“The Printed Word”: Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone

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In those moments the words they cried and their pleas passed over her almost unheard, and by some strange metamorphosis, produced in Eunice’s brain, they ceased to be people and became the printed word. They were those things in the bookcases, those patchy black blocks on white paper, eternally her enemies, hated and desired.

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is the chilling first line of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 thriller A Judgement In Stone. I’m not sure “thriller” is the right word, but “mystery” seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit–and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a “whydunit” either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement In Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.

A Judgment In Stone relies heavily on narrative devices that could easily turn into gimmicks: dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Rendell uses dramatic irony to cast a grim shadow over the lives of the Coverdale family: one of the most effective things about the novel, I thought, is how we read it doubly, as a very ordinary story of a well-to-do English family going about their privileged but otherwise basically inoffensive lives. There’s handsome George, “as trim of figure as when he had rowed for his university in 1939”; there’s Jacqueline, his second wife, “fair, slender, a Lizzie Siddal matured,” unfortunately for all of them overwhelmed with the work of maintaining Lowfield Hall; and there are the children of this blended family, including eccentrically bookish Giles and sweet-tempered Melinda. They all contribute to their eventual violent deaths by the way they treat Eunice Parchman when she becomes their housekeeper, but until the very last minute–their very last minutes–we are the only ones who know how it will all end. The effect is to infuse their commonplace activities–shopping, dining, listening to music, going to parties–with pathos, to make their cheerfully unexceptional characters accidentally tragic. “I’ll be two minutes,” says George as he goes to check what the noise is in the kitchen;

He went to the door where he paused and looked at his wife for the last time. Had he known it was the last time, that look would have been eloquent of six years’ bliss and of gratitude, but he didn’t know, so he merely cast up his eyes and pursed his mouth before walking across the hall and down the passage to the kitchen.

Rendell adds extra shots of menace occasionally with moments of explicit foreshadowing. When her parents have offended Eunice by banning her only friend from visiting Lowfield Hall, for instance, Melinda decides to intervene by being kind:

So that evening Melinda began on a disaster course that was to lead directly to her death and that of her father, her stepmother and her stepbrother. She embarked on it because she was in love. It is not so much true that all the world loves a lover as that a lover loves all the world. Melinda was moved by her love to bestow love and happiness, but it was tragic for her that Eunice Parchman was her object.

There is so little out of the ordinary about the Coverdales that they could hardly be the subject of fiction if it weren’t for what happens to them. Shortly before their deaths, they eat out, and “afterwards the waiters and other diners were to wish they had taken more notice of this happy family, this doomed family.”

rendell-2Is it true that Eunice Parchman–and her accomplice, the same friend the unknowing Coverdales tried to keep away from their home–killed this hapless family “because she could not read or write”? Rendell’s striking opening is as much provocation as declaration, I think. It is certainly true that Eunice’s illiteracy haunts, shames, and distorts her life. It is easy to imagine a version of her story in which, as a result, we pity her and direct our antipathy at a society that repeatedly fails her–fails to educate her, fails to support her, fails to make it safe for her to overcome this debilitating disadvantage–while she retreats into the safety of suspicious solitude:

When she was a child she had never wanted to read. As she grew older she wanted to learn, but who could teach her? Acquiring a teacher, or even trying to acquire one, would mean other people finding out. She had begun to shun other people, all of whom seemed to her bent on ferreting out her secret. After a time this shunning, this isolating herself, became automatic, though the root cause of her misanthropy was half-forgotten.

There are lots of painful and potentially poignant scenarios as which she struggles to hide her inability to read the family’s grocery list or to identify which papers George needs sent from home to his office. There’s something sad, too, about her absorption in the television the Coverdales provide for her room. She’s finally happy there:

She drew the curtains, put on the lamps and then the television. Her evenings were hers to do as she liked. This was what she liked. She knitted. But gradually, as the serial or the sporting event or the cops and robbers film began to grip her, the knitting fell into her lap and she leant forwards, enthralled by an innocent childlike excitement.

It’s not much, but it’s all she wants.

