Last week, EQMM’s March/April issue went on sale. In it is the Department of First Stories debut of Ray Bazowski. The professor of politics at Toronto’s York University had previously submitted this first work of fiction, “Mother,” under a different title and in a shorter version, to the 2019 Margery Allingham Short Story Competition—which it won! Publication does not accompany the prestigious Margery Allingham competition and so the story made its way to EQMM. We think you’ll enjoy it. In this post the author offers some thoughts about writing not for the ages but for a contemporary market.—Janet Hutchings
Great literature, it is often said, is timeless. That may be so, but it pays to remember that authors always write for a particular audience—an audience of their contemporaries. How and why some literature transcends that audience and its time are questions that literary theorists have long debated. Somewhat less attention, however, has been paid to the question of why any particular work enjoys a favourable initial reception. This latter is a question that I have had to contend with for very prosaic and self-interested reasons. As a novice crime-fiction writer, I’ve found it necessary to consider not only what are the particular norms and expectations of the literary form, but also what kinds of stories are likely to find an audience today.
The demands of the genre seem pretty straightforward. The famed British writer, Margery Allingham, gave a succinct description of what makes for a successful mystery: “The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.” The prison she speaks of are the devices and conventions of the story in which detection of a crime is the centrepiece. But what of the refuge? Refuge from what? The question itself, I think, contains the clue to the popularity of crime fiction when it ascended to its classic novel form in the 1920s and 1930s with the works of writers such as Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and of course, the pseudonymous Ellery Queen, to name just a few.
To understand just why their literary efforts became so immediately popular, it is important to observe that the generation that was the audience for these writers had a common experience. They were witness, at whatever remove, to the Great War. This war to end all wars proved to be a phantasmagoria of horror—killing on an industrial scale such as had never before been seen. Which is why I think crime fiction had the appeal it did to this early audience. The horrendous scale of carnage during four years of futile trench warfare (not to mention the many more millions who died from the influenza epidemic at its conclusion) was almost impossible to comprehend. It was as if reason had abandoned the field to an inexplicably capricious and wanton force.
By contrast, the detective novel, with its stylized settings, its familiar characters, and its conventional crimes, has no place for the unfathomable. This, I suggest, was its contribution to readers demoralized by appalling events of the recent past. It presented killing on a human scale that is understandable, and importantly, that is something solvable, not, as in war, through the preponderance of brute force, but by the operation of intellect. It is likely no accident that the detective novel and newspaper crosswords gained popularity about the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. Both introduce the reader to a carefully crafted puzzle whose contours are reassuringly familiar and whose resolution the reader anticipates will provide a satisfactory conclusion to a labour of mind.
Of course, not everyone was a fan of the genre. For instance, Edmund Wilson in his much-cited 1945 put-down of crime fiction, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, wasn’t shy in expressing his disdain for the form when he wrote that such literature is “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.” His patrician focus on style left Wilson grumbling about what he perceived to be a lamentable lack of artistry in the genre. And he attributed to its misguided readers a lazy intellect, or worse still, an addiction disorder.
It is surprising that for a critic so attuned to the historical interpretation of literature, Wilson did not attempt to extend that type of analysis to crime fiction in a more rigorous fashion. True, he did recognize that the interwar years had psychologically prepared its readers for formulaic detective stories. According to Wilson, this historical period was characterized by generalized feelings of guilt in which responsibility for the ills and evils of the world could never be categorically demonstrated. The allure of crime novels, he concluded, was that in this fictional world where everyone is a suspect, the omniscient detective knows precisely where blame is to be attributed, thus relieving readers of those vague and unextinguished feelings of culpability for a malaise they cannot name.
