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.

I Write This…

…Sitting on a startlingly orange sofa, as it happens, and balancing a lap-desk, not being possessed of a proper one. There’s the kitchen table, but we’ve an aversion to putting the computer at the same table where we take our tea. What we really sat down to do though wasn’t catch the atmosphere and character of Kinness Place, but collect together some of our favourite openings to books.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Is there a better beginning than Dodie Smith’s opening gambit to I capture the Castle? We have spent years trying to equal this one in our own writing, and likely won’t ever succeed. True at once to Cassandra’s voice, the tone of the story and our sense of the castle, this makes the promise that the story more than lives up to.

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. On the strength of that sentence, an Oxford friend sent us Rose McCauley’s The Towers of Trebizond.  The Oxford friend was right; we did love it. The story of Aunt Dot, Laurie, Fr Chantrey-Pigg and their journey to Turkey is full not only of evocative landscapes but also of some of the most nuanced treatment of religion we’ve read. We still go shivery thinking of Laurie’s first introduction to Jerusalem. We won’t spoil it. Read it. We want another person to help unravel the symbolism of the camel. Unconvinced?  The symbolic camel in question, and the High Mass both transpire in Oxford. Aunt Dot’s just that eccentric.

Long ago in London, in 1945, all the nice people were poor. It sounds like a fairytale, and Muriel Spark does have an ear for modern fairytales. This one is the beginning to The Girls of Slender Means. There is nothing you need to know about it except that the martyr is not a martyr and there is an unexploded bomb in the back garden of the May of Tech Club.

They’re all dead now. So begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s gothic novel Fall on Your Knees. This was the sentence that set us collecting sentences. The fact that we fell in love with the novel was purely an afterthought.

I suppose it must have ben the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side-aisles behind me. It wouldn’t be us without at least one Pym. She’s best read in well-worn cream paperbacks that smell of book. This is the opening of A Glass of Blessings, our second favourite after Excellent Women. Somehow she cuts right to the inciting  incident while still leaving us with the fuzzy impression that we’re not reading a carefully crafted novel, only a slice of someone’s life.

My father had a face that could stop a clock. This was the sentence that set us on our love of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We don’t read much fantasy or sic-fi. This manages to be both at once, as well as a consummate exercise in spot-the-literary-allusion. We’ve never looked back but have gone on to read this man’s work compulsively. Wherever academic coach Stephen Bloom is now, we owe him a tremendous debt for the recommendation.

Finally, what must be our favourite opening to a novel ever. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles an hour. This owes to David Lodge, specifically Changing Places. No one has ever made us laugh quite so much.

There are others of course; this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve tried to dodge our more obvious favourites, but we also can’t believe we’ve omitted so many; Lipman, Hardy, Monica Dickens are but a few. Some day we’ll draw up a list of favourite books and perhaps get around to doing her justice. In the meantime, go read!

A Lyric Fairytale

On Thursday we went down to Edinburgh for Rusalka. In the event we’ve not said, this is we venture, our favourite of all opera ever. For skilfully rendered story and devastatingly good music it’s unmatched.

When Scottish Opera announced Rusalka for this season we determined to go. We’ve not seen it live since the COC took it on 7 (?) years ago, and we wanted to. Nothing conveys the vulnerability, the messiness, the sheer effort of singing like a live performance. But outings like this run the risk of ending with us spending the third act nervously watching the clock and calculating the distance back to Waverly Station to catch the 23:08 back to Leuchars. We love our grey town by the sea, but it’s not exactly easy to reach if you can’t drive.

We’re glad we made the effort though. We never noticed the time, and we did catch the train, but this was more than that. Rusalka is, as it says on its title page, a lyrical fairytale at it’s heart, and this production had taken the idea and run with it. All the women, from Rusalka to the witch Jezibaba were given dresses that tapered and flared like fishtails. The men were all in woodsy greens and browns. It was lovely to look at, lovely to listen to, and best of all this was a production that brought interesting and new interpretations to its characters.

Jezibaba especially stood out in this respect. Every previous iteration of the opera we’ve seen has rendered her cartoonish, warts, rags, stoop and all. It wasn’t only that Scottish Opera gave us an elegant woman who acted as well as she sang. There was a depth we’ve never seen in the part before. Straight-shouldered and graceful, Jezibaba was still terrifying when call upon. There was also great tenderness in her music. This was a woman who looked at the abandoned Rusalka and saw in her something of herself and seeing it, offered her empowerment the best way she understood it. More than that though, we believed it of her, not only because the musical cues, the darkening of Rusalka’s leitmotif, it’s adoption of aspects of Jezibaba’s reinforced it, but because the performance sold the interpretation. Blood vengeance was part of her, certainly, but not the only part. And there was something far more chilling about the woman who could move from cradling Rusalka like a child to wielding a knife with menace than there was in that cartoonish witch we so often think of.

Vodnik the water gnome was memorable too, and we don’t say that lightly. Years of singing and we still find ourselves in alien territory when we hear basses. It’s not that we dislike them, it’s that it’s a different kind of listening. We’re comfortable with high notes, we sing them often, so we listen with understanding to the soprano, and gravitate towards those high lines because we can appreciate them. We can spot when a tempo’s unsympathetically slow and necessitating extra breaths, we know when a high note has landed, and while we know we could never do half so well, we can understand the hurdles to be got over and the nuances in the singing.

We can’t say that about the lower registers of the voice, which is why whenever we hear an especially good singer traverse those places -as happened the other evening – we can only listen with a certain amount of awe. We think of low notes and we think of falling (with a fair amount of control) down a well. It never sounds like that. This sounded like it rose up out of the floor, out of the space beneath the floor, possibly from somewhere dark and rich and warm deep in the earth itself. Think about what red velvet cake might sound like if it could sing. The really impressive thing though, is that a voice like that came out of a man submerged in the scenery. It turns out that if you literally make your water gnome, well, a water-gnome, complete with tail, free movement is sacrificed somewhat. It made it all the more effective when he did break free of the set. Power radiated off of him in waves, and we’ve never seen anything like that. It was awful in that old, archaic sense of the word, full of awe and wonderment.

It wouldn’t be Rusalka though without a mention of the Song to the Moon. We could rave about it forever –it’s our favourite aria if we have to choose –but we won’t. We can’t say anything meaningful that hasn’t been already. Suffice it to say it sounded like liquid gold, that those harps felt like coming home.

We’ll leave you with those harps. They say it best after all. And while this isn’t the performance we heard, it’s still a favourite.