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In the sitting room, wearing slippers

14 June 2013

Murder takes place nightly on the television, and between the covers of best-selling books. Simon Parke looks at what lies behind our fascination with detective fiction


MY FIRST agent said to me: "If you can't think of anything else, Simon, write a murder mystery - people can't get enough of those." And he was right. We do have a passion for a bit of blood and gore, to the extent that crime fiction, in the publishing world, outsells almost every other genre.

The truth is there, on the street. Residents of the Whitechapel area, in London, cannot move for the numerous Jack the Ripper tours. And where would our evenings be without those TV detectives on the case? We love a murder - prefer- ably in serial form. But why do we love them? The clues are there.

Without murder, there would be large holes in the TV schedules. The Killing, Lewis, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Columbo, Foyle's War, The Bridge (the filming of the new series has just finished), Scott and Bailey, Jonathan Creek, Wycliffe, Cracker, Frost, Inspector Morse, Endeavour. . . My apologies if I have missed your favourite, but there isn't room on the page for every fictional detective, or for every series built around butchery and annihilation - and that is because we enjoy them so much.

There is a large supply because there is so much demand. We get home after a hard day's work, and like nothing better than a good murder. And, increasingly, led by the Scandinavians, we're up for the grosser and grislier sorts. So, again: why?

We are intrigued by the psychology, of course. We are all amateur psychologists these days, avid people-watchers. To be able to declare, halfway through the story, "It's the postman," and be right, is a huge feather in our cap. Agatha Christie understood this interest, which she expressed through a character in Towards Zero:

When you read the account of a murder - or, say, a fiction story based on murder - you usually begin with the murder itself. That's all wrong. The murder begins a long time beforehand. A murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances, all converging at a given moment, at a given point. People are brought into it from different parts of the globe and for unforeseen reasons. The murder itself is the end of the story. It's Zero Hour.

AS CHRISTIE reminds us, a murder mystery is about more than the murder itself. It is about the before, and, I would suggest, the after; about cause and effect; about the people caught up in its web - their psychological frailties and wretched secrets, exposed in the harsh light of investigation. In a game of cat and mouse with the writer, the reader tests his or her psychological skills, weighing each glance, each clue, as events unfold around the zero hour.

Crime fiction is something of a newcomer on the literary scene. The genre emerged in the 19th century, after Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841, with Auguste Dupin as the brilliant sleuth. In England, the genre was popularised by Charles Dickens's friend Wilkie Collins, with titles such as The Woman in White (1860), and, perhaps his tour de force, The Moonstone (1868).

But while murder as fiction is new, it taps into a long-established interest in gory death. Long before crime writers emerged from the plotting shadows, crucifixions, drownings, beheadings, and hangings could all draw a good crowd, appreciative chatter, and dark fascination.

The 16-year-old Thomas Hardy witnessed the hanging of the unfortunate Martha Brown in 1856. He later based his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles on her story, and was still writing about the event in his 80s. "What a fine figure she showed against the sky," he wrote, 70 years after the event, "as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back."

Dickens also witnessed public hangings, and, although he campaigned strongly against them, spoke of the "fascination of the repulsive, something most of us have experienced".

DEATH has always been entertainment, and strangely uplifting. The American author E. L. Doctorow compares murder to religion for its ability to stir. He wrote:

Murders are exciting, and lift people into a heart-beating awe, as religion is supposed to do; after seeing one in the street, young couples will go back to bed and make love, people will cross themselves and thank God for the gift of their stuporous lives, old folks will talk to each other over cups of hot water with lemon, because murders are enlivened sermons to be analysed and considered and relished; they speak to the timid of the dangers of rebellion, murders are perceived as momentary descents of God and so provide joy and hope and righteous satisfaction to parishioners, who will talk about them for years afterward to anyone who will listen.

Doctorow described the numin-ous quality of murder, echoing observations by the philosopher Edmund Burke. In 1756, Burke reflected on our love of horror in paintings, a horror that he called "the Sublime". He noted the human fascination with depictions of nature at its most terrifying and intimidatory, such as storms and avalanches - scenes that would terrify us in real life.

Things that are "dark, uncertain, and confused", he wrote, inspire horror in us - but it is pleasurable horror, experienced in both fear and attraction, because we know we are safe. We are taken to the brink of being destroyed, and hung over the edge of the abyss - but we are taken there on our sofas, with popcorn to hand and the remote control (and possibly a friend) close by.

