Dulwich College. There cannot be two great writers who are more unlike each other.

Chandler defined his ideal American detective thus:

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

“If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."

The world view of the American detective story is essentially pessimistic. Society is deeply flawed, and there’s no improvement in sight. Trusting someone can only lead most of the time to bitter disappointment or heartbreak. To keep going, you need to develop your personal credo and code of conduct and adhere to them, come what may.

There is also a misogyny and castration fear at the core of the American gumshoe canon: women are generally bad news. They are manipulators, betrayers and often very clever murderers.

The three greatest American writers in this genre are Dashiell Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Of them, Macdonald is nearly forgotten today, even though he was several decades younger than Hammett and Chandler, and in his lifetime was the highest selling mystery novelist in his country. However, his novels remain timeless and as good as anything that his two much-acclaimed predecessors produced.

All the books by the three are written in the first person, from the point of view of the detective, except for The Maltese Falcon by Hammett.

Hammett’s sleuth (again, other than in The Maltese Falcon) is an anonymous shamus employed by the Continental Detective Agency headquartered in San Francisco. Readers, for their own convenience, finally gave him a name, so today, he is known universally as the Continental Op (“op" being short for “operative").

What we know about the Continental Op is that he is a slightly overweight man focused on his assignment to the exclusion of everything else. His ethics begin and end with the ferocity and single-mindedness with which he pursues his job. 

In one of Hammett’s most famous short stories, the culprit is a refugee Russian countess. When the Continental Op confronts her, she admits to her crime but insists that she did nothing morally or ethically wrong—an argument that most readers will agree with—and says that she will walk out of the room.

The Continental Op takes out his revolver and says that he will shoot her in the leg if she tries that. She replies that he will never be able to do that, because he knows she is right and she is a beautiful young woman.

He warns her that he will do it because he is a bastard. She smiles at him and starts walking towards the door. He shoots her in the leg and shouts at her angrily, “Didn’t I tell you that I am a bastard?" The story ends there.

This is a complete repudiation of the classic British model, where morality is a higher truth than legality. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot lets the murderers go, because he believes that the murder was a morally correct act.

Chandler’s Philip Marlowe embodies the philosophy of his creator, as I’ve quoted above: “But down these mean streets a man must go..." He is a man of honour, an honest man, a lonely man and a proud man.

Macdonald’s Lew Archer—a former cop who quit the force because he couldn’t do “podex osculation"—resembles Marlowe quite a bit, but then Chandler more or less laid down the ground rules for a fictional private detective in America. Hammett came before Chandler and was an inspiration for him, though Chandler’s Marlowe is a much more sympathetic man than the Continental Op.

The Continental Op’s character, on first reading, seems to be much simpler than Marlowe’s or Archer’s, though, almost paradoxically, on further thought, he may appear more complex than the other two.

The reason for this is that Hammett never allows the reader to get inside the Continental Op’s head. We never know what he is thinking other than the current job. He simply reports. This was his deliberately thought through style, and it may have some relation with the fact that Hammett worked for some years with America’s premier detective agency, Pinkerton.

Hammett’s novels are written in plain language, with no embellishments of any sort. There are hardly any adjectives, and the only way to describe the writing is that it is austere. Intentionally so, and the absence of style is itself a style, a difficult one to master and not to succumb to temptations.

It’s very difficult—the restraint and discipline this style needs.

Chandler and Macdonald are different. Marlowe and Archer tell you what they are feeling, and metaphors—memorable ones—abound.

For instance, Chandler:

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

Macdonald:

“The past was filling the room like a tide of whispers." 

Chandler:

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away."

Macdonald:

“She was trouble looking for somebody to happen to."

Which brings me to why I can read The Big Sleep over and over again, even though no one, including Chandler, could fathom who killed the chauffeur.

And it's not even the best Marlowe novel. In 1984, the great—and underrated—British author and critic Anthony Burgess, in his book Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best In English Since 1939, included The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s thickest novel, and hardly a detective story in the conventional sense, in his list.

Burgess wrote:

“Romantic, tending towards a sentimentality that it never quite reaches, The Long Goodbye is beautifully composed, with a taut economical style exactly suited to the narrator Marlowe. If this is not literature, what is?"

What is?

Can anyone say this about any Agatha Christie novel?

Her plotting is fiendishly efficient, but her writing is pedestrian and her language schoolgirlish. Often, it’s downright silly. Here’s a line from Murder on the Orient Express:

“She was tall, slim and dark—perhaps twenty-eight years of age." Has anyone ever been able to look at a woman and judge that she is “perhaps twenty-eight years of age"? 

To be fair, Christie never, as it seems, aspired to great literary status, though she sneered quite nastily at Sherlock Holmes in a Poirot story—a rival detective armed with magnifying glass crawling around the crime scene while Poirot looked for broader patterns and used his brain. 

She sold—and continues to sell—books in vast numbers, and her work has been translated into possibly every language and dialect on earth. 

But once you’ve read an Agatha Christie story and know who the murderer is, you will never read that book again. There is no keepsake value to her books—and her output was enormous. Does anyone remember any line written by her, except for phrases like “little grey cells"?

We can read Hammett, Chandler or Macdonald again and again, not giving a damn about who killed whom. That’s the difference.

