Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Call Me a Relic, Call Me What You Will*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you’ve probably noticed that I mention the work of Agatha Christie quite a lot. Twice recently I’ve been asked about that and it’s got me thinking about why we read the classic mysteries, and what they still offer. Many of the classic mysteries (Christie’s work included) have come under criticism on several counts (e.g. the “isms” and stereotypes that run through them, the stilted language in some of them). And some of that criticism is justified; after all, no book is perfect. One could find something to object to in just about any novel. But here’s the thing; the older, classic mysteries also have a lot to teach us. There are (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me) a lot of good reasons to be familiar with the classics. Here are just a few that come to my mind:

They Started it All

What I mean by this is that what we now think of as
de rigueur for crime fiction wasn’t always that way. The classic crime fiction writers who created the genre and later enhanced it also created, if you will, the basic structure of the crime fiction novel. For example, in C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe helped to create the detective character. Dupin’s been the inspiration for myriad detectives since then, and reading stories like The Purloined Letter helps us understand those later detectives.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories added another important feature to the detective story: the detective’s methods. In fact, it’s said that Conan Doyle created Holmes in part because he didn’t like the then-current fictional detectives’ habit of solving mysteries by what he saw as pure chance. He wanted a detective who used method and who arrived at conclusions logically.

The mystery plot elements (the crime, the suspects, the investigator, the solution) were also created by the classic crime fiction authors. For instance, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, we see the beginnings of the modern whodunit. There is crime, there’s an Inspector who investigates, there’s a collection of suspects and there’s the set of clues that leads to the solution.

My point here is that in order to understand how the modern crime fiction novel is put together, it helps to understand where those elements came from in the first place.

Their Focus Was On The Story

The classic crime fiction novelists were constrained by the taboos of their day. So you won’t find a lot of gore, explicit sex or rampaging serial killers in those novels. You may like that, anyway, if you’re not much of a one for graphic details. But even if you have a high tolerance for the “Ick” factor, there’s an interesting benefit (at least I see it that way) to reading books without it. The classic authors couldn’t “hide” a weak plot behind a bloodbath. So their focus tended to be on the plot, and that made for some fascinating and well-crafted mystery stories.

For instance, John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dickson) became best known for his “impossible” mysteries. In novels such as The Hollow Man (AKA The Three Coffins), he challenged readers and created fascinating mysteries. Agatha Christie also focused much of her work on plot. She developed all sorts of plot twists and was a genius at leading readers down “the garden path.” Her use of clues and “red herrings” and fascinating dénouements show a really careful attention to matters of plot. And Ellery Queen’s “intellectual puzzle” mysteries have kept readers guessing for over eighty years.

A tight, well-structured plot and intriguing mystery are still important in a good crime fiction novel; crime fiction fans want a plot that keeps them engaged. The classic crime fiction authors with real talent tended to be good at crafting engaging plots in part (at least I think) because they couldn’t rely on gratuitous “extras” to “pad” their stories.

They Created Memorable Characters

Of course, not all of the crime fiction classics feature unforgettable and well-developed characters. But there is a reason for which famous characters like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are still referred to today. They are unique characters with interesting quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, over the course of the novels that feature them, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane evolved and developed over time. They’re still beloved because Sayers focused on her characters (OK, I admit it: I am very fond of Mervyn Bunter, too :-)). And Ngaio Marsh was particularly gifted at creating interesting, unusual characters including one of my personal favourites, sculptor Agatha Troy.

There’s an argument that one reason for these memorable characters is that again, stories couldn’t include a lot of gore or other explicitness. So authors of the day focused their work on character as well as plot.

They Gave Us a Window On Their Worlds

Like any other novels, classic crime fiction novels are a product of their times. As we read them, we can get a real sense of the culture, the technology, the social structures and even the language of the era during which the novels were written. Some writers are even said to have “held up a mirror” to the societies in which they lived. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side) discusses several of the social changes that came to the English village after World War II, including council housing, supermarkets and changes in social customs.

Even when these authors weren’t deliberately using their stories as social critique, they were sharing the world they knew. For today’s readers, that’s a golden opportunity to learn about other places and times.

Classic crime novels are far from perfect. They are at times laden with “isms,” some clunky prose and sometimes they seem quite outdated. But do I love ‘em and read ‘em – and learn from ‘em? You bet I do. What about you? Do you enjoy classic crime fiction or do you find it too dated in language and ideas? If you’re a writer, do you use classic crime novels to guide you?

