Tuesday 24 August 2010

The Longevity of Detective Fiction

An interesting feature of Rupert Penny’s The Talkative Policeman, which I mentioned the other day, was his introductory note, in which he expounds on what he sees as the lack of longevity of the detective story: ‘The detective shall find his grave at last as surely as the lifeless flesh he theorised upon.’

He identifies Holmes as the sole exception to this: he and Watson ‘are, first and foremost, characters, and the rest is incidental. At a guess, it is not impossible that Lord Peter Wimsey may one day qualify to keep them company.’ No mention of Poirot or Miss Marple here, and by the time Penny wrote this, Wimsey had solved his last major case!

For Penny, plainly, the plot was the thing, and this was no doubt why, after the Second World War, he did not return to the genre: it had moved on, and elaborate puzzles of the kind he favoured were no longer in fashion. It is a shame that he abandoned the genre, though, since he (like the much more eminent Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, who also gave up writing crime novels in the post-war era) had genuine talent as a writer, a talent which in his case never fully flowered.

I suppose Penny would have been amazed had he been told that, more than seventy years after his debut novel was published, it has reappeared in a fresh and appealing version, courtesy of Ramble House. Of course, it is true that minor writers like Penny are forgotten by most readers nowadays, but the appeal of ingenious mysteries has by no means faded. The detective as a character, and the detective story as a form, have proved much more flexible, and thus enjoyed much greater longevity, than some of their creators over the years have anticipated.


Anonymous said...

Martin - It is sad that Penny didn't keep writing. Certainly detective fiction is still quite alive and well, and one thing that I think keeps it at least as popular now as ever is that it evolves. As you say, there are new intellectual puzzler mysteries, new character-based mysteries, and lots of other sub-genres, too. My point is, the genre's flexibility has contributed greatly to its longevity.

Anonymous said...

A good puzzle will still be a good puzzle despite the passage of time whereas books dealing with, say, current aspects of society, or firmly rooted in the reality of the times, may become increasingly hard to understand. In addition, older mysteries, in my opinion, often present much more interesting intellectual puzzles because of the absence of modern technology and forensics. Less logic needs to be used in solving current crimes with science to fall back on.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Which is the whole point of Forgotten Books. Anyone can be resurrected on Friday.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, your point about flexibility is spot on, I think.
Anon - very interesting point re forensics, thanks
Patti - quite so!

Dean James said...

I was unable to finish the one Penny novel that I attempted to read. It became increasingly tedious, and the culprit was all too predictable. (I skipped to the end and peeked.)

Never had that problem with Christie or Sayers!

Martin Edwards said...

Dean, Penny is definitely not in the top league, but his ingenuity and high spririts lift his best work out of the masss of GAD fiction, I think.

Dorte H said...

It seems to me that more and more ´serious´ crime writers want to return to the Golden Age and read some of the classics, plus some of the writers of the 60s and 70s who have influenced the many writers of today. One example is the Swedish couple Sjöwall and Wahlöö who seem to be increasingly popular these years.