This is "the Sublime": it is the place to which murder mystery takes us, where we meet the terrible in our slippers, and find it rather fine. And, in the eye of the storm, like a lighthouse in the raging seas, is the detective, the one who must lead us home to a place of justice and restoration. As P. D. James observes: "What the detective story is about is not murder, but the restoration of order."

RAYMOND Chandler's Philip Marlowe is such a man. He remains a giant among literary detectives, embodying the author's conception of the private investigator as "a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man". Chandler said:

He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour - by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world, and good enough for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess, and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things.

The dishonour of this dark world is set against the honour of the detective - who is almost a Christlike figure, you might say. So it is perhaps not surprising that the murder-mystery genre has attracted so many religious versions. A dedicated website (www.detecs.org) claims that there are 280 clergy - or "near clergy" - detectives in print. Their titles are tantalising: Clerical Errors; The Rosary Murders; Reverend Randolph and the Unholy Bible. To these might be added my own recently published contribution to the genre, A Vicar, Crucified - the first in a new contemporary murder-mystery series that features Abbot Peter.

The most famous of God's gumshoes, however, is probably G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, who has a face "as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling" - but is, of course, much shrewder than he looks. Alongside him is Ellis Peters's Cadfael, a 12th-century monk of Shrewsbury, popularised by the TV series. He is joined by Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma - one of a long list of crime-busting nuns of a mostly medieval vintage, each trying to save the world in their own small way. Traditionally, the appeal of a murder mystery is a stool with three legs: character, plot, research. It is best if we enjoy the company of the detective, or the relationship between the detectives (if there is more than one), and find them surrounded by intriguing and believable characters. It is also good if the plot is plausible, and honestly told, and no absurd rabbits are pulled from the hat by the writer in the last chapter, cheating the readers' powers of detection.

We enjoy being taken into a world, or setting, which is new to us, and about which we learn as the story unfolds. What special know-ledge is on display here? Colin Dexter, for instance, the creator of Inspector Morse, leads us inside the beautiful but secretive walls of an Oxford college; C. J. Sansom, through the investigative lawyer Martin Shardlake, reveals life - and death - in Tudor England, away from the well-documented court intrigues. Patricia Cornwell, through Kay Scarpetta, blinds us with forensic knowledge and tasty Italian recipes.

BUT I would suggest a fourth leg to the crime-fiction stool: contemplation. The best detective stories are contemplations on the human condition, in their social setting. The United States may have adored itself in the 1950s, but Chandler did not share in this self-congratulation. Instead, he described "the darkness, degeneracy, depravity, and sheer nastiness" that accompanied economic growth after the Depression.

The medium is the message, and, in murder mystery, sometimes the setting is the murderer. And so the question: is a murderer always guilty? It is interesting how often Sherlock Holmes makes his own decision about the guilt or otherwise of the suspect. He does not always hand him or her over to the police. Conan Doyle was asking us to consider not only what people do, but why they do it. The black-and-white nature of his stories extends only as far as the ink on the page.

Murder mystery is, therefore, more than a one-trick pony, with only the grand reveal in the drawing room to entertain. There is the journey towards the zero hour, and the consequences of that moment for those who live on. Who will survive the exposing light of the investigation, when all secrets are made known? How will they cope as murder brings the Angel of Judgement to everyone's door? It is nice to experience judgement with a cup of cocoa in one's hand.

On the face of it, of course, there is a disconnect here. Hard-core pornography is sometimes criticised for the effects that it can have on the behaviour of those who view it; yet crime fiction - in which writers display endless ingenuity in devising techniques for killing people, and then describe the cruelty with shocking realism - is considered healthy.

Pornography found in our teenage child's bedroom is not something to celebrate. Yet who would not be pleased to see an adolescent reading a good murder mystery on holiday? We don't immediately think: "I've helped to create a psycho." But, then, crime fiction is a medium that transcends itself, and deals with the biggest two questions that we face: what is life? and what is death? That is why murder mystery is sublime.

A Vicar, Crucified, by Simon Parke, is published by DLT at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20 - Use code CT124 ).

The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco

The Moonstone Wilkie Collins

Smiley's People John le Carré

The Virgin in Ice Ellis Peters

Devices and Desires P. D. James

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale

Five Little Pigs Agatha Christie

The Hound of the Baskervilles Arthur Conan Doyle

Dissolution C. J. Sansom

Farewell, My Lovely Raymond Chandler


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