Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Deserts

By Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Dial Press.
1928. $2.00
Murder to get to the front of the line: a venerable detective fiction trope. Excerpt:
Golden Age mysteries and those of the Fifties and Sixties still assumed that the reader would root for the rightful heir, or at least be against the usurper. Mary Stewart’s 'The Ivy Tree' and Josephine Tey’s 'Brat Farrar' were organized around this premise. Both writers stacked the deck by making their usurpers bad guys who would kill to get what they wanted. But in each case, I find myself asking this: If the antagonist weren’t a homicidal villain, why would it be so bad for him to get the property? — Elizabeth Zelvin, POE'S DEADLY DAUGHTERS (December 10, 2009)
Among many other Golden Age authors, Dorothy Sayers used the notion in UNNATURAL DEATH.

But societal changes have pretty much relegated the murder-for-inheritance plot theme to the rubbish heap:
The classic detective story often relies on a group of people—usually relatives—being isolated together while a murder is being committed. But families are smaller today, and better communications means that isolation is very rare.
Classic detective fiction also often relies on the difficulty of divorce and the shame and social disaster of being caught in adultery—both of which are no longer significant for most people.
The servant class has virtually vanished due to economic changes, and the increasing financial independence of the young—coupled with the effects of long-term inflation—makes inheritance less of an issue than it used to be.
Thus a lot of the background and motive power behind the classical mystery is gone. In its place we find 'suburban mysteries' of the kind written by Julian Symons and Elizabeth Ferrars; but these often teem with so many characters that the reader simply can't keep track of who has done what, or why.
On another level we find an increasing preoccupation with the serial killer who murders many people for trivial reasons or for 'kicks,' making detection a routine forensic process rather than a search for motive or clues. — Jon Jermey, INTRODUCTION TO A COURSE ON GAD (recommended reading)
A contemporary review of UNNATURAL DEATH is here.

Category: Detective fiction

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