The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
— W.H. Auden
First, a confession:
I collect detective stories. Preferably old ones featuring spry and witty English gentlemen. I am in good company. T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were both self-described detective story addicts. The characterization is a telling one: reading detective stories, like drinking alcohol, wearing bottom-rolled trousers, and drinking Starbucks, is a mild vice frequently cultivated by highly educated people. I plead not guilty to the Starbucks.
It is a curious turn that, in a genre dominated by British practitioners, the first detective story was written by an American, Edgar Allan Poe, about a French detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe initiated several long-enduring tropes in detective fiction: the armchair detective, exercising ratiocination and what Hercule Poirot would later call the “leetle grey cells”; the leaden local police force; a companion narrator (in Poe’s case, unnamed, but serving as an obvious prototype for Hastings and Watson); a pre-Freudian reading of significance in the unintended, in hesitation, or eagerness, or the inadvertent word.
I’m not sure how old I was when I encountered my first detective, or even which detective it was – while writing this, I initially thought that Murder on the Orient Express was my introduction to detective stories, which I would have read around the age of thirteen. But in a time-slurred image, I also remember reading Sherlock Holmes while lying on my stomach on the living room floor of my aunt’s house in Garland, Texas, two years earlier, the plastic threads of the white carpet scratching my skin. I remember my father exhaling nasally over Sir Conan Doyle’s spiritualism, and the profiled thousand-mile stare of Mr. Holmes in his deerstalker on the cover of the library book. Although perhaps I’m superimposing that image onto the book from the Complete Sherlock Holmes that I bought, much later, at a thrift store in upstate New York.
By the time I lived near Poe’s old room, no. 13 on the Range, at the University of Virginia where I was getting my MA in English literature, I had mostly stopped collecting detective stories – many of them were, in fact, moldering in a storage loft in Missouri.
An explanatory word about the world’s most popular genre:
The so-called Golden Age of detective stories (roughly 1911-1941) is as much of a sub-genre as a time-period in which certain books were written – still, World War II effectively put a stop to all but nostalgic practices of the form. The main practitioners (Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, S.S. Van Dine) are familiar to many, and the chief (Agatha Christie) to practically everyone. Oxford writers all, or at least highly educated, murder was their material. Anything less was too dim and airless to bother with. Masters at that narrative necessity, withholding information, they provided a closed circle of suspects; a number of clues that only look like clues after you’ve arrived at the solution; a witty detective, usually although not exclusively with some claim to “good breeding” or aristocracy. They eschewed moves that smacked of the deus ex machina. They were exceedingly fair-minded toward their reader.
For my own tastes in setting, rural England is best, usually including a country house, but London will do in a pinch, especially if it’s navigated in Lord Peter Wimsey’s big Daimler. I’m not actually sure what a Daimler looks like, but I assume it has an impossibly long and gleaming hood, what the Brits call a “bonnet.” (This is the kind of anglophile nonsense you think you earn after a lifetime of reading period detective fiction). Even Lord Peter, though, manages to find himself in the country; the most notable excursion is probably in Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Nine Tailors, which might almost be accused of imitating the encyclopedic elements of the 19th century epic novel – think Moby Dick – with its long digressions on campanology, the study of bells and their ringing. When I found out that my father-in-law, who spends a lot of time driving, listened to an audio book of The Nine Tailors, I asked him how he had liked it. “It was boring,” he said. “There was no actual murderer.”
I once had a second-hand bookstore owner in west Texas sell me a slew of detective novels written by Americans in the 30s. He was trim and in his 60s and had a lined face. I already owned all the Sayers and Christie and Marsh that he had in stock. He said that if I liked Dorothy Sayers, I absolutely must read Ellery Queen, and wasn’t it hot out? He sold me Dead Man’s Tale and Death Spins the Platter by Ellery Queen and Death Times Three by Rex Stout. After reading them all, I resolved never again to speak to bookstore owners and never to buy American.
The detective stories I collect tend to ignore Kafka’s joke that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!”
The British novelist Martin Amis once commented, imagining death as a kind of room, that one person goes into death and nobody comes out. According to the detective story, two people go into the room and one comes out and a third person figures out who that second person is.
Kafka, we just need a more brilliant detective.
