Settle in, this will be a long one 😉 I do not intend to give away too much specific information about any particular work of detective fiction, so no spoiler warning will be required, just this once.
Some months back I published an essay on intertextuality and detective fiction, suggesting that it was one of the reasons we liked to read Golden Age detective fiction (henceforth “GAD”). In that essay I used the term “intertextuality” (which has different meaning depending on whose work you’re reading, so please refer to what I’ve said there if it’s important) to refer, among other things, to the idea that every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery. And I noted that this is the kind of thing to which Raymond Chandler may have been referring in the following quotation:
“It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.”
Emphasis mine. What I’ve suggested is that the reading public may not be able to recognize intertextuality in its GAD, but it likes it.
I also promised you a disquisition on “indoctrination”, which I think is another crucial “intellectual and artistic overtone” that goes into the enjoyment of Golden Age detective fiction, but I didn’t define it. I said that it’s one of the two reasons that I actually DO think that people read detective fiction; I’ve since come up with a third, for which I use the general heading of “ingenuity”. So, so far, the three “I”s of detective fiction.
Why Do People Read Detective Fiction?
Julian Symons, in his ground-breaking 1972 history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel suggests — and I am very loosely paraphrasing here — that people read detective fiction because they like the way that the genre breaks order and then restores it at the end. The crime is committed (order is broken), the detective investigates, and order is restored when the criminal is caught and punished. It is true that detective fiction, if it hopes to be taken seriously qua detective fiction, must solve any mysteries that it has raised during the course of the story; “law and order” will generally prevail, especially in the context of GAD. I’ve always found this suggested motivation of the restoration of order hard to accept on more than an intellectual level; frankly, it never echoed with me viscerally. Did you ever pick up a murder mystery and think, “Oh, good, now I get to see order broken and restored!” No, neither did I.
I’ve been looking for reasons that make more sense about why people read detective fiction. My mind kept returning to the idea that GAD detective fiction in general is one of three immutable genres; that is, every story in GAD is almost exactly the same at a very basic level. (The crime is committed, the detective investigates, the criminal is caught and punished.) Of all the genres I can think of, there are only two others of which this is the case; romance and pornography. Science fiction and westerns, adventure and fantasy, espionage and thrillers and “chick lit”, all of these genres have plots and characters that range widely and are impossible to predict. But in the three immutable genres, the basic stories are always the same.
So if the story is always the same, then what must be differentiating good GAD from bad is some other quality that is carried within the story, or around the story, or above the story — essentially, something not-story. Symons suggests that it’s the restoration of order, and previously I’ve suggested that intertextuality is at least one such quality.
At this point, I went looking on the internet for what people say is the reason they read GAD. I found some of that, to be sure. But what I found within the boundaries of that search was a great deal of material about why women read cozy mysteries. I say “women” not in some overlooked residue of sexism, but because I was impressed by the sheer omnipresence of women’s commentary outweighing men’s by about 99% to 1%. And there are an awful lot of women writing about what it is that they like about cozy mysteries. I started to get interested.
There’s a primitive level of reaction to their chosen literature, by the least literate stratum of aficionados, that I’ve actually seen represented as “Well, I love the plots and the characters.” (As opposed to heaven knows what else — theme?) This is enthusiastic but not very useful because all books have plots and characters. But since the mystery genre is the written word, its aficionados are more literate than many, and I soon found a reasonably high level of discourse on the Internet.
One comment on Goodreads I found particularly interesting: “Why are we particularly interested in the sleuth’s job/craft/hobby?…We could certainly research knitting/cooking/cats on any website. So what makes the combination of characters, occupation and mystery so interesting–and so addictive?”
