Transcript of an online talk for the Oxford Communist Corresponding Society
Thursday, 2 April 2020
Well, good evening, comrades—thanks for listening. This is the first in what’s probably going to turn out to be quite an extended series of these meetings that we’re doing in this format, online, rather than in the usual way; so I hope it goes OK. I mean, frankly, it feels a bit strange to be doing it on my own into the machine: I’m more accustomed to gathering you together in the library so I can see the looks on your faces when I reveal which one of you is the culprit. But hopefully this will go all right.
What I’m going to be talking about this evening is the classic whodunnit, which I suppose we can say is a branch of detective fiction, roughly speaking between the two World Wars, represented by writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. Bentley, G. K. Chesterton, and pre-eminently Agatha Christie, who I’ll probably focus on more than others today. It corresponds in British genre fiction—at least it corresponds in time—roughly with the classic socialist realist production novel in Soviet genre fiction, although I don’t think that’s a comparative angle that I’m going to be exploring very much further. (See, what I would normally say now is ‘that may be a point that we can leave for the discussion’; one of the irritating things about doing it in this format is that it’s harder just to float things and leave them for you to fill in whether there’s any substance there.) But I’ll be looking at how the classic whodunnit works, or making some suggestions about that; maybe a little bit about how it fits into wider ideology and society; and the nature of the appeal of it.
A few weeks ago—I suppose only a few weeks ago, but it was when we were able to go out,—I knew I was going to be doing this talk, so I nipped into St Giles Oxfam and picked up a couple of Agatha Christie novels; and the volunteer behind the counter said something like ‘Ooh! That’s just the thing for a rainy afternoon.’ And that of course is very much the way people appreciate these novels or these stories: they are cosy, they’re soothing, they’re comforting. And, in itself, the question of why people enjoy literary depictions of experiences that they probably would not enjoy in real life is a very old question, I mean, it’s a question that goes back to Aristotle; but I don’t think anybody ever particularly found the Oresteia or the Bacchae soothing, and comforting, and cosy, in quite the same way as they do a good whodunnit. So Aristotle’s answers, however relevant they may be to Greek tragedy, I don’t think are likely to help us here.
But, as it happens, I think a lot of the nature of the whodunnit can be derived as a necessary consequence of the form of the plot. And I’d like to start from the scene that I already alluded to, the scene that very often comes at the end (whether in the library or somewhere else), where the detective explains the murder, reveals the culprit. The vernacular name ‘whodunnit’ already suggests that we’re interested above all in identifying who, in fact, ‘done it’; and this is the scene where we are told, where it’s all explained and made clear to us. And I think a lot of the way a well-written whodunnit operates is necessary to build up to that moment of revelation. Because, when the detective announces ‘it was—Higgins!’, I don’t think we’re quite satisfied if we think ‘oh well yes, obviously it was Higgins, I’ve known that for fifty pages’; but, equally, we’re not satisfied if our response is ‘who the hell is Higgins?’ ‘Oh, ah, Higgins is somebody who was mentioned in passing on page forty.’ Or, ‘oh, no, you’ve never actually heard of Higgins, but he’s an armed robber and he was apprehended—,’ blah blah blah. We don’t want that. It needs to be somebody we’re aware of, somebody where we’ve seen the reasons why we could suspect them, but we’ve been led to suspect other people. And I think the technical skill involved in writing whodunnits is in large part that it’s necessary to have a very exact control over what the reader knows, so that trivial details—you don’t want the reader to forget them completely, but you don’t want the reader to draw the conclusion.
So a whodunnit, although it resembles a puzzle—and people I think sometimes imagine that a whodunnit is like a puzzle, like a crossword clue or something like that,—but I don’t think it quite is. Because a lot of the pleasure or the satisfaction of solving a puzzle is actually solving the puzzle: being told the answer is usually much less satisfying than working it out for yourself. With a well-designed crossword clue, or a crossword clue that’s well-designed for you, when you get it you know that’s the answer. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. A badly-designed one, or one that is not right for you, I suppose is one where even when you’ve thought of the right answer you’re still not quite sure that it is right, so you pencil it in the margin to see what happens when we get some other letters. But the pleasure comes from realizing certainly that this must be the answer. And that aligns puzzles of that kind with jokes, where you want to get it yourself, you don’t want to have it explained; and Zen koans, and various other things—there’s a kind of category there, of things where there’s a moment when you get it.
