The whodunnit is, amongst other things, a novel about crime, which ranges the forces of law and justice against those of evil and chaos. On one side the lean, pipesmoking ascetic Holmes, the fussy egg-headed Belgian Poirot, and gentle Miss Marple with her fluffy shawls and Victorian prudery. On the other Moriaty, the master of disguise, and the doctor from Sleeping Murder who was Australian, or was that his sister, also the fat guy in Murder on the Orient Express – no, hang on, he was the victim… In fact, for a genre which requires at least one murderer per book as a basic premise, the classic detective novel has produced very few memorable criminals. Moriaty has certainly passed into folklore as the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, but very few people can remember what he actually looks like, and it is difficult not to wonder whether he too might have dropped into obscurity if The Goon Show hadn’t revived him as a surreal comedy villain. (“Count Jim Thyse-Moriaty, Slapper Royal and noted amateur postman.”) And who recalls John Clay, Conan Doyle’s rather limp attempt at a master criminal, who tunnelled into the vaults of the Bank of England during the Adventure of the Red-Headed League? Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot are far more vivid and memorable characters than any of the miscreants they unmask – the traditional whodunnit has never produced a Dr. Crippen, or a Hannibal Lecter.
Paradoxically, classic detective fiction is about crime, but not about criminals. The genre’s conventions support this: after all, if the reader has spent two hundred pages been watching an eccentric detective working out the crime, it is hardly surprising if the criminal, who receives a hasty two pages at the end, tends to be a little shadowy by comparison. In fact, if the novelist has done his job properly, with the correct degree of legerdemain, casting suspicion on innocent characters and eventually pinning it on the least likely suspect, the reader’s attention will have been misdirected through most of the novel. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who seems to be the murderer for most of The ABC Murders, is one of Agatha Christie’s more brilliant creations. Shabby, sinister and anguished, he gives a genuine chill to the book, and after reading it, or watching the adaptation, it is this supposed proto-serial killer who stays in the mind, totally obliterating the rather colourless aristocrat who turns out to have framed him for the killings.
Put another way, the genre is really concerned with innocence, rather than guilt. Agatha Christie suggested this explicitly in The Four Suspects, a Miss Marple short story, where four people were all suspected of a crime they could all equally well have committed. The victim had been a spy working against a murderous secret society, and was resigned to being assassinated as a natural end to his career, but in Miss Marple’s opinion the criminal needs to be identified to prevent three innocent people going through life under suspicion, however faint. When the crime is solved, no immediate punishment falls upon the culprit, who is assigned a vague eventual doom based on the effect mixing with terrorists has upon one’s moral character and life expectancy. This story is an exaggeration of the general pattern; most whodunnits are completely uninterested in punishment, past handing the murderer over to the law. The genre’s most enduring convention, the dénouement, frequently involves collecting all the suspects and exonerating them in turn until the guilty party is reached most famously in novels like Death on the Nile and Gaudy Night. It’s an inherently dramatic, if rather unrealistic, way of identifying the guilty party, but it has the side effect of publicly exonerating those who were previously under suspicion. They’re not always “innocent” in the technical sense, indeed such scenes frequently involve personal secrets or lesser crimes being revealed, but these peccadilloes are usually disregarded in the search for the killer.
Those killers, though unmemorable, fall within certain regular parameters. Beneath the wide variety of places, means and agents of death there are striking similarities, which invite analysis. When a crime genre has all humanity at its disposition, and chooses criminals from such a restricted portion of it, there must be good reasons, as I believe there are.
The killers always have a comprehensible reason for the crime – as Poirot says in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, “There is no murder without motive.” Completely insane killers and meaningless crime have no place in the classic whodunnit: murder needs to be explained, usually by reference to simple human desires such as money, love and revenge. The reason cannot be too good, however, or the reader might sympathise with the killer, tipping the moral balancing act which these novels perform. Murders, from the Caribbean Mystery to the workings of Strong Poison, must be the result of understandable, but reprehensible, action. (Murderous orangutans have special dispensation to do as they please: the genre was very immature when Poe pulled that stunt, and it would be best put down to youthful high spirits.)
The social grouping of murderers is even more striking. Despite the cliché that “the butler did it”, the overwhelming majority of killers are from the middle class or above. The “golden age” novels of Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and company, do not believe in murder by burglars, vagrants or servants. Apparent exceptions, such as the title character in The Companion or Annie the college maid in Gaudy Night, turn out to be the middle classes in disguise: the companion was a distant relative of the woman she murdered, and Annie was the wife of an academic who committed suicide after being disgraced.
