‘Tis the season to be jolly, so I’m delighted to welcome Kate from CrossExaminingCrime back to my Golden Age detective fiction podcast so that we can discuss those who have sought to be not quite so jolly about our chosen enthusiasm.
The notion of criticising criticism flouts the very conventions of logic and reasoning upon which the Golden Age was built — surely vilifying someone for having an opinion, and dismissing it for being their personal opinion, is itself a matter of opinion and therefore easily dismissed — but the focus of this episode is the notion of where the recurrent themes for which the genre comes under fire came from. Cardboard characters, bloodless corpses, the stain of being ‘popular’ literature — we’ve encountered these criticisms and more, and surely their longevity means they must have some basis in truth, right? Today we shall attempt to find out.
Well, we will a bit, because the difficulty of talking about this sort of topic is that you always end up on some sort of tangent that might be related or might just be fun. Either way, there’s definitely some stuff in here to agree with, some stuff to disagree with, and it’ll hopefully pass a companionable 73 minutes at the end of a year that, frankly, could have been kinder to practically everyone on the planet.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or on Stitcher here, or by using the player below.
My thanks to Kate for the time and research she put into this, to Jonny Berliner for the music, and to anyone out there who continues to take an interest in this podcast. I undertook this with the intention of it providing some distraction from the demands of 2020, and I sincerely hope that it has done that to one degree or another.
Should you wish to track down any of the texts mentioned in the above, I provide a potentially incomplete list here:
- Crime Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (2015) by Richard Bradford
- Howdunit? (2020) ed. Martin Edwards
- Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962) ed. Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker
- Crime in Good Company: Essays on Criminals and Crime Writing (1959) ed. Michael Gilbert
- Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel (1970) by George Grella
- Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) by P.D. James
- Deadlier than the Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing (1981) by Jessica Mann
- Crime Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (2005) by John Scaggs
- The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) by Carolyn Wells
If anything is missing, let Kate or me know and we’ll provide what information we can. More In GAD We Trust in a fortnight to usher in 2021; in the meantime, stay safe.
All episodes of In GAD We Trust can be found on the blog by clicking here.
66 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 15: Criticising the Golden Age [w’ Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime]”
Great stuff as always. Interesting that you mentioned Macbeth – have you read James Thurber’s story of the lady who mistakes it for a detective mystery? http://userhome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/anthro/jbeatty/COURSES/Macbeth/thurber.htm
That’s actually a rather gorgeous little story — thanks, John, for sharing the link. “People who sleepwalk never carry lights” is a clue of quite wonderful hue and stripe; what a brilliantly clever take on that story.
A very entertaining podcast as usual, Your comment about misleading content on paperback covers reminded me of the Carter Dckson reprints which feature a “tough-guy” character with a gun who bears no resemblence to HM or anyone else in the books!
Yes, there was an era wherein the cover art was seen as largely independent of the contents of the books, eh? Almost as bad as a cover that contains spoilers. Some artistic decisions really do baffle with hindsight.
I recommend George Orwell’s excellent essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ first published in 1944 as ‘The Ethics of the Detective Story from Raffles to Miss Blandish’ for a discussion on morality in the detective story.
Thank-you, this is a new one on me. Like everyone, I’m aware of Orwell’s ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, but didn’t realise he’d written much else in the general area of the genre. I shall check it out forthwith!
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Yeah, I was doing so well until that last couple of minutes – – now I’m sitting in a room full of broken furniture. With all my hair pulled out.
Seriously, though, another bull’s-eye! You both make a lot of great points, particularly regarding the inadequacy and danger of generalizations. People speak of genres as if authors were always trying desperately to fit into them. Admittedly, authors want to meet general reader desires— for market reasons— and that entails matching readers expectations to a certain degree. But it also entails a desire make one’s works distinct from other authors. Christie admired Carr, but she didn’t want to write Carr novels, nor vice versa. And certainly neither one of them were attempting to write in a way so that they could easily be classified 100 years hence (“my primary desire is to make my work live on as an archetype”).
As for the Golden Age codification, I think it was largely (I use the term largely, because I do believe generalizations are extremely useful as long as one always bears in mind that they are generalizations) an attempt not only to distinguish the Golden Age detective novel from the cheap sensationalism and cliches of the penny dreadfuls (as Kate rightly pointed out), but also from their episodic, structural arbitrariness. Much of the “rule making” of the time is dedicated to ensuring merely that the puzzle and solution have a strong, non-arbitrary relationship (the same thing Aristotle was doing— and better, IMO— over 2000 years earlier).
A bit of stream of consciousness here… Jim, the point you made about the character in Tey’s Franchise Affair brought to my mind Bernstein’s speech in Citizen Kane:
“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
That’s the way memory works, isn’t it? And it doesn’t take 30 pages of description to make an impact. Just a strong snapshot.
And Jim, I think you understand— though some others don’t— that despite my railing, I don’t see the whole question of clueing all that much differently than most mystery readers do. I generally find the same works satisfactory or unsatisfactory in that respect. I just take issue with the unreflected assumption that the standard of sufficiency is an objective one. I’m convinced that no work is more objectively sufficient in its clueing than any any work is objectively better in terms of characterization. Yet, no one ever says, “all the characterization is there.”
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“And it doesn’t take 30 pages of description to make an impact. Just a strong snapshot.” I couldn’t have said it any better! And frankly, I think that’s all that’s needed. A brief description of a character whether it be their physical characteristics or their attitude/dispositions is enough to make one remember. And the same applies to the length of a mystery. I bet you, Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express or even The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, brief in comparison, will continue to stand out in impact within the mystery genre, moreso than any of Elizabeth George’s lengthy tomes. I rather read a mystery the amount of pages contained in an Agatha Christie rather than 500 or 600 pages of ramble and repetition that many modern mystery novelist brag about
Yes, one wonders at PD James’ dismissal of the impact Christie had on the work in the genre that followed her. There’s the risk of overstating her importance, of course, but that doesn’t mean she had none, nor does it mean that she is outshone by others purely because they came after her.
