Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction

Mary Evans uncovers clues as to why crime fiction appeals to so many but is disregarded by critics of the literary world

January 31, 2013

Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction

Folio Society Gallery, British Library, until 12 May

Murder in the Library is the title of a new exhibition that recently opened at, of course, the British Library. In the main entrance hall, and close to those open shelves that house many of the nation’s literary treasures, is a celebration of a genre that, despite the fact that crime fiction accounts for a third of all the fiction published in England, is too often regarded as just another, essentially trivial, form of fiction.

There are certainly numerous awards for the writers of crime fiction, but the award ceremonies and the works that win them are seldom given the same public attention as, for example, the Man Booker or Orange prizes. Such writers, it would appear, exist somewhere outside the charmed circles of lit crit, and the social and political judgements with which they are so closely entwined.

But for many people, and certainly many women, the person they would most like to be, as they (we) get older, is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the embodiment of what social philosopher Gillian Rose, at the conclusion to Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995), called a persona “equally alert on the damp ground and in the turbulent air”. In this comment, her lasting appeal is eloquently expressed: an apparently limited social experience that is nevertheless rendered universal by the recognition of those human passions that are an ordinary part of everyday existence. Miss Marple realises, and tells us, that we all have something to hide, either a committed sin or at least the possibility of one. It is this blurring of the taken-for-granted, the policed, the conventional boundaries of morality and individual behaviour that makes detective fiction, for many of us, so endlessly fascinating.

The exhibits in the British Library take us on a rapid journey past the usual suspects as well as the less well known: the beginnings of the genre, its growing strength, the “golden years” (dominated by the “queens of crime”, Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers), the American private eyes and then the surprises, such as crime fiction by footballers Pele and Terry Venables. Being able to look at this tradition collectively provides something of the feeling that someone might have if they were to discover the collected letters and unexpurgated diaries of some massively important - and under-researched - historical figure. The exhibition gives us so much to think about in detective fiction, especially since many contemporary authors (and indeed some in the past) are much less concerned with actual detection and the smoking gun than with questions of motive and culpability.

Two areas stand out. The first is that a great deal of detective fiction involves the telling of stories about people at work: an aspect of social life that conventional fiction (with its traditions of characters with unearned, even if sometimes precarious, incomes) is sometimes more than a little coy about. When Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993) dared to suggest that there was something to discuss about the income that supported Jane Austen’s fictional world of Mansfield Park, he was subjected to cries of horror from a section of the reading public that would clearly rather not think about money, let alone work. In this context, and as an aside, the literary denial of the cash nexus surely underpins the enthusiasm of writers and readers for historical fiction: the past is a world whose financial structures many of us know little about. A few references to gold coins can cover a lot of ground.

But detective fiction is often gloriously involved in paid work: vivid and detailed about its politics, its demands and its stresses. When P.D. James called one of her early works An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), she surely had in mind both her actual heroine and the evidence of a long tradition of detective fiction that demonstrated that the work was often dangerous, badly paid and the definitive unsocial-hours job. Miss Marple may have kept more sociable hours, but many of her comrades in detection were out on the mean streets at all hours, in all weathers, and often for few rewards. That last sentence might remind us, if it is some time since we read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett or Ed McBain, that the policing of 20th-century Western capitalism has long been left either to the private sector or to very badly paid police forces. Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy are only the most recent examples of citizens forced to do their own detection.

For detectives in the public sector, with perhaps the famous exception of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (a man who went home to two cooked meals a day), the job is an endless succession of tedious and routine tasks: again a salutary reminder of the realities of paid work for many people. Certainly detectives are able to get out of the office more than many people, but when they do they may well spend their time sitting in parked cars, eating horrible food and experiencing a form of life on the street that runs entirely counter to the mythical images of consumer society.

Detectives, on the whole, do not find cities magical or inviting or romantic or any of the other adjectives that invite us to experience them: they see cities as places of work and indeed as places where the money that makes that world becomes corrupt, hostile and ruthless. Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, just as much as Larsson’s Stockholm, is not built out of Enlightenment virtue, but the spirit of capitalism.

The centrality of money and paid work brings us to that second feature of detective writing that must surely engage many readers: the battle between the officers and the ranks, that endless tension, in any classed society, between the managers and the managed. Here again, we find a long tradition of subversion by the lower ranks, a very public recognition that those who give the orders may correspond all too closely to those donkeys leading lions that we find in the military.

This too is something of a departure, at least for mainstream English fiction, which is endlessly more interested in the agonised subjectivity of the literate middle class than the recognition of its incompetence. Defenders of traditional hierarchies of class are rare - and increasingly so - among the writers of detective fiction. This is also a genre in which people (for example, female people) who have been given less agency in conventional fiction are better rewarded. Just like Detective Inspector Rebus or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, Miss Marple never had much respect for authority figures in the police.

Visitors will no doubt come away from Murder in the Library feeling happy at having met so many old friends. At the same time, there should also be a sense, if not of rage, then at least of concern, that a tradition so great, so rich in concerns and situations shared by all of us, should be often disregarded and, as a consequence, little discussed. This exhibition will hopefully contribute to a wider debate and encourage the discovery, if not of a body, then of a literature that articulates and investigates the evidence of social reality.

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