Apart from the notoriously uneven course of true love, murder and espionage are the favourite subjects of popular fiction. Popularity does not entail poor quality, however; precisely because of the demands of the genre, crime fiction in particular is often very well written, much better written in fact than more self-consciously literary fiction. Intellectuals are therefore by no means ashamed to acknowledge that they are aficionados of the literature of homicide; Bertrand Russell read one crime novel a day for long periods of his life.
British crime fiction falls approximately into two schools: the genteel and the rough. The genteel school was dominant in the golden age, when murder erupted unexpectedly in pretty English villages, country houses and ancient institutions of learning, only for justice to be done in the end and the immemorial, and morally impeccable, order to be restored. The books were often as much comedies of manners as intellectual puzzles; their effect was not to disturb but to comfort and reassure.
More recently, however, the rough school has prevailed. The fact is that most murder is sordid, and we seem to have lost our taste both for reassurance and for averting our gaze from reality. So convinced have we become that life is indeed fundamentally sordid, whatever its surface qualities, that the more squalid the story recounted in a crime novel the more convinced we are of its authenticity. By means of such fiction we can indulge in prurience while believing that we are bravely facing up to the world as it is.
Nevertheless, P.D. James, one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, tends to the genteel end of the spectrum. Her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, writes poetry, has what used to be called a private income and is a man of refined tastes, able to tell a good claret from a bottle of plonk. He seems to belong more to the world of distinguished barristers and High Court judges than to that of his fellow policemen; and he would be more at home in the Athenaeum than in the pub or the canteen. He is a throwback to the days when chief constables had not risen through the ranks but were retired brigadiers and the like.