But this sad story is not quite what Rendell gives us–and surely that’s as it should be, unless we really do believe illiteracy leads inexorably to homicide! Instead, Eunice is a completely unsympathetic character. It’s not just the shell she has withdrawn into for fear her inability to read will be discovered. By the time she starts work at Lowfield Hall she has already committed murder: she killed her own father, who was taking a bit too too long to die: “She took one of the pillows from behind her father’s head and pushed it hard down on his face. He struggled and thrashed about for a while, but not for long.” It’s the combination of her heartless personality with the shame and anxiety of her illiteracy that’s toxic–that, and the influence of her friend Joan, who is out and out deranged, “daily growing more and more demented.” I think I would actually have liked A Judgement In Stone better if it vested responsibility for the Coverdales’ deaths squarely in Eunice and explored the ramifications of her illiteracy in a more nuanced way, rather than having it shade into moral and psychological deficits. Joan’s role is especially disappointing in this respect, as there is no “good” explanation for her behavior, no cause beyond her own unreason for the violence she instigates.

AjudgementinstoneRendell’s opening line is thus a bit of a feint, I think: it seems to set up a novel about the consequences of social and educational failures, but unlike, say, Dickens’s account of Magwitch’s history in Great Expectations, she doesn’t really account for Eunice’s criminality on those terms alone, leaving us to point the finger at ourselves for creating an uncaring system that generates criminals where there should have been (and still could be) a caring human being. Eunice seems irredeemable; Rendell doesn’t make a convincing case that she would have been a different person–and the Coverdales would have lived–if only she could read the printed word. It’s hard to be sure, though, and maybe that’s the question Rendell means to leave with her readers.

The Power of the Whodunnit: Anthony Horowitz, MagpieMurders

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I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader.

Unlike Susan Ryeland, the narrator of (much of) Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, I’m not actually a fan of whodunnits–at least, not if by the term you mean the kind Magpie Murders at once exemplifies and comments on, which is the Agatha-Christie-style cozy. I just don’t find curiosity a powerful enough incentive to keep reading: if all a book ultimately has to offer me is the solution to a puzzle, I would almost just as soon skip straight to the end and get the answer already. Almost .. because of course a good puzzle mystery can offer other pleasures along the way, and also if the story-telling is brisk and skillful enough then it distracts me from the temptation to flip to the last page.

Magpie Murders was not quite good enough to keep me patient. I got bored with the embedded mystery by the fictional Alan Conway about half way through its 200+ pages–not so bored I wanted to give up, just enough that I started intermittently skimming. That said, it seemed to me a pitch-perfect imitation of a Golden Age novel, so if you like that kind of thing more than I do, you’d probably enjoy it thoroughly. I quite liked the conceit of the mystery-within-a-mystery, and for a while I was pretty engaged with the framing story about Alan Conway’s own suspicious death, but then it seemed to go on too long, and while the parallels and connections to “his” book were presumably meant to make it more fun to puzzle out both murderers, the insistent cleverness of it all eventually made me irritable. I expected a bigger payoff, too, a most stunning twist of some kind, as a reward for the book being quite so long.

magpie-2On the other hand, I did appreciate the metafictional commentary on the genre scattered throughout Magpie Murders, though it was (as far as I could tell) somewhat gratuitous or incidental to the novel(s). If the stories Horowitz was telling subverted expectations more than they do, or if their resolutions turned in some way on critiquing the ubiquity of murders on page and screen or the idea that anything about crime is in any way “cozy,” then the whole novel would (for me) have taken on much greater significance. Still, he raises good points about the perverse gratifications of the form even as he unapologetically offers them up, twice over. “I don’t understand it,” says Detective Superintendent Locke when Susan meets with him to discuss her questions about Conway’s death. “All these murders on TV–”

you’d think people would have better things to do with their time. Every night. Every bloody channel. People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth. I’ve seen murder victims. I’ve investigated murder. … They don’t put on wigs and dress up like the do in Agatha Christie. All the murders I’ve ever been involved in have happened because the perpetrators were mad or angry or drunk. Sometimes all three. And they’re horrible. Disgusting.

Susan Ryeland (perhaps as a proxy for Horowitz) offers the standard explanation for that ‘fixation.” “In a world full of uncertainties,” she proposes,

is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence.

Image result for foyles war season 6"That, she concludes, is “why Magpie Murders was so bloody irritating”–unfinished as it is when she first reads it. For me, though, the end of Horowitz’s Magpie Murders did not provide much satisfaction. The dotting of the i‘s and the crossing of the t’s seemed to show up the whole elaborate exercise as artificial, an impressive display of plotting but little to feed any deeper curiosity. I prefer my crime fiction more character driven, and also more embroiled in social and political contexts. I know Horowitz can write that kind of mystery, because he wrote Foyle’s War, one of my favorite series. I’d watch it all again in a heartbeat if I could (stupid Netflix Canada dropped it years ago), because it has the kinds of layers that, for all its intricacies, Magpie Murders lacks.