I agree with the other Scott and also Brian. A concise use of words makes a bigger impact on me than long exposition. Whether in my profession or in the GAD fiction that I enjoy, “don’t say in 100 words when ten words will do.” Two examples:
1. My paperback copy of Carr’s classic, Till Death Do Us Part, has only 151 pages. While the typeface is small; nevertheless, this book is a lean, tight masterpiece. I still remember the characters, Lesley Grant and Dick Markham, and how I felt reading this book. When the cliche, “page turner”, was coined … no doubt the inventor had this book in mind 🙂
2. Even in a lesser book, a particular character can stay with me indefinitely. While I can call Anthony Gilbert’s (Lucy Malleson’s), “Death Knocks Three Times”, only a good rather than great book (e.g., the explanation of the first murder is weak/unbelievable), I vividly remember the character, Frances Pettigrew, the spinster who is central to the story. I can picture her in my mind with just the few but powerful words that Gilbert uses to describe her.
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We forget, I think, how much the Golden Age really progressed the standard of the detective story. Out of necessity we look backwards from Crofts to, say, Orczy and find the latter lacking, yet fail to praise the former from starting at that earlier, lesser place and building so adroitly upon it.
And, yes, I believe I do understand your perspective on these things, Scott, which is why I’m so looking forward to getting it on record in a future episode ☺️
I found myself engaged (in my mind) in the conversation much more than passively listening with this one, although I’ll only remember a fraction of what came to mind. A few disjointed bits I do recall:
A GAD style mystery typically moves the reader along with the promise of a solution. There’s that urge to get to the climax, and I think that urge can only be sustained for so long. A mystery of this sort seems to have a max-life of 200 pages, and accounting for the denouement, the author really only has 180 pages to work in for the arc of the plot. As such, GAD seems like a somewhat constrained form compared to, say, science fiction, westerns, or romance. That constraint may make it more susceptible to generalizations.
Another thought was that contemporary criticism may be more likely to be critical, as it’s written as the genre unfolds, without clarity of understanding the body as a whole. For example, I didn’t like much popular music in the 90s, but now looking back, there’s quite a bit that was good about it. In some cases there’s a new found fondness for the songs that they were playing to death at the time, or it might be the discovery of bands that were little known at the time. I don’t know if that analogy quite clicks, but we now have the luxury of picking out the Talbots, Roscoes, Berrows, and Breans and lumping them in with the Christies, Carrs, and Berkeleys. And there’s a finite set of books; the genre is defined.
In terms of the stronger writers, I lean towards the wit of Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley; the ability to craft a perfect sentence of Anthony Boucher and Theodore Roscoe, and the talent at painting a scene of John Dickson Carr. It seems like those authors could have turned their attention to other genres (most in fact did) and written something that would have still been compelling to read.
Other thoughts rescued from my brain:
Christianna Brand probably is the best example of providing memorable characters other than the detective. I can’t imagine many people walk away from Fog of Doubt or Green for Danger without the cast permanently stamped in their mind, and I’d be willing to bet most readers will recall a handful of characters from Suddenly at His Residence, The Rose in Darkness, and Tour de Force years later. Christie of course had many memorable characters. The cast in a story like Death Comes as the End forms the actual scaffolding for the mystery.
Regarding gruesomeness in GAD, I’ll point you to this passage from Brand’s Cyanide in the Sun:
“A moment of agonizing uncertainty, a moment of petrified astonishment, an eternity of horror – all compressed within 60 seconds of watching that terrible, jerking, gasping marionette thrashing about in its death throes on the dry, scuffed golden sand.”
I don’t need a more explicit explanation that that, because my mind creates it from that one beautiful sentence. The selection of the word “marionette” is so evocative.
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Kate and I discussed — but evidently did not record, since it wasn’t in the episode when I edited it — the following from towards the end of Anthony Berkeley’s The Wychford Poisoning Case:
Just try and imagine the man’s state of mind. Of course he was mad; stark, staring, raving mad—and yet how diabolically sane…racked with agony and the most damnable physical discomfort, vomiting, retching his soul out, half-mad with pain—and then begging and praying for more!
Anyone who needs more gore or unpleasantness than that is either a sadist or so blithely unaware of what pain is that they have no right to complain.
Part of the original plan for this was to contrast contemporary criticism of the genre with more modern ones and see how they compared. That, though, is really more of a PhD thesis given its complexity — the older criticism was what I was supposed to bring, but it a) fell at a bad time for me and b) required a lot more time to be put into it in order to be comprehensible and well-structured. One of these days, when this is my job rather than a hobby I do for free, maybe I’ll go back and complete that comparison.
And you’re correct that it would have been interesting to see what, say, Carr would have done in SF — Asimov tried detection, after all! A fascinating prospect.
So much to say, so little space . . . I do know that if Trump or one of his progeny becomes president in 2024, I’m moving to the U.K., at which point whenever JJ tapes a podcast, you’ll find me in the corner, draped in lace fichu, knitting booties for the neighborhood felines, and gently smiling, batting my china blue eyes, and murmuring, “Oh my dear boy . . . ” In other words, I will ALWAYS be involved . . .
It’s always easiest for me to “go to Christie” for examples. The criticism that JJ cited about her interwar novels being bloodless is, on the surface specious: she began in 1939 with two novels about serial killers, and the massive blood count includes assorted shootings, stabbings, bludgeoning, poisonings (including feeding a young girl hat paint and infecting a man’s cut with cat pus). In 1940, she bashed a woman over the head so severely that she was unrecognizable (as you point out, JJ, everything’s a clue). In 1942, she set a little girl on fire and gave a man hemlock which caused him to slowly shut down and die paralysed. She smashed a woman to death over the head in 1944 and gave us another serial killer/high blood count in 1945. So there’s plenty of blood. I think the criticism might be the relative bloodlessness of the response. Yes, the folks on Indian island are trapped with a killer and yet worry about having a cold luncheon. Yes, the murders in The Body in the Library are terribly cruel, and yet the book is full of wit. The point is, the lives of the characters in both these titles are irrevocably changed as they are in Five Little Pigs, The Moving Finger and Towards Zero/ so the criticism is subjective but is given higher credence perhaps because of the credentials of the critic.
