Long time readers of this blog know of my partiality to the detective story, especially of the British variety made famous by Agatha Christie and a host of other writers. No one would claim that they represent serious literature. They are utterly formulaic and do not aspire to great literary heights. They are the book equivalent of comfort food, where the pleasure comes from the familiarity, where you know what to expect and always get it. We readers know all the faults of the genre and love it anyway.
In a long essay, Breanna Rennix describes the formula.
All Poirot mysteries, for example, are psychologically shallow and logistically implausible. Poirot is a cranky Belgian dandy with an aversion to dirt, and that is the beginning and end of his personality. Like most private detectives, he has a baffling quantity of disposable wealth, and never seems convincingly worried about money, despite the fact that his entire business model depends on people continuing to stage elaborate murders in his vicinity. Luckily, Poirot doesn’t need to exert any effort to attract clients. People sometimes come to him directly for a consultation, but in nine out of ten cases, a murder just occurs when Poirot happens to be around. Poirot has never boarded a boat, train, or aeroplane on which someone has not immediately been assassinated. If Poirot comes to your card-party, someone will be murdered. If Poirot attends your gallery-opening, someone will be murdered. If Poirot passes through your sleepy country village on the weekend, someone will be murdered. It doesn’t matter whether Poirot is just dropping by the corner store, or if he is visiting an archaeological dig in an uncharted corner of the desert: someone is getting murdered. If you invite Poirot into your home, you have just declared open season on yourself and all your loved ones. And yet people keep fucking inviting him places.
Once the murder happens, the police inevitably conclude that the murderer was whatever shifty bastard they saw first. Poirot knows better, because A) he is a genius, and B) this has literally happened to him three thousand times. The real murderer is, of course, someone who appears ordinary, but is, in reality, a neurotic sociopath who’s clever enough to plan a murder with five built-in double-bluffs, but is somehow too goddamn stupid to just wait for Poirot to leave town before they do it. Somehow, Poirot manages to convince all the suspects to hang around the area, preferably in the same house, while he solves the mystery. On average, this close-proximity arrangement will result 1-5 further murders over the course of the investigation, but since this death toll usefully thins the suspect pool, Poirot keeps insisting on it. Finally, Poirot will force everyone who’s still alive to gather in the drawing-room while he walks them through his deductive process, and will usually (playfully) seem to be on the verge of accusing any number of presumably terrified innocents before he finally makes his Big Reveal. Why does the real murderer ever attend this kangaroo court, at which the police are always present, waiting to make their arrest? Why do all the other suspects agree to be there, given the possibility that they’ll be falsely accused, and the near-certainty that they will suddenly find themselves in the same room as a cornered killer with nothing left to lose? Oh well—why not? Why does anyone do anything? Death is inescapable. At the end, Poirot solves the case, to great acclaim, and then goes home and sticks his head into a herbal tisane, which, for Poirot, serves approximately the same function as morphine and cocaine do for Sherlock Holmes.
American writer Raymond Chandler in an even longer 1950 essay analyzes the genre as well but is more critical.
In Trent’s Last Case (often called “the perfect detective story”) you have to accept the premise that a giant of international finance, whose lightest frown makes Wall Street quiver like a chihuahua, will plot his own death so as to hang his secretary, and that the secretary when pinched will maintain an aristocratic silence; the old Etonian in him maybe. I have known relatively few international financiers, but I rather think the author of this novel has (if possible) known fewer. There is one by Freeman Wills Crofts (the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy) wherein a murderer by the aid of makeup, split second timing, and some very sweet evasive action, impersonates the man he has just killed and thereby gets him alive and distant from the place of the crime. There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business. And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenius Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his “little gray cells,” M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.
There are much better plots by these same writers and by others of their school. There may be one somewhere that would really stand up under close scrutiny. It would be fun to read it, even if I did have to go back to page 47 and refresh my memory about exactly what time the second gardener potted the prize-winning tea-rose begonia. There is nothing new about these stories and nothing old. The ones I mentioned are all English only because the authorities (such as they are) seem to feel the English writers had an edge in this dreary routine, and that the Americans, (even the creator of Philo Vance–probably the most asinine character in detective fiction) only made the Junior Varsity.
There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art. The poor writer is dishonest without knowing it, and the fairly good one can be dishonest because he doesn’t know what to be honest about. He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off. But if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived. And since they cannot do that, they pretend that what they do is what should be done. Which is begging the question–and the best of them know it.
Because of their formulaic nature, these stories are endlessly parodied, such as in this sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look.
Neil Simon’s 1976 comedy Murder by Death also parodied the form, with thinly disguised characters of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and Nick and Nora Charles.