Dear friends and readers,
With the re-airing of the 1975-78 Poldark mini-series, the imminent airing of a new one in March on British TV and in June on PBS, and my own coming course on the Poldark novels I’ve begun rereading Graham’s life-writing, travel books and mysteries. That Graham wrote powerful mystery-thrillers often turned into film noir or Hitchcock type movies shows a vein of emotion that also feeds into the Poldark series.
So, first up among the latter, his Forgotten Story, also set in Cornwall (1898), written just before Ross Poldark, so a historical regional novel as well as mystery.
I’ve given a thorough account of its relationship to the Poldark novels, Graham’s own repeated treatment of marital rape, and historical fiction; what I did not look into was its relationship to mystery-thrillers as a genre. This probably because until recently I never made any particular effort to view this sub-genre; that changed with watching Prime Suspect, and the recent spate of this genre as matter for film adaptations on PBS as well as my study of the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (itself a post-text romance as well as mystery, but that belongs on my Austen Reveries blog).
Since I know few people will click onto my previous blog on The Forgotten Story and read it, no matter how many clicks I offer, allow me briefly to discuss The Forgotten Story once again. I hope yet another edition will follow from the success of the coming new Poldark mini-series.
What I’m most impressed by is the opening and closing meditation about the records he used about the actual incident underlying this fiction distort and marginalize and make uncertain precisely what happened — not just deliberately (though that’s part of this) but because not enough real concern is felt for literal truth. The epilogue to another historical novel not Poldarkian, and also set in Cornwall, The Grove of Eagles, shows an unusual display of exasperation at his public: he was attacked for not sticking to literal truth. In fact the attack was a stalking horse for attacking his attack on hierarchy and respect for privilege and rank. As he says at its opening and closing what drew his to the events he chose partly to fictionalize (as above) and dramatize accurately enough with a point of view is that we can’t tell precisely what was the truth. The Poldark novels return to meditations about the nature of historical fiction now and again, though they never become post-modern self-reflexively — another reason he was not “lifted” to the sphere of consideration for prizes like the Booker.
The Forgotten Story is at heart a dark one, the story of a woman who has been murdering her relatives for a long time, gradually poisoning them, a woman it emerges with a twisted psychology of personal anger, spite, revulsion against others who were put off by her ugliness. Graham delves the psychological complexity of all his characters — their pathologies as well as peculiar configurations of socially derived behaviors; he is a proto-feminist in the way he presents his heroine, Patricia Veal, as unable to get a good job and finally returning to live with the (good enough) hero, Tom Harris, because she needs him and taking with her, her cousin, Anthony, the boy at the center of the fiction (though whose consciousness we see most of the action — creating suspense); more controversially, our hero rapes our heroine — it’s slid over and (as in Warleggan) we are led to interpret this rape (if we chose) as one where she gave in and was ever after somehow connected to this man (more than from the sex she had had with him before). We are led on in a kind of terror for her as her world collapses after the death of her father, and then in fear lest she or Anthony slowly die too.
It’s about a certain kind of business too — shipping in the later 1890s, carefully recreated, tavern life in Cornwall and how it functions, but more than that the seascape of Cornwall, its lands and towns — it’s about shipwreck and the dangers of the coast, clearly mirroring Graham’s experience as a coast guard during World War Two. The feel of modernity and the liberal point of view is so unfamiliar to us now we can miss it’s an Edwardian story, Edwardian society, a different group than is usually shown us. I recommend it — melancholy and dark yet with hope because there are a few good enough people (in just the way of his Poldark novels).
David Tennant as The Escape Artist (much touted, over-rated on PBS this past spring) — see Bloody Murders and Country Houses
Well, the power of Graham’s mystery-thriller and that of some few others I’ve read over the years (Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men left me anxious and tense each time I’d pick it up, and I remember it still), as well as the mystery-detective fiction LeCarre transformed into a serious political genre made me again wonder if this genre had any serious merit. I’d read a fine biography of Dashiell Hammet this summer (by Diana Johnson) as well as his screenplay for Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. My wondering comes from the reality that most of the time I’ve tried to read a detective fiction, I’ve found it boring, myself unable to process the next step in prose, not caring about what happened before the book opened, or offstage. From reading P.D. James’s The Maul and the Pear Tree and this summer Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, I gathered the “fun” I was supposed to be having was to outwit the author and discover the secrets he or she was leaving clues about. The formulaic nature of its competitive puzzle is beyond me as most of the time I can’t get myself to do crossword puzzles nor care which team wins in a game match.
I threw the topic out for discussion on my listservs and tonight Yvette and I discussed some of our favorite Dorothy Sayers’s novels — for these we both love, e.g., Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night. She has recently been rereading Sayers.
On my Women Writers through the Ages listserv @Yahoo, Fran linked in a stimulating essay defending detective and mystery fiction by Raymond Chandler, on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo, Tyler suggested the puzzle was the central attraction: the unravelling of the secret plots going on off-stage. Trollope is astute in his mockery of the Wilkie Collins school of detective fiction (The Moonstone with its Sergeant Cuff is sometimes said to be the first detective fiction in English)
The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone” (An Autobiography, 1980 Oxford Paperback, p 257).
and Trollope can’t be bothered to see this sort of thing as tremendously significant; doubtless Trollope would laugh at the literal kinds of minute anachronisms found by some readers and viewers, hurled at historical fiction/films to attack them as absurd. Well, this explanation is always there, and often at length at the end of the fiction/film.