On Another Note…..

My sincere thanks to Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn for being kind enough to interview me. It was an honour and a pleasure. To view the interview, just click the “Writing” tab on my blog.

Also, thanks so much to Rayna Iyer for a kind book review. That really meant a lot to me, Rayna… That review’s also available by clicking the “Writing” tab on my blog.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from “The Dean of Detroit” Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.


  1. Well said, Margot. The classics are our history, the foundation of what we try to do today. And they're fun to read.

  2. John - Thanks very much. They really are both, I think: our foundation and, well, fun. I enjoy reading them - I do. But I also see it as something we should do.

  3. I read a lot of Christie, Nero Wolfe, Arthur Upfield & Carter Brown in my younger days (whatever the local librarian liked really) but I don't read a lot of classics now. I don't mind the occasional Christie or Conan Doyle re-read but some of the others are VERY dated - I can handle dated language but am less comfortable with dated ideas and behaviour - those isms you mention do get very grating.

  4. Bernadette - You've got a very good point that the "isms" that run through classics can be both dated and grating (I like that choice of word). There are some novels that I have to admit annoy me on that score, too. I'd say if there is any problem with the classics, it's that. That's what I love about the newer (well-written, that is) crime fiction; you still have the solid structure, characters and so on that the classics taught, but not the antiquated ideas.

  5. I read the classics as history, so I don't worry about them being dated any more than I have trouble with Jane Austen or Dickens. It's part of the fun. I love the elegance of plotting in the early British mysteries. My favorites are by Josephine Tey. I guess nobody reads her any more, but her puzzles are fantastic.

    What I can't stand are the contemporary mysteries about sadistic serial killers. Some people call them "torture porn" and I think that's pretty accurate. People are getting off on the violence against women instead of the mystery. Ick.

    I love funny contemporary mysteries, though, like Lisa Lutz's Spellman books. I guess for me what's important is if the author respects us as readers or just manipulates us.

  6. Anne - You've got quite an interesting point, I think. If we read the classics as history, it's easier to get past the "dated" thing, although I admit there are some that I honestly haven't been able to get into because of the ideas in them. But many of them have taught me a lot, and I do think it's interesting to use them as a "mirror" of a culture.

    Thanks for mentioning Josephine Tey; her mysteries really are interesting puzzlers, aren't they? I'll be spotlighting her The Man in the Queue on Monday 14 February/Tuesday 15 February if you're interested in stopping back to check that out.

    And I have to agree with you about some of the graphic, needless, sadistic violence in some of today's mysteries. That kind of gore is not necessary for a good mystery and personally, I don't read books that go down that route.

    I think your final point is so well-taken: it is important that the author respect the reader. That respect comes out in myriad little ways, too. If it's there, readers know it and appreciate it. If it isn't, it's off-putting.

  7. I absolutely adore classic crime novels (I even had my upcoming cover designed to look like one) even the really bad ones are fun to read for different reasons.

    I've recently been on a Mignon G. Eberhart kick. I dig the way her characters speak.


  8. Neal - Now that's an interesting point. There really are different reasons to read different kinds of classic crime fiction. Whether you read them to learn from them, get a look at history through them, take a sociological perspective or just enjoy the story, they are an important part of crime fiction history. I have to admit there are some I cringe at; still, there are good reasons to be familiar with the "oldies."

    I think it's fascinating that you're paying homage to classic crime fiction with your new cover. I wonder how that'll affect readers' reaction to it.

    As far as Mignon Eberhart goes, I have to admit to not being as familiar with her work as I wish I were. But from what I do know, I see your point about her characters' voices.

  9. We just got some more bookshelves, and I've been unpacking books. I have a special place on the shelves and in my heart for the classics--my first reading addictions were Doyle and Christie. (Which probably explains why I'm not much of a suspense lover--if the detective doesn't know it, I don't want to know it either)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. Terry - Oh, I know what you mean about that special place for those books. I've got a whole shelf of my Christie collection. What's interesting is that about a year ago, I replaced some of my old and really - um - loved copies with new editions. I still can't bring myself to get rid of the old ones, though *sigh*. And I hadn't thought about it, but I see what you mean about our early addictions affecting the rest of what we read. I'm going to have to think about how my own have affected what I like best now. Thanks...

