*trigger warning: I here discuss quite plainly both murder and rape*
As stated at the start of the year, I aimed to read at least some books this year that I either disagree with or that are off my beaten track. One of those that was suggested to me was anything by P.D. James, the murder mystery writer who died last autumn. At the time of writing this, I am about a third of the way through her first Adam Dalgleish novel, Cover Her Face. I will be posting my review of the book in a couple of days.
As a preface to that, though, I wanted to explore why it is that I find murder mystery stories so offputting. The primary objection has to be that it makes light of a hideous crime. The wilful ending of another’s life is an unspeakable act of evil and to turn it into a form of entertainment seems perverse. There are plenty of things in the world that are entertaining; it is decidedly odd that so much attention is focused on this one form.
It could be argued that the entertainment is not in the murder but in the mystery. If this is so, then why is the murder such an important feature? It is possible to have mysteries in other forms, there seems to be no pressing need for a wrongful death to kick start the plot. I have wondered if a ghost story might differ, though that also might well begin with a wrongful death, though we are not witness to the act, merely the aftermath.
What about a robbery? It is not always clear from the outset who committed them, so are inherently mysterious, but they are solvable, just like murders. Yet this is still a crime. Could we think of another form of mystery that doesn’t entail any breaking of the law?
The one that springs to my mind is that of a scientific discovery. I don’t recall too many shelves in bookshops that contain fictional scientific discoveries. Possibly the reason this hasn’t taken off is that science is concerned with well-evidenced facts about the universe that are universal. If one fictionalises it, it could easily be debunked as nonsense. That said, fanciful, falsifiable rubbish never stopped Dan Brown.
There is a further crime to consider here. It is the one crime that has, in recent years, been the focus of attention from many a feminist campaigner: Rape. Imagine the outcry there would be if an author (and the publisher allowed it) wrote a series of novels, launching a whole genre whereby the impetus for the plot was the vile, violent act of sexual intrusion. I strongly doubt it would become a readily accepted form of literature. The closest we got recently was the much publicised (and from what I hear, awfully written) Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured a certain of BDSM and abuse. The film adaptation yielded some protests, yet I can’t think that if one went further and had an adaptation of a “rape mystery” then the protests would be much more vocal and widespread.
If that supposition is correct, then why do we, as a culture, see murder as more acceptable than rape? Both are despicable, violent acts which in one case ends a life and in the other devastates a life. It is tempting to think that we have simply become desensitised to murder as a result of the literary and cinematic portrayals of it, whereas rape remains taboo. But I’m not convinced that view is right. If it were, then it fails to explain how murder mystery became such a popular genre. If it had been equally as taboo as rape, then how did it gain traction without giving rise to protest? At least, I’m not aware that the works of Agatha Christie were the subject of much controversy at the time they were written. Nor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is, as far I understand, one of the early examples of what we would understand to be a murder mystery story.
Without thoroughly investigating the history of the genre, I cannot give a firm answer. I have only my opinion. And that opinion is that there is something deeply disturbing about the glibness with which we, as a whole, treat murder in fiction. But I’m willing to have that opinion changed; so, as stated at the top, I shall read and review a novel by P.D. James.