“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine

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The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

“Not This Time!”: Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam

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Men like Nate and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that had built everything, from the North Carolina governor’s mansion to the first stoplight. They ought to have been appreciated for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead, they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten. Not this time!

Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (first published in 1992) is the first of four novels she wrote featuring Blanche White, professional cleaning woman and amateur detective. The series was out of print the last time I taught ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ so although I was aware of its significance in the history of African American crime writing, I didn’t pursue it very far. Now that the books are available again, I thought I should check it out, and I’m glad I did: I think (logistics permitting) I will put Blanche on the Lam on the syllabus. It’s a brisk, entertaining read that is also sharp and self-conscious about the difference race makes to all aspects of the mystery genre, from the literal risks to black Americans in any kind of encounter with the police, to more abstract thematic questions about authority, evidence, and justice.

Blanche begins the novel in trouble for passing bad checks; the judge doesn’t care that she would have been able to cover them if her (white) employers hadn’t gone out of town without paying her on time. Right away, then, both race and class are highlighted. Amidst a disruption at the courthouse, Blanche escapes from custody, and then she takes advantage of the fact that “women like her” are indistinguishable to the wealthy white families they work for to slip into a housekeeping job that takes her–safely, she thinks–out of town for a while. It turns out, however, that she’s traveling right into more trouble, and eventually into real danger. From the start she doesn’t trust her employers, Grace and Everett, especially Everett:

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He was a rich white male. Being in possession of that particular set of characteristics meant a person could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, to pretty much anybody he chose–like an untrained dog chewing and shitting all over the place. Blanche was sure having all that power made many men crazy.

As Blanche tries to figure out what is going on with these two, and with drunken Aunt Emmeline, who is confined to her upstairs bedroom, she learns more about the family from their long-time retainer Nate, who tells her stories about, among other things, how as a child Grace saved him from a roving band of KKK thugs. Although she’s upset at the first suspicious death in the novel, it’s Nate’s subsequent death that makes her particularly determined to bring the murderer to account.

Blanche also befriends and bonds with Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man with Down Syndrome. I expect that his characterization and role will provoke some discussion. For Blanche, the key to their relationship is that neither of them is regarded as fully human by Grace and Everett–or, really, any of the white adults in the story. “She understood,” she thinks, that his condition

made him as recognizably different from the people who ran and owned the world as she. It was this similarity that made him visible to her inner eye and eligible for her concern.

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Crucially, in terms of the unfolding mystery, nobody really listens to Mumsfield, and Blanche eventually realizes that she too has not really been paying attention to him even though he has been dropping clues for some time–without himself quite understanding what has actually happened. Blanche feels affection for him and protective of him, but she also wonders how far her identification with him can really go: “For all his specialness and their seeming connectedness, Mumsfield was still a white man.” She is wary of accepting a “mammy” role, serving as a caretaker for someone “whose ancestors had most likely bought and sold her ancestors as though they were shoes or machines.”

I already see a number of ways Blanche on the Lam will connect with–and make us look differently at–other books we’ll probably be reading. For instance, Blanche’s work as a detective has some interesting continuities with Miss Marple, who in her investigations relies on the ways people underestimate her, and on the invisibility that comes with her age. In a similar way, Blanche takes advantage of the access she gets to people’s private spaces and conversations because her race and role in the household make her unimportant to them. Being seen as “the help” is a specific kind of anonymity, insulting to her personally but also a tool she can use, as is the cheerful subservience she puts on as a mask when dealing with racism and snobbery. They both also know their way around a kitchen, and in both cases this “feminine” domesticity can be useful, though at the same time there are important differences in the ways that it defines their identities. The novel is told in close third person: I think it might have been even better in first person, but we get a lot of Blanche’s inner commentary on people and events and her voice still comes across very clearly. Although in this novel they are of necessity at a distance, because she’s in hiding, Blanche’s family and close friends are also important in establishing her character, and another point of connection to Miss Marple is the extent to which “gossip” or intimate storytelling among women is a vital element of the case.

Like other crime writers who emphasize social justice (such as, in this course, Sara Paretsky) Neely is also clear that the resolution of the specific case has done little if anything to fix the larger problems it has highlighted. At the end of the novel Blanche is moving from North Carolina to Boston, but not with any hope that it will be a safe space for her. “It seemed,” she reflects, “that enemy territory was all there was in this country for someone who looked like her.” The satisfaction she finds is individual, not systemic. “She would always be a woman who’d come too close to murder,” she thinks, but

she would also always be a woman who’d fought for her life and won. That woman, no matter how much she’d changed, was still capable of negotiating enemy territory–even without a reference from her most recent employer.