I think this is the quote that allowed me to make a connection between the cozy mystery and GAD, in terms of why people read it. I started to look at the qualities of GAD that the present-day reader might suggest draws them to the sub-genre. Over and over again, it’s the puzzles and/or the characters. Oddly, to my rough-and-ready estimate after encountering hundreds of mystery readers over the years, the men like the puzzles and the women like the characters (and I emphasize, this is nothing more than a generality). But a lot of GAD fans like locked-room and impossible mysteries, all plot and no character, and a lot of GAD fans revere the great romances of Peter and Harriet and Troy and Alleyn and who, like Dorothy L. Sayers, were “tired of a literature without bowels”.
That allowed me to reduce down to the simplest level by striking the responses that had to do with plots and characters. All books have those things, and there has to be something about those plots and characters that lets us tell good ones from bad ones. What was left, from my commenter on cozies, was … “occupation”. The sleuth’s “job/craft/hobby”.
And that, as you can imagine, was temporarily baffling to me, until I took a step back and realized that, yes, the modern cozy is focused on the occupation of the protagonist. Whether it’s a series about a yarn store or a dog grooming business or a cookie bakery, there are literally hundreds of series of novels about a woman running her own business. Was this a focus on what I have called elsewhere the “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery?
Although I personally enjoy the information mystery form, I can’t accept that this is a huge motivation for people to read mysteries. I’ll cut some of my logical trail short here and suggest that the quality that the respondent identified in the specific was “occupation”, but what this is really about, in larger scale, is “the transmission of social information”. Aha! People read mysteries because they transmit social information.
Parenthetically, I realized that the cozy mystery is actually designed to allow its readers the experience of agency: that is, they get to live vicariously in the persona of someone who has the desire and ability to control their surroundings. The woman who runs a yarn store and solves mysteries has the ability to take a few days off in order to investigate her neighbours — not a common experience in today’s economic environment. So that’s a very specific transmission of social information.
The kind of transmission of social information that I think people enjoy about GAD — and enjoyed, in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s — is subtle. It seems to consist of a repeating pattern; a GAD author has a “voice” that is making authorial observations in the background while the mystery plot is playing itself out in the foreground. The author is, in a sense, teaching the reader how society works, according to the author’s point of view. If the reader likes the author’s voice, and/or agrees with the observations, then the reader will continue to read that author’s books.
Here’s an example to show you what I mean; from Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962). First a quote from Chapter 1-II, an internal monologue by Miss Marple, then an explanation.
“[T]here had been Amy and Clara and Alice, those ‘nice little maids’ arriving from St Faith’s Orphanage, to be ‘trained’, and then going on to better paid jobs elsewhere. Rather simple, some of them had been, and frequently adenoidal, and Amy distinctly moronic. They had gossiped and chattered with the other maids in the village and walked out with the fishmonger’s assistant, or the under-gardener at the Hall, or one of Mr Barnes the grocer’s numerous assistants. Miss Marple’s mind went back over them affectionately thinking of all the little woolly coats she had knitted for their subsequent offspring. They had not been very good with the telephone, and no good at all at arithmetic. On the other hand, they knew how to wash up, and how to make a bed. They had had skills, rather than education.”
I must acknowledge here that Miss Marple is speaking about the past, so although the date is 1962, she’s talking about the ’20s and ’30s. There is so much social information within this single paragraph that it’s almost too much to go through, but here are some bullet points that illustrate what Agatha Christie is saying about Miss Marple’s society — indoctrinating the reader — in that paragraph:
- Orphanages contained young women who received an education that was suitable for their lowered station in life; they weren’t trained to be teachers or doctors, but servants. Such people in training received lower wages than their trained counterparts.
- It’s socially acceptable for a member of the middle or upper classes to compare a member of the lower classes to a “moron”. Miss Marple is a “nice person” and she does it. (Technically it indicates an IQ between 51 and 70, or possibly a mental age of between 8 and 12.)
- Orphanages are associated with Christian religious organizations named after saints. Although the word “charity” is not used here, it’s likely that Miss Marple saw the training process that she was administering as being connected with church-related charitable work. Orphanages exist because there are sufficiently large numbers of children without parents that they must be managed in an organized way by society.