What these three writers, who defined the American detective story to a large extent, have created is literature, while writing for the common reader, and that’s as good a thing as literature can ever aspire to be. No ivory towers.

Since Macdonald is the least known among the great American crime writers, let me quote a random (long) section from one of his lesser known novels, The Wycherly Woman (I actually opened the book at random, without thinking of any particular chapter or passage):

“I went through the other downstairs rooms humming ‘Slow Boat to China’ to myself and thinking about a story I read in high school. It was called ‘The Vision of Mirza’ and it had been cropping up in my memory for years.

“Mirza had a vision of a bridge that which a lot of people were crossing on foot; all the living people in the world. From time to time one of them would step on a kind of trap door and drop out of sight. The other pedestrians hardly noticed. Each of them went on walking across the bridge until he hit a trap door of his own, and fell through.

“I hit mine, or something like it, at the top of the graceful stairs. It wasn’t a trap door, exactly, and it wasn’t exactly mine. It was a body, and it sighed when I stumbled over it. It sighed as if it had fallen the whole distance and lived."

There is a certain poetic quality to the language that the best American detective storytellers use, and the British have never matched it.

Interestingly, and very interestingly, the British themselves have moved away from the classic British model and have adopted the American model. 

The foremost among them is the prolific Scottish author Ian Rankin, perhaps the largest selling crime writer in the world currently. There are no closed-system mansions in his books. Instead, we have the fog-shrouded mean streets of Edinburgh—crowded with venal murderers and child molesters. His hero Rebus, a police detective, is a tired man, an inch away from alcoholism and psychological breakdown, very bad at relationships and also perennially in trouble with his superiors.

Ian Ranking. Photo: AFP
Ian Ranking. Photo: AFP

But he is a decent man, exactly as Chandler had prescribed, though the world he inhabits is far more depressing than Chandler’s. Even when Rankin writes that the morning was brightly lit by the sun, the reader feels like it’s a night with no moon.

Rankin writes gripping, complicated and often morally ambiguous stories as Rebus stumbles from crime to crime, but are his books literature? No, you would not read a Rankin novel twice, if you don’t have a taste for getting emotionally depressed.

The other leading British crime author also comes from Scotland—J.K. Rowling, who now writes detective novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

J.K. Rowling. Photo: AFP
J.K. Rowling. Photo: AFP

It has been a long tradition of American detective novels to heap all sorts of misfortunes on the hero, just to make his life complicated. So we have alcoholics, survivors of bitter divorces, or men watching their wives die of incurable diseases. Rankin is in the same mode with his Rebus, but Rowling/Galbraith goes a step further.

Her/his hero Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate son of a rock star, lives a hand-to-mouth financial existence, a near-alcoholic and—the coup de grace—he had half of a leg blown off as a soldier in Afghanistan. He is certainly a lovable character, and draws all the sympathy that a reader is capable of, since Rowling is a master at emotional manipulation. But again, let’s come back to that litmus test of what is literature and what is not: Would you read the book more than once? No.

The novels of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald can be read again and again just for the pleasure of the language, the descriptions, the philosophy, the insights into a deeply flawed society and the memorable characters—every character one meets in the best American novels is three-dimensional and speaks in his or her own unique voice, something that you would find quite rare in the British books. 

I can’t think of a single British whodunit writer other than Conan Doyle whose books I would re-read unless I’ve completely forgotten the plot. 

And till now, I haven’t even mentioned the greatest living American crime writer—James Lee Burke. His most popular series features the elderly police detective Dave Robicheaux, a former alcoholic with a very troubled white trash childhood. His first wife ran away, his second wife was killed by gangsters and his third wife suffers from lupus (she dies of it finally, and Robicheaux marries again). Talk about troubles!

Burke has been highly critically acclaimed, and not just as a crime writer, but as a “writer". His novels are also an unparalleled account of life in the state of Louisiana, with its history of slavery, the American civil war, widespread bigotry and corruption, and the workings of the mafia. In addition to being thrilling crime novels, they are profound human documents.

And human documents are what the best crime novels are. Macdonald’s and Burke’s stories unfold like Greek tragedies. The seeds of the crimes lie many years in the past, and the characters—even the murderers—are often creatures helpless before the implacable workings of fate.

Many years ago, I was recommended by someone as a candidate for a prestigious US fellowship. I turned up for the interview and one of the questions I was asked was about what I liked reading. Detective fiction, I said. This was not entirely true, but I didn’t like being interviewed by stuffy retired bureaucrats.

Eyebrows were raised. Detective fiction? Not Dickens or Tolstoy or Hemingway? I explained that detective fiction, by its very nature, studies human nature at its extremes, when a man (or woman) is willing to murder another human being—“the extreme form of censorship", as George Bernard Shaw put it.

Any scientific theory, I continued, is acknowledged as true, when checked in extreme conditions. As such, the detective novels give us more insight into human nature than most other forms of literature. Are detective novels literature, I was asked.

Some detective novels are, I said, and some literature can also be seen as crime novels, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Albert Camus’s The Outsider. In fact, Camus is on record as saying that he borrowed the structure of The Outsider from the American crime novelist James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The interviewers looked at me fearfully, as if I could jump over the table any time and assault them with the dagger I had brought in, hidden in my jacket.

Needless to say I didn’t get the fellowship, but I still stand by what I said in that interview. 

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Close