I recently finished reading The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah. If you don’t know, this is Sophie Hannah taking on the continuation novels of Agatha Christie’s beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Approved by the Christie Estate and written by a very talent crime novelist who I had the chance to meet at Swanwick Summer Writing School. It was really enjoyable to read.
To Sophie Hannah’s credit, she does an incredible job capturing the voice and mannerism of Poirot for which I’m incredibly grateful. And while I recommend it to any Agatha Christie fan, I would give the word of warning that at no point did I forget it wasn’t Christe. That particular piece of magic I’m afraid just isn’t there. But I still enjoyed it and I can’t wait to read Closed Casket which is the next in the series.
This isn’t a review as such. The book is great, go read it and judge it on its own merits, rather than in the shadow of the great Christe herself. But what it did get me thinking about it certain tropes of Christe and other crime novelists. The Monogram Murders came complete with twisty plot, bizarre crime scene to unravel and the obligatory additional murder a third of the way through the book. As Arthur Hastings himself says in ABC Murders, “a second murder in a book often cheers things up.”
Arthur Hastings, of course, being Poirot’s Bunny Manders. Bunny Manders, of course, being A J Raffles’s John Watson. You know the character, the sidekick of the hero who follows around exclaiming wonderment at his friend’s feats and generally being a bit of a sycophant.
Also, in British detective fiction at least, they’re usually only around to carry the gun, have you noticed??
Let’s be honest, these character’s are generally good-natured but thick as a brick. They’re eternally behind the bounding hero and usually there to provide the humanity feeling the genius detective (or in A J Raffles’s case) master criminal has lost. But it’s more than that. These characters are essential and without them, this genre of crime would have simply of collapsed without them.
This is where my one and only real stumbling block with Sophie Hannah’s book came. Poor Catchpool; Scotland Yard’s most dismal and whiny detective. To borrow a phrase from Pratchett, a penny could drop through wet cement faster than it could drop for Catchpool.
You could argue that Arthur Hasting’s is no smarter, but what Arthur Hasting’s had were a charm and loveable nature. He was a gentleman, if massively old-fashioned and an honest soul. Catchpool is lumbering under so much emotional baggage I had to admire that he even got out of bed.
From 1957–1976, Agatha Christe was the President of the Detection Club. I kid you not. Their members included Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterson, Emma Orczy and Margert Cole, to name a few. These authors would meet up in London for dinners, recite an oath, then probably get down to some serious drinking. The oath?
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
You get the impression these guys were a real laugh a minute.
The reason I bring this up is that these guys had a ‘code of ethics’ for their storytelling, which, whether they were meant seriously or sardonically, is a fascinating insight into how this author’s viewed their genre.
These are known as Knox’s Commandments. I really wanted to go into all of them here, but it proved to be too big a post! So I’ll come back to them at a later date. Specifically, the one we’re interested in is number nine:
The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
While that might seem just a funny jab at dozens of poor literary Watsons, it is the very reason these types of stories work and why this genre took off like it did. We see the story through the eyes of the Watson and so we get treated to a ringside view. We are, simultaneously both ahead of the game because we’re smarter than the Watson, but always left in the dark until the final reveal.
The Watson’s perspective is what makes these stories so gripping. In this genre of crime
fiction, it doesn’t work if we see things from the detective’s perspective. In modern fiction and police procedures, it’s a very different story because there you’re invited to come on a journey of discovery with the detective, feeling his anxiety, pains and efforts. In the Golden Age of Detective fiction, it was all about the big reveal.
On an interesting side note, the BBC’s recent Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Moffet dialled up Sherlock’s eccentricity, turning his Watson into the voice of reason. He’s still slow on the uptake, but we’re rather more forgiving this time around as modern Sherlock seems almost paranormally intelligent.
But, back to the Golden Age. To keep the end of the book and the great reveal intact, a view from the detective would mean not being let in on their thought process. That can be exasperating for a reader as it’s what we rely on to experience the story. The few cases I can think of are generally done as a letter or a story told to a different character, or to you the reader where the detective is acknowledging his audience and purposefully leaving them in the dark. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind. It’s basically Sherlock Holmes’s response to an annoyed Watson telling him to try writing one of his cases himself if he thinks it’s so damn easy. Or words to that effect.
On the other hand, it’s very difficult to be in the head of the killer and not know that we are. Again, Agatha Christe pulls this off well in… not telling…. but it’s a balancing act which doesn’t always pay off.
So bring on the Watson, the slow but loveable sidekick who we can live the thrill and wander through, almost being part of the story ourselves. Every new clue is as exciting to them as to us and so is the grand reveal.
So I will try to find some love for world-weary Catchpool, Sophie Hannah’s new Watson. Call them slow, incredulous or just plain moronic, but they are almost more important to this genre of fiction than any other character.
Also, ask yourself this: what happens when two of the dullest Watsons ever are left to themselves and try to ask one another the questions? Waiting for Godot. (Not my joke, stole it from TV Tropes).