Apologies for the slightly controversial title, but hopefully you’ll understand that it’s a genuine question. You see, I’m reading quite a lot of Golden Age (between the wars) detective stories at the moment, and almost all of them involve a murder. Modern detective novels are nothing if not worse – they seem to use the philosophy “why have one murder when half a dozen will do?”! Even so, I find myself wondering if devising a grisly demise or three really needs to be a prerequisite for a half decent crime novel.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly didn’t rely on murders, although he didn’t shy away from them either. Only a few of the stories in his first Sherlock Holmes collection, The Adventures, feature a murder – the rest focus on blackmail, theft and deceit in all its forms and I think the stories are more fun for it. They are certainly more varied and show that there is more to crime than just killing. I have to say I think a well-planned and cleverly executed robbery or theft is as much fun to read about – and probably just as tricky to investigate – as a well-planned and cleverly executed murder, but nobody seems to want to write it.
Having now read Martin Edwards’ book The Golden Age of Murder, I think the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the Detection Club, a group of successful crime novelists (including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers) who wanted to raise the detective story out of genre fiction and into a realm where it could be appreciated as an art. To a point they succeeded – at her best, few can beat Agatha for spinning a good yarn – but in formulating their “rules” for a good detective story, they did imply that someone had to die, and preferably in the first couple of chapters.
I’m afraid I have to disagree. Aside from the (lately forgotten) gentleman thieves such as Raffles or Lupin, there just aren’t the non-fatal crime novels doing the rounds. Let me give you an example of how thrilling this could be, using a recent well publicised crime as a starting point:
Madame K, the wealthy society hostess, is robbed at gunpoint of her jewels including a large diamond engagement ring. The police have few leads – those they do have quickly go nowhere – and in desperation consult the Great Detective. He reviews the evidence, finds clues in plain sight that the police missed and eventually goes undercover to infiltrate the criminal gang preying on the rich and famous…
I admit it’s got a touch of the Sherlock Holmes about it, but I’m already dying to read this. Anyone out there fancy writing it for me?