Tuesday 18 October 2016

Andrew Marr on Detective Fiction

This is a review of Andrew Marr's programme about popular fiction on BBC4.

Marr should have learned from his subjects how to do linear narrative. You can say “I talked to living detective story writers” without giving us a clip of their interviews. The programme gets better as it goes on, and the sets and photography are good - a soulless empty office to talk about the Kingsmarkham nick, interviewing Val McDermid across a table littered with cardboard coffee cups etc.

Agatha Christie cliché bingo: “Characters who are moved around like pieces on a chessboard… that least gritty of authors… not for nothing have these books been dismissed as snobbery with violence… murder was a genteel game as servants not clever enough to be serial killers…” (Apart from one or two...)

In Christie novels there is almost no violence - a gentle tap on the back of the head…” An old woman bludgeoned to death with the knob from a brass bedstead? Another struck down with a sugar hammer? More than one character despatched with a stiletto under the base of the skull and into the medulla oblongata?

PD James: “There are no great problems of right or wrong.” (Orient Express?)

Marr lists writers’ prior jobs, without mentioning that Christie started her working life as a nurse and pharmacist. But as for structure: “She’s dancing in front of us.”

Talking to Sophie Hannah: “I don’t terribly like Christie - I find the characters too cardboard.”

SH: “The characters are presenting themselves as two-dimensional, everyone is presenting themselves as they want to be seen. They are absolutely not two-dimensional.” (It’s like watching a film - we only see them from outside and hear what they say.)

Marr: But Christie is “cosy - there’s not much blood and guts.”

SH: “There’s a powerful awareness of evil… the danger that any one of us might cross that line.”

He repeats the usual slur that all the loose ends are tied up at the end and life goes on as usual. But if there wasn’t a solution, what would be the point of writing the book? Is there a mystery without a solution? (Ngaio Marsh’s Black as He’s Painted? Go on, tell me who did the murder.)

Previews also said Marr’s acting was appalling, but it’s not so bad. He’s OK on Scottish characters, and how else would you say “Giant Rat of Sumatra”? His Poirot is no worse than many audio Poirots. But he shouldn’t have tried to do Chandler as an American - Chandler was an Irishman brought up in England, who went to Dulwich College and sounded standard English (per recordings).

We get to social history in the last few seconds. “Historians in 100 years time… will turn to McDiarmid and Rankin. To this cheap, disposable - throwaway entertainment - that will outlast us all.”

Fantasy next time, then spies. 


  1. ". . . all the loose ends are tied up at the end and life goes on as usual."
    Has he not read Anthony Berkeley's "The Poisoned Chocolates Case" or "The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor" by Cameron McCabe?

  2. His researchers have read PD James and Julian Symons.

  3. Still considering whether to watch this. Would it be impossible for someone who actually knows loves and reads crime fiction to get a programme commissioned?

  4. They probably want a well-known name as a front! I've seen plays based on her life by playwrights who haven't bothered to read her autobiography.