British, crime fiction, mystery

Eight Detectives

May 28, 2022

The blurbs on the back are all true: this is one of the most creative detective novels I’ve read lately. There are homages to Christie, Chesterton, Conan Doyle, Marsh, etc. All the Golden Age mystery writers seem to be a ghostly presence in the text. The structure of the plot offers a meta commentary on the genre that actually provides an interesting analysis of it. Seven separate detective stories, linked to one another only by virtue of being part of the same short story collection, are each followed by a dialogue between the author and his ostensible editor. The author is a mathematician who, in 1937, published a paper titled “The Permutations of Detective Fiction” in which he rejects the thesis that any murder mystery is a “logic puzzle” that any reader can crack. (Having puzzled over the complicated plots of Dorothy Sayers, I was immediately drawn to this idea.) Instead, he reduces the genre to four basic components that can be present in a finite set of combinations. These are: suspects, victims, detectives, and killers. The components can overlap, yes, but each of the four must be present to make the story a detective story. The craft is really in the misdirection, muses the editor at one point. I really love genre fiction, and the idea that not only is there a formula for each ‘lil genre, but you can map it using Venn diagrams is highly appealing.

The individual stories themselves are hit or miss. Unlike Golden Age stories, these imitations get into some of the more personal, sordid details of the killings. I don’t know how else to explain it: some of these stories are more Law & Order SVU-y than I’d like to see (I can’t stand L&O). Also, the dialogue is frequently not 1930s English–it’s got a more current idiomatic feel to it–and sometimes it’s just plain artificial sounding. The stories “An Inferno in Theater Land” and “The Shadow on the Staircase” were my favorites, even with the big “twists” that come at the end of the novel (IYKYK–I’m trying not to give anything away). Anyway, if you liked the Magpie Murders, you’ll probably like this book.

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