Talking crime – on why we love a good murder mystery….

At last I post the second of my Talking Books radio shows. I mean to post these relatively quickly after the show goes out, but a) have not yet learned how to edit and record the show myself so must rely on the good nature of others and b) I want to write a post that adds something to the show and takes the ideas a little further. I have done three shows now and each one could have gone on for hours, so interesting was the subject and the studio guest associated with it.

On 12th April I was talking crime writing with author Jane McLoughlin. Before the show I canvassed by Twitter and Facebook chums as usual  Who are your favourite crime writers? Who is the greatest fictional detective in your view? Which crime series has transferred best to small and big screens? I managed to get a few of the ideas into the show but I had such a good response I thought I would go into just a little more detail here.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

So – the greatest fictional detective award goes to…who else? Sherlock Holmes. (Overwhelmingly the most popular portrayal of the great man was by Jeremy Brett). Robin Vanags, 10Radio’s voice over specialist read a short extract from A Study in Scarlet on the show,  in which we experience Holmes’ deductive powers for the first time, to Watson’s general bewilderment.  There is little to match it and such wit and originality has inspired so many subsequent writers that the respect is well-earned. However, the ‘boom’ in crime fiction started in the 1920s and 1930s and as I mention on the show there are interesting theories as to why.

Ask yourself the question (if, that is, you enjoy crime fiction) ‘why do I enjoy reading about dark mysteries and gory murders?’ For many of us it is the enjoyment gained from trying to work out ‘who dunnit’ or ‘why dunnit’. We want to engage with the detective, attempting to beat them to the solution. It is a challenge. But it is also a thrill – a safe one. In reality we would shun the criminals, hate to read about the crimes and find detectives threatening.

The work I have been doing for Shell Shocked Britain threw up an interesting theory that offers an unexpected perspective on the aftermath of the Great War. The work of Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers were a direct response to the war. The environment all three women created was a relatively ‘safe’ old England, but underneath the cracked surfaces of the ploughed fields and old church floors horror and death lurked. Women were particularly adept at evoking this sense of domesticity threatened. They played with the role of women in society and class tensions. This is a direct response to the horrors of the Great War, during which anxiety and fear, death and loss were never out of mind. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a shell shocked Great War veteran.

After the war ended, was there a continuing need for that sense of danger, of the unexpected and of the randomness of death? I find it a convincing argument. Many of those who enjoy reading crime fiction now love the cosy domestic settings of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or more recently the Cotswolds that are home to M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin. Others wish to raise their adrenaline levels higher, travelling to  Sweden to follow Wallander, or across America with Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. I am enjoying crime novels set in the 19th Century at them moment and got in a mention for Lynn Shepherd and D.E. Meredith, both of whom had me riveted to their books in the past year. (Neither of whom hold back when it comes to the blood and guts.)

So is there a part of the human psyche that wants to face death; to see a dead body, understand the mind of a killer and to bring him or her to justice? Or are we all potential detectives, or even killers, eager to see how it is done?

Jane McLoughlin (who writes quite dark crime fiction herself  - I shall review  the book she gave me A Nice Place to Die on here soon) and I didn’t come to any firm conclusions on the radio show, but it was a fascinating discussion which could have gone on for hours. Once again I am not sure I have got the knack of staying close enough to the microphone but I get so enthusiastic I find it hard to sit still….

Anyway, do listen if you have a moment. You can skip bits if I am waffling. I will post the next show – talking books about or set in France – later this week. Do let me know what you think, or have any hints for improving the way it is structured or how I sound. I really do want to learn. I may not make the BBC but now I know why they hold on to their jobs for as long as possible….

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