Friday, 2 January 2009

Historical Detective Stories and Political Correctness

The detective novel in the UK rose to prominence from the 1840s and having come to a peak in the late Victorian period has never really dipped. Each decade seems to refresh the genre with new characters and styles. People see 'golden ages' of the genre such as the 1890s and the 1930s but in fact the detective novel has constantly evolved to reflect the changing society in which we live. The genre has always straddled different elements of British society. Sherlock Holmes mixed with royalty and street urchins and everyone in between. Crime is something which touches on all levels of society and the motives such as greed, lust, jealousy, anger, etc. are universal. Detective novels reflect our society or certainly our view of our society. In the past three decades there has been a desire for grittiness and authenticity, partly in reaction to the 'country house party murder' styles of the mid-20th century and also reflecting the trend to more realistic writing and drama which came in the 1960s. As the detective story has penetrated into every corner of British society and, increasingly into other countries too, people have sought out other times and places in which to set such stories.

As a brief aside, in terms of places for detective stories, the detectives have always been well-travelled, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot solved crimes in Egypt and Iraq. He was a Belgian operating in the UK or its empire and so worked within the norms of contemporary British society. US detectives became very popular in the 1970s with a whole slew of television series coming from the USA to the UK. However, the first detective stories of note in the UK, with a character working completely in a foreign setting, were the Maigret novels, written by the Belgian Georges Simenon, but set in France. He wrote 72 novels and 28 short stories featuring police detective Jules Maigret. Part of the attraction for British readers/viewers of these, often bleak stories, was that they were in a different legal, and to some extent, moral, setting. One reason why I think that the novel 'Gorky Park' (1981) by Martin Cruz Smith was so popular was because of that aspect, i.e., of trying to solve a crime while working in the Soviet state machine. For the same reason I was always interested in the detective novels of Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89) set in modern-day Italy with the detectives facing corruption and influence, and the four Lieutenant Boruvka novels of Josef Skvorecky (born 1924), set in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule during the 1960s-70s.

Simenon set his stories in the times they were written (1931-72) but they now have been conflated in the popular imagination to a period in the 1950s. Of course, many fictional detectives have very long careers. Poirot was middle-aged when he appeared in his first novel in 1926 and yet, was not killed off until 1976; like Simenon, Christie set her stories in the contemporary world. I suppose, in theory, Poirot could have still been operating in his late 80s or his 90s in the 1970s and Maigret could have had a forty-year career, but to some degree such longevity would have stretched credibility if articulated. As a result, we now tend to see these stories of being of a particular decade and Poirot, on television, has now been assigned the 1930s; as Maigret and Miss Marple have been given the 1950s (though Marple seems to have been shifted back a bit in the recent, poor quality, overly light-hearted ITV episodes).

Though Simenon's Maigret is well known in the UK, there was another foreign-based detective that had already made it into UK culture, though, these days he is pretty much forgotten. This is Judge Dee (the 7th century CE Chinese detective not the 2000s fictional British judge). There were 15 novels written in English by Dutchman Robert Van Gulik between 1949-67; you can still find some paperback copies in second-hand bookshops. Van Gulik had originally translated Chinese stories from the 14th century CE featuring a detective-cum-judge of the 7th century and then went on to write a number of his own. There have been a couple of attempts at televised versions, but the use of Caucasian actors to play ancient Chinese in the six episodes produced for the UK's Granada Television company in 1969, hardly boded for success.

Of course, we have long had historically-set detective stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not publish 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' until 1927 though it features stories set in the 1880s and 1890s. The Sherlock Holmes stories were published 1887-1927 and feature cases set 1881-1914. Aside from Van Gulik, however, historical detective stories (as opposed to stories written in the past but at the particular time they were set) did not really come to the fore until the advent of Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael series (published 1977-94) with twenty novels and a short story collection. These stories are set between 1137-45 CE, a time when England was in civil war. Her series was boosted by the success of Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' (1980; in English from 1983) featuring another medieval monk-detective that seemed to give literary legitimacy to such stories. Since then, the floodgates have opened and I have read detective novels in periods from the 1330s BCE in Ancient Egypt through Ancient Rome and Roman Britain to Elizabethan England to 17th century Japan to Russia of the 1860s to post-war Germany of the late 1940s.