When I was researching for the multi-part Christie centennial posts, I kept coming across examples of the types of criticism you discuss here. I do think Christie’s success, which has lasted for decades after her death, is the reason she is the most frequent victim of these attacks. Some writers went off the record to say that she had ruined the genre. I see this as envy perhaps, or frustration that no matter how many or how few copies their books sell, people still love to read Christie and, to a lesser extent (but one that seems to be growing every year now) other GAD authors.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I met Elizabeth George early in her career and had a lovely conversation with her. She was an English lit teacher, one who loved Austen and Dickens and all the rest. She saw herself as a “straight” novelist who happened to set her books in a genre. The biggest thrill she claimed she could have was to learn that her fans re-read her books after knowing whodunnit so that they could revisit the regular characters. The same holds true for Louise Penny, even P.D. James, to a certain extent. The problem stems from a comment Ben made above about the average classic mystery being best sustained at around 200 pages or less. (Christie wished she could write only novellas.) If genre enthusiasts approach George or James or Val McDermid, or their ilk, wanting the fulfillment of a classic mystery and eschewing the novelistic elements of their work, those enthusiasts might walk away less than enthused.
I do think that, to a large extent, those of us who read any sort of genre fiction do so to be entertained and distracted even more than we want to be enlightened. I love what Christie has to say about the changing mores of 20th British society, but I didn’t devour her books for that reason; it took a couple of re-reads to begin to appreciate that aspect. No, I read them for the same reason that I want to be in on every In GAD We Trust podcast: because they are so much fun. At the same time, all fanboys and fangirls take great delight in elevating the discussion of their beloved genres into something intellectual, devotional, rhapsodical, and so on. Those who don’t appreciate the form may take umbrage with that, to the point that they write clever ditties like “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” I say we can take ’em!
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I’d say that the changing mores of society that Christie depicts in her books is the cherry on top. It enriches her settings and makes them three-dimensional. It grounds her books to a real time and place and not some imaginary, cozy, unrealistic place that many criticize Christie of doing.
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Outside of detective fiction, I have two literary heroes – – Robert Benchley and P.G. Wodehouse. Edmund Wilson not only wrote “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” but was also probably the only person whom I know ever said anything disparaging about Benchley. That said, Wilson wasn’t an idiot. Indeed he was a very intelligent man. But there was no laughter and little joy in his heart.
It reminds me of an autobiographical anecdote Groucho was fond of telling. A priest shook his hand and said, “Groucho, I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve brought into this world,” to which Groucho replied, “and I’d like to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.”
The thing we were very keen to capture here is that it is entirely sane, sensible, and reasonable to dislike Golden Age detective fiction — after Groucho, I don’t think I’d want to be a fan of it if everyone was — and, no doubt, some very intelligent, reasonable, and lovely people have simply not fallen for its charms. The critics often can have a basis in what they criticise — the lack of blood, the negative depiction of racial minorities, etc — but there seems to be a real difficulty with some critics accepting that fans of this kind of work can still deplore elements of it and yet wholeheartedly love what the genre is doing.
We didn’t get in to aspects of racism and xenophobia herein, but I’ll make again a point I make in the above on another topic: it’s hardly as if GAD was solely the transgressor in this case — to hold against it the follies that other genres display with equal clueless fervour, as it seems someone like Wilson did, is, to me, the purest form of snobbery.
The “changing mores of 20th century British society” is, I think, what compels the classic-era mystery over, say it’s 1980s/1990s kin. Too much of what was written in that era had an obsession with technology and policing that now feels woefully antiquated — when all you have to say about the society you’re in is that its technology is better than what preceded it…well, you’re in trouble.
I remember reading Christie and Tey and Crispin for the first time and marvelling at how much they were capturing, how many incidental details made the settings stand out as much as the stories…something which had been sorely lacking from my contemporary reading — possibly on account of my familiarity with their era, as I talk about in this episode. There just doesn’t seem as much societal progress to capture in these later works, and so the background against which their written has a very narrow focus which, on the whole, results in a loss of interest fairly soon after they stop being current (he’s not a crime writer, but have you read any Michael Crichton lately? Holy cow, that man’s work has not aged well…).
The sheer scale of change around the Golden Age — out of one world war, through the fallout, then headlong into another — is alone so fascinating that it would take a quite concerted effort to not have something interesting to say about it. Though, yes, many will have managed…
Critics often categorize Agatha Christie in the confines of “cozy” mystery where everything is santizied and cleaned up, but I think Christie is quite realistic in her depictions of human nature reaching the depths of human depravity. She’s not afraid to make ANYONE the victim or the murderer! While illustrating the evils of human nature, she adds humour and light-heartedness, something many contemporary mystery writers are lacking. Everything in life isn’t always dark and Christie balances that beautifully in her books. Maybe modern writers in the genre need to learn a thing or two from the ol’ Agatha!
JJ – Once again I enjoyed the podcast. If you wonder if these are worth the time and effort, they are for me. Thanks to you and Kate for this one.
When I saw the topic, I wasn’t sure I would like this. Just the way I am not keen to read critical views about wine, theatre or cinema from those who don’t like alcohol, broadway/west end or film respectively … I wouldn’t be drawn to views from those who don’t like the GAD genre that I love. That said, I have learned in the current polarized world not to live only in the echo chamber of news, blogs, social media, etc. that agree with me. And of course, beyond reading GAD and discovering GAD titles new to me, I like reading and talking about GAD!
Your discussion with Kate took me back to why I love GAD fiction. I have always been drawn to those books that have an amazing twist that I didn’t see coming in terms of culprit, means or motive. I vividly remember being a young teenager discovering the the big reveal at the end of And Then Were None, Evil Under the Sun, After the Funeral, Murder is Easy, etc. Later as an adult, I read some modern crime fiction hoping to re-capture that same kind of enjoyment, but I just cannot spend time with those that dwell on gruesome, sadomasochistic violence. I have thought hard about why ironically I still enjoy GAD given I don’t tolerate violence. The best I can muster on this is that GAD doesn’t revel in the crime in an almost pornographic way that too much of modern crime fiction does.
