The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mystery Fiction

In the last week, as I’ve dived back into mystery fiction I’ve read two essays by two different literary giants, offering their opinions on what detective fiction is and what it ought to be. “The Guilty Vicarage,” by W.H. Auden (better known for poetry), brings in Greek literary ideals to map out classic detective fiction. Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder,” brings detective fiction down from the lofty, academic clouds by reminding us of the importance of realism and empathy for the victims of crime. The essays were published just two years apart—”The Guilty Vicarage” was published in 1948 and “The Simple Art of Murder” in 1950—but they are literally and figuratively a continent apart in their outlook.

I have my own ideas about what makes for great detective and mystery fiction. (As I tell people when they ask what I think, I have opinions about a lot of things.) But I don’t have the chutzpah to take on Auden or Chandler and that’s not what I want to do in this post. What struck me as I read these two essays was the way that both seemed to feel the need to justify their enjoyment of detective fiction by talking about the genre in elevated terms, especially Auden—although that might be because Auden was overexposed to British academia. While I absolutely believe that genre fiction can be great fodder for literary criticism, I was reminded of how readers of crime novels (especially true crime) are sometimes viewed as ghouls by people who shy away from the genre. As Chandler points out, murder is arguably one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Why would anyone want to read about that? Or listen to a podcast about it? Or watch a movie about it?

No one should ever shame a reader for their choice of book. No matter how much I might make fun of someone for reading Twilight, I’m honestly just happy that someone picked up a book instead of all the other things that are competing for their attention. So, if anyone should ever give you, dear readers, a hard time about reading mystery novels, tell them that not only are you keeping your brain fit by puzzling out the plots, you are also reading a book that might begin with a dark act of evil, it will nearly always end up with order restored, the criminal captured and on their way to be punished. These stories take us from a seemingly insoluble crime through to justice. Literary fiction often goes the other way and leaves us with ambiguous endings. The bad guy gets away and people are ruined. Literary endings might reflect reality more often than detective and mystery fiction, but I love that these stories give us the hope that good will prevail and evil punished. Sometimes, that’s exactly the kind of story we need to read.

Robert James Gordon

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