Why the Death of Roger Ackroyd Matters

American Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because it’s horrible and dramatic and linked to me through my tragic backstory.

English Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because I don’t want to be late to tea.

A while ago we stumbled across the above quote on the internet. It made us laugh, and then it made us think, because we’re not sure it does justice to either classification of mystery.

The English murder mystery traditionally comes from a place of optimism. In it the world is inherently good, as are the people in it. When the detective is invoked it is because a Wrong has been committed that puts that goodness in jeopardy. It becomes the duty of Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, et al to restore that goodness, to preserve civilization. For that reason we often fail to see the corpse, or if we do, it is tidily presented. Not only that, the murder weapons we see in the early English mystery are often exotic, curio knives, pistols that date to the Boer war, sacrificial daggers and ancient artifacts.

Alison Light has argued that this is a reaction in Golden Age fiction especially, against the War. Readers needed the fantasy of clean, contained justice, not realistic renderings of corpses and their deaths. To a certain extent we suppose we must still need it, otherwise why be outraged when those ten Detection Club laws are broken? Why be startled by the violent death, the masses of fictive blood in Have His Carcass? Why care, as Edmund Wilson once famously asked, who killed Roger Ackroyd, and why be absolutely indignant when that particular solution is presented? Is it because in a civilized, well-ordered world, these things have no place?

We think it might be, and thinking on it, we recant; the loss of tea is a part of the English murder mystery since to delay it is to infringe upon civilization, and to lose the veneer of civility is to let the world fall, and that must not happen.

Often though, in American detective fiction, this is exactly what has happened. If the classic English mystery is cozy, the American is what writers of crime fiction call hardboiled. The detective is flawed, undeniably, but if s/he is flawed, so is their world. Where English mysteries begin from a place of optimism, the American begins from one of disillusionment. Here the world is fallen, the people imperfect. We see the corpses and more than that they are messy. There is violence and there are guns, people are battered and bruised; there is also blood, brains, severed limbs, and where in the English mystery these things would shock, here they feel inevitable. The world is an uncivilized one, tea will be late, and the detective is obliged to work outside the limits of the law to preserve it.

Never because of personal history though. While they undeniably have histories, when Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Vic Warshawski (to name but a few) fight devastating odds it is not in the name of their own private demons but because they must. Not to do so is to let a world they have sworn to protect fall to the Bay City Cops, the thugs, the mafia, is to sacrifice whatever innate goodness is left in the world. Their fight is to not to preserve, but to restore civilization and that fallen grace. Inevitably, it can’t be done all in one stint, so they go on fighting, never quite winning, but never wholly losing either. If the solution is not proclaimed with a triumphal yell, if the ends when tied together are frayed, it is because the victory in hardboiled fiction, like its corpses, is messy and its world a murky, changeable place in need of salvation.

Even here we’ve simplified it. We’ve not touched on the police procedural, which is a cat of another colour and exists at least in part to refute the isolated, defeatist world of the hardboiled gumshoe. Another time. For now it’s enough to have approximately sifted what it is that drives the mechanism of the hardboiled plot, why we love it, and why they fight.

2 thoughts on “Why the Death of Roger Ackroyd Matters

  1. It must be the day for philosophical musings on detective stories (E.L. Bates of stardancepress.com just had a good post on that, too). This is really good, and explains why I much prefer British stories to American ones.


  2. Reblogged this on amo vitam and commented:
    And yet another good post on detective fiction, from Christa at Chorister at Home (it must be the day for it). Her musings shed some light on my own preference for British detective stories over American ones.


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