The Detective with a Magic Wand


As I have started occasionally writing articles for the literary section of an Italian online cultural journal called Lo Sbuffo, I decided it would be a great opportunity to use the blog to translate the pieces in English! So, here’s the link to the original version, and here’s the first translation:

For academic reasons, I recently chanced upon a very interesting article by Nicholas Blake, pen-name of Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis, under the title “Detective Stories and Happy Families”.[1] Published in 1935 by The Bookseller (journal for professionals of the book industry), it’s a decisively apologetic piece, especially if we bear in mind that earlier that year Blake himself had started writing crime fiction, to earn a little extra cash on the side.[2]

It should also be mentioned that the period running between the Twenties and Thirties was hardly encouraging. Deep-rooted rancour swelled against a ruling class that had first brought on a war, but then failed in adequately confronting the problem of the veterans.[3] The distraction of a book which could avert the mind from present problems, and instead hurtle one in the midst of a puzzle to be solved, as well as satiating the need for social revanche through the never-failing ability of the murderer to be captured and punished, was more than welcome in such a time of depression. Very popular among the working classes, it was generally looked down upon by the higher ranks of society, the so-called highbrows.

Yet the author mentions, a little morbidly actually, that “all join hands over a corpse. One touch of bloodshed, it seems, makes the whole world kin”.[4] This sense of communion is referred to as a prominent positive feature of the detective novel, and can interestingly also be reflected in the characters themselves. Taking The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie’s first novel, published in 1926, as an example, we can see every social class gets a part, and all are equal suspects in the eyes of Mr Poirot: the doctor just as much as the maid or the wealthy child of the murdered widower.[5] A murder creates unity not only in the readership, but within the book itself too. Three decades later, in his history of England across the two World Wars, A. J. P. Taylor would convey the same impression, by claiming that “the picture of the interwar Englishman, particularly of the middle class, is incomplete unless we see him reading thrillers, detective stories”.[6]

In Blake’s analysis man regresses to his primordial state, he becomes an animal feverishly thrilled by the hunt for the paper man. However, the risk that, with such a direct exposure to the criminal world, an impressionable reader could suddenly be engulfed by the desire to break the law himself is absent, because the detective novel – Blake tells us – is the perfect safety valve. Through the murderer’s imagined violence, the reader sublimates (in the Freudian sense) the most dangerous instincts, and comes out purified, relieved of his burden.

The crime novel is thus transformed in a modern-day fairy-tale, where the detective waves the magic wand of his intellectual acumen over the crime scene and enables the “happily ever after”. Not only does his description of the detective as a “fairy godmother” invariably arouse a smile, but it also denotes the genre’s popularity and its social function as the provider of an alternate world where virtue can be triumphant, problems can (and always will be) solved, and the social divide is levelled out.[7]

[1] Blake, N., ‘Detective Stories and Happy Families’, The Bookseller, 13 Marzo 1935

[2] Symons, J., Bloody Murder: from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (New York: Warner Books Inc., 1992) pp. 131-2

[3] Clare, P., Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 171

[4] Blake, N., ‘Detective Stories and Happy Families’, The Bookseller, 13 March 1935

[5] Christie, A., The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (London: Harper Collins, 1993)

[6] Taylor, A. J. P., English History, 1914-1945 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)

[7] Blake, N., ‘Detective Stories and Happy Families’, The Bookseller, 13th March 1935