When it comes to murder mysteries, I mostly stick to the Golden Age mystery genre, year after year. While I love the attraction of solving important cases, most mysteries are not my cup of tea.
I don’t want cozy. Please. Running a cute business in a small town, or cooking out in the suburbs, is a nightmare for me. Especially if I’m being courted by local law enforcement. I just can’t spend any time there.
But when I read mysteries, the main thing I don’t want is to be bludgeoned with gore, or with anything really. I am not going to deal with horrifying scary stuff; I’ll just close the book. Maybe set it on fire. I don’t want to go to bed at night wondering if a serial killer is in my closet waiting to eviscerate me.
Not my idea of a good time.
With Golden Age mysteries, I can usually count on getting to deal with a challenging puzzle that will not traumatize me.
One or more murders will constitute a suitably weighty reason to bother solving the puzzle.
The corpses are there to impress me, not to fill me with fear.
Agatha Christie seemed to understand that. She was rather cultured when it came to murder.
Her brother-in-law, James Watts, told her that her books were too tame. Here’s her Dedication to him in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:
There is a lot of blood in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Christie standards; there’s a throat slit ear to ear and the squeal of a dying animal — pretty gory stuff for Agatha Christie.
She mentioned blood 46 times in the book! Everything from “Wonder what it will be like to have young blood under this roof again?” to “We’ve gipsy blood in us, so it’s always been said.” She was trying.
Poirot said: ‘Yes, there is a lot of blood—it strikes one, that. A lot of blood.’ Superintendent Sugden said respectfully: ‘Do you—er—does that suggest anything to you, Mr Poirot?’ Poirot looked about him. He shook his head perplexedly. He said: ‘There is something here—some violence…’ He stopped a minute, then went on: ‘Yes, that is it—violence…And blood—an insistence on blood… There is—how shall I put it?—there is too much blood. Blood on the chairs, on the tables, on the carpet… The blood ritual? Sacrificial blood? Is that it? Perhaps. Such a frail old man, so thin, so shrivelled, so dried up—and yet—in his death—so much blood…’
Christie, and one of the book’s characters, even quote Shakespeare:
Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? — Lady Macbeth
A lot of blood. But it’s not really scary. I don’t go to sleep at night thinking it’s going to happen to me. It’s responsible storytelling, a sort of abstract death, something to ooh and aagh over a bit; it shows respect for the reader rather than an urge to wound and sensationalize.
Dorothy L. Sayers, although writing in a very different style, also showed appropriate sensitivity in conveying the horror of violent death. In her slit-throat book, Have His Carcase, she wrote:
The man had slumped forward — one arm between his body and the rock, the other, the right, hanging over the rock-edge just beneath his face. It was directly below this hand that the stream of blood ran down so uninvitingly, streaking the water.
Evocative, but, well, tasteful. A little later she lays it on about as thick as it’s going to get:
The inner breast-pocket, of course, was the one for papers, but Harriet felt a deep repugnance to handling the inner breast-pocket. It appeared to have received the full gush of blood from the throat. Harriet excused herself by thinking that any papers in that pocket would be illegible already. A cowardly excuse, possibly — but there it was. She could not bring herself to touch it.
So we understand it was awful, and yet it is not inflicted on us. We identify with Harriet, but we aren’t fed nightmares.
Thank you, ladies. We put our imaginations in your hands, and you treated us right.
Check out our collection of posts about Golden Age murder mysteries.