Up Front by Emma Hart


Reading Murder Books

One of the great things – possibly the only great thing – about having a post-grad degree in English Literature is that I can now read whatever the fuck I want. I have earned my Book Cred. I will never read anything to impress anyone. After finishing my degree, it took me nearly a year to learn to read for pleasure again; not to analyse theme and form and subtext, not to look for good pull-quotes. To lose myself in a story.

Twice, as a child, I can remember being told off by teachers for reading something that wasn’t good enough for me. The first time, it was reading The Hardy Boys when I was nine. The second time, it was reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. That second time, my teacher gave me Jane Ayre instead. I read the first chapter, which weirded me out, and didn’t touch it again until I was nineteen, and fully capable of realising how dodgy that book is.

Hardy Boys. Agatha Christie. I once made friends with a strange woman twice my age because I was reading a Trixie Belden book, and she wanted to know if Trixie and Jim had hooked up yet. I still love detective fiction so much.

I know it’s genre, and formula, and to be sneered at nearly as much as romance. But a well-crafted mystery is a feat of the writer’s art. It’s a puzzle. Its solution should be both unforeseen by the reader, and make perfect sense in hindsight. It should be factually accurate and feel psychologically plausible.

So I never stopped reading Agatha Christie. After the earthquakes, I pillaged our much-diminished libraries of every book of hers I could find, even the later ‘drugs and spies’ books that maybe aren’t her best work. Then it was Ngaio Marsh and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries. They were comforting amongst so much pain and disruption.

The book I most often claim as my favourite is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which is one of the contenders for the title of “first detective novel”. It’s a masterful piece of fiction, especially considering Collins was bombed out of his skull on laudanum and managing two mistresses. It’s a series of first-person narratives from a succession of characters, and each narrator’s voice is absolutely distinctive.

And if it’s okay for me to love Victorian detective fiction, it is also okay for me to love Raymond Chandler, whom I consider to be a massively under-rated writer. People understand his contribution to the archetype of the hard-drinking deeply unhappy overcoat-wearing detective, but the imagery of his prose is still, after all this time, startlingly original.

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins.

I love murder mystery television too, though I tend to stick to adaptations of authors I haven’t read. There was some fearsome shouting at the telly when one P.D. James adaption removed the end plot-twist where it turned out the blackmailer wasn’t the killer after all, and replaced it with a chase across tidal flats and a fist-fight. I got through several seasons of Bones by pretending the show was nothing to do with Kathy Reichs’ books.

It’s not just old murder mysteries, books by women, and anything featuring Laurence Fox. I love Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch, because yeah, why not mysteries featuring vampires and wizards and werewolves? It’s not like we have any kudos to protect. We were never really trying to stay hip.

So let’s take time out from pre-Christmas stress and bitching and Judith Collins’ smug face, and share stories of our favourite murder books. New finds, old favourites, guilty pleasures, sheer kitsch disasters. Grab a seat and a gin; the book club is in session.

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