Original Sinners

One of my favourite sinful characters in crime fiction is to be found in a short story called ‘The Murder at the Towers’. It is written by E.V. Knox and begins like this:

‘Mr Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1. Vulpine in his secretiveness, he was porcine in his habits, saturnine in his appearance, and ovine in his unconsciousness of doom. He was the kind of man who might easily perish as early as paragraph two.’

And so he does.

Knox was the editor of Punch, and the brother of Father Ronald Knox, whose contribution to the genre is much better known. Ronald was a founder member of the Detection Club, author of six detective novels and a couple of very good short mysteries. And he was the man who, in 1929, dreamed up the Detective’s Decalogue. This was a set of ten commandments for crime writers. It included the warning not to use more than one secret passage in a single novel, and that no Chinaman must figure in the story. Advice which most of us present day writers don’t find terribly useful. Though how about a new rule that no psychopathic serial killer should figure in our stories? Well, perhaps not .But  E.V. Knox deserves a nod of remembrance, if only for the wit of ‘The Murder at the Towers’.

In fact, because E.V. was a parodist, the story has more than one entertaining twist. Does this sentence remind you of anything?

‘Never before, it seemed, had a secretary, a stepsister, a niece, an eminent KC, a major, a charperson, a friend, a cook, a butler, two housemaids, and a gardener gone to the gallows on the same day for the murder of a disagreeable old man.’

In fact, their collective guilt has been established by the detective work of a gifted amateur, who rejoices in the name of Bletherby Marge. But then it turns out that Mr Ponderby-Wilkins hanged himself, and bequeathed all his riches to the great sleuth – as long as he can conjure a murder plot out of it.

Very sinful behaviour indeed.

But many of the sinners in crime fiction are cold and unamusing characters. No surprise, then, that generations of crime writers have found countless ways of reminding us that the wages of sin are death. In so doing, they have often played fascinating games with the notion of justice. And justice certainly is a very tricky notion – as a working lawyer, I can promise you that.

One of the great sinners in detective fiction is Charles Augustus Milverton. Sherlock Holmes describes him as ‘the worst man in London’, which in the era of Professor Moriarty was saying something. Milverton is a blackmailer, someone with a knack of getting hold of compromising letters. When a mysterious woman shoots him, Holmes – who knows exactly what has happened – refuses Inspector Lestrade’s invitation to take up the case:

‘I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. No, it’s no use arguing, I have made up my mind. My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case.’

Exactly the same sentiment influences Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. At the end of the book, he propounds two theories. One is vague and unsatisfactory. The other is extraordinary, but clearly reasoned and perversely credible. It hinges on the sinfulness of the murder victim, Ratchett:

‘Ratchett had escaped justice in America. There was no question as to his guilt. I visualised a self-appointed jury of twelve people who condemned him to death…’

But when the truth threatens to emerge, Poirot joins with the director of the train company, and Dr Constantine, in agreeing a conspiracy of silence. It is an unorthodox kind of justice, but most readers would agree that it is indeed justice. There can be no doubt that was Agatha Christie’s view.

Christie had a passionate belief in evil. Time and again, it comes out in her books. Critics who carp about her literary shortcomings overlook many of her gifts, and also her passionate hatred of evil behaviour. Sin mattered to her – it is no accident that she wrote a story called ‘Double Sin’, as well as a splendid novel with the title Evil Under the Sun.

The first victim in Cards on the Table, Mr Shaitana, is an especially unsavoury character, who boasts to Poirot that he ‘collects’ murderers. A dangerous hobby for a character in a mystery! As the detective says: ‘Shaitana was a man who prided himself on his Mephistophelian attitude to life. He was a man of great vanity. He was also a stupid man – that is why he is dead.’

Among Christie’s many masterpieces, my personal favourite is And Then There Were None, a novel in which questions of sin, retribution and justice are fundamental to everything that happens. It is also a book where, I am sorry to say, a person who admits to having a cruel and sadistic nature decides that their most fulfilling career opportunities lie in the legal profession.

At the end of the book, Scotland Yard receives a written confession to murder – but not just any murder. It is ‘a fantastical crime – something stupendous’. All the murder victims were themselves people who had escaped justice: As their nemesis says:

‘Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first, and not suffer the prolonged mental strain and fear that the most cold-blooded offenders were to suffer.’

And one of the few clues to the amazing solution is this:

‘One of the ten people on the island was not a murderer in any sense of the word, and it follows, paradoxically, that that person must logically be the murderer.’

It is that paradox, that bitter irony, which exemplifies mystery fiction at its finest.

