LONDON, ONTARIO – For a full quarter century through a City of London program called Focus 60, I worked as a discussion group convener for senior citizens – at least 90 percent of them women. While I also hosted one group which discussed current events for a few years, the two real mainstays of my convening years were weekly, two-hour sessions with a group of aspiring writers and another group of very accomplished readers; folks who’d read widely and avidly for 60 or 70-some years and were a goldmine of suggestions and recommendations. My reasons for finally packing in my job in June of 2012 were four-fold.
I had just turned 60 years old myself and figured it was probably time to toss this plum position over to a younger person. A lot of my enthusiasm for the job drained away when the front office started demanding police checks and diversity training workshops for all of their conveners. This demeaning irritation arose almost 20 years into my gig during which my employment record was utterly unstained by incidents of harassment, groping or (except for one addle-brained scribbler who wouldn’t stop writing about her bloody cat) disparagement. And for my final year they had retired the reading group due to dropping enrollment while the writing class just kept getting bigger and bigger – too big, in fact, to give an adequate amount of attention to each student. Also, that spring I had received my commission from the Catholic Art Guild to write Three Artists: Kurelek, Chambers & Curnoe and needing to undertake a large amount of research, I dreaded breaking my concentration every Friday to monitor this one discussion group.
But I think I might have found a way to hang in if the reading group had still been in play. Yes, I worked with some very talented writers over those 25 years and encouraged more than a few to develop worthwhile manuscripts. But I’d also had to wade through oceans of unfocussed, leaden and trivial twaddle, desperately suggesting ways to give shape and direction to the stubbornly amorphous and hopelessly inert. When the frequent drudgery of managing the writing class was no longer balanced off with the unmitigated pleasure of spending an equal amount of time each week in the company of people who loved to read great books, the game for me was no longer worth the candle.
One proviso I introduced to the reading group early on is something I heartily recommend to anyone who’s part of a book club: don’t get everybody in your group to prepare reports on the same bloody book. If your author has been the least bit prolific, encourage folks to read alternative volumes so that everybody has something different to report on and you get a far richer and more detailed picture of what your chosen author is up to. And if you want to consider some one-hit wonder like Margaret Mitchell of Gone with the Wind fame, open that meeting up to a wider discussion of some genre like ‘American historical novels’ or ‘writers from the American South’.
Realizing that I had a lot to learn from these lifelong readers, our group was run on democratic principles. Our authors and books were always chosen by group consensus and I was led to a lot of favourite writers at the behest of my readers. They got me to tackle some Brontes other than my beloved Emily and, seeing my enthusiasm for P.G. Wodehouse, pointed me in the direction of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. They introduced me to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (a great distaff coming-of-age novel) and two wonderfully humane and under-regarded writers with a genius for documenting the inner lives of women, Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald. One day when I was gushing on about the robust fearlessness of Hilaire Belloc, they informed me that he had an older sister, Marie Belloc-Lowndes, who was no slouch either; was in fact a bit of a pioneer in the early development of the mystery novel with The Lodger, and later created a series detective, one Hercules Popeau, who probably influenced Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Perhaps the single greatest change those ladies worked on my reading habits was they finally got me hooked on mysteries. Three times a year – at the beginning of each term in September, January and April when we drew up our prospectus for the next 12 weeks – my readers always insisted that we had to do a session on mysteries. As a teenager I had devoured Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories but after a few terms of revisiting those for the purpose of my reports to the class, it was clearly past time to expand my range and at least sample a few others. My resistance to the form was pronounced.
Even with authors I already esteemed for their essays and theological musings like G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and Dorothy L. Sayers, I had reflexively dismissed their mysteries – out of hand and unread – as unworthy commercial frippery that was only cranked out to keep the gears turning and a little coin coming in. God knows I was sufficiently cognizant of the lurching insecurities of the writer’s life that I didn’t begrudge any ink-stained wretch who had cobbled together some occasional access to a more dependably hefty royalty cheque. But I rejected the idea that there could possibly be any inherent literary value to novels of mystery and detection.