  11. I'm always delighted to find other people reading the mysteries I love. Yes, the "isms" can be a turnoff (I just had a conversation with one friend about a couple of gratuitous antisemitic remarks in Margery Allingham's "The Tiger in the Smoke"). I responded as you did - it's a reflection of the time when the stories were written; I'd add that it's rarely a reflection of the author's own deeply-held belief (the way, say, Wagner's antisemitism was unfortunately at the center of his character). I live Christie, Carr, Allingham, Marsh, Queen, Crispin, Innes, Palmer...the list goes on. I have been writing about them at my Classic Mysteries site for nearly 4 years now. Come visit!

    Les Blatt

  12. Les - Thank you so much for reminding us of your terrific site. Folks, do check out Classic Mysteries. You make a very interesting contrast, too, between the author's own beliefs and his or her stories as a reflection of the times. Some people say, for instance, that Wilkie Collins was an entrenched misogynist. Others claim that in his novels, he was holding up a mirror, so to speak, to the sexism of his time and critiquing it. I've seen arguments both ways, actually.

    I think that one benefit of reading the classics, even those that occasionally have offensive "isms" in them, is that it gives us a look at how far we've (hopefully) come. That said, though, I must confess there are some authors whose work I simply can't bring myself to get into, just because of the attitudes displayed in the work...

  13. I am very glad I read every Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Tey, Poe, etc. before I learned other names. To understand history you start with the Pilgrims and these are the pilgrims of crime fiction.

  14. You are absolutely right about modern writers learning from those who came before us. Miss Marple is good inspiration for a modern writer of cosies, and the Roald Dahl stories I have read recently are very inspiring for writers of flash fiction. His are longer, but he has some brilliant twists.

    Off to those other blogs ...

  15. Patti - Oh, you said that so beautifully! Yes! The classic crime fiction writers are, indeed, the pilgrims of crime fiction. Flawed? Absolutely. Essential for our understanding? Yup.

    Dorte - You've got a very good point. Miss Marple can teach modern cosy writers quite a lot. And as for Roald Dahl? Those are some wonderful short stories from which short story/flash fiction writers can most definitely learn quite a lot.

  16. You can learn something from everyone but if it's mystery learn it from the best. If you think you're better than everyone, chances are you aren't better than anyone - and you know it.
    At any moment you are better than some; as good as some; and, worse than more than you realize.

  17. Mary - That's a well-taken point. We can always learn from those who do things better than we do. And some of the great classic crime fiction writers can still teach us a great deal. That kind of humility can be very helpful as we get better at writing.

  18. I've gone a bit more mainstream than the average cozy (not that I have sex scenes or anything) but they are a bit more gruesome than some AC novels. That said, I've always longed to finish my cozy locked-room puzzle mystery. Plot-based but character rich. Great post.

  19. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I think a lot of today's authors like yourself are inspired by the classic authors. I'd love to read your finished locked-room-puzzle story; it sounds really interesting.

  20. Wonderful post. Where would we be without the classics? I don't even want to try and image. The classics are our foundation.

    Thoughts in Progress

  21. Mason - Awww...thanks :-). The classics really are the foundation of modern crime fiction. I think it is important to keep in touch with at least some of them...

  22. After I finished every Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie I could get my hands on, I stopped reading mysteries altogether (unless you count Issac Asimov), till you re-introduced me to them. Call me old fashioned if you wish, but the mysteries I like reading are ones where you have suspect, motive, opportunity. Where there are clues and red-herrings, and where if you are having a combination of luck and brains, you can work out the end a couple of pages before it is revealed.
    Few people do it better than Dame Christie- for some strange reason I am thinking of Nick (Peril at End House?) while I am writing this.
    That's also what I liked so much about your book- that it's soul was that of a classic mystery.

  23. Rayna - Why, thank you! I'm inspired, myself, by the great classics and as you know, I'm a real student of Christie's work, so I'm glad you so that influence in the book. I like that kind of novel, too, where there are suspects, a variety of motives, opportunities, and the challenge is to sort it all out. Of course, I've read plenty of brilliant books that weren't written that way, but I have a definite soft spot for that type of novel.

    And right you are: Peril at End House features Nick Buckley. Good memory! :-).

  24. Surprisingly I have NOT read many of the classics -- that's why I'm doing the Vintage Mystery challenge this year (info at

  25. Karen - Thanks for reminding me of that challenge. Folks, do check out the Vintage Mystery Challenge. It's a terrific way to become familiar with the classics and work out for yourself how you feel about them.

  26. Great post - I could not agree more!

  27. Martin - Thank you so much :-). There is much, I think, to be learned from knowing something about the classics, despite their admitted weaknesses.