A much less celebrated Christie novel, the posthumously published Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, contains her most poignant meditation on the wages of sin. The great detective tells Captain Hastings, ‘I do not believe that a man should take the law into his own hands. But on the other hand, I am the law!’

The question Christie poses is not merely about retribution, but about protecting the innocent. Can it be justified to kill in order to save other lives? Even the great know-all, Poirot, says at the very end: ‘Now I am very humble and I say like a little child, “I do not know.”’ 

Why is Curtain so under-rated? If it had been published when it was written, in the 1940s, I think its shock value would have been as great as that of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Again, the central concept is dazzling. Someone has devised  a method of murder that is flawless. The connection between the crimes is fiendishy difficult to fathom. How can justice be done?

I loved the idea and mulled it over for years, before doing something rather different with it, in a book called Take My Breath Away. It wasn’t by any means my most successful book, but some people liked it, and I was very proud, as well as grateful, when Cilla Masters featured it in a novel of hers, Wings Over the Watcher.

I’m not alone, either, in admiring the central concept of Curtain. Ellery Queen also adapted it, for a story called The Tragedy of Errors. That book was never written, but a lengthy synopsis was published a few years ago by those excellent American publishers of ‘lost classics’, Crippen & Landru. It’s well worth seeking out.

The idea that the sinfulness of the victim can, in the right circumstances, justify murder, is at the heart of a very different book, Anthony Berkeley’s classic Golden Age mystery, Trial and Error. The set-up is marvellous. Little Mr Todhunter is terminally ill. So he decides to make one final gesture, committing an ‘altruistic murder’ by killing the most obnoxious person he can find. Not a literary critic, not a publisher, not even a lawyer or a politician! The chosen candidate is Jean Norwood, ‘famous actress manager’.

He shoots the unlovely Jean, and believes he has committed the perfect crime. The snag is that an innocent person is charged by the police with Jean’s murder, and the prosecution seem to have an ‘iron-clad’ case. So Mr Todhunter has to turn detective to prove himself guilty of murder and save an innocent life. Berkeley’s cleverness and cynical wit make Trial and Error a unique piece of work. He dedicated the book to P.G. Wodehouse, and his earlier fiction reflects Wodehouse’s influence, but by the time this novel was published in 1937, his writing was truly distinctive, whether under the Berkeley name or in the books he wrote as Francis Iles. It is sad, and astonishing, that a mere two years later, his career as a crime novelist came to a sudden, self-imposed stop.

There is a recurrent theme in his books that guilt and innocence are as much a matter of chance as of design. But, if we are all sinners, perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. In the Berkeley/Iles canon, supposed murders prove to be the result of accident or suicide, ingenious detectives constantly come up with mistaken solutions to mystery puzzles, victims are often more morally culpable than their killers, and a murderer may be convicted of a crime that in fact he did not commit. This latter idea, of justice being meted out to a murderous sinner by means of an injustice, sparked the remarkable climax of the first Francis Iles book, Malice Aforethought.

A similar idea is at work in the conclusion to C.S. Forester’s ground-breaking debut novel of 1926, Payment Deferred. A mystery that has baffled me for many years is why Forester’s extraordinary contribution to our genre is so widely ignored. He remains known for his naval stories featuring Horatio Hornblower, but if he’d never written anything other than that bleak classic Payment Deferred, his memory would deserve to be toasted by crime fans.

The ironic finales of Payment Deferred and Malice Aforethought caught the imagination of a number of writers throughout the 1930s. Among them was Richard Hull. Hull was the pen-name of a chartered accountant called Richard Henry Sampson. Plenty of lawyers have written crime novels, and I am glad to say they still do. But there has not been a great deal of competition from accountants – perhaps they are too busy doing a proper job. Hull was, however, an intriguing and innovative crime novelist. It is typical of his style that he gave his real name to one of his more sinful characters, who appeared in My Own Murderer. Hull is best known for his first novel, The Murder of My Aunt, where both victim and killer are equally sinful: the twist, where the roles of corpse and culprit are switched at the end, is foreseeable to a modern reader, but broke fresh ground in1935. Three years later, he published an especially good book, which I rate it as superior to his debut. Excellent Intentions features a deeply sinful victim who rejoices in the name of Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate. A trial scene is given a delightful legal twist. The judge’s unfair summing-up leads to a guilty verdict, but has to be overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal. So, once again, a kind of justice is achieved – by thwarting justice.

Let’s leave the Golden Age, and cross the Channel. A number of fascinating French crime novels explore sinfulness on the part of the victim. Long before the current fashion for Eurocrime, several superb writers of the 1950s and 1960s wrote novels of psychological suspense so vivid that they were often transformed into memorable films. Pre-eminent amongst these authors were Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who collaborated together on a series of chilling books, two of which were made into movies which are to this day regarded as masterpieces: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Claude Chabrol’s Les Diaboliques.