This prejudice wasn’t just the result of blind intellectual snobbery on my part. Surveying the reading patterns of my wife over the years (capable when the spirit moves her of extracting meaning and reward from texts too arid or daunting for me) I noticed there were times when she would turn down some recommendation I’d made to her, such as a Richard B. Wright novel, because she knew she’d find it too upsetting or troubling. Well, fair enough, I’d think. ‘To everything there is a season’, and all that. But then, not two hours later, I’d see she was chugging back some Scandinavian police procedural and I’d wonder how Wright’s portrait of a teacher undergoing an identity crisis or a spinster reviewing her outwardly uneventful life could be more upsetting than an account of a serial killer with a penchant for desecrating his corpses.
And the answer was that a lot of mysteries – particularly the ones which I came to favour that came out of Britain in the earlier decades of the 20th century during what aficionados call ‘The Golden Age’ – are at least as much a game or a puzzle with their own strictly observed rules and conventions as they are novels. One of the purest expressions of this gamesmanship was the existence of The Detection Club; a group of 20-some British mystery writers who gathered a few times a year to have dinners and “talk illimitable shop.” Included on the membership roll were some of the heaviest hitters of the day including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, Anthony Berkeley, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin.
Ronald Knox was a monsignor of the Roman Catholic Church and translator of The Holy Bible by day and a contriver of acrostic puzzles and author of such mysteries as The Body in the Silo and Footsteps at the Lock in his spare time. In his introduction to The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, Knox reproduced his tongue-in-cheek Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, for mystery story writers which he had first developed for the members of The Detection Club. His big list went like this:
1) The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2) All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3) Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4) No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5) No Chinaman must figure in the story. [Allow me to head off any hyperventilating Social Justice Warriors at the pass. Ronald Knox was anything but a racist. Martin Edwards in The Golden Age of Murder (2015) explains the light-hearted thinking behind Commandment #5: Knox was “poking fun at thriller writers whose reliance on sinister Oriental villains had already become a racist cliché. The most famous culprit was Sax Rohmer (the exotic pseudonym of Birmingham-born Arthur Ward), creator of the villainous Fu Manchu, embodiment of ‘the Yellow Peril’.”]
6) No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7) The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8) The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9) The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
In a spirit that would have delighted Knox, Czech-Canadian author Josef Skvorecky produced a series of ten linked detective stories in 1973 called Sins for Father Knox in which he gleefully broke every one of the monsignor’s commandments. And his fellow Detection Club member, Agatha Christie, regarded as the Queen of Crime more for her fiendishly ingenious plotting than her often plodding prose style, probably broke at least half of the Decalogue over the course of her career with Knox’s full-throated approval.
In 1931, thirteen Detection Club members produced a rollicking round-robin of a mystery novel called The Floating Admiral, which I regard as the acme of the lighthearted playfulness which marked the mystery-writing fraternity of that period. Another clergyman, this one the Anglican Canon Victor L. Whitechurch, kicks off the proceedings in the book’s first chapter – Corpse Ahoy! – in which the body of retired Admiral Penistone is found lying face-up in a tide-drifted rowboat; his crisp, white evening dress shirt stained with blood from a stiletto-type puncture. The story is then passed over to another writer for Chapter Two, then another for Chapter Three and so on. Ronald Knox handled Chapter Eight which he called, Thirty-Nine Articles of Doubt, and poor Anthony Berkeley who was responsible for the twelfth and final chapter in which all must be resolved and explained, called his contribution, Clearing Up the Mess.
In her introduction to The Floating Admiral, Dorothy L. Sayers explained some of the challenges incurred along the way. “Except in the case of Mr. Chesterton’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. Two rules only were imposed. Each writer must instruct his instalment with a definite solution in view – that is, he must not introduce new complications merely “to make it more difficult.” He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery. Secondly, each writer was bound to deal faithfully with all the difficulties left for his consideration by his predecessors ... Naturally, as the clues became in process of time more numerous, the suggested solutions grew more complicated and precise, while the general outlines of the plot gradually hardened and fixed themselves.”
