We have been fans of detective fiction for a long time. The need for a “good” crime story (and how satisfying it is to read one and why) are subjects on which others before us have written. Ashis Nandy in his book, An Ambiguous Journey to the City, makes an interesting point, which may be one of the reasons for the popularity of crime fiction. He writes: ‘By stretching one’s imagination, crime fiction can be seen as the popular culture that epitomizes Freud’s moral vision (where the individual, either as a gifted criminal or as master sleuth, reigns supreme, and where the removal or correction of the faulty individual becomes the route to the reinstatement of a healthy society or community’.
Others, like us, have also noted the decline of the Murder Mystery. Crime fiction in the English language today – either from the slew of writers writing in it, or being translated into it – is, on the whole, distressingly dissatisfying. The reason for this could be the decline in society at large, not merely the decline in values of society. The solitary rise of the individual – above the anchors and networks of the ties of family, kinship, neighbourhood, even close friendship – implies that the different relationships that went together in constituting the pieces of ‘the puzzle’ (which is finally what every detective story is) are no longer so strong. Without these relationships and the ground for exploration that they offer, the crime fiction today is reduced to the merely sordid. As George Orwell noted, as far back as 1946 in ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (in one of his Fifty Essays, that may also be read on http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300011h.html#part38), this is why we tend to remember ‘…the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.’
Therefore, for us today, ‘to hunt out a good murder mystery’ has become akin to a challenging and occasionally rewarding hobby. The heights (and distances) that this can lead us to are evident from the detour Snehanshu felt compelled to take, on a fiendishly hot afternoon in the Delhi summer, all to investigate the collection at ‘Fact and Fiction’, a small bookshop tucked away in Vasant Vihar. The first in this series of reviews on ‘good crime fiction books’, is an outcome of that investigation.
The choice of books we intend to feature is, inevitably, a reflection of our own subjective tastes and inclinations – for a certain felicity of language, a plausible and gripping plot, an evocation of time and place. But we do hope it also becomes a reference or a guide for the seasoned as well as the novice crime fiction reader. Here, you can expect to find what we consider the best works of known stars such as Agatha Christie, as also those of her lesser known but brilliant contemporary, Josephine Tey; the rival merits of the exploits of the gentleman-thief ‘Raffles’ and the gentleman-investigator, ‘The Toff’; and the attractions of more recently created sleuths such as the exotic and exclusive Erast Fandorin, to the much feted and much-filmed Sherlock Holmes, to take-offs inspired by him – such as Anthony Gillingham in The Red House Mystery, the first of our book-reviews on Classic Crime.