Crime Fiction within the Academy:
The Creative and Critical Possibilities
Seminar Presentation Given at the University of East Anglia
on the 25th February 2016
by Richard Blake
In trying to make sense of any subject, definitions must come at the beginning, and must be both clear and consistently applied. I therefore define crime fiction as any piece of imaginative writing in which a crime against life or property occurs, and in which there is some chance that the perpetrator will be brought to some kind of justice.
Using this definition, I say that crime fiction does not begin, as some of the standard histories claim, with Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins, but is as old as the literature of any people whose works I can read, and probably as old as literature itself. I think, for example, of the story in Herodotus, Book II, of King Rhampsinitus and the Treasury Thieves. Here, we have an initial crime, followed by an attempted capture, which is evaded by a cover up involving at least two further crimes. We then have a more determined investigation by the authorities. There is no punishment at the end this story. But the moral order is reasserted, if only by a compromise, and thereby restored. Since there is no Pharaoh in the native Egyptian chronicles who corresponds with Rhampsinitus, and since the whole story partakes of the incredible, and since Herodotus himself is aware of the distinction between probable facts and things inherently unlikely, the story can be taken as an early example of crime fiction.
If I were to expand the definition just given, I might bring in The State Trials, an endlessly entertaining set of trial transcripts mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They often read like plays. Indeed, they were ably pastiched by M.R. James in one of his horror stories. But if I did that, I would have to allow newspaper reports. It is enough to assert that crime fiction, as defined above, is of universal interest – universal in both space and time.
This brings me to its creative and critical possibilities within the academy. I suggest that these can be arranged under three headings: relative ease of composition; critical depth; a perception of the creative process.
I begin with the first, relative ease of composition. Students of creative writing are often required, as part of their course, to write at least a novella. Fiction of any kind is not always easy to write, and is hardly ever easy the first time round. You sit, staring back at an impatiently blinking cursor, or at a sheet of lined paper. Either your mind is suddenly empty, or the ideas you thought were there are like a mass of unspun yarn. Or you will write a first sentence – perhaps a very good sentence. But the nature of the second is as great a mystery as the first was. If you are an experienced writer, you will have developed strategies to let you plunge in and keep going. If you are a beginner, and you do not find yourself in the grip of a burning inspiration, your best strategy is to find an existing model that you can imitate.
A problem here is that the literary fiction that finds its way onto academic reading lists is not easily imitated by the beginner. You cannot break established conventions if you have not already worked in them. Complex and layered narratives need experience that, of necessity, has not been acquired. Even with apparently accessible classics – Lark Rise to Candleford, for example, for many years a set text for A Level English – the underlying structure will be hard to perceive.
Crime fiction, on the other hand, provides an ideal template. Consider this as both example and mild parody
Marcel Pomfrit looked about the hushed drawing room. “I was at first confused by the location of Lord Ebbsfleet’s body. He had twenty seven verrucas on his left foot. Even with a walking frame, he could not go five paces without limping and having to sit down. Yet he appeared to have walked, in a pair of riding boots a size too small for him, two miles across Egdon Heath to meet his killer.
“Yes, it confused even my godlike intellect! And then I recalled Miss Tipplewell’s statement that, on the night of the murder, the dinner gong sounded five minutes early….”
For the avoidance of doubt, I greatly admire Agatha Christie. If nothing she wrote after 1945 is better than pedestrian, she did, before then, produce at least a dozen masterpieces in the genre she did much to establish. What is important, however, is that the classic detective mystery provides a template that is easily understood, and not especially hard to use. You need half a dozen characters, each of them – and only them – under suspicion of a murder that takes place about a quarter into the narrative. You must avoid supernatural aid or unnatural coincidence. Instead, you must make every clue available to the reader that is given to the detective. Finding the murderer involves identifying and arranging these clues into the right pattern. There is no requirement to draw the characters in any detail, and the background can be as sketchy and idealised as you see in the novels that have survived from the Ancient World.
As said, much of Agatha Christie’s output is pedestrian. But the vastness of that output – her output and that of most of her competitors in the genre – shows that a classic detective mystery is fairly easy to write.