Sayers then pinpointed a baffling literary hazard that could be as profitably considered by anybody arguing with an ideological opponent as her fellow Floating Admiral scribes: “It is entertaining and instructive to note the surprising number of different interpretations which may be devised to account for the simplest actions. Where one writer may have laid down a clue, thinking that it could point only in one obvious direction, succeeding writers have managed to make it point in a direction exactly opposite. And it is here, perhaps, that the game approximates most closely to real life. We judge one another by our outward actions, but in the motive underlying those actions our judgement may be widely at fault. Preoccupied by our own private interpretation of the matter, we can see only the one possible motive behind the action, so that our solution may be quite plausible, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”
The key element with all the Golden Age mysteries is that you aren’t expected to take them as seriously, or to get so personally involved, as you do with less circumscribed and less generic novels of ideas or character which, if they’re handled at all well, will frequently throw light on your own life or unfolding trends in the larger world so that they continue to reside and percolate in your mind as you go about your daily business. There are times when you’ve already got your own mind going full throttle on some besetting preoccupation or task and while you still want to read a good book, you’d just as soon it didn’t challenge you or provoke you or prod you to open up whole new neural pathways in your mental circuitry.
If I don’t care so much for more contemporary mysteries – even though they can be brilliantly written – it’s because so many of them tend to crank up the menace and the gore and the psychological complexity and forgo the harmless fun. And I am far from alone in this aversion. There is an enduringly popular sub-category of mystery called the ‘cozy’. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing says, “The quintessential cozy is a murder in a country house during a snowstorm as family and friends gather for a holiday when no one can escape.” Now I ask you, what could be more agreeable than that? Also consider the impressive number of mystery novels and anthologies that are specifically tied to that highest holy day of coziness itself – Christmas.
I also reserve my very deepest contempt for filmmakers who latch on to the great old mysteries as properties which they can deform and generally ruin by rejigging the stories in preposterous ways that have no grounding in the original tales and imposing upon them modern values of taste and tone and production. By some miracle British TV producers worked uncanny wonders in the 80s, first with the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, then Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple and David Suchet’s Poirot. Yes, some of the final episodes of the Holmes and Poirot series were uneven and bizarre (whereas Hickson’s Marple never missed a beat) but compared to productions of those stories that were previously and subsequently tackled, those three series stand miles ahead for getting the tone and the atmospheres right and for their faithfulness to the original texts.
I have a friend (who’d probably just as soon not be identified) who once wrote me a not-entirely-serious cry for help when she was assiduously reading her way through one Poirot mystery after another. “What’s happened to my mind?” she asked. “I used to be able to read real books.” Well, I told her, while I’d never gone on a ‘nothing-but-mysteries’ tear quite so prolonged as hers (I did three Josephine Teys in a row once which shortchanged my experience of the last two so that I feel I should really reread them) I didn’t think it was so alarming that she was holding heavier literature at bay for a while. That month she was changing jobs and moving house. It seemed perfectly understandable that she didn’t want anything more from her reading than some well-crafted distraction and amusement. “If you’re still reading non-stop Christies in two months’ time, I’ll bring over some James Joyce and Thomas Aquinas and we’ll stage an intervention,” I told her.
We’re talking about a two way street here; about the need for a little balance. Like every second person I’ve been bumping into over the last few months, I’m a huge fan of Jordan Peterson and thoroughly approve of the sense of earnestness and aspiration which he is awakening in so many people, particularly among the drifting, disenfranchised young. But I must admit I blanched a little when those logarithmic monomaniacs at Amazon answered the order I placed for Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos with their suggestion of some other books that I might find interesting: Friedrich Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either / Or and Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. It so happens that I’ve read two of them and nosed around extensively in the others. But my goodness, you could grind your way through those four tomes and then wait for someone from the Jollity Clinic to come and scrape you off the floor with a spatula. Would it have killed you, Amazon, just for the sake of variety, to recommend The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie or Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse?