Murder in the Library!



Well OK, not really. You could probably say that was a shameless grab for attention.

But in a sense, this is what the post is about. Yes, last week’s Lit Soc saw the much awaited Humphreys-Gibbons double act, in which we discussed Crime Fiction. This is a genre that is and always has been wildly popular, but perhaps not always given the critical kudos the very best examples deserve.

I was up first, and was assigned the unenviable task of summing up the whole of the Crime Fiction genre in about twenty minutes. Attempting to do any genre in such a short space of time is nigh on impossible, but for a genre where the boundaries are decidedly blurred (crime features so heavily in many novels, it can be difficult to pinpoint where it ends and where it begins), and which has a rich literary history, the task of condensing is even more daunting…

I’m not going to rehash my whole presentation in this post (if you want to see it, you can find it here), but all the heavyweight names (Conan Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Larsson) were covered and every subgenre got at least a fleeting mention. My aim was to given an overview of the development of the genre, and hopefully this happened…


The talk concluded with an attempt to answer “why do we love crime fiction?”. Well, to me, because they are mystery stories, they are the best sort of stories. We all like to read books with plot twists, that surprise us, that pull the rug out from under our feet, and this is what the genre of Crime Fiction is all about. The best examples also can offer a critical lens on to contemporary society: and the American critic Leslie Fiedler agrees, whose influential call for a reexamination of the genre in Cross the Border Close The Gap did much to rehabilitate the genre’s reputation.

Above all, though, I think our fascination with the genre hinges on our obsession with the concept of ‘Evil’. To the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, we commit evil acts out of lapses in moral thinking and judgement, as opposed to a malevolent, moustache-twirling desire to be wicked. One of the classic staples of crime fiction is that the murderer must never be obvious: they must be as ordinary as you or I. When they get caught, they always have a rational explanation, or show remorse for their actions. So perhaps we read Crime Fiction to remind us of the need to be careful in exercising our own moral judgement…

So Mr Gibbons was up next, and unfortunately I’m not going to be able to do justice to his part of the talk. His renowned fear of ICT meant his notes were exclusively handwritten, so unfortunately I can’t post any of it here. But I can include one of the video clips he showed.

morse and lewis

Yes, his talk was on the cerebral, popular Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter. Quite rightly, he used the TV series as no more than support aids to his interpretation of the books, which was the main focus of his talk. Being a Maths teacher, Mr Gibbons admitted that a great part of the appeal was the intricate puzzles that feature heavily in the plots: and while he didn’t have a multimedia presentation, he did have a handout with some fiendish Morse puzzles that we in the audience were quite flummoxed by…

He also discussed what the books mean to him on a personal level: his Grandfather introduced the books to him, and one of his cherished possessions is a copy of a Morse anthology signed by Colin Dexter himself, addressed to his Grandfather. After a very lively and entertaining reading of a Morse extract, and some discussion of the character of Morse himself (plus his relationship with long suffering sidekick Lewis), Mr Gibbons belied his self-created reputation for being not very well read by reading a poem to round things off. He’s a lot more literary than he pretends to be!

At the time of my writing this, Mr Russell’s talk on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is less than an hour away. Spy fiction in itself is considered in many quarters to be a subgenre of Crime Fiction, so it will be fascinating to see what will be discussed in Mr Russell’s latest Surbiton High ‘swansong’.