So I am always on the look out for GAD books with a surprise at the end and that’s why I like your blog as well as that of Ben, TomCat, Kate, Laurie, Brad, Puzzle Doctor, John, Curtis, Christian, Aidan, Dead Yesterday, etc. as I constantly am on the lookout for those books that give me the big reveal at the end. I guess that’s why I am not an inverted mystery lover either as I prefer my villains kept from me until the end and then preferably with a motive and manner that I had not considered.
Keep blogging and podcasting please … and I will keep reading and listening. Well done.
Thanks, Scott — the recording is always a blast, it’s the editing that I hate 🙂 However, Kate had such a great appreciation of the genre, there was very little that needed to be cut — mostly me spouting gibberish while I tried to make my points. If I could learn to talk less, these would be easier to wrangle into shape.
How wonderfully lucky we are, eh, to still get these surprises be surprising after almost a century. That’s what I love about the genre: the way it tapped into that almost universal form of misleading you, or of obfuscating in a way that would remain its efficacy for so long, for so many generations ahead (and, sure, we’re only like three generations along, but I don’t think any of the ones following us are necessarily better at solving murder mysteries…). Long may you continue to mine this joy in these books, because it’s a wonderful feeling,m and worth chasing — why do you think so many of us talk about it at such great lengths?!
That was great fun, well done both of you – it was like listening in to a great pub conversation, albeit an unusually well-researched one! It’s a tough subject, irrespective of the literary genre or mode in question, and hard not to come across as defensive. Even if one disagrees about the detail or the conclusions drawn, I think the arguments here were really well explored.
Much appreciated — and, once again Kate did all the work in the research. I was…less than useless there, so she deserves full and unstinting praise for what she brought for us to discuss.
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OK, deep breath everyone … Inevitably when speaking in broad terms it is is easy to get nitpicked but … (and I bet JJ knows what’s coming) I do think that this was another case where poor old Julian Symons was castigated unfairly. I think you really did over-generalise by suggesting that BLOODY MURDER was a book written with an agenda (as opposed to a point of view) and that Symons wrote unfairly to subordinately all to that. He is absolutely explicit in his intros about the fact that his book is a celebration and not an encyclopaedia, that he is presenting his own expert opinion only. As he says, “This is the work of an addict, not an academic, and is a record of enthusiasm and occasional disappointment, not a catalogue or an encyclopaedia.” The Barzun and Taylor, which aimed to be more comprehensive as a catalogue, which incidentally was published the year before Symons’ book, is overall less critical in approach – or shall we say, less likely to find fault – when it comes to the traditional detective story and has much less sympathy with those works that focus more on psychology. And Symons was equally clear about where he stood compared to that tome: “If you are rapturous about Rhode, worshipful of Wade, Barzun should be your guide. Obviously my point of view is so much opposed to his (what Barzun finds entrancing I think dull) that we have no common ground on which to argue.” I think that is a very clear and honest statement. He wasn’t unthinkingly condemning certain writers or necessarily ignorant of others – he just didn’t think much of them and explained why. What else can an honest critic do? This is why I find the Symons bashing so unnecessary, especially considering all the praise he heaps on the likes of Christie, Queen, Allingham and Carr. And even Sayers. Barzun and Taylor got there first, closely followed by Symons and then Colin Watson (Snobbery with Violence). Inevitably they had a big influence and cast a long shadow. One can agree or not agree but I think it a shame to suggest that any of the authors were being unfair – I mean, to whom? They wrote about their point of view, quite rightly. There are lots of great books that I have issues with but would hate to do without. To give just one example, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s 900-page opus, 1001 Midnights, is a terrific guide to mysteries in the pre-internet ages (it came out in 1986). Do I agree with every review? Not at all. Do I think some writers are over-represented (e.g. Mickey Spillane and Cornell Woolrich) and others unfairly treated (Pronzini, a great author, a genuine fan and incredibly knowledgeable about the genre, has a gigantic blind spot about Jonathan Stagge in my view and really should have got someone else to write the entry)? You bet. But it’s a great book, packed with wonderful stuff. Am I sorry that Pronzini and Muller aren’t included in Symons’ book? Yes – but I don’t get upset because I think he was snubbing them. I’m just sorry I can’t ready what he d to say on this subject 🙂
Symons had an agenda when writing Bloody Murder — to present his perspective on the development of the genre and his feelings about those who contributed to it, hence his comments — both positive and disparaging — on the range of authors within. I suppose the book irritate me not solely on account of its contents, but also because of the importance placed upon it by some many people coming after — it has been pointed out elsewhere that it was the first real laying out of the topic in a readable form, and as such, while not Symons’ fault, his opinions have taken on to a certain extent a sort of lore-like quality that has resulted in certain authors being dismissed or ignored by academics and critics coming afterwards who were perhaps too lazy to do their own reading.
I apologise if it comes across as bashing, but Symons really does seem exceptionally obtuse at times on some fairly key figures and their contributions, and I guess that vexes me. I’d say that an examination of that book in toto should form the basis of a future episode, but that would be inferring upon it the very importance I don’t believe it warrants. So you see my quandary 🙂
Your blog your rules mate and you’ve read more on the subject more recently than I have. But .. I feel like you’ve skirted around most of what I was getting at. An agenda implies that the expression is dishonest and not a genuine and legitimate point of view. Are you saying that? What worries me, purely a personal position, is that Symons has come to stand for a critical opinion that does not embrace the less well-known authors and aspects of detective fiction of the era. I don’t think he was the only critic to express n print a dislike for Rhode, Wade, etc. I applaud Curtis’ re-appropriation and re-appraisal of the so-called “humdrums” for example, and Symons was a factor in that work being undertaken. But how does any of that work suggest that Symons was in any way critically dishonest? Look forward to some brickbats!
I tell ya JJ, will one podcast be enough to contain our viewpoints on Chandler? Can’t wait to find out 🙂
We are perhaps, then, talking at cross-purposes: I’m using “agenda” in the sense of “purpose” — not to imply dishonesty, but certainly lacking neutrality.