The problem with this pseudo-Freudian explanation for the popularity of crime fiction is that it misapprehends the formula, or the prison walls as Allingham describes it. In the so-called Golden era of the genre which Wilson cavalierly dismisses, the backdrops for the stories were almost always crafted to appear ordinary. Not ordinary in the sense of realistic. These are after all literary contrivances. But they are contrivances that are made to feel familiar, whether they be a rural English village, a train carriage, a New York borough, or even an exotic locale that had been widely publicized by travel writers. This sense of acquaintance is also extended to the characters whose occupations and personalities were generally of the stock variety. These are people you are led to expect to see in the setting the author provides. It is in this ordinary, staged setting with its predictable characters that the crime takes place. It may well be that everyone, as Wilson suggests, must be regarded a suspect according to the formula. But he is wrong to imply that the tension in the mystery involves the supposition that all of us are capable of evil, a supposition that is finally overturned when the actual culprit is apprehended and shown to be uniquely malevolent. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. What is strikingly noticeable about the villains in most of the crime fiction of the period is how often their motives are themselves ordinary. And it is in this feature that its appeal can be found. The unnatural act of killing is made to seem natural because the motive is recognizable. The act of killing is thus humanized because it is so unlike the inhuman slaughter of war or the seemingly random stalking death of disease. It is precisely this humanization of killing which allows crime fiction to operate as the refuge Allingham identifies. In contrast to the threatening outside world, the inside world of crime fiction offers a safely contained drama about death. And it is this unspoken tension between outside and inside, I argue, which lends to the genre its distinctive appeal.
Crime writers have many different ways of managing this tension between outside and inside. In the noir variant of the genre, for instance, the outside is allowed to partially seep inside. This menacing outside, for example, the brutal world of gangsters or the corrupt world of officialdom, forms an essential part of the backdrop to the story’s central mystery. Interestingly, Wilson credits one noir writer, Raymond Chandler, with an agreeable artistry, lauding him for creating characters with depth and imbuing the detective story with a rich and compelling atmosphere. But in the end Wilson still criticizes Chandler for failing to come up with a conclusion worthy of the plot. Again, Wilson misunderstands the prison walls of the crime novel. Detection requires a resolution, however artificial, however facile. The power of the noir is not in the finale, but in the way in which the outside is brought inside, giving to the mystery that drives the plot its special kind of frisson.
Wilson thinks that what makes Chandler an exciting (albeit ultimately disappointing) writer is that through incident and ambiance he is able to bring to the surface the hidden horrors of the world. Though that’s not exactly what happens in a Chandler novel. The horror is not hidden; it is brought inside so that the reader can glimpse its dangers. Perhaps the best way to understand this creative exchange is to consider the conclusion to Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne’s homage to Chandler’s world. In the film, the detective, Jake Gittes, successfully solves the murder of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and former partner to Noah Cross, whose daughter, Evelyn, he had married. Nestled inside this detective mystery is a more complex story of incest, wealth, and power, signatures of a disturbing outside world where traditional moral strictures fall away. In the concluding scene, where Evelyn is killed while trying to escape her father’s efforts to reclaim his incestuously conceived daughter, the police detective who pulls Gittes away from the scene utters the memorable line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This obviously racist trope is meant to suggest that what had just happened is best left alone because, like other things that occur in Chinatown, it is inscrutable. Except for Jake Gittes and the viewer, the horror is entirely scrutable. That Noah Cross is able to get away with the murder of his former partner and recover his illegitimate daughter testify to a forbidding outside world where money is power, and where the powerful heed no rules other than those they will for themselves.
Among the many examples of how noir produces its literary effect, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, particularly the first two of the Berlin Noir Trilogy, stand out as especially notable because of how deliberately he designed the interchange between inside and outside. In having his hard-nosed detective solve more-or-less ordinary though vicious crimes in a setting the reader knows to be the site of an impending, world-transformative horror, the author accomplished something akin to breaking down the fourth wall in the performative arts by inviting the reader to ponder whether there is a difference or a continuum between human crimes and crimes against humanity.
I don’t know whether the schema between outside and inside offered here is helpful in understanding the diverse species of crime fiction now available to modern readers. I suspect it doesn’t work so well with procedurals that pride themselves on fidelity to the real world. Nor for those that directly mine psychological horror that once used to be referred to obliquely. Yet I think that the best of crime fiction still fulfills a critical role: it humanizes—which is not the same as saying it commends—the act of murder. In doing so, such literature leads us, unwittingly or not, to reflect upon our common humanity.