Friday, October 19, 2012

“English Mystery Writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries”

Joanne Klein, Ph.D., professor of modern comparative European history, Boise State University, presented a program about English mystery writers from 1860’s to the present day at the Hayden library last fall compliments of the Idaho Humanities Council.

According to Klein, Wilkie Collins is credited as the grandfather of English detective fiction with his novel The Woman in White (1859).  His works were classified at the time as sensational novels, a genre seen today as the precursor to detective and suspense fiction. Collins became friends with Charles Dickens who published many of Collins’ works (and Edgar Alan Poe’s) as serials in his Household Words magazines. Collins humanized the detectives giving acceptance to real detective work and popularizing the mystery story genre.

Authors like C. K. Chesterton (Father Brown series), E. W. Hornung (Raffles series) and Edgar Wallace (172 novels and 17 plays) wrote during this so named “Golden Age of Detective Stories” (1880’s to 1914) Klein reported. Reading was starting to appeal to the working class through magazines. The stories, much like today’s stories, gave people respite from their ordinary lives. Investigators solved crimes by accident rather than deduction or sophisticated procedures. Scotland Yard began to become respectable after failure to catch Jack the Ripper allowing this emerging genre to continue to grow.

Immediately following World War I, actual policemen were of better quality and thus respectability of the profession crept into society as well as into the mystery genre. In the 1920’s-1930’s, Klein explained, plots turned to puzzle solving. Agatha Christie created a widely emulated formula of an idealized English village, bumbling vicar, good detective, but with crimes solved by ordinary people. The culprits were always caught.

Books published during WWII were “cozy” mysteries ignoring real life written again for escapism. At the end of the 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the plots featured respectable policemen but they were not depicted as ordinary people. Sympathetic criminals began to emerge during the 1970’s. Stories became more realistic with uglier crimes that involve team work and the introduction of forensic science; police were depicted as regular people with their own foibles. Many English authors today want to maintain an idealized England of  former days when England was the top power in the world. Scotsman Ian Rankin tops the list as one of the prolific and best British writers of the modern day mystery genre. (This talk centered only on English mystery authors not those non-British authors whose mysteries set in England a la Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes.)

Dr. Klein’s first book, Invisible Men: the Daily Lives of Police Constables in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool is published in both hardcover and paperback from Liverpool Press.                                 

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