And, yeah, the second part of your comment is a great point — we puzzle fans do tend to go for Symons when looking for someone who didn’t embrace GAD, and it’s not entirely justified based on the overall scope and intent of his work.
I have become the very thing I sought to destroy…
The passage from The Cask was gruesome enough to remind me of the fifth season of Dexter.
The murders in Columbo are bloodless and all the better for it. I like the use of freeze frames right after the killer strikes, something which they used in the earlier seasons. As a result, when on the rare occasions they had small moments of gore like when a body wrapped in plastic is revealed to be stashed away inside a closet, the impact is all the more chilling.
Also, *spoilers* admittedly a major character being offed midway no doubt contributed to the shock, but if I am not wrong even the depiction of the stabbing in that shower scene in Psycho is considered to be very brutal and this was in the 60s. Again I may be wrong (I haven’t watched his silent films other than The Lodger) but up until Psycho Hitchcock had always been very elegant in his murders (a memorable one being showing it reflected in a pair of glasses in Strangers on a Train). Heck in Rear Window every occurs off screen. After Psycho he became less restrained I think particularly in The Birds and Frenzy.
That reminds me. Is this the first episode, JJ, with no mention of Hitchcock?
Ha. Not the first, no, but it’s become less of a touchstone than I’d anticipated. Maybe I can address that in the coming episodes…
Well you could do an episode on Hitchcock and his GAD connection.
I’m pretty much up on my Hitchcock, and a discussion of his connection to GAD would be fascinating and frustrating. He didn’t think much of whodunnits as generators of suspense, so he would have been much more drawn to the inverted mystery. The more information the viewer had – who the killer is, where the danger lies – the more he could tap our anxieties. It isn’t that he didn’t have some great twists – the identity of the master spy in The Thirty-Nine Steps or the kidnappers in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the nature of the mystery in Vertigo, the murder of major characters in Psycho and Frenzy, but these happen somewhere around the halfway point or even earlier. The brilliance of Psycho is that we KNOW who the killer is throughout, and Hitchcock goes out of his way to show us the connections between one character and another. (That dinner scene in the back room – so many clues if you know your Hitchcock!!!!!!)
Sometimes the twist didn’t work, but that wasn’t always Hitchcock’s fault. An actual inverted mystery like Before the Fact should have been right up his alley, but the studio denied his intention to tap into Cary Grant’s dark side (something he did with many “heroic” actors throughout his career, much to their delight!) and forced him to rewrite the ending into something . . . weird. This constant fighting with the censors is a good explanation as to why most of the violence in his films was “offscreen.” Not that he would have drenched us in gore, necessarily, but as you say, Madcap, he was a “twisted soul,” and he enjoyed the seamier aspects of sex. Psycho and Frenzy were tough viewing in their day. In my opinion, Frenzy still is; I find it rather repulsive and have a hard time watching that first murder.
MURDER!, SPELLBOUND, STAGE FRIGHT, TO CATCH A THIEF and PSYCHO are 100% whodunits (maybe the identity of the murderer in the latter was immediately obvious to Brad but that was clearly not the intention on first viewing – Hitchcock went to huge lengths to disguise it, as did Bloch in his novel). THE LODGER is basically a whodunit too, while FRENZY is for the first half. I have always thought that the stories about the ending of SUSPICION a bit bogus. It was clear from the outset that the book’s ambiguous ending could never pass the edicts of the production code administration, so I think the struggle was never to really render it but to try and approximate it. SHADOW OF A DOUBT works much better in this regard as it stuck to the basic rules for getting a seal of approval and so had much less trouble with the censors as a result. Which is very telling I think 😀
//…he enjoyed the seamier aspects of sex…
Yea, while I enjoyed reading the Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, I felt uncomfortable at times. I have watched Frenzy just once and don’t intend to watch it again. As you said it makes for some very uncomfortable viewing.
//He didn’t think much of whodunnits as generators of suspense..
Yea he almost had a disdain for mysteries and preferred suspense probably due to the greater opportunities it provided to torture the audiences. I mean, he even dared to let the bomb blow up in Sabotage.
//The brilliance of Psycho is that we KNOW who the killer is throughout…
Do we really, Brad? Now I knew the twist well before I had seen the movie (heck my first ever viewing of it began with the SHOWER STABBING SCENE! That’s how I knew I was watching Psycho and I stayed on the channel). But like Cavershamragu said below, it’s definitely meant to be a mystery on a first watch, albeit the mystery is more like “what’s up with Bates’ Mum”. It’s a mystery disguised as an inverted story. Was he taking advantage of the viewer’s expectations that the twist, as you said, had been played out midway and delivering instead two twists in a single movie?
The first murder in FRENZY is brutal, very uncomfortable to watch, as it should be and that’s what Hitchcock was aiming for. I’d be concerned for anyone contrary to those sentiments! But if you found Frenzy to be repulsive I’d wonder what you would think of “Kaleidoscope” if Hitchcock was able to get the green light on that? Because “Kaleidoscope” wasn’t made due to it’s extreme violence, Hitchcock cut it out and we have the pen-ultimate film that we have now.
I really wish Hitchcock was able to get the ending that he wanted in SUSPICION and although a great film, it would have been even better with Cary Grant as the villian. A shame that there weren’t two versions made with the ending that we have and the one Hitchcock wanted.
Okay, I’m afraid I’ve been playful in my comments on Psycho so far, so now I’ll attempt to be more scholarly. The question before us: is Psycho or isn’t it a whodunnit? In the sense that we don’t actually know who the killer is until the end, which is the way an effective whodunnit works, then sure, Psycho is a whodunnit. It completely shocked contemporary audiences when it came out, and Hitchcock made a big deal about getting viewers who saw it to not leak the surprise ending and spoil it for other viewers. It also frankly confused a lot of 1960 average folk whose knowledge base did not include much info on transvestitism and psychopathy. That’s why we have that oddly long and technical explanation with Simon Oakland as an entirely new character to come in and basically tell audiences that yes this could happen!
