The enduring appeal of the genteel murder mystery

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.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    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.

    Usually early on the evidence all starts to point in one direction, towards one suspect. But since it is only page 47, you should realize that person is about to become the next victim.

  2. Holms says

    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.

    Why the hell not?! Anyone that tries to say they can’t be ‘serious literature’ is just being a culture snob. Sod ’em.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Do you include Nero Wolfe in this category, or are those not genteel enough?

  4. Kimpatsu says

    I would take issue with one point: Poirot was rich because he invested in the stock market, and always knew when to buy and when to sell.
    Anyway, if you like the parodies, try this:

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I particularly like the ones like “The Body in the Library” where part of the fog that needs to be penetrated comes because something went wrong with the murderer’s plan.

    Psychologically, I think that there are two main appeals to the “cozy” mysteries. One, there is the sense of the detective returning order to a disordered universe. (The same thing causes me to waste time playing Solitaire on my computer. A symbol of chaos — a shuffled deck — is transformed into order, again and again and again.) Plus so many aspects of our lives and peoples’ motives seem inexplicable, and it’s great to finally get everything about a situation thoroughly explained.
    The other thing, of course, is the embodiment of Justice. It’s the same appeal as religion, actually — we all want to see bad guys get their just deserts. Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism said it best: “The good end happily and the bad, unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

  6. billseymour says

    mnbo @6:

    The way [Agatha Christie] describes the hypocrisy of the English upper class is outstanding.

    brucegee1962 @9:

    I particularly like the ones like “The Body in the Library …”

    Dolly Bantry:  The Americans have something they call muffins, but they’re not muffins at all; they’re just tea cakes with rasins.

    Miss Marple:  The Americans certainly have a great deal to answer for.


    There’s a TV show I like on PBS called Death in Paradise set on a French Caribbean island (Wikipedia article).  There’s always a murder that seems impossible to have been committed by any of the usual suspects until the Detective Inspector at the small town police station figures out the elaborate plot behind it.  There’s even the trope of gathering all the suspects together at the end to explain how it happened.

  7. Mano Singham says

    billseymour @#10,

    I enjoyed Death in Paradise and watched all of the first seven seasons and then they stopped showing it in the US. Or at least I could not find it anywhere.

  8. Ridana says

    I have never read any Poirot stories, but the structure sounds exactly like 90% of the cases in the anime/manga Detective Conan. The conceit there is that Conan Edogawa (cf Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Ranpo) is the pseudonym of a teenage detective trapped in a child’s body because evil shenanigans, so he has to knock out his guardian with sleeping darts and deliver his deductions to the room via a voice-changing bowtie so that it appears that “Sleeping Kogoro” is the genius detective.

    Despite all that, I’ve always thought the most absurd thing about the series is that since Conan hasn’t aged in the nearly 30 years the franchise has run, there must be half a dozen murders a day in the city of Beika, Japan, with Conan always within shouting distance of them, more often than not in the same room when they die.

  9. flex says

    That’s a bit of a slight on Poirot in the OP. As a consulting detective Poirot was usually called into a case by the police, a relative, or something which came to his notice after the murder occurred. There are a few cases where Poirot just happened to be on hand, but most of the cases come to his notice through his work as a consulting detective. As for his wealth, Poirot complains more than once that the majority of his cases are trivial, finding lost dogs for wealthy society women, but that appears to be his bread-and-butter. In the later novels, after he retired, he mentions that his investments have done well.

    There are certainly other detectives which are susceptible to this criticism. Crime seems to follow Father Brown like a loving puppy. Brother Cadfael, a monk in a technically cloistered order, discovers that there are no accidents in medieval Shrewsbury; everyone would live to a ripe old age if it wasn’t for the high rate of murder in the town.

    I think that there are two things which make the genteel murder mystery so pleasurable to read.

    First, there is the factor which brucegee1962 mentions @9, the taking of a multitude of seemingly inconsequential events which could be explained as either coincidences or unimportant variations within a normal life and putting them together to come to a conclusion. Different authors do this differently. It is not uncommon that a detective is shown to have specialized knowledge, e.g.. “Since the melting point of gallium is 85.58 degrees Fahrenheit, the murderer must be X”. This can even be knowledge the detective learn during the story but is still not shared with the reader. In The Adventure of the Norwood Builder Holmes notices that there is unaccounted for space in the top floor of the building, but either he fails to tell Watson or Watson fails to tell the reader. So he sets fire to the building and the criminal pops out of the concealed room. Not sporting Holmes.

