“We are not a starry-eyed lot.”
Mystery-and-detective fiction, in Britain at least, has been experiencing a decided revival since the mid 2010s, in part owing to – and evidenced by – the re-release of so-called golden-age whodunits by the British Library. What the public’s readiness to soak up all that blood of yesteryear might tell us about the mores of the present day I shall leave to sociologists to unravel. I, for one, welcomed that reopening of landmark trials and half-forgotten cases, not only as a chance at armchair detection – especially during pandemic times standing eerily still – but as an opportunity to reflect on my murderous past by returning to those crime scenes in middle age, knowing full well and being quite relieved that, by catching up, I could never go home again to what did not feel like home to begin with.
That said, picking up the clues and piecing together the puzzle we are to ourselves, I feel a queer consistency – or consistent queerness – at the racing, bleeding or prematurely failing heart of it all.
My transition from children’s literature to ostensibly grown-up fiction did not happen via the young adult section of a lending library. Fictions about growing up rarely spoke to me, as, back then, they were largely silent about desires that, while no longer criminalized, were deemed unfit for titles on general display.
Murder mysteries, in their indiscriminate pronouncements of death sentences, were reassuring in that respect. Anyone could be a suspect or victim, and eventually the act of victimization would be disclosed. Murder, at least, will out. The most formulaic mysteries were the most agreeable to me. I did not care for social realism that did not match my felt reality. Agatha Christie whodunits, in particular, I appreciated for the perfunctory relentlessness of their nursery rhyme catechism in counting down and categorical settling of accounts.
Returning now to detective fiction via some of Christie’s notable but lesser-known contemporary competitors, I look for and find a renewed relevance. Ngaio Marsh’s Clutch of Constables (1968), a copy of which I spotted in a local charity shop, makes considerable efforts to encourage such a reassessment.
To begin with, those Constables referred to in the title are not officers of the law: they are patches of the outdoors featured in landscape paintings by the artist of the same name. I would not have been alive to Marsh’s wordplay that all those years ago, when I was reading A Clutch of Constables in a German translation, removed from the culture in which they were produced and of which they speak. To be sure, the German title of Marsh’s mystery – Mord auf dem Fluss – is so generic as to leave neither a hint of its origins nor a trace in my memory; I had to consult an old diary to discover that I had indeed read it some thirty-five years earlier.
Significantly, the Constables in question are not the real thing – and, as I know now, being a reader and writer of art’s histories, even the real thing was not a true picture of parts of Britain but a commentary on changing times. The same can be said about A Clutch of Constables.
The action of Marsh’s novel takes place aboard the “pleasure-craft Zodiac” as it leisurely cruises on a meandering river. “For Five Days you Step out of Time,” the operators promise in their advertising – but there is no sidestepping the sign of the times. And however picturesque the scenery, the river has not escaped pollution, with “detergent foam” muddying the waters and our image of an England steeped in history and yet somehow untouched by it. Want your murders “cozy”? No soap, says Marsh.
By the time Clutch of Constables was published, Marsh had been in the guessing game for decades, and the whodunit was well past its prime. Her aim, clearly, was to make her later work resonate with a new generation of mystery readers while remaining within the established boundaries of the genre.
What caught my attention was the self-consciousness with which Marsh’s mystery, for all its adroit plotting, reflected on its grappling with social relevance. Marsh’s portrayal of two American, er, tourists, at once conservative and conniving, both reflects and reinforces changing attitudes towards the United States during the Vietnam War. One of the characters, the surgeon Doctor Natouche – black and British – is the subject of harassment, stereotyping and suspicion. And while readers are not encouraged altogether to rule out his guilt, those who judge him based on the color of his skin – the visiting Americans among them – are proven wrong both morally and intellectually.
Marsh’s narrative also enables the spouse of her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, to assume center stage. Agatha “Troy” Alleyn is an exhibiting artist and an astute observer reporting from the scene of the crime. Even though, eventually, she is unceremoniously dismissed so her husband can take over and solve the crime, that position is justified by Marsh, and a reference to a popular franchise character serves as a reminder that latest developments in crime fiction are far from advanced: “In the Force our wives are not called upon to serve in female James-Bondage and I imagine most of you would agree that any notion of their involvement in our work would be outlandish, ludicrous and extremely unpalatable.”
In A Clutch of Constables, Marsh was making a plea for whodunits as a force for good, capable of making a difference by exposing prejudices rooted in the widely held but erroneous notion of a homogenous British society. Take this passage, for instance, in which Inspector Alleyn – who is also an educator in and of the police force – reflects on the task of detection:
The moral is: that it takes all sorts to make a thoroughly bad lot and it sometimes takes a conscientious police officer quite a long time to realise this simple fact of unsavoury life. You can’t type criminals.
Detective fiction need not be removed from the lives and causes that matter, Marsh seems to say, anticipating the debates of the present day. Taking the policing genre to task, A Clutch of Constables releases it from the grasp of those clinging to the false memory of a none-too-golden past. “We are not a starry-eyed lot,” Alleyn insists:
But at the risk of getting right off the track – a most undesirable proceeding – I would like to say this. You won’t be any the worse at your job if you can keep your humanity. If you lose it altogether you’ll be, in my opinion, better out of the Force because with it you’ll have lost your sense of values and that’s a dire thing to befall any policeman.
That “dire thing” may also “befall” the writer of cleverly crafted whodunits. To avoid such failings, Marsh not only communicates her values but, in those asides, advises her peers to not to let go of their fellow feeling at the profitable drop of another clutch of lifeless bodies.