#292: Character v Plot 3 – Purpose and Artificiality


The second trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express was released a few days ago.  People are probably furious or something.   Me, I’ve already said everything I intend to about the movie until I actually see it and shall not be discussing it here beyond a few brief mentions, but it got me thinking some about character and plot and so this is a sort of Part Three to follow up on parts One and Two on this topic before.

For full context, I must also provide the additional pre-reading: my recent review of Max Afford’s Sinners in Paradise (1946), where some conversation was had in the comments regarding the use of character to contribute to plot, and this recent post at Composed Almost Entirely of Books talking about the expected constructs within the artificial microcosm of the detective novel, specifically the following paragraph:

By this, I don’t mean stilted dialogue or irritatingly fake stereotypes — these are certainly present in a good many detective novels, but not as many as detractors would suggest: nor are they confined to this genre. What I’m intending to convey is that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.

The last introduction needed is this: in the comments of a review of Henry Wade’s novel Mist on the Saltings (1935) at CAEoB, we had a brief discussion based around Wade seeming to be one of only a very few GAD authors who actually confronted any aspect of the First World War having a impact on the contemporary lives of the characters being written about in its aftermath.  I mentioned Dermot Kinross in John Dickson Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942), and of course Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey was afflicted by what we’d now call PTSD, but that aside — and especially interestingly, given the experiences the authors involved would have had in the Great War — mentions of anything specific and any impact upon life thereafter are few and far between.


Of course, the necessary considerations must be made: the detective novel was not set up to focus on grim realities, and dwelling on such unpleasantness could well have been implicitly considered out-of-bounds long before the form was even a recognised movement and codified even in the mock-formal way imbued upon it by the formation of The Detection Club.  As Martin Edwards says in The Golden Age of Murder (2015), his study of that august body, “After the bloodshed of the trenches, writers craved escapism just as much as their readers”.  You may debate whether the Golden Age was still in action from 1939 to 1945, but there can be little doubt that whilst a global war was occurring there’s very little direct reference to it in the GAD-tradition books written at that time: taxes have gone up, Tommy and Tuppence are considered too old for war work…that’s about it.   So if an actual war having the same sort of effect barely warrants a mention, why should one that has passed be notable for its absence from the same pages?

Well, sure.  Except there are several flaws with that easy dismissal.

Firstly, there is very little in daily life from the era under discussion that is not well-chronicled in the pages of detective fiction: party telephone lines, or switching a house line “through” in the evening, the precise roles and expectations of household servants, cork-tipped cigarettes…hell, if you doubt just how much of life in the 1930s you can pick up through reading books written at the time, see how much of this strikes a chord.  Financial disasters, governments, contemporary and recent real-life murder cases, developments in aeronautics, there is practically no aspect of life left unexamined by even a moderate spread of GAD reading, and yet the single most devastating experience in human memory to that point in history is barely so much as hinted at.  The First World War that changed the shape and face of politics, conflict, engineering, international relations, and public perceptions of the state’s role in its obligations to its citizens might almost not have happened as far as GAD is concerned.

You’d almost presume this is a sort of collective blank spot as an attempt at inoculation against the horrors, but what’s particularly interesting is how the people who emerge from this war – on the page, at least — are generally typified along two distinct lines.  You either have your doddery, uptight, or bluff colonel of the Old School who is generally obstreperous and in conflict with the detective, or you have the mysterious and alluring  Man Who Did War Service who is rarely called upon to elaborate said actions but treated with a sort of deferential air as a result.  I’d be tempted to see this as a subtle form of commentary on class and privilege — the Old Boys back in the war offices, safe from harm, are wheeled out in fiction to be exposed as out of touch charlatans who have no connection with how the world operates, where the less-moneyed fighting men are almost revered for the hardships they went through — except that too much of this came about holus-bolus for it to be that deliberate, and so much of what is written is still somewhat in the thrall of the upper classes.


What-what, what?  What?


