I can’t believe it has been a week since I last put a review up on the blog. I hope everyone has not been struggling with any withdrawal symptoms!
In a nutshell Howdunit, ‘in celebration of the Detection Club’s 90th birthday,’ sees ‘ninety of its esteemed members share their experiences and advice about the art and craft of successful crime writing.’ It’s a collection which you can read from cover to cover, or dip into using the chocolate box approach; starting with your favourites, (in terms of theme or author), before exploring other entries you’re curious about. Not every topic will appeal, but it is surprising to see how many times I became more interested in a theme due to the engaging writing style of the author. You will all be very relieved to know that I am not going to be doing an entry by entry review of this collection. Instead I have decided to focus on some core themes which crop up across a range of entries. I did not agree with all of the viewpoints raised on them, but this discussion of more abstract ideas definitely contributed to this work being a stimulating read.
Martin Edwards, who had the mammoth task of editing the book, also penned its’ introduction, along with thematic links between entries. As well as writing a little on the origins and evolution of the Detection Club itself, Martin, in his introduction, also interestingly comments upon the much-misunderstood rules of Ronald Knox. If I understand Martin correctly, he suggests you can go too far one way or the other with rules and I appreciated his summing up of Knox’s Decalogue:
I mention this section, not just because of my preference for classic crime fiction, but because it is the start of an interesting theme which is strongly prevalent in the first third of the collection. Namely: How modern-day mystery writers regard their literary predecessors and the genre they radically helped to mould.
‘Above all, he was arguing for common sense in the writing of mysteries, urging practitioners to shun the absurd plot contrivances and racial stereotypes that abounded in early twentieth- century crime writing.’
Although contributors were writing about different aspects of crime writing, their pieces still became a thermometer of sorts, registering the way crime fiction writers nowadays perceive the genre they work in, their place within it and how it has reached the point it has. Their opinions on this matter very much feed into the way they conceptualise their own work. One of the earliest pieces which demonstrates this is Ian Rankin’s ‘Why is Crime Fiction Good for You?’ Grittier crime writing is not my cup of tea, so I have not read his work, but I found his piece overall to be informative and engaging. The only sticking points arose when Rankin moved into generalising pre-WW2 crime fiction. His description of such works is not completely wrong, but it presents a very narrow viewpoint and mystery novels of that period do not wholly fit the picture that he paints. He mentions the pre-WW2 tendency for ‘neat conclusions,’ (implying too neat), yet I find it is an action his own piece is guilty of.
Reflecting on why this type of generalising irks me so much, I think it is because I have noticed how it is usually a steppingstone to the conclusion that modern crime fiction is therefore better somehow. Though invariably the changes (read here improvements) given, then cited often baffle me, as unsurprisingly, all of these changes first appeared many decades previously. One example from Rankin’s entry: ‘In contemporary crime fiction the villains may escape justice altogether, or the reader may be invited to take sides with the criminal against the powers of law and order.’ I’ll let readers spend 0.2 seconds thinking of an example of this which Christie wrote…
However, in the justice of being balanced, later on in the collection it is said that Rankin is has suggested that the ‘so-called “cosy” detective novel was essentially a satirical form, due to, in his own words, it ‘deconstructing the most quintessential English values […] Though at the end of the book the status quo may be intact, it’s been given a bloody good shake-up between times.’ This is an idea which I think fits the complexities of earlier crime fiction much better.
The “rules” of older mystery fiction also crop up in pieces such as ‘Intensity in Crime Writing’ by Natasha Cooper. Below is a sample, with intermittent comments from myself:
Now I have no disagreement with the need to keep your reader entertained. It is vital. Yet you actually need some rules to write a satisfying mystery novel – as surely no rules at all would lead to one heck of a frustrating read.
‘The one thing – and the only thing – that a crime novel must not do is bore the reader. The old rules about what you may and may not include have gone. You can identify the villain in the first chapter if you want; [Inverted mysteries have been doing this from the early 1900s]; you can have lots of blood or no blood; [Don’t believe there was a rule about this, and also *cough* Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,] you can have any number of identical twins or secret passages; you don’t even have to have a killer. But you must keep your reader interested.’
