There’s always at least a touch of humor in Mary Jane Maffini’s fiction—a spice that suits the traditional mystery. The Canadian author has won two major awards for stories in EQMM, and she’s also the author of three series of classical mysteries at novel-length, under her own name. More recently, she has teamed up with her daughter Victoria to write under the pseudonym Victoria Abbott. The second book in their series, which features book collecting, is out December 3rd. (See The Sayers Swindle.)
Before becoming a writer, Mary Jane was a librarian and co-owner of a mystery bookstore. She knows the classics of our genre, and she appreciates them in a way that only a writer can. . . .—Janet Hutchings
I’ve been buried in the past for the last couple of years. Usually I read a wide range of contemporary crime fiction, set in Canada, Europe, and the USA. But since embarking on the book-collector mystery series (co-written with my daughter), my reading and writing focus has been on the fascinating and collectible crime novels written by the greats of the past. This keeps me mostly in the twenties, thirties and forties, in the era known as The Golden Age of Detection. Of course, we can quibble with the time frame if we’re in a quibbling mood, but let’s just agree more or less around then. I must say that all this reading vintage mysteries for research is a highly recommended gig if you can get it.
Oh sure, in the so-called Golden Age of Detection there were social issues and life could be nasty, brutish, and short for those who weren’t in upper echelons of society. Even for them, appendicitis could be a death sentence, not to mention that the world was in the grip of depression for much of this era and there was the threat and the reality of a second world war that wiped out millions, regardless of social status. Get through one war and look, here’s another. But never mind that, for a contemporary writer, stuck in the quicksand of technology here as 2013 draws to an end, there’s still a lot of appeal.
I wonder if the greats of the Golden Age knew how much they had to be thankful for when it came to plotting and setting up their novels. Here are just a few of the advantages those writers had over those of us who are pounding keyboards in the Silicon Age. Not that I’m bitter, but have a look:
Back in the day, it was so easy to drop your characters into a remote location, or maroon them in a dark basement, or lock them in a high bell tower. There was no quick call to 911 or the significant other or even the hired help to come to the aid of the marooned detective. No cell phones whatsoever. Tell me, how convenient would that be? There would also be no need to have your hapless detective “forget” to charge the stupid thing or have it stolen by a passing villain. The author would never have to cause the device to “accidentally” fall into a puddle. There was no authorial requirement to invent “dead zones” when there’s a cell tower on every hill. The whole world was a dead zone. Bliss, if you ask me.
Even better, where there’s no cell phone, there’s no GPS in the nonexistent gadget to bring the police on the double to the exact location where the protagonist is in trouble. You have probably noticed that this often meant stuck in an isolated farmhouse in a snowstorm with a shrinking cast of characters and an unidentified and enthusiastic murderer on the prowl. You know what they say: What’s bad news for the character is good news for the author. You might still rig up the modern-day equivalent for a setting, but you’d have to work damn hard at it.
Related and added bonuses to the “no phones” era: no cell-phone cameras! Lovely. No urgent and silent texts and no video surveillance. Is it any wonder the crime rate is dropping in real life? Luckily, it’s not in fiction, and in vintage fiction, the writer can rely on witnesses, who are, by necessity, characters and therefore far better at conversation and more interesting than gadgets. For instance, the presence of footmen, upstairs maids, downstairs maids, cooks, laundresses, groomsmen, as well as the more upscale governesses, meant that in many a grand house, in addition to the luxury of servants, for the aristocratic occupants there was never an unobserved moment. The determined detective could weasel a lot out by cozying up to the servants or—and not so advisable—getting all heavy-handed and pulling rank. This leads to lots of good fun for the author and the reader and is not to be sneered at.
In many other ways, investigations were a bit easier on the author too. Think of it: There was no forensics (except for fingerprints the odd time). There’s nothing like DNA to complicate a case; DNA wasn’t even a twinkle in sharp old Poirot’s eye. There were no blood-splatter specialists, X-rays to ID gunshot residue, infrared spectrometry/spectroscopy or lasers for latent prints, or sophisticated tests for body fluids. This is all good. For one thing, there was a lot less of the messier aspects of murder (including decomp and the above mentioned body-fluid discussions). Far fewer terms to keep straight. The author could concentrate on observable clues, behavior of the suspects (all six of them), and pretty much steer clear of the lab and the pathologist’s lair. What’s not to love?
This brings me to databases: Well, where would you be without the well-known and well-organized international and national databases of fingerprints, firearms, stolen works of art, criminals, and unsolved cases and the ability to connect online, by e-mail, fax, and phone with other police forces? Left alone with your little grey cells, that’s where.
Not only were communications restricted to shouting into a black telephone receiver to the operator (if you could find a phone) but there was no squealing along in powerful vehicles, roof lights flashing, sirens wailing. Much of the time, there were no cars at all. The detective might purr through the countryside in his Bentley (watch the ruts in the road, Bunter!) but the local bobby will be wobbling along on his bike. I’ve just finished reading a book by Ngaio Marsh in which the very elegant Scotland Yard Inspector Alleyn and his Sergeant Fox have no way of getting to the location where a victim is in extreme danger except to run up a long and bumpy road—wearing, among other things, their heavy tweed overcoats. I’m betting there were hats too. Oh and, sorry to say, they were too late.
And speaking of hats. Hats almost need no explanation. The world is a much duller place without hats. Trust me. Ball caps can be used to obscure faces, but nothing replaces the zing that a new spring fedora gives the wearer and the reader. Just ask that well-known man about town and right hand of Nero Wolfe, the delectable Archie Goodwin. What would Archie wear to investigate on the streets of New York City today? Nothing as interesting, I am sure.
We contemporary types are missing out on other accessories too: particularly monocles, lorgnettes, pince-nez—something has been lost and soft daily contact lenses cannot in any way make up for it. Stick a monocle on a fellow and instantly you have a villain or a slightly foolish aristocrat. Think how Lord Peter Wimsey employed his monocle to underplay his own prodigious abilities.
Have I mentioned butlers? Trust me, today’s sleuth would be a lot further ahead if someone else laid out his or her wardrobe, handled the cleaning and maintenance of it, brushed your jacket before you left the house, all that kind of thing. All you would have to think about was the case at hand and not whether your shoes were shined or even a match. As the upper class like to say, it’s so hard to get good help these days. Tell me about it.
All in all, despite our political, personal, and technological choices, we writers have it tough today. So, I’m always happy with a trip to the past. Could you excuse me now, please? I believe that’s the upstairs maid bringing my breakfast in bed.