A whodunnit doesn’t provide that. It might provide it fictionally, that there’s a moment where the detective gets it; but the reader I don’t think does, or really wants to. So how do we create, or how does the author create this kind of pseudo-puzzle? Well, one thing you need—and you see this from the scene in the library—is a very fixed cast of suspects. It’s not going to work if it could have been just anybody, out of a population of thousands or millions; and it’s not going to work if there’s only one or only two plausible suspects. You need a reasonably sized cast of possible suspects, and you need them to be as far as possible sealed off from the outside world. You need a kind of pocket world: it might be a country house, it might be a small hotel, or a boat, or an island is good, where you have this little pocket world where we know that all the relevant people are there. It must be one of these eight or ten or twelve possible suspects. And it helps—there are other reasons why the characters tend to be drawn from the same quite narrow social stratum, the English upper middle class, but one reason is that you want people who don’t have to be going out to work every day, because that disrupts the sealed-off, isolated little world. There are ways you could do it without making them upper-middle-class; I mean, you could make it a house in multiple occupancy that was on lockdown during a pandemic. Might be a little bit near the knuckle for some of us; I’m not saying go and write that. But often it’s good if they’re in a hotel in some smart holiday spot on the Riviera, or whatever.
Of course another reason why they’re upper-middle-class is because the author tends to be. Certainly in the case of Agatha Christie this is the world that she knows, and therefore the world that she can stereotype. The characters in a whodunnit tend to be lightly caricatured—they’re stereotypes, rather than fully developed characters. Fadeev, in his notes when he was trying to write his production novel Ferrous Metallurgy, instructed himself, ‘come on, come on, types, not individuals!’ Well, the whodunnit writer (possibly for slightly different reasons) wants to write types, not individuals. And I think the reason for that is that at least one of these people is not what they seem to be. One of them is not really the heiress who fancies herself as a ceramic artist, or the retired army officer with long, boring stories about things that happened in Simla, but is in fact a murderer. So we only want to see them quite superficially, or the author only wants us to see them quite superficially, because if we get them really rounded and really developed then it might be more obvious to us which one of them is acting a part. Which one of them has something to hide. And we don’t want that to be too obvious. So having them as slightly stereotypical, slightly one-dimensional characters allows us to continue to suspect any of them.
And I think that’s why, on the one occasion that I know of where Agatha Christie sets a whodunnit in a historical setting very different from the society that she knows, it falls somewhat flat. There’s one that’s set in ancient Egypt, shortly before the Middle Kingdom; and Agatha Christie, as it happens, was a keen amateur archaeologist and took a genuine interest in Egyptian antiquities. And she does avoid obvious anachronisms: I think, I don’t swear to this, but I think the book actually doesn’t ever even use the word ‘murder’, because that would imply law codes and ethical systems and so on that are not relevant. And there isn’t a detective; she doesn’t bring in Horus-in-the-Horizon Poirot to solve the mystery. And the plot is perfectly satisfactory—there are the right sorts of blind alleys, and we have the cast of suspects, and we suspect this character and then we suspect that character, and then we’re surprised to find out who really did it. It’s all satisfactory in that respect. Where it doesn’t work is that she isn’t able to give us these stereotyped characters, like the Indian Army major, because we don’t have a cast of stereotypes for upper-middle-class ancient Egyptians. So it’s difficult to keep the characters even apart in your head, or to care very much about them. The dialogue becomes flat, or, when it doesn’t, then it all sounds very mid-twentieth-century. ‘Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t know the first thing about any of that.’ So I think it doesn’t work because the stereotypes are not available.
But I think we can push this point a little bit further. All the focus, in a whodunnit, is on the murder and the question of identifying the murderer—which means that all the other problems can be shelved. We don’t need to worry about anything else—come on, there’s been a murder! That’s one reason why it has to be a murder: if it had been a robbery, or something, then it wouldn’t sufficiently outweigh other considerations. But if there’s been a murder, then, of course, other problems need to be put on one side until we’ve unmasked the murderer. So it’s not just a miniature world, but it’s a world where there is one problem. And a world where there’s one problem is much more satisfactory and much more believable than a world in which there are no problems at all. Because of course these people do all have their own problems, and we find out what they are in the course of investigating what might be their possible motives for murder. We discover that Miss Whatever-her-name-is is in love with a man who’s engaged to somebody else; or that Major Thingummyjig has made some bad investments and urgently needs money; or everybody says that Mrs Whatsit drinks. Or whatever else it might be. We discover all these problems—but we don’t have to worry about them, except insofar as they are possible motives for murder: because that’s where all the focus is.