Boileau and Narcejac complicate the concepts of guilt and innocence, victim and culprit, by playing tricks with identity. Books such as The Prisoner and Who Was Claire Jallu? are undeservedly overlooked by most modern readers. These mysteries involve impersonations that are sometimes outrageous and defy credibility, yet are always compelling, It amazes me that so much of the work of this gifted duo has yet to be translated into English. Are there any enterprising publishers out there?

Others who wrote in a similar vein included Sebastian Japrisot and the obscure but intriguing Catherine Arley. Her best book is probably Woman of Straw. Hardly anyone seems to be aware of it, but it was not only very readable in its own right – it sourced a film starring two of the great names of the 1960s, Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida. Again, the cast of characters contains a long list of sinners. Arley, along with her contemporaries, was not interested in focusing on a likeable series detective, but on the motivations of the sinners whom she depicted. And this does make their best work very powerful indeed.

One novel I’d like to highlight – partly because, again, it is today almost entirely forgotten, despite having been turned into a film featuring a young Cherie Lunghi in the early days of Channel 4 – is Praying Mantis, by Hubert Monteilhet. This was his debut novel, published in 1962. Although Monteilhet’s career continued for a good many years, and included a wonderful book called Return to the Ashes (filmed with Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom in the cast), I’m not sure he ever surpassed the brilliance of Praying Mantis. It’s a story of two couples, the Canovas and the Magnys. The plot revolves around their complex sex lives, their mutual betrayals, and an enormously valuable insurance policy on the life of one of the husbands, Professor Paul Canova. The tale is told through letters, diary extracts, official reports, a secret tape recording and so on, a cool way of unfolding a complex plot involving all manner of sins. Canova is the victim of a conspiracy between his second wife and her lover, Magny, but it is his sinful behaviour – an affair with the lover’s new wife, Beatrice – which is the catalyst for murder. The scheme is to concoct a crime passionel, so that Magny is acquitted of murdering Canova and Beatrice, after he catches them in flagrante. However, Beatrice gets wind of the plot, and things become ever more complicated from there.  

Sinful victims are to be found in several notable crime novels with a political edge. The Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, like his predecessors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, has an agenda with his writing, but most of the time he avoids the trap of allowing the message to get in the way of the story. The Return of the Dancing Master is one of his books that does not feature Inspector Kurt Wallander, but it’s none the worse for that. Herbert Molin, is found savagely murdered, and it turns out that the explanation has its roots in the victim’s Nazi past. Mankell, like plenty of other writers, is fascinated by the idea that, no matter how long it takes, your sins will find you out.

The American Ross Macdonald is an especially good example of a writer whose mysteries frequently involving the discovery of sins from the distant past. His wife, Margaret Millar, was an equally fine novelist (perhaps even more gifted.) Her 1955 novel Beast in View was a pioneering work which, in blurring the distinction between guilt and innocence, stalker and prey, ranks alongside the best work of her European contemporaries such as Boileau and Narcejac.

Even more influential than Millar, in the long run, was Patricia Highsmith. Her icy studies of amorality paved the way for the likes of Ruth Rendell and a newish writer of flair, Sophie Hannah, who shares Rendell’s ability to combine complex plotting with finely drawn characters. Plotting is not Highsmith’s strong suit, even though she once wrote a book about it, but her best work conveyas an enduring frisson.

The Talented Mr Ripley introduced us to the charming yet amoral Tom Ripley. Tom’s first victim is Dickie Greenleaf, and part of the fascination of the story is the way in which Highsmith describes his motive:

‘He hated Dickie because, however he looked at what had happened, his failing had not been his own fault…but due to Dickie’s inhumane stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold.’

And so Tom sets off on the path that leads him to murder – a crime he commits time and again when his self-interest requires it. He is no conventional serial killer, though.

A popular device in serial murder novels is the culprit driven by some form of religious mania, coupled with a thirst for vengeance. The better writers take such a premise, and do something fresh with it. A fine recent example of such a book is Karin Alvtegen’s Missing. The very first page has a passage written from the point of view of an unnamed avenging angel:

‘Thank you Lord for my courage. You have listened to me, heard my prayers and directed me on the right path.

Let me be Your instrument. Let me execute the sentences due to those who have sinned.’

Missing quickly develops into a book packed with personality, the product of an original distinctive literary talent, even though the idea of a deranged killer bent on punishing sinners has been around for a long time.

