In Defence of Classic Crime

I can’t stop reading Classic Crime. Seriously. I’ve tried.

As a lifelong bookworm, I’ve naturally dipped a toe into many genres over the years, but in the last few months, all I’ve wanted to read are good old-fashioned whodunnits – preferably written between the wars, and definitely with a good smattering of red herrings, twists, and dramatic reveals. I really can’t get enough.

Admittedly, this obsession has taken an even stronger turn in recent months, because I managed to get a cheap Kindle Unlimited trial, and discovered to my delight that there’s a pretty decent selection from the British Library Crime Classics collection available. So far, I’ve managed to gobble my way through 13 of them (not hard, as they’re short and easily digestible). I have just over a week left of the 3-month trial and I am determined to get through at least a couple more.

However, this love for Classic Crime, which began a few years ago when I got my hands on a copy of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, and found myself hooked, has left me feeling slightly conflicted. After all, there are many things to dislike about these books. Even setting aside the fact they’ve never really been seen as serious literature, intellectually stigmatised in their time, and often dismissed as frivolous “cosies” these days, they’re also almost always classist, frequently sexist, occasionally racist, and pretty much every other ‘ist you can name. And yet… they’re delightful.

Their value comes, I think, from viewing them as a product of their time – and no, I don’t mean that in an “it’s ok to be sexist if it’s the 50s” kind of way. What is important is why they were written in the first place. Largely coming out of inter-war Britain, a country often shrouded in gloom and doubt, detective fiction provided something very simple: a distraction. Given the (obvious) atrocities of the First World War, and the not yet apparent but still looming (and if anything, even greater) atrocities of the Second World War, the fact that a genre which is necessarily centred around death should be popular as a form of escapism seems paradoxical.  But, when you consider how far such books can transport a reader from their everyday life (and indeed, in the all-too-recent past, their everyday experiences of death: arbitrary and en masse) their popularity becomes a little more understandable. Are we delving too far into the depths of psychology (a place I am by no means qualified to venture), to say that there’s also value in the idea of accountability, which is always present in Classic Crime novels? To put it bluntly, the bad guy always gets what’s coming to him, which during the “Golden Age of Murder”, was not to be taken for granted.

Either way, I’m certainly not the first to say that these wonderful little books serve much the same function today: in a world of mass shootings, psychopaths in government, and an overwhelming sense of gloom (cheery note to end on, I know) – there’s value in a book that helps you to escape, test your mental faculties, and be cheerfully swept along by a charming, engaging story.

It’s murder – but quaint, English murder.