Here I think we’re getting towards some of the cosiness element, or some of the comforting element, because these problems can be named, but then we don’t need to worry about them. We don’t need to bother about them, except, as I say, instrumentally, within the general murder plot. The fact of a murder allows all the other problems to be suspended. There’s only one problem—and we know that it’s going to be solved. Certainly as soon as our favourite detective puts in an appearance we know that it’s going to be solved. So we can enjoy trying to look for clues ourselves; but we know that we don’t need to worry about anything else, and we know that the murder is going to be cleared up.
And, related to that, we also don’t need to worry too much about the emotional aspects of the murder itself. This is where a whodunnit differs very starkly from lots of other kinds of fiction in which murder might happen. Because often, in fiction as I suppose in real life, people treat murder very seriously. But in a whodunnit they don’t entirely. And that again I think derives from the necessary construction leading towards the big reveal in the library. Sure, the emotional load is mentioned: we have the grieving friends and relatives, we have the anger of the suspect who’s been falsely accused, we have the fear of somebody who thinks they might be the next victim, and so on. But we also know that at least one of those people is faking it, because at least one of those people is secretly the real murderer. And what that means is that we can’t be given such a searingly truthful depiction of any of those emotional experiences that we find ourselves forced to believe it. We can’t think from the writing, ‘oh, no, the way the husband’s grief is depicted—he just could not be putting it on’. Because we’re supposed to be thinking ‘yeah, but maybe he’s putting it on, though: maybe he really did his wife in’, or whatever it might be. (I’m trying not to allude too specifically to any particular novels, or at least not to give the plot away; because, while it might be enjoyable to have it revealed to you by Miss Marple, you probably don’t really want it revealed to you by a CCS talk.)
But, because we have to think that any of them could be faking, the emotions are neutralized or denatured. We don’t have to take any of it quite seriously; it’s purely an intellectual arrangement. And that I think also makes it cosy, in a way that Greek tragedy was not cosy and possibly the production novel was never quite cosy. Explicitly we are not to take any of this completely seriously, not to take any of this completely at face value. It’s not just that there’s very little violence—although there is very little violence, strikingly little—in these novels and stories, strikingly little actual depiction of physical violence. We’re not shown the bodies in any detail. But also, there’s not even a great deal of very strong emotion; or, at least, it’s presented to us in a form where we are invited to stand at a remove from it, to consider that it may nonetheless be a pretence. And we only find out at the end, when the detective gives us the solution, who has really been experiencing the grief and the anguish that they purport to have been experiencing; and at that point the problem’s been solved anyway, and the story quite quickly comes to an end.
So I think that’s at least a significant part of what makes these stories cosy and soothing. We’re presented with one problem that neutralizes all the other problems, suspends all the other problems; and it’s in a little self-contained world where the big problems of the wider world don’t have to impinge, because, let’s not worry about that for now—there’s been a murder. Now it might be tempting to over-egg how much conscious or unconscious politics there is in a genre of that kind, and to push further than I think we ought to along the lines of this being a sort of spurious consolation that distracts the curiosity and the problem-solving instincts of the masses away from real problems, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Because I don’t think, really, that the majority of readers of whodunnits would have been out making revolution even if every book ended with the detective saying ‘No! Solve it yourselves! I’m not going to spoonfeed it to you. No saviour from on high delivers; and besides, is not the real killer—imperialism?!’ And then storming out after only staying behind to sell them a copy of the Daily Worker. So I don’t think we want to push too far down that avenue.
If there is a social and political dimension to the mass appeal of these sorts of fictions, then it might have more to do with, generally, the very large appetite for something that is comforting, that’s consoling and that’s ultimately predictable. But—dammit, I can’t even say I’ll leave that for the discussion. I will leave that for you to think about in your individual self-isolation: because another characteristic, as I think I’ve briefly mentioned, of these stories is that once the mystery has been revealed, once we know who the killer is, the book then ends as quickly as it decently can. Because, if it carried on much further, then the problems that we’ve suspended would come flooding back in and it would turn into quite a different kind of story. So it’s very much intrinsic to the structure of the plot, as I’ve sketched it out, that we don’t carry on for very long after revealing the solution. CCS talks too... Well, I don’t know whether I’ve revealed the solution to anything, but I will at least be faithful enough to my source material that I will thank you again for listening, and stop at this point.