Take, for instance, Clerical Error (also known as The Vicar’s Experiments), written by C.E. Vulliamy (who also wrote as Anthony Rolls). Vulliamy produced, among other things, biography and satire, and when it came to crime fiction, he can be grouped with Francis Iles, Richard Hull and the under-estimated Bruce Hamilton, whose fame never matched that of his brother Patrick, but whose books are still much better than average.. It is Vulliamy’s satiric instinct which prevails in the opening chapter of Clerical Error, when a seemingly inoffensive cleric snaps during a conversation with a disagreeable loudmouth:

‘Up to a quarter past three, Mr Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.’

Alas, even when the murder of Colonel Cargoy has been accomplished, Pardicott does not rest content….

Travelling back across the Atlantic, I’d like to highlight the work of Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote as William Irish and George Hopley. He was a master of what you might call ‘the emotional thriller’. Like the suspense novels of Boileau and Narcejac, his tales were so vivid that they translated perfectly to film – three of the best examples are Rear Window, Phantom Lady and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Woolrich does not use a regular detective, so you can never be sure that the protagonist – however likeable – will actually survive to the end of the story. This overcomes one of the drawbacks that those of us who write series have to grapple with. It certainly helps to ratchet up the tension as sinners and innocents alike succumb to the cruel vagaries of Fate.

The Bride Wore Black, which was also turned into a successful movie, is a fine example of the revenge novel. Julie Killeen pursues a group of men whom she regards as responsible for the death of the man she loved with a frightening remorselessness. But the key question, concealed from the reader until a late point in the story, is this – were her victims, in fact, innocent, and was the real sinner in fact her husband? This is an author whose work bristles with as much cynicism and irony as Anthony Berkeley’s.

Cornell Woolrich reminds us that, if we are all sinners, the dividing lines between guilt and innocence are bound to become very blurred, and sometimes impossible to define. A marvellous variation on this theme is to be found in a novel written by one of his contemporaries, Kenneth Fearing. The Big Clock, again, was made into a memorable film, and splendidly re-made a few years ago, with an added twist, as No Way Out.

The obviously sinful victim is the mistress of Earl Janoth, the immensely wealthy owner of a magazine empire. Janoth kills her, but realises he has been spotted by a mystery witness. He hires his top investigative reporter, George Stroud, to track down the witness – what he does not know is that the witness was Stroud himself. The reporter becomes the hunter and the hunted at one and the same time. Stroud knows that, if he is identified, he will be killed, and he has to use all his ruthless ingenuity to keep one step ahead of his desperate boss. Fearing keeps shifting viewpoint, but as the tension mounts, it becomes clear that not only is Stroud a potential victim – he is also a sinner himself. Fearing was a poet who wrote several crime novels, but The Big Clock is his finest achievement. The writing is clipped and tense, the characterisation economical yet witty, and the pace frenetic. If you have never read it, you have a treat in store.

‘This sinner shall pay for his wickedness,’ says the killer, a couple of pages before the end of Peter Lovesey’s The Secret Hangman. This book, published as recently as 2007, boasts one of the cleverest and most unusual – yet plausible – murder motives I have come across in years. It’s the culprit’s perception of the victims’ sinfulnessness that explains a series of crimes that has baffled Bath’s Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond. To my mind, The Secret Hangman is a modern classic, and I’m surprised that it has not received the recognition accorded to some of Lovesey’s earlier books.

P.D.James is, it is probably fair to say, is even more preoccupied by the topic of sin than most of us crime writers. The title of one of her novels is Original Sin. No author will fail to be amused by the irony that the setting for that book was a firm of publishers. Sin, as we have seen, goes hand in hand with retribution, and another of Adam Dalgleish’s cases is called A Certain Justicer. James writes from a clear-eyed Christian perspective, and the principal victim in her latest novel, The Private Patient, is a woman typical of James’ people. We are introduced in the early pages to Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist who possesses in abundance the ruthlessness necessary to rise to the top of her profession. She is disfigured physically as well, James implies, as morally, and decides to undergo medical treatment at a private clinic. But, needless to say, she never checks out. Rhoda, like Venetia Aldridge, the cold barrister in A Certain Justice, is a person doomed to die by the flaws in her own character.

Another magisterial figure in contemporary crime fiction is Ruth Rendell. Like James,  although on the other side of the political divide, she is a member of the House of Lords, and she puts her knowledge of the political world to work in a recent novel published under her pseudonym (moiré a brand name, really, since unlike Berkeley/Iles she has never tried to disguise her identity) Barbara Vine. The Birthday Present introduces us to a sinful Conservative MP called Ivor Teshem. He’s an old Etonian charmer, who could not possibly have been inspired by Jonathan Aitken, and his affair with a married woman is cut short by a tragic accident for which, arguably, he has a degree of moral responsibility.

