Why Golden Age crime writers banned ‘The Chinaman’ and other notes.

I spent the past weekend at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference, and as always, came away with a broad range of interesting notes and thought-provoking questions. This year, the papers explored the question of genre: asking just what is crime fiction? So here are just a few things that came up, necessarily in brief.

The conference opens on Friday evening with drinks, a dinner and a guest speaker. This year that was Ted Childs, the TV producer who brought ‘Morse’ to the small screen. It was fascinating to hear how that all came about, back in the day when ITV was still very much a collection of regional broadcasters. As well as an affectionate and nostalgic reminder of John Thaw’s talents, among others, his talk was also a reminder of just how ground-breaking the production was back then; two hour episodes on film rather than video, recruiting writers and directors from stage and movie backgrounds. Without Morse, it’s fair to say the TV landscape of today would look very different, and not just for detective dramas.

On Saturday morning, Elly Griffiths looked at the changes in domestic life, particularly domestic interiors from the Regency to the Victorian era when crime fiction first emerged. As her slides showed, the Victorians surrounded themselves with stuff in a way their forebears never had. In this age of uncertainty, as science challenged religious certainty, as new philosophies challenged political certainties, the home became a sanctuary, filled with all this stuff holding emotional resonance and value of its own. Thus invasion of this home, in an age that could feel so threatening, becomes all the more shocking and transgressive? The home itself could become claustrophobic and tyrannical, provoking extreme acts and emotions. There’s a lot to think about there.

Jane Finnis proposed various lines to be drawn between fairy tales and crime fiction and not just the restorative justice aspects, though that is certainly important. Consider how many fairy tales involve looking for clues and solving a puzzle. Once you start looking, you can find a lot of fairy tale themes that crime fiction has retold, reinterpreted and developed for the modern, mass-reading audience. Issues of trust, deception and self-reliance. Then there’s the formula of ‘a long time ago, in a land far far away’ which removes the threat, the abominable acts, the violent retribution, to a safe distance while still allowing the reader to see the value of using one’s wits and challenging evil. Consider how many people who read mystery fiction really do not like true crime writing and how many writers feel uneasy about drawing too closely on real atrocities and tragedies. ‘Far too close to home’ is a telling phrase.

This was of particular interest to me given I’m increasingly convinced that folklore and fairy tales are an undervalued precursor to epic fantasy fiction in its current form. Especially when you look back to the original tales as collected by Grimm, Perrault etc, rather than their subsequent sanitised forms. Where, incidentally, female characters can have a lot more agency than later versions allow them, as was remarked on at the weekend.

Conference Guest of Honour Lee Child went even further back. He proposed the thriller as the original fiction that everything else has stemmed from, thanks to its original evolutionary purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll be pleased to know that this was livestreamed at the time and you can watch the recording here.

And all that was just Saturday morning! After lunch, Martin Edwards looked at the resurgent interest in and fashionability of Golden Age crime fiction – principally those books published between the World Wars. He’s involved in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics now being republished, editing their anthologies and consulting on the series as a whole. A closer look at those writers, their themes and their villains does give the lie to the ‘snobbery with violence’, ‘Downton Malice’ interpretation based on partial knowledge of Christie, Sayers, Allingham et al. He drew on a good few parallels with concerns then and those of our own times, most notably distrust and disillusion with politicians and rapacious money men as villains and unsympathetic victims. Carol Westron explored the various ‘Rules’ for detective fiction that contemporary writers produced back then and once again, closer examination shows that the genre writing of that era was considerably more complex than a glance at these supposed guidelines might suggest. Most of the successful writers broke them wholesale.

Something both speakers touched on was the ‘No Chinamen!’ dictum of the time, which can and has been held up as a symptom of that era’s endemic racism polluting crime fiction. Except… looking at contemporary discussions of that point, a great many more interesting angles arise. ‘The Yellow Peril’ was the bogeyman of the age, to such an extent that at one point, no fewer than five West End plays in production were blatantly sinophobic, not to mention the on-going hostility and shock-horror stories about ‘orientals’ in the popular press. Genre commentary at the time warned crime writers off pandering to such ill-judged and unsubstantiated prejudice – and of the dangers of bad writing in doing so – by so lazily seizing on the villain of the moment. The parallels with contemporary islamophobia are striking. Of course, views on race and ethnicity nearly a century ago remain a world away from our own but this is a salutary reminder that the past is a good deal more nuanced than we might be tempted to think.

