Left-wing detective stories

Posted by Helen Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Repeatedly I have written that the detective story is an essentially conservative genre, not because it necessarily upholds the social or political mores of the day (many, many even of the Golden Age stories do no such thing) but because it relies on a certain moral assumption and that is the wrongness of taking another life. In other words, it assumes that individuals matter, that the personal is of greater importance than the collective and in a century when millions of lives could be disposed of for political ideology, this assumption mattered.

Every now and then, however, one comes across the more left-wing point of view. This is not necessarily voiced by left-wing writers. Nicholas Blake, in reality C. Day Lewis, may have been left-wing and may have quoted advanced poetry in his books but his attitude to murder was no different from that of Dorothy L. Sayers, who also quoted poetry but was right-wing in politics.

There are some oddities. Timothy Fuller, for instance, in the one novel I have read, Reunion with Murder, calmly produces a plot in which a man is deliberately murdered because he is not terribly nice, his wife is unhappy being married to him (no particular reason), he is a Republican and dislikes FDR. And anyway, decides, Jupiter Jones who is the detective of the series, a terrible war is coming and what's a dead body or two extra.

That is, obviously, contrary to all the basic assumptions that underlie the detective story. If a violent death does not matter all that much, if people are justified in killing somebody simply because his politics is not the accepted liberal one and his wife is not terribly happy, then what exactly are we talking about?

Let us now talk about a novel by the socialist theoreticians G. D. H. and Margaret Cole. Almost all their detective stories are credited to both of them but there is some doubt on the subject. Curtis Evans, an expert on the subject, has tried to analyze which one of them wrote which novel and came to the conclusion that the collection of short stories Mrs Warrender's Profession and the one novel about that lady, mother of a private detective, Knife in the Dark, were written by Margaret on her own.

On the whole, I agree with him. The style is lighter and not particularly didactic, which was usually her husband's. The plot takes place in late November 1941 in the mythical university town of Stamford, an amalgam of Oxford and Cambridge. The war is not much discussed except in terms of immediate discomfort. This is where a woman's touch becomes obvious. The town seems to have a good many refugees from occupied Europe and Germany as well as the usual bombed-out evacuees, who play no part. There is, however, a great deal of resentment of the foreign refugees, both in rather general and more specific terms. The latter revolves round food and accommodation. There is rationing and some shortages; the refugee women not only buy up food that is in short supply but are more skilful at bargaining than the middle class English ladies who, one assumes, did not shop themselves before the war and are not up to standing up to the tradesmen. I suspect Margaret Cole knew more about this than Douglas Cole.

On the other hand, I do wonder whether any woman would really write about young men (in the plural) going off the rails to the point of trying to commit suicide because they had been "led on" by a highly attractive older woman. That strikes me as an essentially male assumption but I might be wrong.

If you have not read Knife in the Dark and intend to do so, stop right here because I am going to discuss the plot and there will be spoilers. The victim is the young wife of a decent, hard-working don who is also greatly taken up by the problem of the refugees, something she resents with a passionate fury. Steve on Mystery*File describes Kitty Lake as a nymphomaniac but she is not. She does have one affair and she seems to enjoy herself flirting with young undergraduates and RAF cadets, stationed in the town, but it leads to nothing though some of the more impressionable ones go through agonies and attempt suicide. Other young men fall in love with her but it is made quite clear that she is really in love with her husband but for some reason he has built a wall between them - a somewhat sentimental and melodramatic idea that is never resolved because Kitty is murdered.

What follows is a great deal of discussion and investigation by the police with a shockingly large number of people ready to blame the foreigners, all or some of them, because Kitty had been so nasty to and about them and because, as one undergraduate says, you can never quite tell with foreigners. Mrs Warrender is shocked by what she perceives as a pogrom mentality.

She works out who the murderer is, though almost too late, and takes certain actions that ensure punishment being meted out to the right person. On the whole, her methods are not adequate. There is one clue, which is fairly laid out but it is not enough on its own. For the rest she relies on intuition or divine inspiration (the atheistic version, given the Coles' politics).

Patricial Craig and Mary Cadogan do not think highly of the novel in The Lady Investigates, arguing that the motive for the murder is very weak and implausible.
Gordon Lake gives in to a murderous impulse because he has taken exception to his wife's treatment of refugees. He is a humane person who resents the infliction of further cruelties on those who have suffered in occupied Europe. 
Kitty Lake is rude to the Polish Jewess Marta Zyboski, so Gordon Lake waits in the dark with a little Maori dagger and that is the end of Kitty. 
As a matter of fact, that is not what triggers off the murderous impulse but the discovery that Kitty Lake has been doing her best to get Marta Zyboski, an irritating woman who has realized that the British system may be benign but is not helpful, interned as enemy spy. She is also proved to be instrumental in getting Marta's sixteen year old son interned and nearly killed, something that shocks Mrs Warrender and even the Chief Constable who is convinced that foreign refugees are probably Nazi agents and generally no better than they should be.

It is the knowledge that his wife has behaved in a way not dissimilar from the Nazis whom the country is fighting that provides that murderous impulse. While the refugees are not shown to be necessarily attractive or admirable, their treatment receives strong implicit criticism. What Craig and Cadogan seem unable to understand that to left-wing political ideologues like the Coles (or, probably, just one of them) the idea of murder for righteous, impersonal but, nevertheless, morally urgent reasons is perfectly understandable. This is not the thinking of the usual run of detective story writers but, in its insistence on moral absolutes, this is still a traditional example of the genre.

1 Responses to Left-wing detective stories

  1. dfordoom Says:
  2. But once you adopt a left-wing position are there any moral absolutes? In the 1930s a Stalinist might have felt he was obeying an absolute moral imperative in murdering a Trotskyite while a Trotskyite might have felt just as sure he was obeying an absolute moral imperative in murdering a Stalinist. If you were a communist in 1939 the Nazis were the good guys because they were allies of the Soviet Union. Then they became the bad guys. The goal posts keep shifting.

    Whereas to a conservative murder is always wrong, even if the victim was a bad person.

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