JESSICA MANN the Language of Crime Fiction

Written by Jessica Mann




The following talk was given as part of a seminar called "All Points to the Arts’ held to mark the retirement of Sir John Tusa from The Barbican. The speakers, from very distinct disciplines - political theory; history; particle physics; crime writing; diplomacy; and ethics – were: Baroness Julia Neuberger; Professor Linda Colley; Sir Rodric Braithwaite; Professor Anthony King;   Professor Elliot Leader and Jessica Mann, whose contribution is published here for the first time.

Marlene ....... was sprawled on the floor by the  window.  She lay quite motionless. The wind blowing gently through the open window rustled  a pile of comics spread out on the table.... very gently Poirot pushed this to one  side and bent over the girl on the floor.  A suppressed exclamation came from his lips.  He looked up at Mrs Oliver.

    ‘So,' he said ' that which you expected has happened."

    ‘You don't mean...' Mrs Oliver's eyes widened in horror.  She grasped for one of the basket chairs and sat down. ‘You can't mean... she isn't dead?’

   Poirot nodded. ‘Oh yes,’ he said.  ‘She is dead. Though not very long dead.’

   He lifted a corner of the gay scarf bound round the girl's head so that Mrs Oliver could see the ends of the clothes line.

   'Just like my murder,' said Mrs Oliver unsteadily. 'But who?  And why?’

   'That is the question.’ said Poirot

This bloodless scene comes from Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie, a best-selling crime novel published in the year that John Tusa, and Ann Tusa and I went to Cambridge. And here is one published half a century later. This is from Wire in the Blood  by Val  McDermid, a best-selling author of today.

 The deformed freakish head that faced him bore little resemblance to anything human. He could see dark holes where her startling eyes had last looked out at him. Gouged out, he guessed, judging by what looked like threads and strings trailing from the wounds. Blood had flowed and dried round the black orifices, making the hideous mask of her face even more grotesque. Her mouth looked like a mass of plastic in a dozen hues of purple and pink. There were no ears. Her hair stuck out in spikes above and behind where the ears should have been, held in place by the dried blood that had sprayed and flowed over them.

I do not suppose that everybody here today reads crime fiction, and those examples showing how the yuck factor has been ratcheted up might make you wonder why anyone does.  I’ve quoted them to illustrate the point I want to talk about today, which  concerns what writers can say and cannot  say, and how the rules have changed. But then so has every other aspect of crime writing - including the fact that it’s on the agenda today.  It's not a subject usually featured at arts seminars, perhaps because it doesn’t need any subsidy given that 500 crime novels are published every year in the United Kingdom. The bombardment of books came as a surprise when I took on a monthly review column. At first I thought it was due to the growth in self publishing. But (as I learn from my colleague Mike Ripley) mystery novels appeared in this country – and I’m specifically discussing British,  fiction today - at the same rate during most of the 20th century.  In 1934 Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed 160 books - an amazing feat if you think that in the same year she wrote Gaudy Night and published The Nine Tailors.  

Dorothy L Sayers

Just as many were being published when I was a student and spent guilty hours  with one of Newnham's  hissing and popping gas fires scorching my back, reading greenback penguins when I should have been dug into books by archaeologists and Anglo-Saxon scholars.  In the 1950s, scholarly was not a word to share a sentence with mystery stories.  But within two decades my recreation had become my profession and libraries had shelves full of serious non-fiction  about my  kind of fiction.  And nowadays you can study crime fiction at universities and I dare say I’d be poring over excavation reports if I’d been told to read Dead Man's Folly

If you aren’t a crime fiction reader I’m not going to change your mind today. And if you think my youth was mis-spent I won’t argue.  I admit that the traditional mystery novel is second grade literature because it’s not about the things that could make first grade literature – and those are Raymond Chandler’s words. It is artificial, with its neat endings and   structure as rigid as a sonnet or madrigal.  It does deal in untruth and facades. It is trying to make the reader think more than feel.

Above all it describes the world as a place that makes sense.   We shall see that over the years this has changed but in  the kind of crime fiction that I prefer to read and try to write, motives  are rational not psychopathic, and horror is implied,  not  anatomised. Even  Michael  Innes, who wrote the most mannered  and frankly un-scary  of all donnish detection, said  ‘I want to give you fear’ -   and so say all of us. It’s just that writers who don’t spell it all out believe that the dark is more frightening than what it conceals – though these days we turn on more lights than our predecessors.

