I very much enjoyed watching the BBC’s giallo-inspired, and star packed, dramatisation of And Then There were None, released in the UK over the Christmas break. A superior piece of storytelling, the production was praised for re-invigorating the Christie formula, stripping back the fustiness to let the sheer bloodthirstiness of the piece shine through.
The series made me wonder whether “the golden age” of detective fiction as popularised in the 1920’s and 30’s in itself deserved something of a re-appraisal. Although extremely popular, the particular brand of English country house detective story epitomised by And then There Were None, has never enjoyed critical approval.
As Raymond Chandler put it in his classic essay on The Simple Art Of Murder, “the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. While some authors may be better stylists than others, the same cast of characters and plotlines circulates and re-circulates in much the same surroundings, motivated by much the same desires.
Post-war their popularity declined as public tastes turned towards grittier, less class-bound and more psychologically driven detective fiction, as personified by Chandler’s own work. Nevertheless, the influence of the “Golden Age” authors has continued, and continued to ossify, through a series of unadventurous TV adaptations for Sunday afternoon audiences, distinguished by expert acting and cosy direction – David Suchet’s Poirot, Joan Hickson’s Marple, Mark Williams’ Father Brown.
The effect of both critics and supporters, however, has been at least in part to caricaturise and de-contextualise. Take Hercule Poirot, for example, now firmly fixed in the cultural firmament as comedic, eccentric, prone to priggishness. Yet he is also a refugee, introduced to the reader when in exile following the German invasion of Belgium. In the early novels he walks with a pronounced limp – a result, it is implied, of the war.
How much more interesting to see Poirot’s vanity and his possessiveness, his bachelorhood, his desire to control his surroundings, to provide answers to the little murders in the shadow of the great murder of war, as products of his own displacement, exile and isolation.
Poirot is far from the only fictional detective to bear the mark of the first World War. Lord Peter Whimsey, Dorothy L Sayers’ debonair gentleman detective, suffers recurring nervous episodes throughout the otherwise (whimsical ) novels, the consequence of being shelled on the Western Front. Even Sherlock Holmes, the progeny of an early generation, an elderly Victorian in the Georgian age, is able to help to thwart a Germany spy, but not to prevent the world from tearing itself apart.
It is perhaps not surprising that from the unparalleled destruction of World War One, a series of brittle, whimsical characters emerged tasked with re-organising, re-imposing a moral clarity, and papering over the cracks of a society that had lost its old certainties in a hail of bullets and blood in Northern France.
It is true that part of the response of the “golden age” authors was to try and neutralise this destruction, by wrapping murder in blankets of cliché, and sidelining it’s occurrence to the private passions of country houses. In short it makes murder a parlor game, makes it safe.
But this is never a project which can be entirely successful. People are still bludgeoned, shot and hacked over causes great and small, and their deaths investigated by the flawed and the damaged. There is much creativity, enjoyment and insight still to be mined from this supposedly moribund genre. More please, BBC.