In another sense, however, this isn’t a conventional whodunnit at all! We DO know that the killer is “Mother” – the shock is in discovering the true nature of “Mother’s” identity. You’re totally right, Madcap, in pointing out the effort Hitchcock takes to hide this truth from the audience on the first viewing. But where are the other suspects? Where are the clues? There ARE clues, but most of them lie within the preocupations and stylizing of the director rather than in the story itself. (The novel does the same thing, by the way – it shocks us, but it doesn’t clue us in to give us a chance to beat the heroes to the reveal.)
For example, a student of Hitchcock knows that when he places a character in a low angle, the character below is weak, and the character above is strong. (Horror directors have copied this idea for years!!) In the dinner scene, we learn that Norman practices taxidermy as a hobby (!), and we even have all those stuffed birds on the wall to show for it. But the angle shows that Norman and Marian are under the thrall of some greater power. The stuffed birds? Well, something stuffed!!
Murder and Stage Fright are more traditional whodunnits, but I would argue that they are among the weaker of Hitchcock’s efforts. Spellbound is a better movie, but it is preoccupied with other issues than “whodunnit,” and I don’t remember there being a lot of plot about a secret killer in it. The revelation at the end is a surprise, as is the revelation, say, of the Nazi spy in Foreign Correspondent, but neither film really functions as a whodunnit. There are only a few actual detectives who function as heroes in his films, like John Williams in the very inverted Dial M for Murder and the Yard man in Frenzy who is far more likable than the ostensible “hero.” Most of the “detectives” in the films are average men (and once or twice a woman) who are only investigating to save their own hides or prove their competence or worth. The one professional who stands out is Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, which certainly contains many whodunnit elements. . . and noir elements, and psychological tragedy elements and . . . well, Hitchcock puts us all through our paces in that one, and he almost tosses off the “Who killed Madeleine?” question in the middle so that we can focus on the torrid passion play with disastrous consequences that this movie is.
Okay, let’s podcast about this!!!! I am ready to go!!!!!!!!!!!
Brad, I think the difficulty with Hitchcock is an extension of what I said earlier about GAD authors— except for an attempt to satisfy reader expectations, they weren’t attempting to fit into genre classifications. With Hitchcock one should take it a step further— he was actively working to NOT fit genre classifications. This, the lying flashback of Stage Fright (not the first in American cinema, incidentally, but certainly the first to gain notoriety) was not merely a technique to fool his audience, but also one of his many ways of defiantly saying “don’t fence me into your silly limitations!” Similarly, the plot revelation 2/3 in Vertigo not only allowed him to switch from surprise to his beloved suspense, but again him saying “Ha! This isn’t even the type of film you thought it was, is it?”
And though there are certainly recurring themes in his films— and suspense is pretty much a constant— the 1-2-3 punch of Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho pretty much shatters the idea that there’s one Hitchcock kind of film. Films such as The Lady Vanishes and The Wrong Man don’t even seem the work of the same man. It’s as if the linking elements— dead bodies and suspense— are their absolute least central aspects.
Which is why the whodunit question is so tricky. I actually think that Spellbound is closer to a traditional whodunit than you suggest, Brad. True, there’s a common Hitchcockian “how will the protagonists evade the police?” concern throughout, which distracts from the puzzle at hand, much as the question of “how?” distracts from the matter of “who?” in a Carr novel. But throughout, there is audience awareness that there are questions (What is J.B.’s real identity? What caused his amnesia? What happened to cause him to take Dr. Edwardes’s identity?) that need to be resolved. And that the Salvador Dali -designed dream sequence holds clues to those questions is made explicit by Dr. Brulov.
Of course, after J.B. and Constance go skiing, we are lulled temporarily into a false sense of resolution. We know J.B.’s real identity, we know the initial cause of his amnesia, and we’re led to believe that the reason for his assumption of Edwardes’s identity is likely unimportant (and probably soon to have a benign explanation). Thus, for a very short time (one happy scene between the protagonists), Spellbound inhabits the “faux-inverted” territory of The Unexpected Guest, The ABC Murders, Trial and Error, and yes, Psycho, in which we falsely believe we are “in the know” (thankfully it is for a short period for, unlike those examples, we do not have suspense here to maintain our interest). Only with the revelation that there was a bullet in Edwardes’s body are we shaken from our complacent sense of knowing.
But as to the question of whether Spellbound or Psycho is a whodunit, we are ultimately faced with the eternally uncertain issue of genre boundaries, and particularly with a director who reveled in the ambiguity of those boundaries. And the problem exists even with more ostensibly unambiguous works. For example, a work such as Dial M for Murder, which you refer to as “very inverted,” still hinges upon an essential element which is withheld unknowingly from the audience. Thus, even Dial M employs the trick of having the audience think they’re “in the know”— dealing exclusively with suspense— when there’s still key revelation awaiting them. Which I feel reinforces my contention that, though genre classifications are useful practical tools, all works are ultimately sui generis.
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Scott K. – For most of his career, Hitchcock was “dismissed” as a genre director, and the genre was mystery/suspense. I think he was mostly kinda okay with this as long as he got his way, but even more because he knew he was making something richer and more subversive than “mere” genre films. I also think he got a tremendous lift when the French recognized his depth and Truffaut made his sojourn to Hollywood to get that truth down on tape and in print.
The Hitchcock canon is as rich in surprise and twists as the best of whodunnit authors, but I think he was operating on a different plane, even if he was familiar with – and utilized – many of the tricks we find in GAD fiction. We also find them in the best literature! He had to use these tropes sometimes because so many of his viewers were mystery fans. But he was talking about some deeper, darker stuff, and the plot served his thematic preoccupations. His brilliance is that the themes rarely interfered with great storytelling! And a lot of THAT is because his mastery over his medium made him capable of doing both. What irks me is that “dismissal” I referred to at the start, by Hollywood and his contemporary critics. Nowadays, of course, there are probably more books written about Hitchcock than any other film director.
I’ve not seen much Dexter, but I believe it was significantly more bloody than Crofts could cook up in 1920…!
