For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle said that he wasn’t happy with detective stories of his day in which the sleuth magically comes to the right conclusion about a case with no deduction – no evidence to really support that conclusion. So he created a sleuth who used deduction from evidence, and the rest is, well, history. Sherlock Holmes does have a certain amount of intuition, but mostly, he uses logical deduction from the evidence he finds to solve cases. In the Holmes stories, we see Conan Doyle’s admiration for science and for logic.
Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels can see her background, views, etc. coming through her work as well. For instance, she worked as a hospital dispenser and from that experience, learned a great deal about medications and poisons. That background comes through in many of her novels in which poison figures into the case. Just a few examples are The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) and The Mirror Crack’d. In each of those cases (and several others), at least one victim dies by poisoning, and we can see as we read Christie’s knowledge of the topic.
Christie also created a fictional detective novelist, Ariadne Oliver, who was said to be Christie’s way of poking fun at herself as well as her way of expressing herself. Oliver’s fictional detective, Sven Hjerson, is a vegetarian Finn who has several idiosyncrasies and in more than one novel, Oliver mentions her personal dislike for her own creation. And yet, as she admits, other people like Sven Hjerson very much, so she keeps writing novels that feature him. In Ariadne Oliver’s love/hate relationship with her sleuth, we get a glimpse of how Christie may have felt about Hercule Poirot, one of her most famous creations. Christie is said to have gotten very fed up with Poirot, who certainly has his own set of oddities and idiosyncrasies. And yet, Poirot has millions of fans, so Christie felt compelled to keep writing stories featuring him.
In the broader sense, Christie arguably used her novels to comment on the many social realities of her world, and the many social changes that came, especially after World War II. In several novels, she describes the social class structure of her society (Sad Cypress and The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) are just two examples). She also discusses such phenomena as the wartime hardships people endured, and the changes in everyday life after World War II (The Mirror Crack’d offers a strong example of this).
Christie’s by no means the only author whose “self” we can glimpse in a novel. Ngaio Marsh’s enduring love for the theater is evident in several of her novels, including Enter a Murderer and Opening Night. Even in novels where the main plot and setting don’t focus on acting, many of Marsh’s characters are involved in some way in arts or the theater.
Dorothy Sayers created mystery novelist Harriet Vane, whose life in some ways mirrors Sayers’ own. Like Sayers, Vane fell in love with a man and was persuaded to live with him without marriage, although at the time that was a scandalous thing to do. Like Sayers, Vane felt betrayed when her lover revealed that he was willing to marry her, and she felt that her public honor had been ruined for no reason. That’s in fact, one reason Vane’s charged with and tried for the murder of her former lover in Strong Poison. Sayers’ Oxford experience comes through in Gaudy Night, when Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, and discovers who’s been responsible for vandalism and other frightening occurrences at the school.
Readers of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series can see this writing team’s social critique in those novels. In their choice of plots, kinds of murder, victims and murderers, Sjöwall and Wahlöö commented on socialism, capitalism, Swedish society and the roles of the people in that society. More modern Swedish writers such as Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have done the same. In novels like these, readers get a sense of the authors’ views on politics, government, the roles of men and women, crime and punishment, immigration and many more themes.
Donna Leon’s love of Venice is clear in her Guido Brunetti series. The novels, by and large, take place there, and in the books we get to “travel” all over the city. Leon is not afraid to explore Venice’s many problems, such as pollution, racism, illegal immigration and corruption. However, it seems clear in the novels that Leon brings up these problems because of her love for the city and her desire for it to be improved. We see that mostly through the way Leon’s sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, reacts to the Venice around him. He doesn’t give up, despite the corruption, “officialdom,” and general seaminess he encounters in his job. He deeply loves his Venice, enjoys speaking Veneziano, and every day, returns to what his wife, Paola, refers to as the Augean Stables to do his part to improve the city.
As we read Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, we can see clearly Edwards’ fondness for that part of England. The novels, which feature DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind, show the rugged beauty of the Lake District and the appeal that it has for its residents. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, Kind returns to the Lake District after a trip to the U.S. on a lecture tour. When Scarlett asks him if he wasn’t tempted to stay there, Kind replies,
“I love the States, but I’d never move there permanently. I can’t scrub the Lakes out of my system. And I don’t want to.”
The Serpent Pool, in which Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old case of the drowning death of Bethany Friend, is a crime fiction story. But in it, we can also get a sense of Edwards’ attachment to small towns and the sense of community they build.
My own current work in progress, the third in my Joel Williams series, takes place mostly in and around Philadelphia. Among other reasons for my choice of setting, I love Philadelphia and consider it my home. It’s a real pleasure to write about it, and I hope readers will be able to sense that.
There are many other authors, too, of course, whose views, backgrounds and priorities we can see as we read their work. Crime fiction readers don’t get hooked on novels and series unless the plots, characters and mysteries are well-written. That, more than anything else, is the key to a memorable story. But it can also add to a novel’s interest if we learn about the author through the writing; that seems almost inevitable, anyway. What do you think? If you’re a crime fiction fan, do you enjoy finding traces of the author in his or her work? If you’re an author, how much of yourself do you express?
*NOTE: The title of this blog is a line from Missing Persons' Words.