For those of you from outside the UK, the elaborate deferential history of class worship must seem like a spectator sport on par with cricket — give us a tolerant nod, a smile, and just assume that we know what’s going on and leave us to it.  It’s essentially a cultural hand-me-down from the old feudal system of landowners and royalty.  In a country such as America where everyone turned up and grabbed what they could — and, I assure you, I do not mean that unkindly — such a system must seem laughable: bestow land upon me?  My good man, I’ve already taken it for myself…  I mean, sure, we as a country look at the notion of indigenous land rights with something approaching mesmerised fascination (the aboriginal population was, after all, there first: it’s be like coming home from work and finding someone in your living room going “Well, I never knew this town existed before but I’ve found out about it today and have claimed this house as my own…”) but that’s a series of discussions that in no way fall anywhere close to the remit of this blog.  Not until I’ve read some Arthur Upfield, anyway.


Given the preponderance of public-school educated Scotland Yard men and/or genius amateurs who accompany them, such claims on subversion must surely rest for now.  Soe sort of reconciliation with the recent past is never made in this regard in GAD novels.  Anthony Price’s frightfully dull 1970s thrillers would do a lot more to explore the role and attitudes of the First World War when, presumably, it could be viewed from a distance and through the distorting mirror of all the other horrors perpetrated since to help soften the blow.  Nevertheless, the idea of it being too painful a wound for anyone to even look at in the realm of mere entertainment fiction does not ring true for me.  Death was a puzzle but never frivolous — indeed, it was considered the ultimate act of justified retribution (that is, the retribution for the murder in the form of hunting down and punishing the murderer) — and that a background of suffering of the magnitude that the Great War would have been come to understood to represent by that time could not be used in any way to enrich and deepen such examinations is not an explanation I’ll buy into any time soon (someone will now convince me in about 17 words in the comments…stuff like that always happens).

And so, eventually, we come back to that idea of artificiality as discussed above.  Those “certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable” might simply be what we’re experiencing in such instances — an unyielding mindset necessary to make your Uptight Man character behave as he is required to do by the story you wish to tell might find its best and easiest shortcut in the necessary rigidity of Army-trained acceptance of order.  A sign of capability can therefore be imbued upon your nominal hero by hinting at great heroism or stoicism in his past.  This takes a slightly antiseptic, glabrous approach to character, but we’ll all agree that a depth of complexity in character is something better established in this genre by “types” than by 200 pages of conversation while you wait for your plot to kick in.

I’ve extemporised slightly here because that Wade discussion follow so quickly by the post on artificiality has slightly (well, no, actually quite significantly) altered the approach I thought I was going to take to this topic.  Feel free to vociferously oppose what I’ve conjectured above because, well, that’s why we’re here.  I shall now, with as much grace as possible, attempt to haul myself back onto the tracks of the post I thought I was sitting down to write waaay back up there at the start.  The transition will be as painless as I can make it, I promise…


In three…two…one…

The question essentially stands as to how much history is a slave to fiction.  Fiction’s purpose, after all — and GAD in particular — is to tell a story in an interesting way (no, that doesn’t always happen…).  In an essentially consequence-free environment where the entire purpose is to removal of the rogue element at the re-establishment of the status quo there may well be no time for a background of human-race affecting consequences.  Characters are in novels to serve a purpose, and as much as we talk about characters not behaving like real people — I’m as guilty of this as anyone — the facts remain that, firstly, they’re not there to behave like real people and, secondly, the actions of most real people when written down probably wouldn’t sound all that realistic either.  Generally such complaints about character conduct are a response to that character not behaving in a way that seems to fit the story being told, lending an artificiality to an already artificial landscape, though this second layering is not the one we signed up for when we started reading.

