Friday, 21 September 2012

Delicious Death: The Detection Club

I am currently recovering from a dissertation about crime. So naturally, the only thing I want to read about is crime.

I bought Ask A Policeman as an extremely tenuous bit of dissertation 'research' (because Agatha Christie wrote the introduction and Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the chapters) but also because it is extremely relevant to my interests. I am competely and tragically obsessed with Golden Age detective fiction. My father gave me an Agatha Christie novel when I was twelve; I read one page of it and realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Not that it hasn't had competition. In the extensive game of Imaginary Historical Friends that I've been playing for years, I've never been able to decide whether I'd prefer to be a Pre-Raphaelite Brother or part of the Byron/Shelley Sexual Licentiousness and Monsters tour of 1816. Or maybe a beat poet. So many choices. But I have come to realise that all this is kind of contingent on me suddenly becoming a man, because the ladies in each group tended to get a raw deal. I am now, therefore, beginning to think that what I would really like to have been is a member of the Detection Club in the 1930s.

The more I read about The Detection Club, the more I discover how awesome it was. If you're a Christie fan, you've probably read about it (in a thinly disguised form) in her book of Miss Marple stories The Thirteen Problems. Basically, it was made up by a group of crime novelists in 1930 to 'further the cause of the clue puzzle form' ie. hang out, get squiffy and talk about murder. Not only were quite a few of the principal members women (Dorothy Sayers even wrote the official oath, which is hilarious), but it's pretty clear that the club members had a totally great time together, as witnessed by the fact that one of their favourite activities was making fun of each other in the things they wrote. Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case has a spot-on send-up of Agatha Christie, and in Ask a Policemen, one of the club's collaborative efforts, the writers all swapped detectives in order to be able to take the piss out of each other with even greater ease than usual.

Now, even though I know its authors have done this (because the blurb says so), I didn't find Ask a Policeman quite the humour-fest they clearly intended it to be. This is because, apart from Lord Wimsey, most of these detectives (and their authors) mean absolutely nothing to a reader from 2012. Certain things age well, and certain things don't, and although I would like to make the case for Anthony Berkeley (if you're interested in him, he also wrote as Francis Iles for some incomprehensible reason), Helen Jackson and Gladys Mitchell ... have gone deservedly into that good night. Without any idea what was being riffed on I could sense the presence of jokes, but that was about it. I didn't know who Mrs Bradley or Sir John Saumarez were, and because of that a large part of Ask a Policeman's central premise fell flat for me.

I felt kind of bad about this - what kind of Golden Age crime novel buff am I? - but I would have felt far worse about my bewilderment if the entire novel had not been such a swirling maelstrom of well-bred confusion. The four writers were each given the same information about the murder and then told to go away and solve it without consulting each other, and the result is that none of the timings match up, people miraculously fall ill and get well from one chapter to the next and there are lots of bizarre plot threads left dangling in the breeze.

Now, to an extent this is par for the course for the genre they're writing in. The main criticism of Golden Age crime novels is that their plots are - to put it bluntly - bloody ridiculous. In the words of Raymond Chandler, they all feature 
the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.
For me, that's one of the most charming aspects of them, but if that annoys you, you should definitely not come within one hundred feet of Ask a Policemen. Ridiculousness oozes out of its every pore. 

Consider its set-up. Evil media mogul Lord Comstock (think Murdoch before Murdoch even existed) has been shot in his study while surrounded by a motley and unlikely list of haters who include a Bishop, an upper-class twit, a mysterious lady, a Police Commissioner and the inevitable effeminate male secretary. In a twist of fate so painfully unlikely that it makes my brain ache, the Home Secretary decides to call off the police force and draft in four amateur detectives to solve the case. Because when a major public figure has been murdered, the people I want investigating his death are an old rich woman, an actor, a Lord and... some sort of wealthy jobless person (I've read a few of Berkeley's Sheringham books by now and I like them but I STILL haven't been able to work out what he does). 

Where do you go from there? How can you make the whole thing not crushingly stupid? The answer is, you can't, and none of these authors even tries. Each detective comes to a different (and totally whacky) conclusion from their version of the facts (I use the phrase 'their version' advisedly), and the result is brain-melting non-linear information stew with lashings of super-British jolliness.

Ask a Policeman is the result of a lot of people having a lot of slightly elitist fun with each other. I really wish I had been one of those people, and it was clearly hysterically funny to write, but the result is the purest silly froth that doesn't translate well out of its original moment. When you read a Golden Age crime novel, even a daft one, it's hard not to be infected by the sheer joy of it, but I cannot underestimate what an enormous pile of nonsensical nuts this particular book is. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then Ask a Policeman is a camel with five humps, zebra stripes and a tail made out of moustaches.

This is a book for the very specialised reader. I found the Sayers and Berkeley sections charming (if crazy) because I know their work, but the other two parts were absolutely lost on me. It's a period piece that's aged like Poundland cava, a glimpse of a craze that was weird at the time and seems even weirder now. I love this genre like nothing else in the world, but I still have to give this particular novel

2 (affectionate) stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment