Okay. So I hadn’t planned on blog posts being an annual event, but since 2016 I’ve been… distractible. Attention span, (and constant free-floating anxiety) aside, much of my reading has been comfort fiction about which I haven’t often had interesting thoughts. This may be the first of a new run of blogging. Or not, in which case, hey, see you in 2020.
I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels. Old ones, because they have more problem-solving than angst. I like watching characters make lists and exchange theories.
To Love and Be Wise is the last Josephine Tey mystery I hadn’t yet read. I sort of enjoy Josephine Tey and sort of don’t. She’s the crime-novel equivalent of Robert Heinlein: her prose is compulsively readable, but the whole time you’re thinking Christ, what an asshole. Her narrative voice (usually inhabiting the thoughts of Alan Grant, her detective, or whoever else her main character is) sorts every character into “liked” and “disliked” and when it decides to dislike someone it sticks the knife in constantly and mercilessly. Even Grant’s kind, patient girlfriend can’t catch a break:
‘Cooney was one of the best-known press photographers in the States. He was killed while photographing one of those Balkan flare-ups a year or two ago.’
‘You know everything, don’t you.’
It was on the tip of Grant’s tongue to say: ‘Anyone but an actress would have known that,’ but he liked Marta.
Golden Age mysteries pay a lot of attention to class. You’re constantly aware of how every character is placed. Tey, though, is incredibly classist. Her novels take place in a world where you can reliably read a person’s deep and fundamental character from their class markers–their appearance, their voice, their clothes. Good people are classy. They know their place, high or low, and inhabit it gracefully, effortlessly. Bad people are awkward, out of place, resentful; they try too hard. Bad people are inelegant.
Nothing Tey wrote is as snobbish as The Franchise Affair, but chapter four of To Love and Be Wise includes a passage that sums up her novels’ worldview as neatly as anything she wrote. It is absolutely, stereotypically characteristic of Tey that she thinks “bounder” is a serious insult:
Sitting watching the charm at work, Walter thought how ineradicable was the ‘bounder’ in a man’s personality…. What made a man a bounder was a quality of mind. A crassness. A lack of sensitivity. It was something that was quite incurable; a spiritual astigmatism. And Toby Tullis, after all those years, stayed unmistakably a bounder.
Etymologically, a “bounder” is someone whose behavior is out of bounds. In practice, a bounder doesn’t just stray outside the bounds of proper behavior, but of class. Toby Tullis is a playwright who’s risen to the point where he “was dressed by the world’s best tailors and had acquired the social tricks of the world’s best people” but he’s always “off key” because they’re not in his nature, his “essence.” He doesn’t have the breeding. This is the response he gets from the actually classy:
Looking sideways to see how Searle was taking this odd wooing, Walter was delighted to observe a sort of absentmindedness in Searle as he consumed his beer. The degree of absentmindedness was beautifully graded, Walter noticed; any more would have laid him open to the charge of rudeness and so put him in the wrong, any less might not have been obvious enough to sting Tullis. As it was, Toby was baffled into trying far too hard and making a fool of himself.
Which seems a crass and insensitive thing to find delightful. Still, Tey is often actually amusing, sometimes even when she’s cruel. And her prose is elegant in just the way her narrative voice seems to value: perfectly pitched, graceful, effortless, always saying exactly what it means. I love her books, and feel awful when I read them.
My favorite part of To Love and Be Wise is awkward to write about, because the first time you read the book it ought to be a surprise. It’s something this book has in common with There Came Both Mist and Snow, a novel by Michael Innes, and you ought to be surprised by it there, too. Angst about “spoiler culture” on the internet recently led to a backlash with some people suggesting that caring about spoilers is always bad. And, yeah, a lot of media fans define “spoilers” too broadly and police them too avidly. But a feeling of surprise and discovery can be fun. And when reading a book for the first time surprise is often crucial to the effect the book is trying to deliver. It feels great when a book arrives somewhere you hadn’t expected.
What I’m saying is, if you’re planning to read these books, fair warning.
To Love and Be Wise is about an American photographer, Leslie Searle, who vanishes during a visit to a British family who met him once and were instantly charmed, Searle being instantly charming. (Absent yet compellingly charismatic characters are a recurring theme in Tey. There’s also the murdered passenger in The Singing Sands and Richard III in The Daughter of Time.) There Came Both Mist and Snow, part of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series, is about a shooting which may graduate to murder if the victim doesn’t pull out of his coma.
Both books are full of the stuff of the traditional British mystery. There are miniature worlds, subcultures or microcosms, broken by crime–in these books, ultra-traditional country houses (part of an artists’ colony in the Tey, an isolated priory in the Innes). There are large casts with contentious relationships to tease out. There are sensitive police detectives with liberal-arts educations, who restore order. That’s the comforting part of the detective story: detectives have the power to restore order by identifying the culprit who destroyed it.
