Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Literary Clichés 3



Hard to read on the bus

Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, introduction by Martin Edwards

If you are a Golden Age mystery fan, this is a lovely read. Sayers reviewed two to four books a week in the 30s – that’s how many of the genre were being churned out.

Thank heavens for recent reprints – but in many minds the greats and the Queens are the only Golden Age mystery writers. The accusations of snobbery, clichés, formula, anti-Semitism and cardboard characters that stick to Christie and others must have originally been aimed at a pantheon ranging from H.C. Bailey to E.R. Punshon.

It's also clear that the greats were deliberately writing in a genre that abounded in stock characters and stock situations. Someone should do a Golden Age TV Tropes, but meanwhile let Sayers be your guide.

It was “one of those embarrassing house parties” where a recent widow invites “all the mutually suspect and hostile persons” present at her husband’s death.

In another household “A nurse arrives... to look after a man who has been murderously assaulted. A grim-looking individual lurks in the drawing-room... An old mad-woman in antique costume calls the cook a creature of Satan... A face peers through the rain-streaked window.” It can only get better, with an armed butler, shots, a fainting woman, hypodermic-tampering, and then “two detectives burst in with a bedraggled prisoner”. And it’s only chapter three.

In Death Fugue, “We have the well-worn opening of the belated traveller and the lonely house with a corpse in it. An organ plays mysteriously...”

“The evil Egyptian with a formula for exterminating mankind, the idiotic female who lets herself be lured away by the bogus policeman, the languid villain who keeps tame cobras... and the final appearance (by aeroplane) of the whole cast on a lonely island.” All appear in F.A.M. Webster’s Gathering Storm.

“A mystical, Celtic-twilight sort of gang, with a pre-Druidical religion, blood-sacrifices, hypnotic powers... caves, secret passages, revolving bookcases, rats” populate Death by the Mistletoe by Angus MacVicar.

The Ince Murder Case is written entirely in clichés.... Vision of feminine loveliness – finely chiselled features – some subtle sixth sense – surging mass of humanity – workings of a malign fate”. And everybody has a “white, set face”.

“Anybody who talks sentimentally to dogs or was anybody’s batman in the war” can be trusted, but not “anybody who behaves haughtily to an attached old Scottish retainer.” (Murder on the Moors by Colin Campbell.)

More tropes: missing wills, lost heirs, a “seedy adventurer who masquerades as a parson”, murder victims who leave cryptic clues, actors who are shot on-stage mid-performance, the least likely person dunnit, the amateur detective who insults everybody, good and evil twins with substitution a la The Scapegoat, the body in the library, the shabby provincial waxworks. But we shouldn’t forget that the greats frequently sent up these conventions.

Too many authors fall back on “the stilted style of the 90s”, with sentences that start “Small wonder is it that...”. And it is hard to tell, at this distance, whether this is supposed to be parody. Sayers is hard on polysyllables and over-writing (“Horror and anxiety twisted like heraldic snakes round his heart.”), but her sense of humour is not always reliable. She loves Mr Rosenbaum, a character in Victor MacClure’s Death on the Set who talks like this: “Ere’s Mr Morden gone and bin moidid!”, also a nautical character who tells stories in a Dutch accent while passengers in John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber drink a lot and indulge in “hilarious horseplay”.

“To combine the novel of mystery with the novel of manners was the great achievement of English writers in the past...”, and we wish they’d take it up again. Sayers is perceptive guide to the fads of her times, taking in spiritualism, glands, and even 12-tone music. The catchily titled Obelists en Route by C. Daly King includes two rival psychologists, one of the “purposive” school and one a “gestaltist”. Another example features a fascist movement known as the Purple Shirts (They aim to “Make Britain Free”.)



This is a fascinating book on many counts, and if you’re stuck for plot, characters or incident, it might provide inspiration. Its only drawback is its size and weight: 16cm by 23cm; printed on thick, heavy paper; in large type with generous leading. And the paper cover is smooth and slippery, which doesn't make it easier to hold.

Dear publishers: if the Penguin paperback format was good enough for Sayers... For comparison, I’ve used William Donaldson’s Great Disasters of the Stage (Simon Brett must have a copy). It’s 18cm by 11cm, printed on poor-quality paper, in small type and close leading, but it’s readable and I can easily hold it in one hand. I can even slip it in my handbag. Dear, dear publishers, remember that some of your readers are little old ladies with arthritis, who like to read on the bus or train.

More here, and links to the rest.

Bring back proper paperbacks



2 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed the DLS reviews, for many reasons - although she is setting me off reading and re-reading the books she mentions. Hadn't thought too much about the size feature - though obviously have noted the changes over the years. If travelling and taking a book (rather than Kindle) I do look for an old p/b I want to read, because of their being half the size...

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