Further papers looked at the development of various sub-genres within crime and mystery fiction, from past to present. Andrew Taylor looked at historical fiction, while Shona MacLean considered the challenges of writing such books from the professional historian’s viewpoint. Kate Charles reviewed the origins and growth of clerical detectives as a niche while Chris Ewan looked at humorous crime fiction. Sarah Weinman reviewed the originators of domestic suspense – because these books were being written decades before the current slew of ‘Girl in/on/who’ best-seller titles as the ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ collections make very clear. Lastly but by no means least, Marcia Talley looked at murder least foul – the ‘cosy’.

I can’t attempt to summarise these papers as they were all wide-ranging and came with copious examples of writers laying the ground work for such varied writing as far back as the 20s and 30s. Many of them were women asking questions of women, which has now somehow been airbrushed out of popular memory. Looking at the ways in which each sub-genre is still reflecting and testing the core tenets of crime fiction, its central themes and archetypes was and will continue to be fascinating for me.

The frequently under-estimated skills required were mentioned more than once. The challenge of making historical characters both of their time and accessible to modern readers is significant. Using humour not to make light of the awful reality of murder but for example, to hold up the corrupt to ridicule alongside grim events, is no easy trick. Similarly there’s considerable craft in achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief to make an amateur sleuth work in this day and age without tipping over into the ridiculous. And given the protagonists and primary market for cosy mysteries are mostly women, it’s hard not to conclude there’s quite some misogyny in the disdain those books so often attract.

Regular readers here will be seeing the echoes and correspondences with ongoing debates within SF&Fantasy that I did. I found many of the same concerns we have about our own genre with regard to retail and publishing trends. This is primarily a conference about the fiction but you won’t be surprised to learn I had a few shop-talk conversations with other authors. Publisher mergers and restructuring have caused similar carnage of late, especially among the mid-list. Editorial decisions seem to be driven by marketing and retail assumptions based on highly debatable reasoning about what will or will not sell, with scant consultation of actual readers. Frustrating levels of risk-averseness were mentioned, all infuriatingly familiar.

But I shall try not to dwell on that. Instead, I shall start working my way through the list of authors and titles now added to my To Be Read List. Thanks to the magic of ebooks I can do a bit of that this week and next as I am currently in Holland, thanks to the demands of my Husband’s work colliding with our holiday plans and seeing us both head out here a week earlier than our planned trip to the Ardennes. So bear in mind I’m only going to be online intermittently – I’ll be very interested in your observations in comments here but won’t be replying or answering questions in a particularly timely fashion.

Do raise a hand in comments or somewhere online if you’re interested in details of next year’s conference. Then I can pass on the information as soon as I get it.

6 comments

  1. Heh. I miss those people. Moving from crime to SFF was almost like an earlier migration, a whole shift of population and environment(s). I do keep thinking I ought to go back: just for one book, or one series, or…

  2. Hi Juliet. Sounds like a fascinating conference and sounds like something I’d enjoy! Can you let me know the details for next year when you have them?

    It does sound as if the genre is not quite as torn apart by politics as sf/fantasy, but that might be an illusion, I guess…

    I was never a huge fan of the Inspector Morse productions, but you can see their influence today. We’ve just been watching the first couple of series of Shetland adaptations and they are very well done. Douglas Henshall might not look right for the part (honestly, I think they’d struggle to cast it correctly – not many Spanish/Scottish actors around!), but his performance is excellent.

    1. Will assuredly let you know about next year ☺

      Crime folk do have their less than stellar moments but they are far fewer and further between in my observation. It is so nice to get away from the current SFFH culture wars to a weekend that’s genuinely all about the books.

      Telly Morse and Book Morse are such very different things aren’t they? I liked both well enough but in very different ways. And yes, Shetland is great viewing.

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