As with the Maigret novels, we are interested in seeing how detectives operate in societies with different moral and legal codes to our own. This is where the challenge that I want to address in this posting, comes in. We want our detectives to be heroes, even if they are highly flawed ones. To a great extent we want them to act as a force for what is morally right, often against the hostility or ambivalence or disinterest of society. Most of us expect the detective (whether private or employed by the state) to restore things to the status quo ante, the situation of the norm of before the crime occurred. Of course, it is never back to the previous situation entirely, but that is the nature of stories, they move on even if the ending is similar to the beginning.

People are critical of novels actually written historically for including attitudes that we would not find acceptable today. This week I again read a passing criticism of John Buchan's novels as being casually anti-Semitic and racist (interestingly his support of Scottish nationalism was lauded, something he would have been criticised for in the 1910s) and that leaves a bitter taste in our mouth and dampens our enjoyment of the stories. The implied criticism is that these things should now not be reproduced, in whatever media, at all.

People often comment that women are portrayed in submissive or purely auxiliary roles (partly this is because we are unfamiliar with the female detectives of Victorian stories, notably Loveday Brooke, a series of her adventures would do very well on television; there is also a Mrs. Paschal I have not come across yet in my reading). Interestingly, of course, women in the Sherlock Holmes stories often play more active roles, sometimes as the instigators of crime, notably in the first ever Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891) in which a woman outwits Holmes and in 'The Three Gables' (1926).

To some degree, looking back to the past, people, including authors, often see the suppression of women as greater than was the case. Whilst they were second-class citizens they were often far more active in society than most people credit. Medieval England, especially during times of wars and crusades, was often effectively run by women; abbesses were often immensely powerful. To some extent, this is why the medieval Church so much promoted the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a 'proper' woman. She is shown as a woman who takes little control over her life and is used by God and shipped across the Middle East by Joseph. It is more likely that, even in the 1st century CE, she would have been back in Nazareth running the business while waiting the birth of her child leaving Joseph to go off and register in Bethlehem. Do not even start me on writing Mary, wife of Jesus, out of history for the same purpose. If I had a time machine I would go and back and interview Mary the mother and Mary the wife about the challenges of living with the man; their great involvement in his career and tell them how their roles would almost be erased by historians.

The big bugbear of historical novels of any kind, but especially crime novels, because they often involve assumptions about types of people, is the racist aspect. Racism has been with us forever, but, interestingly, again, our societies, especially in Britain, were far more ethnically mixed in the past than people assume. Roman Britain had people coming to it from right across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. People from Syria have been found buried in the city of Bath. Britain had constant links to different nationalities and races. The crusades revived such connections and Elizabeth I introduced racial legislation because it had become a factor. It is interesting that the dramatisations of Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart stories and 'Doctor Who' episodes under Russell T. Davis in the 2000s are seen as odd for featuring ethnic minorities in past settings. However, in fact, they are far closer to the truth than most people realise. Britain has always been diverse and there have always been people who discriminate, just as today.

Where does this leave our fictional detectives who work in such racist, misogynistic settings? Well, to some degree, despite all the attention to detail, the author is almost compelled to make them anachronistic. The series that made me most aware of this was 'Heat of the Sun' (3 episodes in 1998) starring Trevor Eve and Susannah Harker. The series was about a superintendant sent from Scotland Yard to work in the British colony of Kenya in the 1930s. It was a picturesque setting and an interesting one given what I have said above about detection in different contexts. However, what jarred was how liberal Eve's character, Albert Tyburn, was. In fact, he was more so than the Superintendant Peter Boyd character, that Eve has played since 2000 in the series set in contemporary UK , 'Waking the Dead'. Tyburn's attitude to Africans and to women seem very peculiar, especially when characters around him showed the racism and misogyny of the times in such a colonial setting. More accurate, on this basis, was the movie 'White Mischief' (1988) which is also set in Kenya in the same era and also features the actor Joss Acland. I suppose that to have shown Tyburn as dismissive of blacks and women would have made it impossible for most viewers to have engaged with him as a hero.

Another similar situation develops in the first two of Philip Kerr's 'Berlin Noir' triology (called that even though the third book is set in Vienna), 'March Violets' (1989) and 'The Pale Criminal' (1990). They are set in Berlin, respectively in 1936 and 1938, and feature a private detective called Bernhard Gunther. He ends up working for the Nazi police machine. However, Gunther's character is again too liberal for someone operating in that time frame. Of course, not everyone in Germany in the 1930s was anti-Semitic and many people opposed the Nazi regime, but they tended not to be police officers (we can get into a great debate here about the Communist sympathisers among the police ranks before 1933, I know there has been research on this).  Any with such sympathies would not have been in any position of influence by 1936 and certainly not being employed by Reinhard Heydrich by 1938.

