How Murder has Changed

The Private Patient by P.D. James
Doors Open by Ian Rankin
A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré

Books Literature

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.

In his latest adventure, he investigates a murder of quality. The subject of his enquiry is not a corpse found rotting under the floorboards of a dosshouse but the murder of a well known investigative journalist, Rhoda Gradwyn, in an exclusive and luxurious clinic for plastic surgery.

The clinic is in a beautiful Elizabethan manor house in Dorset, a wing of which has been converted for that purpose by an eminent surgeon, Mr ­Chandler-­Powell. The victim has a terrible facial scar, inflicted upon her in childhood by her drunken father (in a scene brilliantly and convincingly evoked by the author), which the surgeon repairs. She is then strangled in her hospital bed as she recovers from her operation.

The elements of the classic ­country-house murder are in place. There are old retainers, a small number of possible culprits and (as it emerges) several people with strong motives for killing her. All that remains is to find which of them did it.

The problem is that gentility hardly exists nowadays, and therefore murder even in the most luxurious surroundings does not allow for the same resolution and comforting denouement as it did in the golden age. The world is not restored when the culprit is discovered. P.D. James keeps us reading to the last page, but we do not experience afterwards the warm glow that the classic novels of the golden age gave us.

Ian Rankin is our foremost crime writer of the rough school. His beat is the dark underside of Edinburgh’s elegance, the mean streets of the Scottish capital rather than the Georgian squares. Indeed, he inverts the relationship between the elegance and the meanness, so that it is the meanness that seems primary and the elegance secondary. In Rankin’s world, respectability is false, degradation is real.

Doors Open, however, is not one of Rankin’s novels featuring his famous detective, Inspector Rebus; instead, it is the story of an audacious art theft, in which genuine paintings are replaced by copies made by a gifted art student. The author brings the Edinburgh that is respectable and well heeled together with the Edinburgh of criminal gangs, thus dissolving the distance between them.

The characters are convincing and the plot amusing; one cannot help noticing its resemblance to a real crime in the art world, in which, at the behest of a swindler, a teacher in a provincial art school forged paintings by famous artists of the 20th century. The swindler then sold them to gallery owners and curators at prices that must have alerted their suspicions; but greed and ambition got the better of their judgment, and once they had bought they were in no position to expose the swindler.

There is acute psychology and social commentary in Doors Open. The emptiness of modern prosperity is suggested by the predicament of one of the main participants in the plot, a young computer entrepreneur who has made a quick fortune. He turns to audacious crime because of a lack of purpose and excitement in his life once he has sold his business.

No murder takes place in the book, but it ends with a scene of disturbing violence. Rankin does not allow us the comfort of believing that there is a respectable, decent and honest world into which crime intrudes as an alien force; in the world he describes, everyone is on the make and respectability but a veneer. This, in its own way, is as much a fable as the genteel England of the golden age.

One of the attractions of spy novels is that they persuade those of us who lead humdrum lives – that is to say, the great majority of us – that we are surrounded by deep and important intrigues. The man or woman sitting at the next table in a café or restaurant speaking to an interlocutor in a hushed voice may be involved in a game of ­double-­dealing upon which the fate of countries depends. Therefore, the world is not as dull as we suppose.

It sometimes seems as if the need for espionage springs eternal. As soon as one enemy is defeated, another who must be spied upon arises. Therefore, fears that John le Carré, whose most celebrated work was about espionage during the Cold War, would find himself without a subject after the fall of the Berlin Wall were mistaken: Islamic fundamentalism rushed obligingly in to fill the gap for him.

The need for spying in the new situation was obvious; indeed, the situation was particularly suited to le Carré’s rather convoluted style of narrative because of the inherent difficulties of distinguishing between terrorists on the one hand and ordinary peaceful citizens on the other, sympathisers being somewhere in between the two.

In A Most Wanted Man a half-­Russian, half-­Chechen illegal immigrant to Germany with a past as a Muslim activist becomes the object of the unfair and unscrupulous attentions of German, British and American spies. As usual in le Carré, the spies are as much concerned with doing each other down as with the ostensible object of their investigation. The illegal immigrant is befriended by a radically, though not implausibly, humourless German female civil rights lawyer and an unlikely and unlikeable British private banker, both of whom are “turned” by the intelligence services of their respective countries.

Although le Carré is clearly sympathetic to the Muslim characters in his story, making them morally superior to the Westerners, they are unrealistic and almost ­zombie-like. They are caricatures, and no doubt Edward Said, if he were still alive, would accuse him of orientalism (in this instance with some justice). The convolutions of the plot are so great that they are difficult to follow, and unfortunately none of the characters is sufficiently sympathetic for us to care in the slightest what happens to him.