Where the best GAD novels have a purpose for every character involved, I suppose it must be trusted that perceived infelicities with history are as purposeful and deliberate as the fictional geography of the houses and towns the murders we take such joy in reading about occur in.  Perhaps a slightly revisionist interpretation of history should be seen as no more notable than the utilising of St. Mary Mead over the streets of Teignmouth — you use what you need, and if what’s available isn’t fit for need then you alter what you use rather than what youre using it for.  Hmmm, that’s a curious idea.  This is very much not the post I set out to write at the start, and I think my ideas will run the risk of becomong confused if I go on much longer, so I’ll find another approach for the topic I had expected to write on and return to that another day.  In the meantime, if you can find a coherent enough line of argument in the above to comment on, I’d love your thoughts on this…!

8 thoughts on “#292: Character v Plot 3 – Purpose and Artificiality

  1. Thanks for the pingback, JJ! Now on to your post…

    Well, there is a lot to chew on here, so I’ll just take a few bits to start with.

    “of course Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey was afflicted by what we’d now call PTSD”

    A good example and I can’t believe I didn’t bring this up in our discussion about not mentioning the war, as this is one of the things, in my opinion, which rescues Wimsey from being either too ‘silly-ass’ (as in early Sayers) or too-damn-perfect-at everything (see especially ‘Murder Must Advertise, though I still love the book, largely for the humour).

    “there is very little in daily life from the era under discussion that is not well-chronicled in the pages of detective fiction”

    Agreed, and that is a particular joy of the genre as far as I’m concerned.

    “the single most devastating experience in human memory to that point in history is barely so much as hinted at”

    “You’d almost presume this is a sort of collective blank spot as an attempt at inoculation against the horrors”

    Yes, either a sort of Voldemort effect, especially as the second world war drew nearer (too much talking of the devil and lo!, there he is) or a reluctance or inability to deal with that intensity of grief, akin to what often happens when you lose someone and you flinch when you so much as hear their name or something that reminds you of them. Such triggering of raw emotions is probably not much wanted within the context of a, usually lighthearted, mystery novel.

    “we’ll all agree that a depth of complexity in character is something better established in this genre by “types” than by 200 pages of conversation while you wait for your plot to kick in.”

    Now, starting a sentence with ‘we’ll all agree’, is something like throwing down a gauntlet, surely. 🙂
    But, certainly, agreed that 200 pages of conversation is not the way to go. I’m currently reading ‘the philosopher’s pupil’ by Iris Murdoch – which is large enough to gulp down about three GAD novels whole and still have room for a wafer thin mint – and, while I’m enjoying it, this is absolutely not the way to go in detective fiction. My only question would be – how much depth of complexity can you get out of a ‘type’? ‘Types’ are possibly necessary as extras, and certainly useful to subvert expectations (as I believe was discussed in one of the posts you linked to) and the fact is that they certainly are used, even for detectives, but I don’t think that you get any very complex or truly enjoyable characters that way, unless you add at least a little something extra (which may be what you mean – types with icing on top?) and preferably, for your main characters, a lot more.
    But, absolutely, brevity in description, small telling gestures and scenes, hints at past experience are a better way to go here than a full biography and psychiatrist’s reports. And though, if I were to pick characters over plot, I’d lean more on the side of characters this is very much a personal preference – and there is an excellent range of GAD fiction across the spectrum.

    And that’ll probably do for now. Why do you get me all thinking when I should be off doing more useful things?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think detective fiction works best when it lulls you into an assunmption that you don’t realise you’re making only to then completely reverse that and making you realise what a numpty you’ve been. Character types work well because they enable this in all manner of ways: we assume that the uptight landlady kicks out the lodger’s girlfirned because the Older Generation doesn’t approve of loose morals, but actually she’s hiding her own illegitimate grandchild, or something similar. Such reversals are what the genre is built on.

