Monday, April 03, 2017

Crime as Social History

I've gone on a jag recently of reading Golden Age crime novels that I read years ago.  I wondered how they would stand up to the test of time.

Some emerged triumphant.  I still find Marjory Allingham clever and witty and I was still gripped to the end by The Tiger in the Smoke with its sinister characters - surely one of the best of all time.

I was always a great fan of Dorothy Sayers and with my own novels being set in Galloway, I picked out Five Red Herrings.   That was a real disappointment.  It was, I'm sorry to say, plain dull: the characters unconvincing, the twist in the plot based on railway timetables.

Agatha Christie fared better.  She was always readable and her intricate plotting is superb, even if the characters often seem about as alive as the pieces on a Cleudo board.

It was only when I was reading Vicky's post about all the descriptions of food in the modern equivalents that it occurred to me how much they said about social history.  I can't really remember any descriptions of food at all in these.

But then. of course, you wouldn't talk about what was put before you on the table - unless to remark that cook had had a disaster with the kitchen flue.  Praising a dish you were eating would be shocking bad form.

 'The butler did it' may be no more than a joke, but in these books, written between the wars, household servants underpinned the whole edifice. They were a feature of even modest middle-class life.  Even Miss Marple, an elderly lady of limited means who relies on a generous nephew to pay for her holidays, has a maid;  Lord Peter Wimsey has Bunter; Albert Campion has the glorious Magersfontein Lugg.  Meals magically appear, house parties are arranged for the convenience of the villain without any of the boring details of shopping, cleaning or cooking having to be considered. 'Snobbery with violence', Alan Bennett once called it, but the books were the product of a time, when debutantes not 'celebs' were the pin-ups.  

And now, considering the TV schedules - wall-to-wallshowings of Masterchef, The Bake-Off, Ready Steady Cook, Nigella and all the rest - a twenty-second century social historian would probably say the crime novels that double up as recipe books are merely doing the same thing - making a record of life  as we live it today..

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