Broadly Speaking

Simon Beckett's "The Chemistry of Death"

Simon Beckett’s “The Chemistry of Death”

Here we are with book #19 in the challenge, and I can hardly believe it’s the first bit of crime fiction I’ve succumbed to.

I have a soft spot for crime fiction, not because I enjoy reading it (although I mostly do) but because I think the roots of the genre and its typical literary features are fascinating to study. In fact, I did study them, in my final year at Warwick University. From Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to Ngaio Marsh and, well, now Simon Beckett, I crave it all. Thank goodness, then, I found Beckett’s The Chemistry of Death, set in Norfolk.

There have been tales of trickery and misdeeds in every culture throughout history, but most scholars would argue that it was in 19th century Britain that Crime Fiction started to develop as a recognisable genre with common structure and characteristics. We can still identify these features today: there is usually a single, main detective-figure with, perhaps, a sidekick; a victim of a theft, murder or other crime; a villain with a singular motive; and a mystery wending its way between all three that keeps the reader in the dark until the very end.

Crime fiction is born out of the height of the Empire, for what better way to both propagandise and celebrate British supremacy than to have us fighting crime? Think about it.

Victim of crime is helpless + ignorant……………upstanding British gallant restores order by solving mystery, is recognised as hero.

Compare that to the supposedly benevolent attitude of the imperial mission:

Backward heathens live in ignorance……………upstanding British gallants bring order and civilisation through colonisation, are celebrated as heroes.

In both cases, order replaces lawlessness, knowledge wins out over ignorance, and the hero of the day is representative of mythical British standards of etiquette, intelligence and civilisation. Crime fiction and imperial attitudes go hand-in-hand.

As time went on and imperialism became more and more problematic and difficult to justify – a self-interested and hypocritical mission of greed rather than of any benefit to ‘natives’ – the stereotypical detective/coloniser figure evolved from restorer of order, to someone who completely upturns social order.

Benedict Cumberbatch as the BBC's Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes

Think about Sherlock Holmes, for example. He is the font of all knowledge, a well-off, well-respected, seriously analytical member of the British middle-classes who solves crimes better than anyone else and puts all things to rights. Admirable. And yet crucial parts of his detective process involve abusing drugs, slobbing about his house and irritating his landlady, undermining the British police – supposed to be figures themselves of justice and order – through pointing out their idiocy and disguising himself in undignified rags and fraternising with the working classes. Nor is he motivated by a sense of right and wrong; he disregards morality entirely and is only driven by the selfish need to immerse himself in an intellectual puzzle. So, not so much hero as anti-hero. Not so much restorer of order as antagonist.

More recently, of course, the popularity of Crime Fiction has spread across the world and evolved in hundreds of different strands. Nevertheless, similar trends often apply, and I’m always excited by representations of complicated detective characters that don’t fit in to what society might expect. Like Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist, rejected by his journalistic peers and with irregular romantic life, and Lisbeth Salander, seemingly as asocial and non-conformist as it is possible to be. Or Carrie Mathison of the American Homeland series, who suffers from a bipolar disorder which repeatedly gets in the way of her investigations. Examples of ironically unpopular and havoc-causing mystery-solvers abound.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson's trilogy

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy

As for this novel, our detective-figure is Doctor David Harper, who has moved to rural Norfolk from a well-established practice in London to escape his troubled past. Therein lies the reason society rejects him; like Agatha Christie’s Belgian protagonist, Poirot, David Harper is ‘different’ from those around him because of his origins. He is marked out from the community and often disrespected because of his status as ‘foreigner’. He never considers himself part of the village of Manham and realises how much he truly hates the place when the murders start. His lack of affiliation to his neighbours upturns order in direct contrast to his wish to reestablish it through bringing justice to the culprit. Simply put, I just enjoy that irony.

The novel plays hugely on the country versus city dynamic to repeatedly remind reads how out-of-place Harper really is in rural Norfolk. The protagonist makes regular observations that remind him of his location, such as the “coiling of vowels” that make up the regional accent “that sounded alien to [his] city ears” (16). In fact, Beckett rarely goes ten pages without in some way acknowledging that “this certainly isn’t London” (20).

The way Beckett describes the eerie Norfolk landscape makes it seem like a perfect place for a series of murders to take place. Manham is made up of “flat marshland” (13) and “reed pond” (10) with “patches of bare woodland” (13) in “a rainswept landscape that seemed as empty of human life as it was of contour”. The village itself is “older and less hospitable” (38) than anywhere around, as though part of “a different world” (237).

Ultimately, of course, Manham is dark, twisted and the site of evil while London is a land of the “electric juicer, stainless-steel espresso maker and large well-stocked wine rack” (31). Then again, London is despised by the community for its arrogance and self-obsession that means rural crimes don’t make the national papers. Dr Harper himself has a problematic relationship with the city, for it is the source of his painful memories. There is no ‘home’ for him – everyone and everywhere he knows is good and evil at the same time. Not a bad set-up for a whodunit.

The marshy Norfolk Broads

The flat, marshy Norfolk Broads

The thing is, there are so many crime novels out there, that for something to stand out for me, it really has to be either phenomenally written (and therefore un-put-down-able) or brilliantly original. This, sadly, is neither. The wounded David Harper lacks any other personality trait, making him dull. I didn’t like the first-person narrative which so often caused the mystery’s tension to get lost in slow, flat monologue. Usually pace comes in the unravelling of the clues through characters’ dialogue, which is why the detective/sidekick relationship is so successful in this genre – here, Beckett only fleetingly provides anyone for Harper to bounce ideas around with. It wasn’t a bad mystery and was interesting enough, but for me this is a 2/5 starrer, and no more. I don’t doubt that, if I continued with the David Harper series, Beckett’s technique would pick up. But, with so much awesome crime fiction out there, why would I bother?

Next week I’ll be reading Peter Hamilton’s Misspent Youth. Join me then!

BECKETT, Simon. The Chemistry of Death. London: Bantam Books, 2007.

Featured Image: “Detective Fiction Weekly” 4/2/1933.

http://pulp.annasgarlato.net/?page_id=22

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