Teshem never does anything really criminal, but Vine explores with her customary detachment his character flaws, and the tension builds as the reader wonders what particular form his inevitable downfall will take. This is not, for my money, a book of quite the same exceptional quality as Vine’s masterly A Fatal Inversion – there are plot holes, over-indulgence in foreshadowing, and a dearth of likeable characters – but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and original illustration of the twists and turns that may be taken by a novel of psychological suspense.

The endless possibilities of the sinful victim appeal to me as well. My starting point when plotting a book is to tease out a motive for murder that I find intriguing. A reason to kill someone which is perhaps out of the ordinary, and definitely compelling. In my latest Harry Devlin mystery, Waterloo Sunset, the puzzle is this – why would someone want to murder poor old Harry? After all, he’s a nice guy. Yet the book opens with his receiving an obituary notice recording his sudden death on Midsummer’s Eve – which is just seven days away. Now Harry’s committed a few sins in his time, it has to be said. Foolishly, he’s even had a relationship with the wife of a local criminal. But which particular sin is it that will spell his doom, unless he solves the mystery in time?

The closest that I’ve come to a Ross Macdonald type of story is with The Cipher Garden, which is the second of my Lake District Mysteries. A landscape gardener called Warren Howe comes face to face with a real-life Grim Reaper. The explanation for the crime is to be found in past relationships as tangled as a thicket of brambles – along with Warren’s brutally unrepentant sinfulness.

Past sins of one kind or another are at the heart of all the Lake District Mysteries. This is partly because of the focus of the two protagonists. Daniel Kind is a historian, an Oxford academic who has moved to the Lakes to ‘live the dream’ but also to escape from what has gone wrong with his own life. He’s drawn, also, to learn more about his late father, Ben, from whom he was estranged. Ben was a police officer, who moved to the Lakes after he left his family, and there he became a mentor to a young woman in his team called Hannah Scarlett. By the time Daniel arrives in the Lakes, Hannah has been put in charge of the local Cold Case Review Team – investigating crimes of the past, just as Daniel’s work takes him back into history.

In The Arsenic Labyrinth, a search for a body in the bleak Coppermines Valley near Coniston uncovers not one corpse but two. There are interwoven stories here, but suffice to say that both victims have paid the supreme price for their sinful behaviour. One of the main characters in the story is a drifter called Guy, a charming young man who deceives himself as well as those around him. I was inspired to create him by my fondness for the books of Ruth Rendell, who is so good at creating superficially attractive sociopaths. Suffice to say that before the end of the book, Guy’s sins, too, find him out.

The most obviously sinful victim in the whole of my fiction is, however, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dancing for the Hangman, my most recent book, is utterly different from my other work. It’s a novel which I loved writing, possibly more than any other. It seeks to stick closely to the established facts, but to provide a psychologically plausible explanation for Crippen’s behaviour, which has puzzled generations of criminologists, as well as Raymond Chandler. Chandler famously said of Crippen that ‘you can’t help liking the guy’ and I know what he means. For all his sins – his endless lies, his shady business dealings, his adulterous affair with Ethel Le Neve – Crippen seems to me to be a strangely appealing character. Even at his trial, nobody could be found to say a bad word about him.

But, you may ask, Crippen was a murderer, surely – not a sinful victim? Well, I take a rather more controversial view on this point. I wanted to re-interpret the case with the benefit of legal knowledge, and to show that in fact, the Crippen case involved a crime that nobody until now has ever acknowledged. It has nothing to do with dodgy DNA evidence, by the way, but everything to do with sin. However, to see what I mean, you will have to read the book!  

Summing up, it seems to me that the central development in crime writers’ treatment of sin, and its wages, has been the shift from certainty to ambiguity. Conan Doyle and Christie had a sturdy worldview that saw sin in black and white terms, even though they were clever enough to dream up unorthodox and ingenious ways of ensuring that their fictional sinners received their just deserts. Anthony Berkeley and his followers brought irony into the genre, and after the Second World War it became increasingly tricky to differentiate between the sinned against and the sinning.

Sometimes, the complexities simply helped to create a plot that was a box of mirrors, as with the work of Boileau and Narcejac and their disciples. But more and more, writers have used the crime novel as a means of exploring mysteries of human behaviour that is apt to be both unpredictable and violent. And these are mysteries which are even more fascinating than those wonderful Golden Age puzzles that I still love as much, I am sure, as do most of you.

(This paper was first delivered at St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference, August 2009)