These similarities build up a coherent mode of murder. In fact, they insist upon it. In the classic whodunnit, murder is the result of definite moral choice, influenced by the temptations of greed, lust and wrath, but uncluttered by the special pleading of madness or socioeconomic deprivation. It is murder by a consenting adult of sound mind and sufficient means. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this is surely not a realistic model of what causes crime, and its repetition over hundreds of novels suggests larger perspectives – larger conclusions to be drawn than how ex-officers of the colonial army tend to murder their wives. These narratives, with their continual and specific moulding of real life, hint at larger narratives of communal guilt and innocence being written beneath the surface.
Whodunnits, as has often been observed, exist in a sort of neverland of country houses and rural villages, a setting described by one critic as “Mayhem Parva” and peopled by bluff colonels, cope-embroidering spinsters and cheery young things in tennis flannels. If the English world was ever like this, it had long since ceased to be so by the time these novels were written. The “golden age” of detective fiction, which began roughly with Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, occupied the years between the first and second World Wars – anything but a golden age for Britain, and one in which British society was undergoing massive and lasting changes. The experience of total war, which moved women into the munitions factories, and domestic servants into the army, caused serious questioning of the established social order. The assumed codes of deference and conduct never quite recovered. Country estates were shut up or sold, and the rural economy was destabilised by wage increases after the labourers returned from the front, or didn’t. Crime fiction, however, was busy denying that anything had changed, keeping the experience of death safely within rational and domestic confines where it could be explained away. The poet U.A. Fanthorpe describes the whodunnit as creating a “rare little world/ Imagined to gentle the English through war”, and the contemporary war writer Rupert Brooke asked in “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” “Stand the church clock at ten to three?/ And is there honey still for tea?” In the face of disorienting social changes, and the unimaginable slaughter of the war, a myth of “Merrie England” was crafted, an Edenic world in which all knew their place, and were happiest in it – the vicar in his pulpit, the keeper in his lodge, the doctor at his practice and the colonel in his study. The classic detective novel settings evolved as the country house, the small rural village and the Oxbridge college: all emblems of an older, more secure way of life, and still used today by writers in the so-called “cosy” tradition. These are, in a sense, historical novel, essentially similar, though more subtle, to the Regency romances which yearn for a non-specific time when courtship was a genteel game conducted between witty, virtuous women and charming, masterful men.
In fact the image is not completely seamless, and the war makes itself felt by omissions and implications: Hastings is only at Styles in The Mysterious Affair because he is recuperating from an injury, and Poirot is respected because these “Belgies” are “not like other foreigners” . More generally the continual casts of gossipy spinsters and what Dorothy Sayers calls “superfluous women”( Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon, Lord Peter’s Miss Climpson) are a reflection of brutal demographics: the loss of life in the First World War meant a vast swathe of marriageable women in that generation never found a husband. These are merely echoes, however: though they hint at omissions in the story, they have no real effect upon the novels’ emotional or intellectual approach to murder.
Any literature which deals with violence and death, but concludes with such a reassuring ending, is always going to be conservative with a small “c” – it suggests that nothing needs to be done except maintaining our way of life. The view of England presented by the classic whodunnit crosses over into politics, however: John Major’s famous use of the image of “spinsters cycling to Evensong through the mist” evokes exactly the same kind of nostalgia for a lost way of life. And nostalgia is a profoundly two-edged weapon. The political struggle over traditional rural life in America has been echoed in the campaigns of the Countryside Alliance in Britain, and both depend upon projecting a certain image of that way of life. Any art form which implies that the English country estate was a harmonious model of life, in which violence and death were the result of distinct and avoidable moral choices, is somewhere between inaccurately selective and morally repugnant. One does not have to be a full-blown Marxist to realise that the classic whodunnit exercises a kind of moral paternalism over the working classes by keeping them innocent of anything more than petty crime, and that it rigidly denies that serious crime could be the result of need, rather than greed. It would also be totally incapable of dealing with the moral fallout if the epileptic ex-soldier A.B.Cust had committed the murders of which he was accused.
Such questions, however, never arise, though later crime novelists have chosen to deal with them. Indeed the whodunnit seems designed to prevent them arising – despite its glib use of “tragedy” to describe deaths, it has no interest in tragedy as a form. It seems more akin to elegy, or even pastoral, creating a timeless world in which moral problems can be introduced, considered and explained away. The “golden age” is an apt term for the inter-war whodunnits – it describes exactly what these novels were trying to regain or create, after the horror and chaos they had just passed through. In one sense they are rather uninterested in crime, guilt and punishment, longing instead to justify and reassure – to demonstrate not whodunnit, but who didn’t it.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, September 2007.