      It works even more so in the face of the perceived intolerance of “those olden times” even more, partly because we half expect someone to come out with something xenophobic or mysoginistic at any moment anyway — that’s just what it was likeback then, we think to ourselves and sigh. Then it turns out that the casual dismissla of the foreign visitors is so that the detective doesn;t pay too close attention and notice that they show up whenever the landlord’s wife is absent and so clearly some Shenanigans are afoot. In a way, it’s almost as if the writers of these books knew the attitudes they expressed would be out of date in 50 years and are playing an exceptionally long con on the rest of us. Obviously that would be impossible, but just being able to entertain that notion does make it rather clear at how easily we, now, are lead astray by such simple assumptions…


  2. Just to address the idea of the War being ignored – there’s more than one mention of it in Rhode’s work, for example a policeman who, when an explosion goes off nearby, flashes back to his time in the war, in, I think, Death Sits On The Board. While writing during 1939-45, he actively uses the War as a background to his tales – Priestley makes a point of not evacuating, the retired Superintendent Hanslet is recalled to duty while his successor joins military intelligence and some events, such as an air-raid in The Fourth Bomb and They Watched By Night, the Home Guard in Dead Of The Night are active parts of the story. Similarly with his Miles Burton hat on, Merrion is drafted into military intelligence, hence Inspector Arnold having to solve a case on his own in Death Leaves No Card. But this is what you might expect from Rhode, who always looked at what was going on in the community around him to give a picture of life at the time, rather than ignore it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought Merrion had ‘flu in Death Leaves No Card. Ooooh, or was that a euphemism…?

      Anyway, while I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming the First World War was ignored completely, it’s interesting to reflect that Rhode was so consistent in using it as a background on more than a few occasions. Others will crop up, I’m sure, but I do find it fascinating how it seems to have just not fallen all that squarely into the remit of the GAD crowd. Wade can be understood in addressing it — and in such negative terms, too — on account of his military service, but I’m pretty sure Berkeley, Crofts, and others were drafted in one form or another.

      This might bear more researching, it’s something I’m becoming more and more interested in pursuing the more I think about it. Even if it wasn’t, y’know, quite what I intended to write when I sat down to type this post… 🙂


  3. An excellent article and thanks for the link to my attempt to be funny about the common elements of GAD …
    Re your aside: I live in British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada. There are land claims by various groups of First Nations (you might understand this as Indian “bands” or “tribes” but the terms must be mutually agreed upon here and we don’t use “Indian”) totalling about 117% of the land area of the province. Bands apparently overlap in their traditional territories. Anyway, it’s a problem that’s closer to home than Arthur Upfield; I live in a city that abuts directly upon a large reserve and the local band claims the entire city within its traditional territory. This almost certainly doesn’t mean that they will be moving into our houses any time soon but rather that we will have to do a financial and legal settlement of some kind. Canadians’ history of interaction with First Nations has been abysmal and we need to do better now and in the future. End of my aside to your aside LOL.
    As I was reading your article, the thought that came to me was that many GAD novels are based upon the events of WWI in a way; inheritance and property and titles. The oldest son was killed in the war and the title descended to the cadet branch. A formerly vast estate is not what once it was after paying three sets of death duties within a few years and the heir badly needs cash. Upstarts inherit hereditary titles. Also upstarts made a lot of money supplying the army with XYZ and build vast vulgar country houses and give murderous house parties. These things don’t often form the direct material of GAD plots, but they are frequently lurking in the background. And I think there is a lot of observation in GAD about how things CHANGED because of the Great War. Social distinctions are blurred; it’s harder to find good forelock-tugging servants now that that class runs its own service stations and grocery stores and doesn’t take crap from the aristos any more. I once wrote about an E.C.R. Lorac novel that digs into these issues (https://noah-stewart.com/2015/08/03/death-at-dykes-corner-by-e-c-r-lorac-1940/). And the aristos long for the good old days when the Lower Classes Knew Their Place. It might not be historically accurate, but it explains the motives of a lot of lower-class murder suspects.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is a very good point, and something else that occurred to me on this theme is the number of times the suspicious servant can’t possibly be the one who murdered the Squire because he was the latter’s batman during the war. I can’t say such a servant has never turned out to be the killer, but I can’t think of one at present.

      Also, I love that GAD drinking game. As soon as I start drinking again, I intend to play it with an episode of Suchet’s Poirot, which may well be the only way I’ll make it through an entire episode…


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