Or take Leon Garfield’s young adult novel Smith, a work of much greater complexity and psychological depth. The hero is a young pickpocket, circa 1760, who operates in the warren of streets about Saint Paul’s Cathedral. In the first chapter, he latches onto a country gentleman who appears to be lost. He follows him along an alley, and picks his pocket. As he is getting ready to disappear, two other men appear. They murder the country gentlemen. They go through his pockets, swearing that there is nothing to take. Someone with a fine voice urges them on from out of sight. He is desperate to have what they cannot find. The men argue, before going off. Smith runs away. When he stops, he looks at what he has stolen. It is a document. Unfortunate for him, he cannot read. Worse, someone has seen him….
After that first chapter, the rest does not write itself. I used a similar structure last year, and working out the opening themes to a natural conclusion was a hard grind. But the plot of Smith goes off like a rocket in the first chapter. Working out who the killers were, and what the document says, and how Smith can stay alive long enough to solve the mystery, all provide a clear trajectory. No need for long soliloquies, nor extended flashback, certainly not for the “cut and fold” methods of someone like William S. Burroughs – what the writer needs to do is tell us who did it, and why.
Or take two notable American writers, the historical novelist Steven Saylor and the science fiction writer L. Neil Smith. Both of their first novels were crime thrillers. Roman Blood is a fictional reworking of Cicero’s speech Pro Roscio. The Probability Broach involves a doorway to an alternative universe in which the American Revolution led to an anarchist utopia. I might ask why each of them why they wrote first in that genre. Their aims and methods are radically different. Yet both, I believe, would give the same answer: in part they like writing crime fiction; but, in part, they were not sure, when they started, that they could finish a novel, and felt in need of a template that would guide their steps.
It was the same with my own first novel, Then the Bird was Still. It was the same with my first success, Conspiracies of Rome. Indeed, all my novels involve a mystery of one kind or another. One of them even involves a murder in an apparently locked room. I like the format. I deviate all over the place from the classic rules, and that is if I try to follow them. But I like to write quickly, and there is nothing like an apparently insoluble crime to keep me hurrying along.
I come to my second heading, which is critical depth. It may seem ths far that I am denigrating the various genres of crime fiction – that I am comparing them to “real literature” in the same way as I might compare a Gothic cathedral to a post-War prefab. If that is the impression I have given, I readily apologise. Crime fiction, of whatever kind, is capable of the greatest sophistication. It enables multiple and conflicting analyses.
Read Micky Spillane, and you find yourself in a world almost without moral standards. Raymond Chandler gives us a world in which there is a moral order but an order covered over and often blotted out by layer after layer of corruption and other species of turpitude. Or I might suggest my own fiction. This shows the world as a pretty awful place, made bearable only by the occasional stroke of good luck or of freely-chosen kindness. And even Agatha Christie has her depths. She preaches the existence of an orderly and stable world, in which crime is an occasional and an easily-erased blemish.
I go further. Fiction, in rough proportion to how much it is read, gives a peculiar tone to the age in which it is written. I believe that Agatha Christie, together with Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr, did more to arrest the progress of socialism in twentieth century England than any of the heavier critiques of Lord Chief Justice Hewart and Friedrich von Hayek. Equally, J.B. Priestly – for example in his An Inspector Calls, which is formally a piece of crime fiction – did more to bring about the socialist consensus of the 1940s than the collected works of Harold Lasky.
But I digress. I return to Steven Saylor. Roman Blood is, as said, a crime thriller. An elderly nobleman has been murdered. His son is accused of the murder. Cicero, a young and so far unknown lawyer, has been retained to manage the defence. He hires Gordianus, a private detective, to tease out the facts that will go into the defence speech.
