Tuesday 15 December 2015

Bookish ramblings about past whodunnits and present thrillers

I am in the middle of the Advent Calendar but I am still reading as my occupations are not all absorbed by Christmas. And for once I feel I may write something that might be interesting and worthwhile about my readings.

It all started with looking through stacks of books in my bedroom. I was disgruntled and not able to find something that would hold my attention. I needed something easy to read before going to sleep and during night if I were to awake. I have classic whodunnits in English but I found some Scandinavian noir thrillers in French and thought it would make a change.

I started with the three fat volumes of Millenium by the Swede Stieg Larsson. I had read the first opus a year or so ago but had only dipped into the second and left the third unread without no good reason as I had liked the style and the rythm of the first one. The second volume was interesting but more violent. I hesitated but took the third one, and was rewarded as the story turned into some sort of spy novel or novel including secret services activities. It was less bloody, more complicated in its structure, which was more fragmentary and therefore more interesting: my mind had to play with the jigsaw puzzle elements of the plot that were given drop by drop, and it was an engrossing exercise. The verisimilitude of the slices of society described - the press and the secret services - was plausible. All in all, it was an enthralling reading.

When I had finished with Millenium, I felt I was hooked for a series of thrillers in the same French collection/edition. Searching through the stacks, I found one book I had left unread Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus. It is translated from German this time and located in Frankfurt and  its surroundings.

Most of the action of the plot is lived in a little village near Frankfurt. A young man is released from jail after ten years spent there for the murder of two adolescent girls, when he was himself an adolescent or very young man. The corpses have never been found. The young man has always told he was innocent. And yet, all proofs were against him. When he comes back to his birthplace where he lived all his youth, he finds that the village community has so ostracized his family that his parents have divorced. His mother lives in Frankfurt. His father has kept the old inn but had to close it for lack of patrons. The farm is but derelict old buildings. The land has been sold to a neighbour who played Good Samaritan and bought it less than its real price to build his new enterprise upon it. All that remains, the inn, the farm buildings and the house are mortgaged and will be taken by the same Good Samaritan neighbour soon enough. 

To put it in a nutshell, the family is dismantled, the father a wreck, and there is complete ruin ahead. The fact that the young man, Thobias, comes back to the village arouses a new wave of hatred, venomenous gossip and acts of violence from the villagers.

At the same time, the police discovers the corpse of a young girl, adolescent, in an undergroung fuel tank of a disused airport neither far from Frankfurt nor from the village. The DCI and one of the DIs (their German equivalents) make a tentative link with the murders of the adolescent girls of the village and, of course and fortunately for the novel, their link is proved the right one. The investigations may begin.

I shall not tell you about these investigations or about the plot. You will have to find by yourselves if you wish.

But I was interested by the fact that it was mostly located in a village.

My detective or thriller readings are limited - and limited mostly (but not entirely) to classic whodunnits by the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, N'gaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L Sayers, and al. Some by men like Michael Innes and his Inspector Appleby's books because they were translated in French and in cheap paperbacks editions when my parents were young and students and had not much money to spend on fancy books. So I found them on the shelves of the library.

These novels are almost always located in closed  areas: locked rooms, country houses cut from the rest of the world by snow, floods or other catastrophy, colleges, villages, etc. This is mostly true with the Miss Marple novels and stories by Agatha Christie to limit myself to one example. Which is not the case of the modern thriller or detective story. 

Unconsciously then, I began to compare Snow White with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple - for instance Murder at the Vicarage or A Murder is Announced.

All three books - let us limit ourselves to these three books but let us keep in mind that the list might be extended -, all three books take place in a village. The cast is composed of inhabitants of these villages. Only the investigators are "foreigners" and there is no reason to suspect any of them for the murderer. The Frankfurt police in action has nothing to do with the plot. Nobody would suspect the detectives helped by Miss Marple and nobody would suspect Miss Marple herself.

