Edmund Wilson famously skewered the literary merits of detective fiction by asking, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson’s short essay surveying the genre did not actually discuss that Agatha Christie character or the 1926 novel that featured his untimely demise. Had the critic done so, a deeper, civilizational point might have emerged.
An Unholy Trinity
The setting of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a quiet village in England between the world wars. When its wealthiest resident turns up dead, gossip about the crime flares. Hot on the trail is a sleuth who has entered popular culture, the amateur Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Importantly, the murder happens inside Roger Ackroyd’s home and the mystery unravels in a domestic setting of family, friends, and servants.
Property, family, killing. Whether one’s standard be the ideal of the Holy Family or Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, this unholy trinity is not meant to be.
As the readers of Law and Liberty know, Tocqueville argues that manners are milder in democracy than in aristocracy on account of the equality of conditions. By equality of conditions, he means equality of status. Democracy does not remove the differences between men and women, servants and masters, or children and the elderly; but it does suspend the legal recognition of those differences. Each is a citizen, no more, and no less. Status annulled at law, passions change for the better, believes Tocqueville.
Comparing aristocrats to democrats, Tocqueville writes of the former that
They gave to mores generosity rather than mildness, and although they suggested great attachments, they did not give birth to true sympathies; for there are real sympathies only between similar people; and in aristocratic centuries, you see people similar to you only in the members of your caste.
manners are never as refined as among aristocratic peoples; but they also never appear as crude. You hear neither the gross words of the populace, nor the noble and select expressions of the great lords. There is often triviality in the mores, but not brutality or baseness.
We certainly see brutality erupt in the village of King’s Abbott, though. The mild-mannered domestic life of the bucolic English countryside means a knife driven into the well-to-do neck of Roger Ackroyd. The narrator of the tale is the town doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who assists Poirot, and reports this conversation with his fellow villagers:
“Of course, he didn’t do it,” said Caroline, who had been keeping silent with great difficulty. “Ralph may be extravagant, but he’s a dear boy, and has the nicest manners.”
I wanted to tell Caroline that large numbers of murderers have had nice manners, but the presence of Flora restrained me.
The startling, subversive denouement of the mystery (no plot spoilers here!) leaves us unnerved about the passions of our closest relations and neighbors. Christie of course was not the first to go in this direction; hints of trouble beneath the placid surface were signaled a century before by that master psychologist of English domesticity, Jane Austen. There is no homicide in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), but it hardly depicts utopia, either.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have settled in married life close to one another, and Austen concludes the novel with: “Let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost in sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.” Living without disagreement is about the best we can hope for, this suggests.
The beautiful, forthright, and talented Marianne has chosen security faute de mieux. Possessed of little money, she is therefore separated from the love of her life. (He throws her over for a woman who, though spiteful and soul-crushing, is worth 30,000 pounds sterling.) Marianne was bruised not only by John Willoughby but by the intensity of her own passions, and settles for the steady and gentlemanly Colonel Brandon.
We think of Austen’s portraying romance and joy in her works, especially when we watch the television and movie adaptations of them. Her eye is colder and more acute than many realize, though. Sense and Sensibility might relay the ups and downs of the love lives of charming young women, but it broods on the influence of property on family and what this means for the possibility of domestic bliss. The interests of property prove immovable as passion cools, and reconciles itself to the contours required by family.
Passion quieted is not the same as passion reformed—and 50 years after Austen, the chains are off. In the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, sons kill fathers, the young prey upon the old, and, in turn, the old, often with the connivance of parents, prey upon the young. A new and disturbing layer of human personality is revealed. In the most monumental and probing work of detective fiction ever penned, Crime and Punishment (1866), we are privy to the unrelenting psychic self-abuse and confusion of the killer, Raskolnikov. And, for once, the representative of the official police force, Porfiry Petrovich, is an insightful, cunning, and versatile adversary.
Manners, Mores, and Private Eyes
Petrovich contrasts with the amateur sleuths who are a staple of Anglo-American detective fiction. The “private eyes” are outsiders who tend to be sharper than the police—in British English, the “plod”—and at least two steps ahead of them. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd we meet Inspector Raglan, who at first does not welcome the interloper Poirot. The Belgian works his Continental charm on Raglan:
“Then there is the psychology of a crime. One must study that.” “Ah!” said the inspector, “you’ve been bitten with all this psycho-analysis stuff? Now, I’m a plain man.” “Mrs. Raglan would not agree, I am sure, to that,” said Poirot, making him a little bow. Inspector Ragland, a little taken aback, bowed.
The earnest police inspector, who believes theory is nonsense, is in fact like everyone in Christie’s English village: a vessel of passions and, as Poirot cheekily points out, it is in the domestic sphere where this will be most apparent. Psychoanalysis is the claim that layers of the mind refract self-possession and that domesticity is horribly fraught.
David Hume knew this, too, and argued that gallantry is necessary to control the passions. The human is a “variable animal,” says Hume, but is not infinitely elastic. Progress in the passions is possible—“modern politeness, which is naturally so ornamental”—but the problem of power is invariant. Asymmetries of power exist between men and women, between those at home and strangers abroad, between young and old.
Gallantry, a modern invention according to Hume, is both natural and artificial. It is natural because both the asymmetries of power and the compensating symmetries of “play and dalliance” are ever-present. The norms of civilization (manners and mores) aim to throw their weight behind “play and dalliance” in order to master abusive power, Hume writes in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary.
In crime fiction, the detective is an artifice of manners and mores, a sentinel watching over property and family. Hume argues that gallantry is allied with wisdom, prudence, and generosity, and this does much to explain Christie’s Poirot as well as Inspector Morse, DCI John Luther, Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar Allan Poe’s creation, often described as the first detective in modern literature, Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.
In the view of G.K. Chesterton, the detective is an example of knight-errantry. The Chestertonian idea is vividly on display in the image that Raymond Chandler offers readers at the outset of The Big Sleep (1939): Entering the property of the family he is to help out, Philip Marlowe—a private eye, of course—observes a stained glass representation of a knight untying the bonds of a captive woman.
Gallantry in its most stylized form, maybe—but it gestures toward a fable that is not only potent but oftentimes truly reforming and elevating. A contemporary of Christie’s, the Anglo-American Chandler is a master noir novelist and grittier, but nonetheless shares her appreciation of Hume’s point that on account of the passions there is a need for “the appearance of sentiments different from those to which [persons] naturally incline.”
What Edmund Wilson missed was that in detective fiction, civilization contends with the coarser failings, and sometimes the outright malevolence, in the human spirit.