And, yeah, that’s a great point about Hitchcock and his murders. Did he become more savage as he got older, or was it Hollywood that finally unleashed him? I can believe the British censors were probably stricter — Sergio would know, he’s a whizz at movie stuff — but I also wonder if Hitch got more say as he became a bigger name and so was able to push the suspense aspect of his work in a way that was more what he wanted to do.
The fifth season of Dexter involved a series of murders where girls were found dead in plastic barrels. That’s why I remembered.
Now that you mention censors, I think the Hays code was in action in Hollywood which is probably why everything was restrained. As per Wikipedia the code was followed until late 1950s and Psycho was released in 1960. Hitchcock did seem to have a bit of a twisted soul and he probably got to unleash that later.
That also reminds me, the show Crazy Ex Girlfriend which has 2-3 songs per episode puts out an explicit version of the songs on their YouTube Channel. As people rightly say in the comments under those videos, somehow the non-explicit versions are much funnier and better since they are forced to be creative without resorting to swear words. As they say restrictions can engender creativity.
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I agree that restrictions can cause one to dig deep into their creativity and pull things out that one wouldn’t otherwise get if they weren’t restricted. I feel that a lot of films made these days are attempting to be explicit just to be explicit, there’s no rhyme or reason to it – just because, ultimately for high ratings. Being explicit means to SHOW everything and I don’t think I have to SEE everything just to make the scene believable. In Agatha Christie book “HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS”, when the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, there’s blood everywhere, but she doesn’t describe all the details as graphic and grisley as modern writers would. Christie uses the word “blood” repetitively, striking the point to the readers while keeping our eyes on the page, not turning our heads away because it’s too gruesome to behold.
By 1960 the movie envelope was certainly being pushed by the likes of Hammer Studios -and I would argue that Hitchcock’s old friend Mi hazel Powell was much more transgressive in his 1960 shocker, PEEPING TOM. By 1967 and the release of BONNIE AND CLYDE, with an ending far bloodied than anything ever seen in the history of cinema, the production code collapsed. Hitchcock with KALEIDOSCOPE attempted to make a European style erotic thriller in the style of BLOW UP but Universal decided they wouldn’t bankroll it. FRENZY shows the pressure to keep up with changing fashions on the one hand (nudity, violence, bad language) – and delighted the directors desire to shock – but is also resolutely old fashioned in terms of basic approach, harkening back as it does to THE LODGER. It’s a cold, brutal film, technically impressive but one that Hitch was only semi engaged with on the floor due to his wife Alma’s health problems. His AD’s handles some of the shooting in fact.
Ah yes! I was going to mention Peeping Tom. I haven’t seen it myself but I am aware of the reputation surrounding it and the backlash it received. Was it really warranted? Man, I wonder how The Apartment would have turned out if it had been made 10 years later.
It does make for a fascinating comparison with PSYCHO. It makes it more obvious how Hitchcock was using the old fashioned Gothic melodrama as his template (it’s really Jane Eyre transformed by Bloch’s dark humour). The Powell on the other hand is resolutely contemporary and much more disturbing in my view, precisely I’m afraid because it does not use the whodunit template.
Madcap, compared to Hitchcock’s other films pre-Psycho, the murder scene in Psycho is less restrained but I think the first murder in Frenzy is the pinnacle of murder scenes, more brutal than Psycho and less quick. And to think that he wanted blood oozing out of the first victim’s mouth in Frenzy. He wanted it as graphic and brutal as he could have made it. Thank goodness Hitchcock’s blood idea was scrapped.
//And to think that he wanted blood oozing out of the first victim’s mouth in Frenzy. He wanted it as graphic and brutal as he could have made it.
Damn! I had always felt a sense of kinship with Hitchcock prior to reading the Truffaut conversations but then that and now what you said force me to evaluate my life.
Actually it was a drop of saliva, not blood. If that makes it any better 😀
Actor Barry Foster who played Rusk said in the Behind The Scenes Featurette that it was a mixture of saliva and blood. I heard that it was in the first rough assembly but it was taken out in the second. I’m glad it was. The tongue hanging out was disturbing enough!
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I feel so inferior to the rest of you guys who can discuss GAD stories knowledgeably, vividly, and with much thought; I wish I can discuss the ins and outs with the kind of articulation that you all display — especially Brad, JJ, and Scott.
Brad and Scott are very articulate; with me, it’s just good editing.
Can’t seem to reply to Brad’s comment up top. I ought to clarify myself that when I referred to Psycho as a mystery, I was referring to the sense of mystery in the film. We (first-time viewers) know something is off but are unable to pinpoint who, what or where. I struggle to think of Psycho as a whoddunit. I see whodunnit as a game we are overtly invited to play along. No such invitation is extended in Psycho. We simply follow the events as they unfold. I would place it alongside movies like Sixth Sense or Shutter Island instead.
//For example, a student of Hitchcock knows that when he places a character in a low angle, the character below is weak, and the character above is strong. (Horror directors have copied this idea for years!!)
Are you referring to the general low-angle and high-angle shots? Was it really pioneered by Hitchcock? That is fascinating. When did he first use it? I was under the impression those shots were quite old and common.
I prefer Stage Fright over Spellbound which, apart from the dream sequence, I found dull.
I’m afraid I agree with you about Spellbound, Madcap; I have always found it boring. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of Stage Fright either, but my most recent attempt to watch it was in these COVID-strained times, and I can’t hold myself accountable for ANY opinions at the moment.
I wouldn’t dare make the pronouncement that Hitchcock invented anything, but he was certainly a technical pioneer throughout his early days and beyond, experimenting with angles in The Lodger or sound in Blackmail, and always storyboarding his mise en scene to make sure the picture showed exactly what he wanted it to show.