Dorothy, 106 ½ Pleasant St., Canastota, NY:
I encountered my first Dorothy L. Sayers novel as a teenager while staying overnight at a friend’s house. A shotgun house, it merited only a fraction for a house number. The house was up for sale, and Linda and Thomas’s marriage was on the rocks. I slept on the couch, which was covered over in a tasseled rug and stained throw pillows. My friend, Paul, and I usually stayed up late and played cards and watched movies. I frequently stayed up later and read random books from their shelves. I read Catch-22 for the first time on that couch, looking up nervously at the stairs during the sex scenes for any potential late-night interlopers. Paul and Linda, his mother, were both book enthusiasts and considered me worth cultivating. “Read Dorothy Sayers,” they said. “Is she better than Agatha Christie?” I asked. “Much,” they said, like they were pulling a slightly distasteful weed from my intellectual garden. The actual book might have been The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (which I consistently mentally mispronounced as the “Belladonna Club”), or it might have been Murder Must Advertise, a clever romp in which Lord Peter slums it at Pym’s Advertising Agency, eventually catching the murderer and kick-starting one of the world’s first viral advertising campaigns for cigarettes – this, of course, was back when people were just starting to smoke cigarettes, before everyone smoked, and before everyone stopped smoking. Regardless, I own both books now, parting gifts from Paul and Linda. Their last name is crossed out on the insides of the front flaps and my name scribbled below in a juvenile hand.
Last I heard, Linda and Thomas were still together and still living on Pleasant Street. Books are left behind or passed on more easily than some things. Perhaps that’s why some of us collect them so assiduously.
My murder plots:
Any one of the Marx brothers offs any other one of the Marx brothers. The third Marx brother gets the solve.
Faulkner kills Hemingway, staging the murder as an accidental bull-goring. Never solved.
Antony Lamont and Paul Shanahan escape from Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds and murder James Joyce. They leave a confession on Krapp’s last tape. Krapp subsequently erases the confession.
Few detectives are actually fine enough to outwit the world’s chaos.
Fathers and Mexico City, Mexico:
Sometime after my initial discovery of Sayers, Christie, and Doyle, my father contracted hepatitis from eating raw fish. It turned from acute to chronic, and he ended up spending a good deal of the next few years in bed. My father, an energetic man with many enthusiasms, few of which were sedentary or, strictly speaking, intellectual, chafed at the confinement. He swung back and forth in bed like a door on its hinges. His face, slowly going yellowish-white above the blankets, folded in on itself, into an envelope of private boredom and suffering. My father had recently transplanted my family to Mexico City, and the tall trees and serpentine hill-roads of upstate New York were fading quickly from my consciousness. They must have lingered longer with him, being more deeply embedded. The amorphous press of the city, enough to make a healthy man gasp for breath, sunk him constantly deeper into his pillows.
Somewhere along the way, he asked me to read to him; it helped him sleep. I had a mildewed copy of The Best of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, stories about a mild-mannered priest-detective, that I had recently finished reading, and so I began it again, reading sometimes in a terrible British accent, sometimes in a drowsy monotone. When my father had fallen asleep and my voice had guttered out, gently suffocating in the close, recycled air, I would sit and listen to the traffic just beyond the barred windows.
My wife and I bought a three-bedroom cottage in St. Louis in July of last year. Almost the first time in my life living somewhere that wasn’t rented or borrowed. Soon after, in the backyard, we built over 70 feet of custom book shelves to install in the finished basement. I dug the entirety of my book collection out of storage for the first time in five years. The detective stories sit above modern and contemporary literature and below philosophy and theology.
A couple of months ago, I received a message from my father. His voice, hesitant on the other end. So I’ve been in the greenhouse. The place is a disaster. Haven’t been in there for ages. I worked in there all day, listening to Father Brown stories on my iPod. I wondered if he remembered the endings to any of the stories, or if each one came as a surprise, like a gift of innocence or like the new contours of your own street after a snowfall.
Photo Credits: Sashanna Caldwell
Caleb Caldwell is a Ph.D. student at Washington University – St. Louis. He reads and writes about many of the usual suspects. His work, scholarly and otherwise, has been published in several print and online publications, including MAKE magazine, Slant, and Religion & Literature.