    Some authors are more scrupulous about giving the readers every clue, and some will often even give the reader a list of clues at some point. I’ll confess that I don’t usually bother to try to figure it out. I know the author will hand me the answer in a few pages. But I do enjoy how the author takes all the pieces of the puzzle and makes a whole of it. It’s the same reason I still like the original Scooby Doo. It’s one reason why I think Douglas Addams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is such a great novel, it’s so well constructed that there are no loose ends. Everything is explained, including how the sofa gets stuck on the stairs. Of course it takes probably the biggest Deus Ex Machina in the history of detective novels, but that’s part of it’s charm.

    The second reason is that for all their quirks it is enjoyable to encounter the characters again. This can lead to some weirdness though. If the detective solves cases by specialized knowledge, the detective becomes a font of the obscure, “Because I’ve learned a little ancient Phoenician, I know the archeologist didn’t occupy these rooms.”, to the point where the reader of a series starts to wonder when the detective had the time to learn precisely the knowledge to finger the murderer every time.

    This also leads to the problem alluded to by Ridana @12, where the character doesn’t age while the world around them does. Rex Stout ignored the problem. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin stay in their 50’s and 30’s respectively for 40 years. And the world does age around them to the point where a character from 1938 who is described as a young anthropology student in college meets them again in 1964 as a tenured professor with a 20+ year old son. On the other hand, Hercule Poirot does age through the novels. Which leads to other problems, because the first case we know of of Poirot’s is in 1893, and the last case was either in the late 1960’s or early 1970s. In the last book Curtain, he is confined to a wheelchair due to age and implied to be in his 90s.

    Authors have on occasion complained about how the readers keep asking for more novels containing the characters they love. Doyle famously killed off Holmes in order to concentrate on his other writing, and ended up resurrecting Holmes because of reader demand. Agatha Christie made fun of it by introducing a character into the Poirot series, Ariadne Oliver, who is an author of mysteries trapped into writing about her main character because of reader demand even though she hates him. In Sharon McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun an author famous for a fantasy series writes two last chapters of each novel, one ending for his readers and one ending for his editor to remove where he kills off the main character in particularly gruesome ways.

    But a lot of the reason I enjoy mysteries is due to the characters. I think I would enjoy a sequel to The Name of a Rose because I found William of Baskerville so entertaining. And at the time time I would probably enjoy it less because it would be a repeat. Ngaio Marsh wisely places her detective Alleyn in the background, telling the story without making Alleyn into a caricature. So does Josephine Tey and Inspector Grant. Arthur W. Upfield’s Inspector Napolean Bonaparte is enjoyable to read, but not in too strong a dose as the Inspector is the focus and too many at once can be irritating. As can Arthur Gask’s detective Gilbert Larose, who relies on disguise more than reasoning.

    Is a murder mystery literature? Sure. It may not be as convoluted or involved, or even accurate as something like War and Peace. It may not delve into deep psychological studies of human nature like The Brothers Karamazov. If you define literature as fiction which makes the reader learn more about themselves of change their opinions about the world, then very little fiction is literature. But it’s still enjoyable to read.

  10. billseymour says

    Re Death in Paradise, I watched the first time through as well.  Maybe it’s just my local PBS station playing reruns.  They’re currently most of the way through the third iteration.

  11. garnetstar says

    I am convinced that the British school of detective writing is, in fact, literature. Art is what endures. If some literature endures, as this genre most certainly does, it is art.

    I can go on and on about the literary genius of Agatha Christie, and how easy it is to not see it and to think that her writing is just light pleasure, but no space here.

    I want to say to Mano, I am sure you have read Christie’s own favorite of all her books, “Cards On The Table”, but if not, be sure to read it. It gives complete instructions for how to commit an unsolvable murder during a hand of bridge, which I am sure that you will need to know sometime!

  12. Mano Singham says

    garnetstar @#15,

    I have read almost all the Agatha Christie books but do not remember many of them because it was a a long time ago. But I do remember Cards on the Table. The people I play bridge with are nice and so I do not think I will need to use the method described in the book.

  13. bmiller says

    High Art Literature” seems too often to be defined as the trivial emotional life of upper middle class twits written in an obscure and hard to follow fashion. Give me my genre fiction any day!

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