Margery Allingham started her career in ‘The Golden Age’ of crime fiction, between the wars. She described submitting a story in which a thug used his feet,   and being told off by the editor of the Strand magazine.  "The editor gave me the dressing down of my life.  Fighting with feet is the beginning of sadism, he roared. Tear that thing up, I don't want any part of it.  Now go home and write something clean!"

Clean and murder - a contradiction in terms perhaps, but a recipe for books that went on being read for decades, books that were silent about bodily functions, deviant sex and explicit brutality and whose authors didn't put themselves into their writing.  Thomas Hardy said the business of the poet is to touch our hearts by showing his own; the business of the golden age crime writer was to touch our minds while concealing her heart.  I say her, because the work that survived from that period, which actually stayed in print continuously for decades, was by the women writers, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham; women who were not always as innocent as their ladylike public faces suggested.  Biographers have uncovered secrets that seemed inadmissibly mortifying then – unfaithful spouses, illegitimate children – but they lived and wrote in a climate of discretion, keeping their stories clean, uncathartic brain-teasers.

Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?  demanded the American critic Edmund Wilson. If care means cry over, nobody;  but readers certainly  cared whodunit to the body on the library floor with a neat round hole in the middle of its forehead and not very much blood. The polite, unreal reticence characteristic of classical mysteries reflected the society they sprang from, as much contemporary crime fiction still does. It’s one of the reasons that many people –including  our host  today – if they read crime novels at all,  chose such writers as Mankell and Camilleri .   One learns a lot about ordinary life from crime fiction.  I think that must have been one of the reasons I read it,

My parents were immigrants, Jewish refugees from
Germany. When my mother  arrived  and was  asked  if she knew anybody here, she replied, “only the Forsytes.” Crime novels must have been my Forsyte equivalent.  I wanted to be   200% British and  they showed me what Britain  was like – at least in that segment of this country, very far away from Newnham or Trinity -  inhabited by Colonel Mustard and the rest of the Cluedo cast.
To generalise wildly:  before   liberation  in the 1960s, conventional middle-class life was repressed and restrained.   “It’s not done” and “Best left unsaid” were common phrases describing accepted behaviour.  The list of things that weren’t discussed   in ‘polite society’ included almost everything intimate, personal or physical -    politics,  religion,  sex.  No wonder people talked about the weather.

It was a matter of manners, not rules.   Freedom of expression was part of the British self-image. Actually it was an illusion because there were so many exceptions.     One couldn't spill official secrets, utter libel or slander, breach copyright or public order, and censorship   flourished until the Lady Chatterley trial. But you could spout from a soap-box at Hyde Park Corner or parade down Downing Street with a placard and without police permission. And, in private life, casual anti-Semitic or racist remarks were part of the colloquial discourse of some sections of the English middle classes.


Agatha Christie

Last month I re-read the book Agatha Christie  set in the  art-deco hotel on Burgh Island in south Devon, where I had gone to stay.  The original title was 'Ten Little Niggers' which was later changed to 'Ten Little Indians' and then to 'And Then There Were None'. Christie called the place  'Nigger Island' and one character is a stereotypical Shylock, a money lender referred to as  a "Jewboy" with "thick Semitic lips.”

 Looking back, I really can’t think how I ever ignored , or how I managed to forget, the  language in that book, or similar epithets in John Buchan, or Dorothy Sayers  and  others, or for that matter, the patronising anti-feminism of the time.  All I can say is that one did.  Anybody saying ‘it shouldn’t be allowed’ would have been laughed off the stage.  It was a free country, wasn't it?  Wasn't free speech one of the things the war  was fought for?  Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you.  Or could they? The attributes that provoked insults  were the ones people – some people – were ashamed of and tried to hide.  And secrets or lies make the motives for fictional murder.