- Fishmongers still called themselves that, and had young male assistants; similarly, grocers had young male assistants. These young men were of the lower social orders and it was suitable for them to associate romantically with female orphans/maids. People still ate enough fish that a small village would have a store entirely devoted to selling fish.
- Supermarkets were not yet known and the economic pattern of a village was such that one went to separate stores for fish and “groceries”.
- The provision of gardening services at certain estates (the “Hall”) was sufficiently economically viable as to allow young men of the lower classes to work as “under-gardeners”.
- Certain residences are so well-known that they take a capital letter to distinguish them from others. The Hall employs under-gardeners, and presumably their supervisory gardeners; therefore it has grounds that require full-time employees to maintain them, and someone can afford to pay them to do that.
- “Walking out” is a nebulous process that we would know today as “dating”, but it had the implication of constancy. If you were “walking out” with someone you were progressing towards marriage, or at least towards having children.
- It’s appropriate for elderly middle/upper-class women to knit handmade woollen clothing for the infants of the lower-class maids who had been in their employ. The word “subsequent” indicates that they left Miss Marple’s employment when they got married. Knitting is an appropriate occupation for a member of the leisure class that employs household servants to “wash up”.
- Adenoidectomy and widespread use of antibiotics to cure adenoidal infections had not yet become commonplace. Having an “adenoidal” voice or presence was somehow undesirable and apparently associated with the lower classes.
- If someone knows how to “wash up”, it indicates they have experience at washing dishes by hand. Dishwashing machines were not apparently used in the home.
- Elderly ladies without a large income can afford to have a personal maidservant in their homes. It might be that Miss Marple is trading off lower wages with the training function that she is supervising.
And many more, most less securely expressed. (Why is it associated with the lower classes to be poor with arithmetic? Etc.) Of course, no author actually sits down to tell you these things; they form part of the unspoken backdrop and the author at the time of writing assumed you know these things.
I’ll suggest that every mystery from the Golden Age of Detection contains such material, spoken and unspoken. And of course immediately I expect you’re thinking, “Well, every single book I’ve ever read does that.” Undeniably so. What I’m suggesting is that this is a particular reason why people enjoy reading Golden Age mysteries. Whether the plot and characters are illustrating a “pure puzzle” plot or Peter is proposing to Harriet on an Oxford bridge in Latin, the authorial material about how society works — what I call “indoctrination” — is always present and, I’ll suggest, forms a significant part of the reader’s enjoyment. (I’ve called it “indoctrination” because it imparts “doctrine” — the rules and processes of social behaviour at a certain time and place.)
My understanding is currently that this takes place specifically in mysteries because people read mysteries in order to “figure out” the plot. If there’s a corpse on the library hearthrug, and a button lying nearby, the reader knows because of the mystery form that that button is significant and must be explained before the end of the book. The size and shape of the button will tell the detective and the reader whether the button comes from a glove or a raincoat. And when the raincoat is discovered from which that button has become separated — the astute reader will be reading carefully to note if that button comes from the right or left face of the garment, because the astute reader knows, as a matter of societal information, that men’s and women’s raincoats have the buttons on opposite sides. Usually the author finds a way to have one character explain the difference between men’s and women’s raincoats explicitly, for the benefit of the reader, if it’s important to the determination of the identity of the murderer. British raincoat habits are not automatically known by readers in, say, Tahiti. But there’s always a level at which the author assumes that the reader shares an understanding; we all know that buttons are generally from human clothes and not, say, from pets or vacuum cleaners or books, to mention three things that could have a legitimate function in a library.
As we get further and further away from the publication date of a mystery, the number of unspoken assumptions grows larger and the amount of background knowledge required must usually be accumulated from other reading. Take, for instance, the idea that when dining at an aristocratic country house, there is an explicit but unspoken precedence that takes place as people enter the dining room. People of higher social rank enter before people of lower social rank. This process is referred to as “going in” — the third daughter of an earl, being an “Honourable”, goes in before a famous but untitled movie star. And the younger daughters of impoverished earls are sometimes very zealous about their exact place in the social order if it happens to be higher than that of wealthy commoners.
