Patricia Highsmith, author of the Ripley stories, once remarked that the whodunnit was “a silly way of teasing people,” and it seemed set to be replaced in popularity by the “whydunnit” – the exploration of the darker aspects of human behaviour – as written by authors such as Highsmith herself and Barbara Vine.
However, crime writer Andrew Wilson, commenting in The Telegraph on the “thrilling new film Knives Out,” notes the revival of interest in the Golden Age-style murder mystery, despite the assumption that with Agatha Christie's death in 1976, the whodunnit would die with her, or be fit only for “pastiche and parody.”
It seems the reading public still want to be teased. John Curran, Agatha Christie scholar and author of The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club, suggests it was “no coincidence that the Golden Age of crime fiction dates back to the same time as the rise of the crossword puzzle.”
Curran notes that 1913 saw the publication of what is generally considered to be the first crossword puzzle in English, and also the release of E. C. Bentley's novel Trent's Last Case, judged by Christie to be “one of the three best detective stories ever written.”
E. C. Bentley's friend G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories and first president of the Detection Club – whose members included Agatha Christie – was adept in exploring the psychology of the criminal, the “why” of crime as well as the “how” and the “who”. In his essay, “A Defence of Detective Stories”, Chesterton probed the “psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories”.
He insisted it was not true “that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular. Bradshaw’s Railway Guide contains few gleams of psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter evenings.”
The 1970s was also the era of explicit sex and violence both in literature and on the big screen, reflecting the progressive Left diagnosis of the reading and viewing public as suffering from RFS – Repressed Fascist Syndrome; the explicit sex and violence, they believed, functioned both as a sneer against the public's tastes and an exercise in cartharsis, allowing potential murderers and rapists to harmlessly indulge in their fantasies. It also made a lot of money for authors and film-makers, but the story had a far from happy ending since the more sex and violence on the screen and on the page, the more there is in real life.
That era also saw the introduction of the anti-hero – the bad man who was somehow on the side of right. But evil is only exciting to those who do not live at the sharp end of it; it is much more exciting (and rare) for people to do the right thing. People need little assistance to do the wrong thing, least of all from “reforming” governments and politicians who feel more sympathy for the perpetrator of crime than the victim.
As Chesterton also said: “The romance of the police force is … the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a successful knight-errantry.”
The popularity of the detective story does not stem from wanting to see people (fictional, of course) mutilated and murdered; rather, it is evidence of the enduring human moral paradox in which the safest (and most enjoyable) way of reminding ourselves that human life is sacred is to see human life taken away, but also to see justice restored.
We may have banished God from the universe, but we are still left with the problem of good and evil, and the detective is the only man left capable of putting the Devil in his rightful place – in fiction, if not in fact.
Ann Farmer lives in the UK. She is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (CUAP, 2008); The Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (St Pauls, 1995), and Prophets & Priests: the Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (St Austin Press, 2002).