By P.D. James
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
We do not usually expect perfection in art. There’s good reason for this: in art, as in life, perfection is rare, perhaps impossible. It’s not a reasonable standard by which to judge something, be it a person or a work of art.
But, if there are not perfect works of art, might there be perfect genres? Might there not be artistic species which, honed over decades in the hands of the capable, achieve a perfection of form? Or, if perfection offends you as a concept, might we not think about certain kinds of art as apotheosized? Of having reached a sort of ideal consensus, a set of norms and prescriptions which, when followed, produce something familiar and yet also sublime?
As an example, consider the limerick. In a limerick, a specific, metered rhyme scheme is used to express material which is, canonically, humorous and crude. Both parts – the meter and the content – are requirements of the form. Both are crucial: limericks are so funny because the constraints imposed by the rhyme and meter force you, the listener, to anticipate the humor (or the filth). The limerick is sort of a perfect kind of art: known, efficient, un-improvable.
I’d like to argue that the British murder mystery is another perfect form of art, a genre whose conventions and standards have been honed to a state which cannot be meaningfully improved. The British murder mystery is a fully actualized art form.
This line of thinking has been prompted by the fact that I just read ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James. Now, despite being a fan of the murder mystery, I have never actually read P.D. James before – I wasn’t avoiding it, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I wanted to start at the beginning. Like many of her ilk, James has a favored creation, a detective who stars in most of her books. In James’ case, it is Adam Dalgliesh, a talk, dark, and handsome poet-detective. I’m a little anal about book order, so I wanted to start with the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, which is ‘Cover Her Face’, published in 1962.
‘Cover Her Face’ is a lovely little murder mystery. The Maxie family, of Martingale Manor in Essex, are planning their annual church fête (an aside: nothing good ever comes of a church fête in a murder mystery, and it is a testament to the success of the genre that the phrase “church fête” sends a chill down the spine of every American reader, despite the fact that none of us have ever encountered one in real life). The Maxie household has been under some recent strain: their patriarch is terminally ill, and is being cared for at Martingale by his wife, Eleanor Maxie. To help with his care, the family has recently brought on new help: the beautiful Sally Jupp, an unwed mother from the local womens’ refuge. When, on the night of the fête, Sally Jupp announces that she has been proposed to by Stephen Maxie, the estate’s heir, everyone is horrified. When she is found strangled the next morning, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard begins to wonder whether the murderer might have been a member of the household.
What should be clear from my description is that ‘Cover Her Face’ is an entirely doctrinaire murder mystery. No Agatha Christie novel could have been truer to the form; in fact, but for a more permissive attitude toward sexual intercourse, ‘Cover Her Face’ might easily have been written by Christie herself.
And I hope it is obvious from my preamble that I do not mean ‘doctrinaire’ as an insult. On the contrary, the reason that I am arguing for the perfection of the murder mystery as a form is because of how satisfying a totally doctrinaire murder novel can be.
It’s a little counter-intuitive, that something so formulaic could be so enjoyable to read, but it is not uncommon when you think about it. Many forms are like this: romantic comedies, horror movies, police procedurals. The predictability of these forms is part of what makes them enjoyable. As a consumer, you inhabit a familiar world, where the signals are transparent to you. That comfort frees your attention to focus on the details. It makes the experience of these genres psychically cozy: familiar and yet new at the same time.
Murder mysteries have a very well-developed set of norms and signals. We know that the murderer is never (never!) a wandering vagrant – it will always be a known entity, a member of the household (or one of their guests). Despite the fact that the murder will occur in a genteel setting, among church-going villagers or landed gentry, motives will abound, and there will be a surprisingly large number of plausible murderers. There will be some situational complexities that make reconstructing the actual crime difficult: the crime will have intersected with other, more minor sins. Multiple suspects will lie (in fact, most of them will be lying about something or other). Our detective, patient and opaque, will carefully unwrap it all, and will reveal the full complexity of the situation in a denouement which will somehow involve the entire cast of characters, who will be assembled in the drawing room.
As is probably clear, I’m fond of this genre, and, in my fondness, I object to the characterizing of these books as “guilty pleasures” or beach reading or whatever. Just because something is sold in airport bookstores doesn’t make it bad, and I see real literary achievement in the murder mystery. The fact that ‘Cover Her Face’ is so conventional and yet so good speaks to the strength of the genre.
And, yes, there is a murder aspect to its success: murder is fun to read about. But I believe that there is more to the popularity of the murder mystery than audience ghoulishness. I think that this is a perfectly balanced form: that it provides novelty and familiarity in perfect proportion. Any more predictable, and they would be boring; any less, and they wouldn’t be reliable. The murder mystery walks the fine line between these two outcomes, and it has been walking it successfully for generations.
This form, these norms, are extraordinarily robust. They have been replicated again and again by different people, in different times, in many different countries. They have spawned and informed other genres. In Darwinian terms, the British murder mystery must be considered one of the most successful forms in human literary history, and I suspect that I will be reading them with pleasure until I die.