Dolls and Dames: Vera Caspary, Laura

laura-feminist-pressSeating himself in the long chair, his thin hands gripping the arms, he seemed to relax watchfulness. Tired, I thought, and noticed the hint of purple in the shadows of the deep-set eyes, the tension of flesh across narrow cheekbones. Then, quickly, hailing into my mind the scarlet caution signal, I banished quick and foolish tenderness. Dolls and dames, I said to myself; we’re all dolls and dames to him.

I learned from A. B. Emrys’s afterword to the Feminist Press edition of Laura that Vera Caspary deliberately applied “the Wilkie Collins” method to her novel: her use of multiple narrators was inspired by The Woman in White in particular (although elsewhere Emrys makes the case that The Moonstone was also an influence), and her “fastidious, fascinating, and fat villain” is based at least in part on Count Fosco. Knowing this doesn’t make Laura better or more fun to read, of course: it just confirms that my taste is consistent, because I love The Woman in White and I also loved Laura.

I read Laura sort of in case it was a good fit for Women and Detective Fiction but more because I would like to switch out The Maltese Falcon in Pulp Fiction. I had resolved to assign In a Lonely Place, but when I started rereading it and was reminded just what a creepy experience it is to be immersed in the point of view of a serial rapist and murderer, I reconsidered: that’s a lot to put on first-year students, and after all, I wasn’t entirely convinced myself when I read it before that it succeeds in exposing misogyny rather than wallowing in it. At this point I am thinking of putting Hughes’s novel on the syllabus for Women and Detective Fiction, which is a 4th-year seminar populated by students who I think will be better prepared to have that interpretive debate themselves. Laura, however, just might do for Pulp Fiction–though I have yet to find out if our bookstore can get it in sufficient quantities (all of our first-year classes next year are capped at 120, which I find both distressing and daunting).

laura-popular-coverLaura would pose some pedagogical problems of its own, not because it’s creepy (though it is deliciously twisty) but because its first narrator, Waldo Lydecker, is completely insufferable. I actually didn’t know when I began the novel that it would have multiple narrators and I wasn’t sure I was up for 200 pages of his self-conscious pomposity. “I am given,” he tells us,

to thinking of myself in the third person. Many a time, when I have suffered some clumsy misadventure, I am saved from remorse by the substitution for unsavory memory of another captivating installment in The Life and Times of Waldo Lydecker. Rare are the nights when I fail to lull myself to sleep without the sedative of some such heroic statement as “Waldo Lydecker stood, untroubled, at the edge of a cliff beneath which ten thousand angry lions roared.”

Will the students be able to find him funny as well as pathetic and irritating? Of course, once Laura’s story has fully unfolded there are also plenty of clues to the mystery in the way he talks: the trick of teaching the novel, as with teaching The Moonstone (which, after all, opens with a couple hundred pages of Betteredge being stuffy), would be to make sure we have prepared for it by talking about dramatic monologues and the ways people reveal themselves through their language. If, as I am currently contemplating, we read True Grit rather than Valdez Is Coming as our sample Western, we will have practiced that at length with Mattie.

laura-pulp-coverIn addition to the clever plot and the pleasures of the multiple narrators, Laura seems to me particularly interesting for (no surprise!) Laura herself, and for the way the other characters attempt to fix her identity in a way that accords with their assumptions about women. Hard-boiled or noir fiction famously tends to limit women to specific roles: victim, dame, femme fatale. Caspary and Laura are both aware of the way women get cast into roles that restrict their individuality and define them in relation to men; Laura’s resistance to this is one of the factors that puts her life in danger. “You are not dead,” another character says to her at one point; “you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” How much of that sentence is true? It depends, quite literally, on whose story you accept.

Laura is also self-conscious about the conventions of detective novels. Waldo hates them:

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying, far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in that timid horde known as the reading public. The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson [Laura‘s detective].

“I offer the narrative,” he goes on, “not so much as a detective yarn as a love story”–another clue, though we might think, by the time we finish Laura, that he draws too fine a distinction–and that Caspary is nudging us to think about the ways stories of “violence and revenge” are usually gendered. “In detective stories,” Laura herself remarks, “there are two kinds [of detectives],

the hardboiled ones who are always drunk and talk out of the corners of their mouths and do it all by instinct; and the cold, dry, scientific kind who split hairs under a microscope. . . . Detectives aren’t heroes to me, they’re detestable.