And there has to be a culprit. You can’t restore order without a crime to disarrange it in the first place, and there’s no crime without guilt. And everyone is somehow guilty, because what’s a mystery without red herrings? The detective dredges up every secret, forces everyone to face whatever repressed ugliness they ignore to get through the day. And it all starts with a death. For whatever reason, detective novels long ago decided murder was the only crime worth writing novels about. (A mistake, I think; you could get perfectly interesting novels out of scams, impossible heists, and complicated embezzlement schemes.) At least two people, criminal and victim, will never step back into their places in society no matter how well you re-order it.
Once broken, you can’t entirely fix the world. Even the coziest mystery is a little sad.
J. R. R. Tolkien, who should have followed up The Lord of the Rings with a series of gently comic Hobbit detective novels (it would have been way more fun than the Silmarillion), once coined the word eucatastrophe. A eucatastrophe is a “good catastrophe.” If a catastrophe is a sudden unexpected disaster, a eucatastrophe is a sudden unexpected deliverance. Take The Lord of the Rings: Frodo fails, our heroes are screwed, but somehow the ring still ends up destroyed.
Tolkein emphasizes that the eucatastrophe is a sudden “turn”–not just a happy ending, an unexpectedly happy ending. In retrospect it all makes sense (Tolkein starts setting up the resolution of The Lord of the Rings in the first book). But until this moment, given the story you’ve been reading, an ending this redemptive hadn’t occurred to you as a possibility.
At the end of To Love and Be Wise, after chapters spent dragging the river, sure a body will turn up any moment, Alan Grant has a revelation: Leslie Searle never existed. He was a male persona created by a woman he’d claimed as his only living relative. She’d used it to investigate some friends of friends, dropped it when they turned out to be not to be the people she’d assumed, and later was too embarrassed to come forward. There was never any crime worse than inadvertently wasting the police’s time.
At the end of There Came Both Mist and Snow Inspector Appleby runs through a succession of plausible theories on who shot the victim and why, finally pressuring everyone into confessing the apparently damning facts that, together, prove no one is damned. The gun went off by itself because a piece of metal contracted in the extreme cold, and, incidentally, the victim is going to pull through. There was never any crime at all.
These are detective novels that end in eucatastrophe. Not just a restoration of order following a crime, but the revelation that there was no crime, or at least the crime wasn’t serious, and wasn’t committed out of malice. No one is culpable. The world was never really broken.
Crime novels almost never end like this. These two are the only ones I have read and can remember that do. There’s an obvious reason for that: if crime novels used this ending too often it would stop feeling pleasantly surprising and start feeling unintentionally funny. It’s more common in short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it a few times–there’s no crime in “The Missing Three Quarter”, for instance. “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, like To Love and Be Wise, is about a situation mistaken for murder because straightening things out would require the “victim” to admit to a more trivial crime. The Sherlock Holmes stories have plenty of leeway to be weird. They were written before the Detective Story was a codified genre, before things that rarely happened–eucatastrophic crime stories, murder-free detective stories–became things that weren’t even supposed to happen.
Imagine a novel with the opposite emotional affect: a detective novel where order is not straightforwardly restored and we’re left with an even bigger mystery than we started with. There are plenty of novels like this outside the strict published-as-mystery category. But every so often I’d like to read an honest-to-god formulaic detective novel that ends with deeper enigmas, just like every so often I like reading detective novels that play tricks with narration, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd-style. (I’m not saying exactly what trick that book plays, but the fact that it plays a trick is well enough known that it’s not a spoiler.)
It’s interesting to go to Goodreads or Amazon and read one-star reviews of Roger Ackroyd, or the other books discussed here. Some readers don’t like Christie’s writing, or Tey’s or Innes’, which is fair enough, but some are annoyed by the endings: “I can’t imagine a less satisfying ending,” is one reader’s verdict on Innes. For some readers, a eucatastrophe or an unreliable narrator is a cop-out; for a few, maybe even genuinely upsetting in its upending of their expectations.
I can’t agree with them, but it’s not because I never have expectations to fulfill. Some formulas push my buttons. The detective-story formula is one. That To Love and Be Wise’s eucatastrophe is a rare ending for a detective novel is exactly what makes it feel like such a relief. But I love the departures from formula as much as the formulas themselves. It’s the fact that detective novels can be twisted, distorted, and warped without breaking them, that any given detective novel might turn out to be one of the odd ones, that keeps them interesting.
I’ve read two translated detective novels predating Christie’s novel that play the exact same narrative trick. I’m not sure Christie would have had a chance to read either book. ↩
“I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that another of her books features a denouement in which it is revealed that it was actually the reader whodunnit,” grumps one Roger Ackroyd reviewer on Goodreads, and all I can think is that sounds awesome. ↩
I also love Jamesian ghost stories and those episodes of Star Trek where they solve problems by talking about them over a conference table. ↩