The scene is the village. True for the Agatha Christie novels. We do not move much from Saint Mary Mead or Chipping Cleghorn. There are some travels to London or to the nearing town but they are not really intriguing and may rather promptly be swept off. Untrue for the Neuhaus novel. People move to Frankfurt. Some of the action is spent there. It goes even further to Hamburg and to the Alps. It is easier to move. It would seem strange that people be confined into a village. Nowadays, communications are easier and anybody will drive, take a plane, change places, and most of all uses his or her mobile phone and the net. We cannot have an enclosed community during the time of an investigation with total plausibility.

In Murder at the Vicarage, although it was published in 1930, there are some "unknown" characters: people who have come to live in the village more or less recently and whose past is to be discovered by the older inhabitants. But most characters must be traced back to living in Saint Mary Mead during their whole life, sometimes for generations. In A Murder is Announced, published in 1950, Miss Marple deplores the mobilty that followed WWII. No one knows his or her neighbour. All pasts are more or less in the shade and shady. New people have come to live in Chipping Cleghorn and have destroyed the stability and the social order of the village. The notion of social order is important. Who knows the real status and the real place of the newcomers on the social scale? Without this knowledge, can they be trusted? What is really behind their façade? Is it an appearance or the truth? What is their past? This is one thing that must be discovered by the clever Miss Marple who does not stop to facts only.

In Snow White must die, there is a collusion of the villagers: they know their past. Few have moved from the place. Few have come. Those who have moved are more or less suspected by those who have stayed as they have dissociated themselves from the community. Those who have come are not to be trusted as they threaten the closely woven inter-relationships. They investigate. They collude with the police. They ask questions. They make themselves allies to the outcasts: the newly released from jail Thobias and the autist Thies. It could be said that it is pardoxically closer to the 1930 Murder at the Vicarage than to the 1950 A Murder is announced in that it is a study of the relationships in a rather closed community and its interaction with the outside and outsiders. But there is still more mobility.

As to the cast proper (now that we have seen the stage), it is clearly linked to social status.

In Murder at the Vicarage, there are the Vicar and his young wife, a retired colonel, his second wife and his daughter by the first marriage, an unknown woman who is clearly a lady with personal revenues, the local GP, the curate and his landlady, the vicarage maid and her brother (who are utilities), a painter (artist), the chorus of single and more or less impoverished gentlewomen not unlike Mrs and Miss Bates of Emma or the gentlewomen of Cranford, the police investigators (from chiefs to local PC), and Miss Marple. Shopkeepers may be incidentally mentioned but they play no part in the drama.

In A Murder is Announced, the society is more mixed. We find the vicar and his wife (again), the local GP and his maiden sister, a lady of private means, retired from being secretary from an industrial tycoon, a friend of hers from childhood, a widow who has everything of a lady, two students (brother and sister, nephew and niece to the retired secretary), the maid, a gentlewoman and her son who plays marxist, a retired colonel, a solicitor and his family (wife, daughter by a first marriage, two sons and their governess, a maid and her sweetheart), two youngish ladies living together who may be supposed to be lesbians, a crook, spinsters and widows in the background (all gentlewomen), the police crew, and Miss Marple. The problem here is to disentangle who is truly who. Are the newcomers really who they say they are?

But, in both novels, the leads of the cast are definitely middle-class. No shopkeepers, no factory workers, no craftsmen.

In Snow White Must Die, the protagonist is the son of an innkeeper. Then, the main characters are the innkeeper and his wife, a doctor with psychiatric knowledge, her husband who is the minister of education of the Land, an industrial, his wife, his two sons (one who is autist and painter, and one who has been a stokebroker and is now the director of a Swiss bank, but who wanted to study theology), and his sister-in-law, a carpenter and his wife, an employee of the industrial and his wife, another innkeeper, his wife, inn servers, the grocer, a TV star who was born in the village, various villagers, the police crew, the procedural crew ... and their families.