Is Mark McPherson the hero of Laura? Again, it depends on which version of the story you accept, or on what you think actually does constitute heroism.

There’s a lot going on in Laura that I think would be fun and productive to work through. It certainly has as much literary flair as anything I’ve read by Hammett or Chandler, and it pulls off its tricks without glamorizing violence (as Hammett especially often seems to) and with a woman at its center who is herself, not just an object for male fantasy. I think it’s the first noir novel (Emrys calls it “new woman noir”) I’ve ever straight up enjoyed reading. Cross your fingers that it turns out to be an option for my class!

Refreshing My Reading Lists II: Women and Detective Fiction

the-secret-of-the-old-clockIn my last post I went over my plans for refreshing the reading lists for my regular courses on the 19th-century novel. I have now set up a shelf for these books and begun requesting exam copies for those I don’t already have. Next up is the reading list for my upper-level seminar ‘Women and Detective Fiction,’ which I’ll be offering next fall for the first time since 2014. Here is the book list from that iteration of the course:

Agatha Christie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (selections)
Carolyn Keene, Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Katherine V. Forrest, Death at the Nightwood Bar
DVD: LaPlante/Mirren, Prime Suspect I

We also read a sampler of stories: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “The House on Turk Street” (as touchstones for the tropes and traditions of the genre), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Long Arm,” and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” I have not taught this particular seminar often and there has not been a lot of variation in the reading list, but in earlier versions I included Murder at the Vicarage instead of the short stories for Christie, and I used to assign Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position until it went out of print, while Death at the Nightwood Bar was a new addition to the course in 2014.

neely-blancheTo date, the books I’ve chosen for this seminar have all been by women writers, about women detectives, and explicitly interested in gender and detection. They all, that is, bring a lot of self-consciousness to their engagement with detective fiction as a genre. Collectively, they also cover a good range of subgenres or types of detective fiction. While in these respects the list has reasonable breadth, however, in other respects it is quite narrow;  the feminist tradition it covers is, to put it mildly, not very intersectional. I put in some time in the past trying to fix this problem; though I came up short, the good news is that I do, as a result, already have a preliminary list of names to start with, particularly of African American authors: among these are Barbara Neely (whose books were out of print the last time I looked but appear to be available again), Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Grace F. Edwards, Frankie Y. Bailey, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Attica Locke, whose The Cutting Season looks especially promising because its historical angle is something the books on my usual list don’t include. I basically haven’t read any books by these authors, so if anyone has tips about where to start with them or other ideas about good candidates for my seminar that would help me make the reading list more diverse, I’d be grateful.

the-breakSo far I have never assigned a Canadian writer in either of my detective fiction classes, primarily because I haven’t found one that takes the genre in what seems like a new direction or that really made me sit up and take notice. (Phonse Jessome’s Disposable Souls came close and might yet end up on the list for the survey course, both because it’s good and because the local angle would be interesting to take on.) For  Women and Detective Fiction, I am very tempted to include Katherena Vermette’s The Break this time, even though it may or may not be genre fiction–it would be a good opportunity to discuss how or why we use that label anyway. The Break would differ from my usual reading list in that it does not follow a woman detective, though it is definitely about women and crime (and if that focus was enough to put a book on the reading list, it would open the door to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, an intriguing possibility). A recent article in Quill  & Quire also gave me a starter list of Indigenous mystery writers, including Mardi Oakley Medewar, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, and Alison Whitaker–more authors whose work will be new to me.

cutting-seasonOne of the problems I ran into last time I went down this road was getting my hands on samples from the authors I was interested in. I probably just need to be more persistent and order a lot of titles through interlibrary loan. The other problem is that I’m not really a voracious or enthusiastic reader of mysteries (odd, I know, in the circumstances) so I tire easily of the necessary exploratory work and I can take a while to warm to books that are not immediately appealing to me (though I can eventually get there, as has happened with Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress–still not a personal favorite, but one I have found very satisfying to teach). This is why I need help sifting through or coming up with good options so that I can make this reading list represent a wider range of voices. Ideas and recommendations would be very welcome.

Postscript: Dorian sent me a link to this excellent round-table discussion on diversity in detective fiction from Writer’s Digest, which might be of interest to others.

P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.