 Touch of the tarbrush, the chosen people, passing for white, wrong side of the blanket,  Nancy boy -  I can't even quote most of the expressions which  described facts  of which  people were often ashamed, denying the existence of non-wasp ancestry or  of illegitimate children, purporting to be heterosexual, hiding pregnancy.  Looking back from a world where privacy has disappeared and shame has died  it’s hard to believe these were secrets worth killing to keep.   The idea seems as obsolete as the generic English village of  Mayhem Parva where the murderous fantasy belonged, as implausible as the Knight in shining armour galloping up to the rescue in the shape of Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey.

'Letting it all hang out' - that revolutionary concept of the 1970s - has changed the world we live in far more than we often realise. Gradually it became possible to utter  in polite society the four letter words I had learnt doing Anglo-Saxon  at university;   and gradually the things people were ashamed of began to change as did those they cared about. My own writing career began in the 1970s , and I choose to write   crime fiction partly because it was what I enjoyed reading, but also because I didn't want to write autobiographically.  But enough of my own obsessions crept in for my publisher to want  the feminism toned down. It was a period when the comfort blanket of popular fiction began to take on the weight of uncomfortable reality, and its vocabulary and motives became more candid. Julian Symons praised Shroud for a Nightingale  by P.D. James for bringing a new  realism to the genre with an  unprecedented, unflinching description (mild by contemporary standards) of a poison victim’s last throes.

There was a squeal, high-pitched, horribly inhuman, and Nurse Pierce precipitated herself from the bed as if propelled by an irresistible force, one second she was lying immobile, propped against her mound of pillows, the next she was out of bed, teetering forward on arched feet in a parody of a ballet dancer, clutching ineffectually at the air as if in frantic search of the tubing.  And all the time she screamed, perpetually screwed, like a stuck whistle.  Miss Beale, , aghast, had hardly time to register the contorted face, the foaming lips, before the girl floated to the floor and writhed there, doubled like a hoop……..

P D James

         The stark horror of unnatural death was moving away from what Derek Raymond scornfully described as 'an industrialised version of hide and seek.' He was  a man with  a mission -  to rescue crime fiction from 'the hands of a flock of ruthless, money minded old dears writing books by the middle-class for the middle class.'

  As a matter-of-fact, every few years the next hard-boiled young crime writers announce  much the same thing, usually as publicly as possible and usually when they have a new book of their own coming out.   But Raymond had a different agenda. He thought 'Crime fiction should show life through the eyes of those who were wrongly deprived of a reasonable one, and so have sunk into misery or violence.'

Skip forward to the 21st-century and there's Ian Rankin saying  the reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real  '
Britain, with its cities, youth problems, drug culture, with the alienation felt by a growing underclass. We should not retreat from reality  with comfortable reassurances and assumptions.'

 say, writers shouldn't say “should”  to readers.  And although I've already admitted that I learnt a lot from crime fiction myself , it’s an  unreliable tutor , whether you're reading about  underclass Britain or the Britain of the professional classes P.D.James describes, or Ruth Rendell's   secretive suburbia.   In the real world nearly all crimes are irrational, random, and unglamorous.  Most crime takes place at home, most killers choose as their weapon, blunt instruments - that is, any handy heavy object - or knives, usually kitchen ones - and few killers  make deep laid plans.

In fact all crime fiction is fantasy, whether sociological, brutal or what’s sometimes called polite. With the latter, the traditionally dominant form, the author  hints at  dreams or nightmares, but many writers regard it as a duty to be explicit. I’m quoting Val McDermid again because she is  one of the most interesting  contemporary crime writers . She insists that violence is not glamorous and  murder is not entertainment.  She  writes about the terrible things people do to each other because   ‘it is necessary to confront directly what these acts are, what they mean and why they happen. To gloss over them or sanitise them feels to me like moral cowardice. I don't think I ever use violence gratuitously - it always has a function within the book. I'm sorry some people find these books hard to read, but they're not meant to be comfort blankets. If you read them without flinching, you probably need professional help.'

That's going to keep the analysts busy. An awful lot of people find torture and torment books easy to read.  They are bestsellers which  hundreds of thousands of people gobble up for fun, for pleasure.  So are all the tales of post-mortem investigation, clinically exact reporting of the drill, slice and fillet with female pathologists cleverly multitasking as detectives, targets and suspects.

