The blurb says that I have written fifteen mystery novels set in the south of England from the 1920s to the 1960s. However, my recent work has focused on the earlier part of the period. It is the 1920s and 30s where I feel most at home. I was born in 1951
My choice of detective fiction (and I am quite picky about the boundary between detective stories and the crime novel) was inevitable. John Creasey’s Hammer the Toff was the first adult book that I read (when the village librarian allowed me to borrow the book with my pink ‘Junior Reader’ ticket). Since then, buying, selling, reading and writing detective novels has been an important part of my life. Most of all, I like talking about them.
When, last month, a customer was browsing around my bookshop, we realised that we were detection enthusiasts and talked, for far too long, about the good and bad in the genre. Through that discussion, with surprising little disagreement, we moved towards defining what made a truly satisfying detective novel. We realised that readers who come to the genre in retrospect – like us – are probably more critical than those who had first bite of the cherry. That’s because we have years of produce to choose from. But our conversation also highlighted that while general literature works when it challenges, provokes or even unsettles its readers, genre fiction is good when it satisfies the readers’ expectations. (Perhaps that is the beginning of cosiness) Look at romantic fiction, sci-fi, cowboy stories and modern historical romances and the dynamic is much the same. Immediately, we have interplay between the reader’s demands and the author’s offer.
My customer and I were using words like tailoring, constructing, sculpting, dovetailing and finishing. Words that suggest craftsmanship. As quality detective fiction emerged from the basic puzzle stories, from the early 1930s, detection readers became unwittingly discriminating as they looked for craftsmanship rather than mere entertainment or even artistic vision.
And so, I have been trying to come up to scratch. Believe me, I am very aware that I am no master of the craft but my limitations do not make the work any less enjoyable. I know that detection readers are ready to value truly crafted detective novels. Not only must the puzzle and solution be satisfying but all loose ends must be brought into the form. The suspicious character, who follows the detective but has nothing to do with the murder, must be satisfactorily explained. The witness who is locked in a garden shed cannot be left there to rot. Now, when we look back on the evidence of the golden age, with the perspective of two or three generations, we look for the construction, sculpture, dovetail and tailoring and fine finishing as we celebrate a truly well-crafted piece of work.
I explore further the development of the mystery writer’s craft in an episode of my podcast The History of English Detective Fiction. I hope you will spare a few minutes to listen to it.
Why am I drawn to those pre-war decades before I was born, which some people allow as historical mystery fiction? I have found that I can do so much more with those periods where policing was closer to the community, allowing a richness in the interaction between the detective and witnesses which would seem unrealistic in a modern murder story. At the same time, local gossip, love affairs, troublesome children, argumentative vicars and scurrilous fishmongers (not to mention good and honest burglars) can provide a lively context that impact on the detective’s progress. Those lost elements of yesterday’s communities present many colourful opportunities for the writer but, importantly, they tolerate humour and self-parody of the genre (an important ingredient of effective detective fiction). I am also interested in the minutiae of police history where the conditions of service that these old coppers suffered throw up plenty of ‘what ifs’ to play with.
Stephanie has asked if I plan to write in any other genres. Each evening, I do set aside half an hour when I write for my own pleasure with no thought of publication. In those moments, I have scribbled away in alternative genres but I am always conscious that I have no audience outside mystery fiction and to wander ‘off subject’ would certainly disappoint my existing readership.
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree – Peggy Pinch, Policeman’s Wife