The overall movement of the plot is determined by the need to find the relevant facts. But what we also have is a perfect recreation of Rome just as its Republic has turned unstable. The reactionary and brutal purge lately carried out by Sulla is still uppermost in the public mind. People are coming to terms with the realisation that political disputes in Rome no longer involve occasional street violence, but can grow into civil wars that take in the whole of the Mediterranean world. I say in particular that Saylor gives full and integrated discussion to the horrors of ancient slavery. Roman Blood is a compelling crime thriller. It is also a first rate historical novel. I am an expert in the period, and I would feel no hesitation in giving the book to any student who wanted an introduction to the Fall of the Roman Republic.
Now to L. Neil Smith. The Probability Broach begins as almost a standard crime thriller. Edward Bear is an American police officer assigned to investigate the murder of a physicist. The initial difference between this and standard crime fiction is that the slightly futuristic America described has become a disgusting, semi-totalitarian slum where nothing works, and in which even air conditioning has been made illegal. The major difference is that, in the course of his investigation, Bear discovers that a breach has been made in the space-time continuum, and his own world is brought into contact with an alternative universe – one, as said, in which the American Revolution proceeded to an effectively anarchist society. Without any slowing of pace, the format of crime thriller becomes a means of discussing the nature of political authority and the benefits of free association between adults. This is not a crime thriller dressed up as a novel of ideas. It is a perfect blending of both genres. It is probably the most influential political novel of the past forty years.
Coming back to the mainstream, so far as one can be said still to exist, crime fiction has evolved, since the 1950s, into a bewildering mass of sub-genres. It has become a standard literary device for exploring issues of duty and guilt and sexuality and the various modes of oppression. There is often nothing in Dostoyevsky that you will not find distilled or made more digestible in a good modern crime thriller.
Now to my final heading, which is a perception of the creative process. Unless you have yourself created, or tried to create, you may be unaware of the chaotic origins of many finished texts. These are seldom born exactly as they are shown to the world. The text before you did not need to be the one you see. It could have gone in many alternative directions. It may be, so far as the author is concerned, a provisional compromise. The plot may have emerged only in the process of writing. Characters may have been merged or created, or parachuted in at the last moment. Like a set of sedimentary layers, any text will have many layers, and these may have been compressed and buckled in ways that formed no part of the author’s intention at the outset.
To give an example of this – and I discuss my own work here only because it is an example of which I have nearly perfect knowledge – I began Curse of Babylon with no idea what it was about. I wrote in hope that a plot would eventually emerge. I reached chapter 26, which is page 169 in the paperback edition, before I realised that I should change the sex of one of the characters, and make her into the love interest. This seemed to work, and I set to work on revising everything I had already written. But the sex change did not really work in itself. Then, one day while queuing in a supermarket, I had my epiphany. I gave my transgendered woman a massive rise in social status. I made her daughter of the Emperor’s cousin, who was slumming it to avoid an arranged marriage to one of my villains. That sent me into a burn of inspiration, and I completed the next two thirds of the novel in six weeks. Along the way, I introduced a maniac King of Persia and a giant battle, neither of these having been remotely among my first intentions, such as I can say what they were. Then I went back to the beginning and, in one day and a night without sleep, added eight new chapters.
The final product is intended to be a smooth and sophisticated narrative that puts readers at the end where they started. That is not how it appears to me when I look at random pages. What I see is sentences that I wrote in a railway station coffee bar running into other sentences that I wrote in Slovakia. I return you to my image of the buckled sedimentary layers. I can see this. Other writers may be able to spot something – the varying average length of sentences, perhaps, or the use and disuse of certain grammatical constructions. I hope ordinary readers cannot.
You can, of course, develop the purely critical faculty to see these things. But you write fiction of your own, and they will come almost instinctively to you. Even if you do not proceed to an actual writing career, your understanding of any piece of fiction will have been permanently deepened.
This observation, I grant, applies to any creative writing course. But, so far as it may be easier to write than other forms, a course in writing crime fiction is a very good introduction to looking behind a copy-edited and published text to what I repeat is the often chaotic process by which it was brought into being.
I say, then, coming to the end of this brief overview, that the critical and creative possibilities of crime fiction within the academy have no visible limit. I think you for the attention you have given me, and will try to answer such questions as you may feel inclined to ask.