I then read P.D. James on why she thought the invented story of Cordelia Gray (not her own) on PBS was so poor: “Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious.” And Julian Symonds in his excellent concise Bloody Murder on the centrality of crime to the best and recent books in the genre; he says there is sensationalist literature, and some subsets of these feature detection, crime and bloody murder; these he (and Chandler) say are superior to the “Golden Age of Fiction” by women writers (gentlewomen, disdainfully called). (The same kinds of dismissals of women writers of the 1930s in general in comparison to male writers is accounted for by Alison Light as anti-feminism in her Forever England.)
First the usual defense is that of Chandler who has an enormous chip on his shoulder) and James (in her Talking of Detective Fiction): that there is no difference between sheer entertainment and great art, and one genre no better than another. Then they drop that as it’s obviously not so as the formulaic and thin nature of so much detective fiction, the reality that so much detective or mystery fiction is poor, yet sells widely. No need to drag in the greatness of tragedy as a genre, of dark comedy, film noir and a host of other genres where when it’s well done, its superb. And the sad truth that these mystery-thrillers are preferred to serious realistic fiction by writers like George Eliot to Anthony Powell and William Styron. Their tenacious popularity may be seen on the US PBS channels: now that they’ve lost Mobil (their big funder for decades) they are going all mystery-thriller because they think that this brings in more eyeballs and thus more advertisers — for that’s what their sponsors are.
Then there are two schools of thought. The first argues that at the core of detective and mystery fiction is this explanation, this puzzle, these minute secrets and deductions to be solved. Chandler makes fun of it, but it is always there, however attenuated or done skillfully. In James’s Death comes to Pemberley it’s done at length and boringly at the end of the book — boring to me. Gosford Park cannot avoid it. Winston Graham has his explanations skillfully woven in, but in the end clarification is needed. It seems to me the tendency of those who talk about the puzzle as central is to downgrade the form.
The second argues the core is the bloody murder at the center; for Symons the mood is sensationalist and a crime central; Chandler is muddled and has both murder and detection at the center, but the best books rise about the puzzle for something more important, a story of say who has state power. For P.D. James that (to quote myself in my summary of A Time to Be Earnest): there must be an absolute convincing delineation of the body, the death, and how this event occurred and how it has affected all the events and people closely and not so closely concerned with the dead person. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen. It made me remember gazing on my father’s dead face and seeing the grim endurance he was meeting death with; Jim, my beloved was trembling all over as it occurred. Death in fact is a defining final experience. Its etched on the corpse. In Bernard Benstock’s essay on James in Twentieth Century Novelist he goes on about her clinical approach to death. While the people writing on LeCarre always talk of his political fables and how we see ruined lives, they don’t neglect the deaths. Symons calls his book, Bloody Murder.
I found The Forgotten Story to be serious because its center was death taken very seriously; it sickened the accomplice and he killed himself fleeing from having to do more murders; Susan Hill’s Various Haunts of Men is about a murderer who stalks victims (women); The Bletchley Circle grabs me because its crimes are those characteristically aimed at women, what is done to them before and during death (rape and humiliating physical torture). I’ll give this to Death Comes to Pemberley James also makes the point the death of Denny is senseless, meaningless, ironic. Cancer stories can’t become real until they begin to admit how unpatterned, senseless and meaningless is the disease’s (we feel) malevolence.
Death counts, it matters a lot, shapes our lives utterly each time one happens close to us, obviously to the person dying, and this brings detective, mystery books right into the tragic vein of art … Not Lear but it can partake.
A few last tentative thoughts: Now maybe one of the reasons I’ve not liked mysteries and thrillers and detective stories is I don’t like violence; I usually stay away from films that are violent — Breaking Bad was an exception, but as I think about it each death was presented individually and taken seriously. Still the citing of this brilliant mini-series and Yvette and my talk this evening makes me unsatisfied with this as a full explanation for the core of the genre when serious. What we found we liked in Sayers was the intriguing psychological analysis and examination of people’s social identities as what is the deep explanation for the murder. In another blog I’ll try to deal with Marion Frank’s essay on “The Transformation of a Genre: the Feminist Mystery Genre” (in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, ed. Susan Fendler). Are these stories not parables about the relationship of power and justice? Sayers read against the grain exposes her society.
Again and again people have said they read mysteries and detective stories because they are a comforting escape. I was thinking that this comfort came from what I took to be the usual ending of such stories until recently: the detective discovered who did it, tidied up the world, restored order, and delved out justice. Is it inherently a deeply conservative genre; can a genre be inherently part of a political vision. Gothic has been shown to be radical and questioning and at the same time absolutely upholding traditional and establishment values. The Policeman is the Hero in Foyle’s War. Now I’m not sure real justice was meted out most of the time (especially when the murderer was lower class, of a non-white ethnicity and had good reason for having gone mad), and have decided the use of these terms is unthinking, a kind of hum-and-buzz cant the person uses without examination. In a sense all art is a form of escape, its ordering gives us a sense of meaning and comfort, aesthetic satisfaction. The very real connection of mystery-thrillers with the gothic and in film, film noir, shows its coterminus lien on a genre anything but comforting. That Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) could really have murdered Mr Green and his first wife, and Anna, his loving wife (Joanne Froggart) can believe this and still love him devotedly makes them far more interesting than they would otherwise be …