By Steve Donoghue
Many years ago, I had an old friend who was severely addicted to murder mystery novels. He wasn’t interested in true tales of actual murders (he could be surprisingly squeamish), nor was he all that keen on murders when they happened elsewhere in the fictional world. Likewise he had no interest in radio dramas or murder, and I have the strong suspicion that he’d have been equally indifferent to the flood of murder-related dramas on TV and cable.
No, he liked good old-fashioned Golden Age murder mysteries, the kind where a beloved young curate is found poisoned to death in his bedroom in the sleepy village of Market Snodsbury, and a ship-shape Bristol-fashion inspector is sent from Scotland Yard to sort through the local eccentrics in order to discover the ruthless killer lurking in their midst. The local cathedral is always lovingly described, the household servants always seem to be hiding something, and usually another dead body turns up before the guilty party is unmasked.
My old friend could devour a dozen of these a week – and he often did so, despite having a rather demanding and high-profile day job. One night, over wine and calzones, I risked getting hypothetical and asked him not only why he loved these books so much but also, more broadly, why he had so much company in that liking. Murder mysteries have been a runaway popular genre since their invention more than a century ago; even today, I know plenty of people who basically read nothing else. Why, I asked my old friend; what’s the appeal?
His response was disarmingly simple. Translated out of the original Ohio-ese, it was: Because it’s not happening to me.
SImple as that, and I’ve always thought there’s something to it: one elemental appeal of murder mysteries is that no matter how rotten your day is going, you’re not that poor curate convulsing over his paperwork. No matter how remorselessly the hidden killer has calculated every variable, they haven’t accounted for YOU, the reader; you’re nice and safe, reading in bed while the dog snoozes on the blanket. In an ironic twist, murder mysteries actually enhance our feeling of security. Regardless of how dark things become in the plot, at least it’s not happening to you.
The extra twist to all this is a bit grimmer: when reading a murder mystery, you can not only revel in the fact that the tragedy isn’t happening to you – you can also revel in the fact that when all that horrible stuff happens to that poor curate, the villains will be found out. No matter how tightly the nefarious scheme was woven, that stolid Scotland Yard inspector will figure things out and serve up justice. It’s not just that the crime isn’t happening to you – it’s that somebody is going to pay for it, and that might not happen to you either. Not in real life.
I was reminded of these factors just recently, when I read a 1974 murder mystery by Elizabeth Lemarchand called “Buried in the Past.” Lemarchand, a headmistress by trade, started writing mystery novels in her 60s, and “Buried in the Past” was her seventh outing. The story takes place in the sleepy old English town of Corbury, where the local grandee is Sir Miles LeWarne, possessed of a large fortune and master of the stately home Edgehill Court, where LeWarnes have lived for over three centuries.
As the novel opens, Sir Miles gets a rude shock: his great-nephew and only heir Roger LeWarne has died suddenly in a car crash. Sir Miles, a crusty, private old gentleman, is devastated, and word of the tragedy spreads quickly through Corbury.
With his heir unexpectedly dead, Sir Miles decides to make a new will. His solicitor, Gerald Stanton, is married to his god-daughter Shirley, and Gerald naturally hopes that Sir Miles will revise his will in favor of Shirley. He goes over to confer with the old man about the new will, and his hopes are dashed: Sir Miles intends to leave Edgehill Court to the town of Corbury – as a site for concerts? A scenic place to stroll? The location for a new local museum? Sir Miles isn’t picky, but he’s determined, and Gerald reluctantly goes home and draws up the paperwork.
Then he gets a phone call from the Miles family doctor: Sir Miles has had a stroke. Gerald is shocked and explains that he’d planned on returning to Edgehill Court that evening with the new will in order to get it signed – can Sir Miles provide a signature? He can, the doctor says; his mind is perfectly sound.
Gerald has a quick, subversive thought: he quickly makes an alternate version of the will, one in which Shirley gets full possession of Edgehill Court. He figures Sir Miles, flustered by his stroke and distracted by the events surrounding it, will never notice – and he’s right: Sir Miles, alert but bedridden, signs on the line and thinks no more about it. Gerald, his heart racing over the enormous gamble he’s taking, returns home daring to hope that with a little bit of quick thinking, he’s changed the course of his life and Shirley’s life dramatically. And shortly afterward, when the doctor calls to tell him that Sir Miles has died, Gerald is 100% certain he’s committed the perfect crime.
Naturally, Elizabeth Lemarchand has other ideas – mystery authors always do. She pulls so many coincidences out of the woodwork that you’ll have trouble keeping them straight. But their sequence hardly matters: right from the beginning, you know that Gerald won’t get away with it. You know perfectly well that in real life he WOULD get away with it – it’s a locked-tight plan, with no outward hint of wrongdoing.
But in murder mysteries? In murder mysteries, we can all rest easy.