To some extent, Gunther is a counterpoint to the set-up in which he is operating. Reading detective stories we tend to accept the state approach as a 'norm' and, in this context, it could lead us to accepting Nazi attitudes which clearly, Kerr, knowing he is treading on risky ground having a novel set in the Nazi regime, is keen to avoid. (Looking back at those novels I was embarrassed to find Kerr has a character called Otto Rahn and in my Beckmann stories I have a character called Otto Beckmann and one of his detective constables is called Bruno Rahn. This is despite my efforts to stay away from any similarly named characters.) Whilst I am not expecting Kerr to have a full blown anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobe character as hero, he could have made him less 'nice'. Perhaps the gritty detectives are reserved for our bitter times which strive for equality of all, so allowing the characters to be different by not being so politically correct.

I am not arguing for novels featuring hate-filled xenophobes and male chauvinists, but I am hoping that we can have 'heroes', or at least detectives in a leading role, who are not so out-of-step with the times in which they are operating. This has sometimes been the case in some of the historical detective stories that have been produced in the past thirty years. I am tolerant of historically-set detectives to a greater extent than some people I know, I think because I recognise that you cannot make them so alien that readers find no connection to them. One friend of mine condemned the Cadfael series as total fantasy as he argued that in the medieval period the local lord simply arrested whoever he felt was guilty and had them executed, or tortured and then executed, and that there was none of the forensic analysis that Cadfael conducts. To some extent, you see such behaviour in the stories such as seeking to detect witches by floating women in the river. Cadfael, despite being a monk, because of his worldly nature (he had fathered a son by a Syrian woman whilst on crusade), is allowed to be more rational and, to some extent, bring in apparently Enlightenment thinking. That is what you assume until you remember that Greek logical analysis and Occam's Razor were intellectual concepts that would have been familiar to most medieval monks. Working with Occam's Razor you have the same kind of deductive thinking that Sherlock Holmes employed. I suppose I am wanting my cake and to eat it, but I do believe a balance can be struck to allow modern readers to access the characters, not feel turned off by their behaviour and yet not make the whole process overly anachronistic.

To find ways of achieving this, I return to Robert Van Gulik. I read a fascinating interview with him when he was asked how he dealt with the issue I raise here. It would be useful if his attitude was made more widely known to authors of historical detective stories. What he did was to have his Judge Dee character as a very devout Confucian. Whilst Confucianism still provides a foundation for many modern day Chinese attitudes, a lot of its elements would be unacceptable to Western readers, for whom van Gulik was writing over an 18-year period (1949-67). Of course, this period itself saw vast changes in attitudes in Western society.

Van Gulik argued that Dee operated to a moral code that he, the author, accepted was out of step with the contemporary world, unsurprising given the 1300-year difference. Yet, it was a moral basis from which the character was motivated and behaved. Elements he highlighted was the fact that Dee has a number of wives, whereas, today polygamy is seen as wrong. In particular, Dee, as a good Confucian, emphasised filial loyalty to the extent that he forces two sisters to return to slavery into which their father sold them. Interestingly, van Gulik also returned to aspects of the original stories, such as the functioning of lesbians in the era. This gave him more room in which to operate and, to an extent, shows the complexity of 7th century China and the wide scope of writing of that time. Van Gulik did play down the supernatural element which was common in detective literature of that time, but his settings are often spooky and one can understand the supernatural attributes people of the time would have attached to them and the occurences that happened there.

Ellis Peters, in contrast, would not have been able to find such a rich basis in the 12th century literature available to us in the way 7th century Chinese writing could be accessed by van Gulik. However, all things that happen in our contemporary society have been happening for millenia. Humans remain humans with all the desires and discriminations that they have had through the centuries. In my own writing I have tried to stick to van Gulik's approach and have made my Otto Beckmann a good Bavarian Catholic with mild discriminatory tendencies, which, as a policeman, he can be brought to face the consequences of. Any discrimination actually blinds you to facets of particular humans, something dangerous when investigating crime. His perception of women is in line with his society, and so, out-of-step with much of ours. I make no apologies for that. If historical detective stories are not only going to be entertainment, but, like all detective stories, tell us about the society in which the detectives operate, then we need to tolerate our 'heroes' behaving a little less anachronistically.

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