Another core topic which came under discussion a lot was the debate between plotting and characterisation, in particular which is the most important when it comes to writing a mystery novel. This seemed like a very timely topic, as unusually for me I read more modern crime fiction last month, than I normally do, so I was seeing the results of this debate being played out in the books themselves.
[N. B. Minor Digression: My forays into modern crime fiction did nearly push me to the point of doing a parody of Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero along the lines of “Where have all the good plots gone/And where are all the clues?” Thankfully I pulled myself back from the brink of that precipice. No one needs to hear that…]
Opinions on this subject naturally vary and within this book you can find ones at either end of the spectrum, as well as many in between. James Runcie for instance suggests that Dorothy L Sayers understood ‘that what matters is not so much plot. But character,’ and Mark Billingham believes that how you craft your characters is key to creating a successful suspense novel. Whilst Robert Goddard, also writing about suspense, stresses the importance of plotting and the plot. I found Peter Robinson’s entry entitled ‘Narrative Hooks’ a particularly interesting read, as one of his key points is that a story needs to have more than one cool initial concept. He writes that:
Moreover, when looking at his work and considering how some “tricks” work only once, he references Raymond Chandler’s advice: ‘When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’ Other entries in this collection also cite it, but I think Robinson is the only one to critique it.
‘There are numerous little questions raised in every chapter of every story, and each one of them is capable of becoming a narrative hook…’
Howdunit, also includes pieces from members who were writing during the Detection Club’s infancy, a time in which the relative merits of plotting and characters were also an intensely debated. It is interesting to see the high standards such members felt the genre could and should achieve. Christianna Brand for instance wrote that:
However, one comment which particularly stood out to me was made by Margery Allingham:
‘A detective story needs at least one central pin, a new or odd motive or method, or some psychological quirk: not just a jumble of clues for the detective to unravel, eliminating suspects as he goes.’
She goes onto add that there is a need for ‘intelligent use of dialogue in which both needs are catered for simultaneously.’ I liked this idea, as it shows how both strong plotting and characterisation is required to write a successful mystery, and how when you combine both together, they compliment and feed into each other. But this is no mean feat. After all Edmund Crispin, who also features in this collection, did not write for nothing that, ‘the fully evolved detective story is technically by far the trickiest form of fiction humanity has so far devised.’
‘It is a fact that most readers of mystery stories read for the plot but are held by, and afterward remember a tale for, the characters in it.’
Not every author explicitly joins into this debate, though it can still be inferred from some of the ideas they express, such as in the pieces written by Peter Robinson and Val McDermid. This latter piece was quite intriguing as it starts by commenting on the increase in submissions to the New Blood Panel at the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival, which are from the domestic suspense/grip-lit genre. It is perhaps telling that McDermid, who is involved in the panel, writes that, ‘If the books were original, well-written or thought-provoking, nobody would be happier than me.’
Whilst many of the pieces by earlier Detection Club members were familiar to me, there were also some which were new. I particularly enjoyed reading extracts from Sayers’ correspondence with Robert Eustace, on their collaborative novel, Documents in the Case. Reading them has certainly encouraged me to re-read that title. It is in pieces such as this one that the reader can also see something of the individual who is writing it, and I think the entries which do this the best were some of my favourites.
The mark of a good non-fiction collection is that it opens up a debate in which the reader is stimulated by and invited to join in. Howdunit definitely achieves this, and I also enjoyed how it brought new ideas to my attention. This was especially the case in Ann Cleeves’ entry on the human geography of crime fiction, which considers how a setting can ‘explain the motive of the killer and the backstory of the detective, the relationship between suspects and witnesses.’ So like every good chocolate box this book has something for everyone who is interested in crime fiction – modern or old. The topics range from how-to pieces on cluing and dialogue, to more abstract discussion on the genre, as well as entries on the reality and the challenges of being an author for a living and getting published. Martin does an excellent job of writing meaningful and thoughtful links between pieces which helps them to flow on from each other seamlessly. The style of this collection is very accessible, so readers do not need to fear it being overly technical and whilst it is a work designed to inform, entertaining the reader is also very much a top priority. After all I now know how to blackmail Kate Ellis now…*
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
*For legal reasons I should probably state I have zero intention of doing so!