In Murder at the Vicarage, there are the Vicar and his young wife, a retired colonel, his second wife and his daughter by the first marriage, an unknown woman who is clearly a lady with personal revenues, the local GP, the curate and his landlady, the vicarage maid and her brother (who are utilities), a painter (artist), the chorus of single and more or less impoverished gentlewomen not unlike Mrs and Miss Bates of Emma or the gentlewomen of Cranford, the police investigators (from chiefs to local PC), and Miss Marple. Shopkeepers may be incidentally mentioned but they play no part in the drama.
In A Murder is Announced, the society is more mixed. We find the vicar and his wife (again), the local GP and his maiden sister, a lady of private means, retired from being secretary from an industrial tycoon, a friend of hers from childhood, a widow who has everything of a lady, two students (brother and sister, nephew and niece to the retired secretary), the maid, a gentlewoman and her son who plays marxist, a retired colonel, a solicitor and his family (wife, daughter by a first marriage, two sons and their governess, a maid and her sweetheart), two youngish ladies living together who may be supposed to be lesbians, a crook, spinsters and widows in the background (all gentlewomen), the police crew, and Miss Marple. The problem here is to disentangle who is truly who. Are the newcomers really who they say they are?
But, in both novels, the leads of the cast are definitely middle-class. No shopkeepers, no factory workers, no craftsmen.
In Snow White Must Die, the protagonist is the son of an innkeeper. Then, the main characters are the innkeeper and his wife, a doctor with psychiatric knowledge, her husband who is the minister of education of the Land, an industrial, his wife, his two sons (one who is autist and painter, and one who has been a stokebroker and is now the director of a Swiss bank, but who wanted to study theology), and his sister-in-law, a carpenter and his wife, an employee of the industrial and his wife, another innkeeper, his wife, inn servers, the grocer, a TV star who was born in the village, various villagers, the police crew, the procedural crew … and their families.
No particular middle-class characters centre-stage this time: the village as a community and the village as a place are the main protagonists. Whoever lives in there has a part to play. And the other great difference with the classic whodunnit is the entrance of the police crew with their own lives. We follow them not only in their offices but in their homes as well; we know even more about their personal lives than about the lives of the villagers. And policemen may also be villagers, which gives them a double status.
Nonetheless, if the community is depicted, mostly at the inn’s or at the grocer’s as they are the place where we are able to see them gathered, there is the emergence of the minister of education, the doctor and the industrial as main pillars of the community: once their alliance and support are broken, the community unravels. Their status gives them money and power to sustain the village together. The only ones who rebel against them are the first innkeeper and his family, one inn server, and, in a way, the TV star. But it is a story about a community, its secrets, its life, its death, more than lives and deaths of individuals as in the whodunnits.
I have not read Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder but I read several of his reviews and participate in the online groups about the topic of the Golden Age Mystery. They do not like books like Millenium or Snow White Must Die. There are not real mysteries for them.
The real mysteries have begun with The Mystery of the Rue Morgue and live until the end of the 1950s. They do hardly include the American “hard-boilers”, with Philip Marlowe and al. They cover the classics re-printed by the British library and, of course, Agatha Christie falls in their lap. The Golden Age mystery is born with the crossword puzzle and is a distraction written by the middle-class writer for the middle-class reader. It is then normal that the main characters are those who are known to the reader: middle-class protagonists without exception.
There is a funny example of such an instance in a book that has been reissued by Persephone Press, Greenery Street by Dennis Mackail (Angela Thirkell’s brother), himself from the middle-class.
The newly married Felicity goes to the library to change her weekly books and chooses some for herself and some for her husband. There is a hilarious exchange between the librarian and the poor Felicity, but the husband’s choice is almost always satisfied by mystery books, even if not those wanted. And, later, we see said husband engrossed in the reading of his weekly booty, half listening to his wife as he does when doing the newspaper crossword puzzle. Now, search your mind and try to remember how many times, in books of the 1930s to the 1950s (at least), people are looking for clues to the Times crossword puzzle.
The very nature of the mystery or whodunnit novel is of the same essence. It is a game. There is no need to have a too true-to-life setting and characters. All these can be compared to “The Clue” or “The Cluedo”.
One needs a closed place (room, country house, village) and a set of characters without much distinctive traits from one book to another, but to whom the reader can relate. You may have noticed the recurrence of vicars, curates, retired colonels, spinsters, widows, gentlewomen, ladies, professional gentlemen and their wives. But they are mainly cardboard characters. Then the writer and the reader begin to play together. The detective has no great importance. What do we truly know of Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple? And tenants of the Golden Age mystery criticized and still critic the TV or film adaptation that want to give some consistance to Poirot or Miss Marple in devising a past for them, for instance.
Some writers have made the tour de force of living through the years and of transcending the genre. Agatha Chritie is a good example.
As we have seen, there are differences between Murder at The Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. In the second book, WWII has occurred and times have changed. Villages are not any more those communities where everybody knew the forefathers of the inhabitants. The fact that lesbians may exist is lighly touched. The problem of restrictions is spoken of. Girls may be students. Women may work without being scandalous. There is a flexibility in Christie’s story-telling to adapt it to the times. And they witness their times in such a way that nowadays they are used by cultural studies as literary sources.
But books like Snow White Must Die go further. The style is important in the writing. The game and the red herrings must fit a wider readership or a more sophisticated readership who has read more detective novels and seen them more often in films or on TV. What Christie sketched in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is now the rule: the murderer can be the detective or the person helping the detective. The detective has a life of one’s own. He or she has a home, colleagues, problems, a family, a love story or love stories that may mirror the story or be utterly distinct.
I do not pass judgement: I love both genres. And I like hard boiled crime novels. But I think that Snow White Must Die makes a happy contrast with Murder at the Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. Same small community and a mystery to disentangle through roots deep in the past. Similarities and differences.
I told you I have the E.M. Forster Syndrome: I always want to connect!