Monday, 9 December 2013

Why Re-Read a Detective Story?

What is the point of re-reading a detective story? After all, if you know whodunit, surely it's a waste of time? This is an argument I've come across a good many times over the years. And there are certainly plenty of detective stories that most readers may doubt were worth reading once, let alone twice. (Mind you, that's true of plenty of books outside the crime genre, as well.) But I think a great deal of pleasure may be gained from re-reading a good whodunit, even if you can still remember who committed the crime and why.

A case in point is Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding. I first read this novel in my twenties, but it has stuck in my mind ever since, and its reappearance as an Arcturus Crime Classic prompted me to give it another go. I knew the identity of the surprise culprit, and the even more surprising motive, but I was interested to see how the two authors who co-wrote under the Beeding name handled their tricky plot.

In this book, as in their The Norwich Victims, which I also re-read recently, they shift scenes and viewpoints regularly, giving the story a filmic quality. (Unsurprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock adapted another of their novels, which became Spellbound.) Even by today's frenetic standards, the book does not lack pace. It's an early serial killer novel, and there are half a dozen victims, before the culprit (or apparent culprit) is finally tracked down - after the original prime suspect had turned out to be innocent, if deranged.

There is a good courtroom sequence before a series of short and snappy scenes lead up to the final dramatic revelation. I was impressed by the way Beeding orchestrated a complicated storyline, and admiration of authorial craft is in itself a good reason to give a book a second reading. There are so many books I'll never read even once that I suppose I ought to feel guilty about spending time on a story I remembered pretty well. But I don't regret it at all, because I found it just as enjoyable the second time around as the first.

10 comments:

seana graham said...

I'm not much of a re-reader in general, but the fact that a book was a mystery or crime novel wouldn't disqualify it. For one thing, judging by watching mysteries on television, I rarely remember the solution anyway, and for another, I tend to enjoy mystery writers for other reasons than the solution to a crime. Great writing, comic gifts, interesting setting, eccentric detectives--things like that.

Anonymous said...

I think if all a detective novel has to offer is its puzzle, then it is probably not worth rereading, at least until you have forgotten the plot. But there are plenty of detective novels that have more to offer in terms of characterization, period detail and the aesthetic response you get from reacquainting yourself with a first-rate well-developed plot. For instance, I think that Queen's Cat of Many Tails or Connelly's Angels Flight or Wade's Mist on Saltings (which I have read you admire) all bear rereading.

In fact, that sounds like a good question to open up to the general public. How many readers of this blog know of detective novels they think bear rereading?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments. Yes, I've read Mist on the Saltings twice. But oddly enough I've not yet got round to Cat of Many Tails.

Anonymous said...

If you like Mist on the Saltings, then I think you would enjoy Cat of Many Tails for the same reasons. I think it is a substantive novel and character study, giving a portrait of its times and New York City location using a fair play mystery novel as its primary structural element. It is an attempt to give a picture of its milieu without being a vehicle for a particular political position.

Mitchell said...

I don't quite understand the aversion to re-reading a crime detective story.

I think it offers an excellent opportunity to pick up on clues you may have missed the first time around. Moreover, as the second commenter stated, a good book should offer plenty more than just a puzzle or riddle.

Christine said...

Good writing, good characters, a interesting setting; these are essential I think for rereading, and I particularly enjoy rereading a whole series and filling in gaps that I have missed. I've recently reread the Sjowall and Wahloo books and Magdalene Nabb's series set in Florence. I'm rereading the Maigret novels at the moment.

Patrick said...

To be honest, Martin, I don't know why this conversation is necessary to begin with. Nobody feels the need to apologize for re-reading 1984 or GREAT EXPECTATIONS or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. A good book is a good book, whatever the reason. Maybe it's the plot: maybe I want to revisit the story and see just how clever the author was in hiding the truth from me or foreshadowing the coming events. Maybe it's the atmosphere. Maybe it's the characters. Maybe it's sampling the writing style. Either way, if I feel compelled to re-read a book, odds are it's good enough to warrant a re-read, no matter what kind of novel it is.

Anonymous said...

Exactly: a good book is a good book, regardless. There is always something new to find, some resonance, in a book that bears rereading. And the resonances change every time. Of course there are some books (like Christie) where it is very easy to forget the villain or the twist, yet still enjoy rereading for the umpteenth time!
Some of my revisitables are: yes, indeed - Death Walks In Eastrepps. CP Snow's Death Under Sail; Dick Francis's Hot Money and To The Hilt; Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, DLS's Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors;Les Miserables, Our Mutual Friend, Confessions Of An Opium Eater, Hazlitt's Essays; Adventures Of An Irish RM; Dorothy Hartley's Food In England. A Desert Island list. And there's more..... Liz Gilbey
PS: And then there are all the good books Martin recommends to add to the reading list. So many books, so little time.... Liz Gilbey

Jessica Mann said...

I don't know if one SHOULD re-read crime or any other kind of fiction, but I certainly do,several times, and in some cases (e.g DLSayers, Margery Allingham, Patrick O'Brian, Robertson Davies, Georgette Heyer and several others) so often that I have to take a few years' break. But if people aren't ever going to re-read a book, why keep it on their shelves?

Geranium Cat said...

I re-read constantly, and everything - crime fiction as much as anything else. Even if I remember the puzzle, I'll have forgotten enough detail to ensure my interest throughout, and if I enjoyed a book once then, for me, that's a pretty good guarantee that I'll enjoy re-reading it, probably several times. It makes it difficult to part with books though.