As for Peeping Tom, the one time I watched it was a genuinely agonizing time for me. it’s a powerfully disturbing portrait of a psychopath. As Sergio points out, there’s no mystery here, just a sickening spiral down his twisted mind. It may be beautifully rendered, but I don’t think I can ever watch it again. So why can I watch Psycho over and over? It’s because Hitchcock has wit running throughout his best films (well, maybe not Notorious, although Claude Rains, even as a Nazi, always puts a smile on my face), and he often displays his wicked sense of humor as a relief, either of the tension or of another humorless performance. Listening to Patricia Hitchcock talk about her wedding night or the sheriff’s wife prattle on about Mrs. Bates’ funeral dress are a couple of moments that stand out here. (I won’t say there are a LOT more, but sometimes even Anthony Perkins is funny!) There’s NO humor in Peeping Tom, at least as far as I can recall. It’s unrelentingly creepy. Hitchcock knew we needed a “break,” whether it was something lighter-hearted or a meticulous clean-up job like Norman does to cover up his mother’s murder in the shower. (Even then there are jokes: the pictures of birds on the wall, or the final ironic joke that the money that caused all the trouble gets dumped in the car trunk and buried in the swamp.)
Hi Brad, I would disagree with you about PEEPING TOM in terms of humour as there is definitely some humour there (not least by casting a blind actor in the role of the film director), such as the early scene in which Miles Malleson goes to the shop asking to see the naughty postcards – incidentally, that shop, and the photographer’s studio above it, and the pre credits murder sequence, were shot round the corner from my office in London for over 20 years (they’re sill there but my office moved …). Sorry you found it grim as I have never thought of it as an especially bleak film. What it does do though is make you care about the murderer, unlike PSYCHO, and thus renders the viewer complicit. For this reason alone I would rate the film so highly as I think this is very hard to achieve but it is, like PSYCHO, an extraordinary film text, one at the heart of any film studies course looking at the history of the male gaze and the use of the subjective camera, both crucial in understanding this film as well as PSYCHO and Hitchcock’s corpus (sic).
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The problem with your comment, Sergio, is that now it makes me want to watch Peeping Tom again. I watched it very long ago and only remember being highly uncomfortable with it, but it sounds like I also missed a lot! I have an idea! One of these days, we can watch it TOGETHER and then discuss. I don’t think it’s a movie I want to watch by myself these days anyway!!!!!!!
It would also be fun to watch and talk about Rear Window, too. It’s my favorite film, and it approaches voyeurism in such a sly way. If there are still certain perverse aspects of the act in Jeff’s actions, his voyeurism provides a medium for personal growth and self-awareness. Plus, he catches a murderer!!! It’s almost like Hitchcock is saying that sometimes it’s good to watch.
Sounds like a plan Brad 👍
In REAR WINDOW, Jeff brings Lisa into his voyeurism, as they both voyeur in together and when Lisa is about to sneak into Thorwald’s apartment Jeff is excited, aroused. This game of voyeurism was the cure needed to bring out another side of Lisa was opposite to her stiff sophistication. It brings out her adventurous side, a side that emcompasses Jeff’s life. Voyeurism is the spark that keeps Jeff and Lisa’s relationship off of the rocks. It brings two lovers together, it saves lives like Miss Lonelyheart (both from suicide and from loneliness), and it puts a criminal away from society. Who’d have thought watching others from your window would generate so many benefits!
I love Rear Window, such a good film and only a master like Hitchcock could produce something like that. I can’t think of anything to take away or add from it. Hitch is definitely a jewel in the rough!
oops, meant “diamond” in the rough from my last comment!
Thank you for the inputs Brad and Sergio. Think I’ll continue to give Peeping Tom a miss. About the humor in Psycho, how much credit would you give Hitchcock for it as opposed to say the screenplay writer Joseph Stefano? Also, I am thrilled to be able to talk with you guys about Hitchcock. You know your stuff and I am quite aware that Brad teaches film studies. I am quite awed.
So, I am replying to myself though I wanted to reply Scott Ratner up above. Again, how much can be attributed to Hitchcock and how much to the screenplay writers? Did Hitchcock exert complete creative control? Did he decide the structure of the films? And what about the source novels? Though I haven’t read them, I got the impression that Hitchcock usually took the main idea of a book and then ran with it as he pleased.
Hitchcock by this point was pretty much acting as his own producer so pretty much had the final say so. Stefano definitely wrote the dialogue but a lot of it is derived from Bloch (it’s a pretty close adaptation – he was a terrific author of course, and well known for his sly sense of humour). Hitch did work very closely with his writers throughout his career but they did make huge contributions – there’s a reason why an Ernest Lehman script (FAMILY PLOT; NORTH BY NORTHWEST) is very different from one by John Michael Hayes (REAR WINDOW; TO CATCH A THIEF) though themes and conceits that recur clearly belong to the director. For example, the picnic in THIEF and the train car meeting in NORTH both feature Cary Grant and a cool blonde and lots of sexual innuendo but feel very different (one blonde in control and one only thinks she is). Lehman and Hayes had terrific careers even when they didn’t work with Hitch. In his British period, most of the silents were scripted by Elliot Stannard while most of the 30s thrillers were by Charles Bennett. The big exception id LADY VANISHES, which Launder and Gilliat wrote for another director with Hitch taking over pretty last minute and changing very little by all accounts.
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There’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend if you can find it: Stephen De Rosa’s Writing with Hitchcock, which chronicles the collaborations between the director and John Michael Hayes. Hitchcock liked to work with people he could trust and respect, and if it worked he would work with them again and again. Still, his imprint is all over every aspect of his films, including the screenplays. As Sergio says, there were themes that he wanted to explore and include in his films in a certain way.
It’s pretty apparent that when a film was adapted from another source, it was changed, often radically. I personally think that Hitchcock and Hayes turned a fun short story into a brilliant film when they made Rear Window. I’m not quite as enamored of The Birds, but again Hitchcock made scores of changes to the original Daphne du Maurier story – not just changing the setting and expanding, but using the horror milieu to explore themes of love and family that preocupied him throughout his career. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if the birds destroy Hitchcock’s earth, just as long as Melanie Daniels learns to love . . . 🙂
A wonderful afternoon in your company Kate and Jim
Why so many critics could not accept good and bad writers In Every genre?
And why the need to trash the genre, whatever the quality of the writing and quality of puzzle?
Mystery to me. You scratch the surface of it quite deeply but, still …why?
Jealousy? Reader enjoying themselves?