Nearly a century later, it is almost necessary to explain the concepts of higher and lower social rank to someone born in the 21st century, who has absorbed from the cradle the credo that everyone is created equal. In the GAD context, it can be thought of as an attack on the established social order to “go in” before someone of higher rank; certainly if the author tells us that Mr. Jones pushed his way into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, we know something important about how Mr. Jones feels about the social conventions IF we know that the correct order of “going in” is important to the people involved.
Whether or not the social gaucheries of Mr. Jones have anything to do with the later murder of Lord Bumbershoot is a matter for the author, of course. But the reader of a murder mystery is conditioned to examine such things to see if the author is telling them something that bears upon the mystery. Suppose that Lord Bumbershoot left a half-completed letter on his writing desk suggesting that he and his wife had been gravely insulted by some unidentified person’s behaviour. That will not be a clue to anyone who doesn’t know about “going in”; the person aware of the “going in” rules will suspect Mr. Jones. The truly experienced GAD reader will, of course, look for someone other than Mr. Jones, who is perhaps a red herring in this context. What I’m getting at is that the “going in” rules form a part of the plot and are important to the characters; but if you don’t know what they are or even that they exist, you won’t be getting the maximum amount of information from the author about the plot necessary to solve the mystery.
Ultimately, the constant reader of GAD amasses a large amount of social information that may or may not be useful in the context of any particular mystery novel. Perhaps in a different novel, people go in to dinner without anyone remarking upon who goes in before whom, or why. That particular piece of indoctrination isn’t relevant to this novel, but perhaps the fact that British pubs closed early on Sundays, or that gas rationing was in place during the Second World War, may have something to do with the mystery’s solution. Sometimes you’re told specifically; sometimes it’s assumed you know without being told.
I’m going to suggest that we read GAD partly in order to collect these little snippets of indoctrination and that we enjoy that process enough to keep us returning to the GAD form. We may think, “Oh, if *I* was living in England in the 1930s, I would know not to push into the dining room in front of Lady Bumbershoot.” We might speculate on the whys and wherefores of early closing day and wonder how it would affect our everyday lives, or whether the potential loss of one’s hereditary title due to an undisclosed illegitimacy would be sufficient motive for murder. It can be a kind of cultural archaeology; trying to understand, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, why it is that female scholars are treated differently than male scholars — or indeed what it is that “illegitimacy” meant in a modern time when many people’s parents are not married. We think about how it might affect our romantic relationships in 1930s England if the object of our affections were of a different social class — or the same gender.
And for the person who reads a lot of GAD, as I think most of my readers do, there’s another kind of pleasure available; that of “mastery”. It’s pleasant to realize without being told that Mr. Jones should not have pushed into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, and why. In a meta-sense, it’s pleasant to be aware that if Jones’s faux pas is important to the murder plot, the author will make sure you are aware that Lady Bumbershoot has been insulted, and precisely how — then in your attempts to solve the mystery, you can focus on more relevant things, like the button on the hearthrug (without having to look up the meaning of “hearthrug” like a millennial might have to).
I wonder if I’m reading too much into this provision of background social information; as I noted, it’s certainly a part of every novel. But I think it’s peculiarly a part of the mystery genre because the informed reader tries to assess the meaning of events and objects in respect to the mystery plot in every such story. I’ll maintain that indoctrination is at least worth considering as one of the reasons why people still read mysteries from 90 years ago, and enjoy them, and keep the best ones in print.
When I did my piece on intertextuality, I left the reader with a hint that a future piece would be this one about indoctrination. I’m happy to say that I’ve identified a third term that begins with the letter “I” that I regard as an element that explains in part why people read mysteries; ingenuity. You may have an idea already what I’m getting at, but I intend it to be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, your comments on the concept of indoctrination are welcome below.