I hadn’t planned to turn to crime when I stopped teaching but, to my surprise, it’s what I’ve ended up doing. Not committing it, you understand, but writing it – something that still, in some people’s eyes, comes to much the same thing. I’m still not exactly sure how this happened, but I think the explanation may lie in a few discoveries made in the years I spent as an English teacher.
The first is that what keeps us reading – reading anything – is the desire to find answers to questions. Who? What? Why? These are some of the ones we ask as we read – maybe not consciously and usually (although this wasn’t always the case with my students) not out loud. The more we want to find the answers the more we turn the pages, and the more the writer withholds those answers the quicker those pages turn. Some ‘literary’ novels have this page-turning quality but, as I discovered in the classroom, many don’t. Some, let’s face it (and many of my students did) can be pretty hard work.
All writers know how their novel will turn out (even if they might not when they start writing it) and could choose to reveal everything from the very beginning. Who lives. Who dies. Who marries whom. Who ends happily. Who ends unhappily. Some novels do precisely this, but the majority choose not to, holding things back, withholding information, inviting the reader to turn pages to find out what happens next . In crime fiction this technique is more central than it is in other types of novel. The very terms ‘whodunnit’ and ‘mystery’ show that readers of crime fiction are driven by the desire to discover hidden truths.
The second discovery I made is that a lot of the texts I was teaching could be seen as versions of crime fiction.
Take Jane Austen, for example. She might not be the first writer you think of when you think of crime fiction – in fact, she’s probably close to being the last — but in Emma she has written one of the great detective novels. There’s no body. There’s no murder. There’s not even any crime as we generally understand the term (the closest we get is the gypsies’ harassment of Harriet Smith and some poultry theft). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t mysteries to solve or there isn’t a detective on the case.
The detective in question is Emma Woodhouse. Like most modern detectives, she has her problems – in her case ‘ a tendency to think a little too well of herself’ and a habit of arranging other people’s lives, or more specifically other people’s marriages. When she tries to do this for her protegee Harriet Smith, the problems start. And the problems start because Emma can’t see what’s in front of her. There are plenty of clues as to what’s going on but Emma can’t see them because she sees what she wants to see rather than what is actually happening.
The great trick that Austen pulls is to deploy a subtle narrative technique in such a way that we, the readers, make the same mistakes as Emma. We have to read very carefully not to be drawn into Emma’s misreading – and, as with the best crime fiction, it’s only on rereading the text that we truly appreciate the writer’s skill in placing the red herrings while also revealing enough for the astute reader to work out the truth.
The only crimes in Emma’s world of Highbury are social ones, but in its strictly coded etiquette, in its world of a clearly understood sense of hierarchy and propriety these are crimes enough. Disappearing to Kingston – apparently for a haircut but in reality for something else. A hidden engagement. Saying something mean to an old lady. Having a piano delivered. Word games.
It’s hardly serial killer territory but the revelations at the climax of the novel are akin to the detective’s unravelling of the mystery and the identification of the killer. *
And what about Hamlet? Talk about a murder mystery. Is the Ghost right when he says Hamlet’s dad was murdered? And if he is, what’s Hamlet going to do about it? Poisoning, stabbing, subterfuge, set-ups, spying. Hamlet has it all. And if you want corpses you won’t be disappointed – at the end of the play the stage is littered with them.
At the heart of it all is Detective Hamlet. He wants to find out the truth but his problem is he can’t stop himself asking questions . When he should be tracking down the criminal he’s side-tracked by philosophical speculation (‘To be or not to be…’ etc) which may be interesting to him but isn’t doing much to make a dent in the crime stats. Like some Line of Duty police force there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark and Hamlet’s given the task of cleaning it up. He just about manages, but it finishes him off, knocking on the head any ideas of a series.
And then there’s Great Expectations. What better example is there of withholding information, of the big reveal, than the news (spoiler alert!) that Pip’s benefactor is not Miss Havisham but Magwitch?
In his essay ‘Why Crime Fiction Is Good For You’ Ian Rankin rightly observes that ‘many literary novels use the exact same tropes as crime fiction’. He also makes a claim which chimes with the third discovery I made in my teaching career – that ‘all readers are detectives’.
In my time in the classroom I stood in front of many detectives completely baffled by their current case. Those questions – who, what, why, where, when, wtf – were never far from their lips and their eyes were often glazed with confusion, especially when faced with a particularly tricky poem. I used to reassure them that reading was not a case of code-cracking, not a matter of looking for clues that would reveal a hidden meaning, but I realise now that was merely another in the long line of untruths I delivered to my charges.
There may now be less snobbery about crime fiction than there was in the past, but it’s still there. I’ve been asked several times whether I might do any ‘proper writing’ but I’m happy to stick with crime, using some of the tricks of Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens and trying to write books where readers want to know what happens next rather than how many pages they still have to wade through.
*(Only after writing this did I realise that P D James has already invited us to consider Emma as a detective novel – in 1998 she gave a talk to the Jane Austen Society’s AGM at Chawton, entitled ‘Emma Considered as a Detective Story’. Honest, guv!)