Reality in Mystery Fiction

In the most elemental sense, there is no reality in mystery fiction. Even the grittiest, most graphic mysteries are not re-creations of true crime. They are dramatic works of fiction. The heroic sleuths, murder victims, killers, and supporting characters are all fictional creations. And unlike what happens in real life crime, by the end of a mystery novel, justice must be served: the killer must be caught. As P.D. James so eloquently put is in her Febuary 26, 1998 Salon interview, “The Art of Murder,” with Jennifer Reese:

 It’s been one characteristic of the modern mystery—think of the cozy mysteries between the wars, think of Agatha Christie—that justice is always done. The murder might take place in this little village but the place never really loses its essential peace and innocence. The vicar may find the body on the study floor, but it doesn’t really interfere with his Sunday sermon and then in the choir room Miss Marple discovers the culprit. Murder isn’t like that. In real life, it’s perfectly possible over and over again for the police to know perfectly well who did it but not to be able to bring anyone to court because they haven’t got the evidence.

Mystery novels, however, do vary in how closely they reflect the reality of the place and time in which they are set as well as the forensic techniques available to the detective and the customs and mores of the social classes represented. Witness the wealth of mystery sub-genres, ranging from the graphic sexual violence of the detective thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to the total fun fantasy of the cosy mystery, A Clue for the Puzzle Lady. Readers have different tastes, something often overlooked by critics. Colin Watson in Sobbery With Violence, Methuen London, Ltd., 1971, p. 102, for example, lambastes cozies for their lack of graphic depiction:

Even violence itself, the books’ reason for being, is somehow conformist, limited, unreal. A bullet-hole almost invariably is ‘neat’ (as a putt in golf, perhaps?) while scarcely a knife is on record that has not been embedded tidily between shoulder-blades. Blood is generally a ‘spreading stain’ or a ‘pool’, but both fastidious expressions that convey nothing of the terrible glistening mess that is made by human butchery.

And Raymond Chandler, the epitome of hard-boiled noir authors, excoriates Dorothy Sayers, one of the premere traditional Golden Age mystery writers, for the same reason, in his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”:

     I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first-grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them–her minor nor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility. The only kind of writer who could be happy with these properties was the one who did not know what reality was. Dorothy Sayers’ own stories show that she was annoyed by this triteness; the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories, the strongest the part which could be removed without touching the “problem of logic and deduction.” Yet she could not or would not give her characters their heads and let them make their own mystery. It took a much simpler and more direct mind than hers to do that.

But the traditional/cozy mysteries of Dorothy Sayers are escape fiction. And the standards for judging what makes a mystery a good read in a mystery sub-genre varies—and should vary. Excellence in a hard-boiled noir is not not the same thing as excellence in a supernatural mystery, or in a caper, or in a cozy—nor should it be. This hardly makes the other sub-genres inferior literature.

But what do you think?

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Though Kathy Reichs’ stories are an escape – her facts are a bit too bloody for me. Her reality in her real job has translated there and though I find her fascinating as a story teller, I just cannot deal with the gore of the bodies, etc. Her reality uses fictional stories with the gross truth of the bodies. ICK!

    • Christi,
      Thanks for illustrating my thesis that people’s tastes vary widely. And for making the point that one person’s escape fiction is definitely not another’s.


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