The boundaries of mainstream crime fiction have extended, at one extreme into literature, reaching the long if not yet short lists for literary prizes. At the other end of the spectrum are the darkest of 'black’ or ‘noir' novels. Explicitly bloody descriptions show   infinitely ingenious criminals, nearly always male, lurking around every corner,  waiting to capture a stranger - nearly always female .  When Joanna Hines found her new book  had a cover picture of a female corpse  though  the victim  in the story was   a man,  the publisher explained  that dead  men don't sell books. Dead and brutalised women do. In fact readers gorge on   the mutilated female body.

In the competition to be most inventively revolting the bar goes up and fictional psychopaths get more and more sadistic, progressively in parallel with the increase in women's real-life independence.  The conclusion would be obvious if many of the most successful authors of apparently misogynist nightmares weren’t  women themselves.  If their predecessors had the same bad dreams they weren’t allowed to  tell us so. Now anyone  can write or read or even see them – click on  Necrobabes  or  Asphyxia-dot- com  for – in quotes – ‘tastefully erotic death scenes through asphyxia, shooting, knives and more,' and Sexy strangled, suffocated, hanged and drowned babes. It takes your breath away.’ Close quotes.

Racism and sexism may be in the closet hammering at the  locked door  but  we can use any  four-letter epithet to describe every detail of a murder , we can show full frontal sex and nudity on screen and stage, and speak or write about bodies and souls without inhibition or embarrassment. We have made what was private public.

But can we still make what’s public our private business? Or have  we gained one right and lost another?

Freedom  of expression  means being able to say what others don't want to hear, or publish what others don't want to read and as it happens.  How perverse it seems that the further reaches of sadism, sex  and linguistic taboos should represent our freedom of expression while  real  free speech is increasingly under attack.
This list is derived from articles by the journalist Henry Porter:


·        People have been detained under terrorism laws for wearing anti-Blair T-shirts. 

·        An old man  was removed from the Labour Conference for heckling Jack Straw about the Iraq war. 

·        A woman was charged under the Harassment Act for sending two polite  e-mails to a company conducting animal experiments. Her offence was to send two e-mails, for in that lies the repeated action that is now illegal. 

·        A man was arrested in Whitehall and  charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.  for carrying a banner bearing the words "In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act" (a quotation from George Orwell). He  also had   three copies of an article in Vanity Fair headed "Blair's Big Brother Britain" which a police officer identified as 'politically motivated material'. 

·        A contributor to a radio  discussion about gay adoptions who said she thought two homosexual men should not be allowed to adopt a boy was informed by a police officer that her name had been noted following a complaint that she had made a "homophobic" remark on air. 

·        And a mime artist was charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for doing an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin outside Parliament. At the hearing he told the court that   one of the first things to go under a dictatorship is a good sense of humour." 

But this is no joke.  The law is becoming illiberal and so is public opinion,  influenced both by politicians and the fear of crime.  This fear is enhanced rather than assuaged by the fiction that describes it in such a terrifying and vivid way. But counterintuitive though it may be there is hardly any evidence that real criminals copy fiction.  I don't suggest that popular fiction can't  influence its readers.  After all one of the things that made me want to go to Cambridge in the first place was Dorothy L. Sayers description of life in a women's College in Gaudy Night.

But should one have banned Agatha Christie's mannered murders because a poisoner who used thallium to  commit mass murder   apparently got his idea from one of her books?  Or Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal because it taught us how to acquire false passports? To take it to its absurd conclusion - perhaps not too absurd for the reality we now live in - should authors of crime novels about terrorists be prosecuted because they have committed the offence of glorifying terrorism?

I don't want to read detailed descriptions of brutality but freedom includes the right to disgust or terrify me, no less than the right to read aloud the names of war dead in Parliament Square or set up camp with protest banners. I hope the next phase of crime fiction will move on from exposing the entrails of some hapless female to examining the guts of society instead.  The right to do so defines both a free country and the free expression on which fiction worth reading depends.   If we see a return to  bloodless death on the library floor, let it be because that is what writers want to write, not because it is the only thing they are permitted to publish.

 Jessica Mann’s most recent crime novel is The Mystery Writer (Allison & Busby hardback 2006, paperback 2007). Her latest non-fiction book is Out Of Harm's Way (Headline) , the story of the overseas evacuation of children in World War II. She writes a monthly crime fiction review column for The Literary Review.






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