No particular middle-class characters centre-stage this time: the village as a community and the village as a place are the main protagonists. Whoever lives in there has a part to play. And the other great difference with the classic whodunnit is the entrance of the police crew with their own lives. We follow them not only in their offices but in their homes as well; we know even more about their personal lives than about the lives of the villagers. And policemen may also be villagers, which gives them a double status.

Nonetheless, if the community is depicted, mostly at the inn's or at the grocer's as they are the place where we are able to see them gathered, there is the emergence of the minister of education, the doctor and the industrial as main pillars of the community: once their alliance and support are broken, the community unravels. Their status gives them money and power to sustain the village together. The only ones who rebel against them are the first innkeeper and his family, one inn server, and, in a way, the TV star. But it is a story about a community, its secrets, its life, its death, more than lives and deaths of individuals as in the whodunnits.

I have not read Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder but I read several of his reviews and participate in the online groups about the topic of the Golden Age Mystery. They do not like books like Millenium or Snow White Must Die. There are not real mysteries for them.

The real mysteries have begun with The Mystery of the Rue Morgue and live until the end of the 1950s. They do hardly include the American "hard-boilers", with Philip Marlowe and al. They cover the classics re-printed by the British library and, of course, Agatha Christie falls in their lap. The Golden Age mystery is born with the crossword puzzle and is a distraction written by the middle-class writer for the middle-class reader. It is then normal that the main characters are those who are known to the reader: middle-class protagonists without exception.

There is a funny example of such an instance in a book that has been reissued by Persephone Press, Greenery Street by Dennis Mackail (Angela Thirkell's brother), himself from the middle-class.

The newly married Felicity goes to the library to change her weekly books and chooses some for herself and some for her husband. There is a hilarious exchange between the librarian and the poor Felicity, but the husband's choice is almost always satisfied by mystery books, even if not those wanted. And, later, we see said husband engrossed in the reading of his weekly booty, half listening to his wife as he does when doing the newspaper crossword puzzle. Now, search your mind and try to remember how many times, in books of the 1930s to the 1950s (at least), people are looking for clues to the Times crossword puzzle.

The very nature of the mystery or whodunnit novel is of the same essence. It is a game. There is no need to have a too true-to-life setting and characters. All these can be compared to "The Clue" or "The Cluedo".

One needs a closed place (room, country house, village) and a set of characters without much distinctive traits from one book to another, but to whom the reader can relate. You may have noticed the recurrence of vicars, curates, retired colonels, spinsters, widows, gentlewomen, ladies, professional gentlemen and their wives. But they are mainly cardboard characters. Then the writer and the reader begin to play together. The detective has no great importance. What do we truly know of Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple? And tenants of the Golden Age mystery criticized and still critic the TV or film adaptation that want to give some consistance to Poirot or Miss Marple in devising a past for them, for instance.

Some writers have made the tour de force of living through the years and of transcending the genre. Agatha Chritie is a good example.

As we have seen, there are differences between Murder at The Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. In the second book, WWII has occurred and times have changed. Villages are not any more those communities where everybody knew the forefathers of the inhabitants. The fact that lesbians may exist is lighly touched. The problem of restrictions is spoken of. Girls may be students. Women may work without being scandalous. There is a flexibility in Christie's story-telling to adapt it to the times. And they witness their times in such a way that nowadays they are used by cultural studies as literary sources.

But books like Snow White Must Die go further. The style is important in the writing. The game and the red herrings must fit a wider readership or a more sophisticated readership who has read more detective novels and seen them more often in films or on TV. What Christie sketched in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is now the rule: the murderer can be the detective or the person helping the detective. The detective has a life of one's own. He or she has a home, colleagues, problems, a family, a love story or love stories that may mirror the story or be utterly distinct.

I do not pass judgement: I love both genres. And I like hard boiled crime novels. But I think that Snow White Must Die makes a happy contrast with Murder at the Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. Same small community and a mystery to disentangle through roots deep in the past. Similarities and differences.

I told you I have the E.M. Forster Syndrome: I always want to connect! 

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