Murder Mysteries

Richard Russo, Elsewhere: A memoir 153 (2011) on the difference between English and American mysteries:

  • My mother’s large collection of murder mysteries was particularly instructive. She much preferred the English variety, with its emphasis on the restoration of order. In books by her favorite “Golden Age” British mystery writers—Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie—evil might lurk around every foggy corner, and murder most foul would throw everything into temporary flux, but in the end the detective, often a rogue aristocrat like Lord Peter Wimsey or Roderick Alleyn, ferreted out the culprit in a stunning display of logic, intuition and, often, an understanding of complex social realities for which aristocrats, in novels like these if nowhere else, are famous.
  • American murder mysteries left her cold. She thought they were less clever, which was true enough; Raymond Chandler famously couldn’t follow his own plots. But they also operated on an entirely different set of premises. Here detectives didn’t solve crimes by means of brilliant deductions or arcane knowledge. In American detective novels the hero’s primary virtues are his honesty and his ability to take a punch. Sam Spade hasn’t much interest in restoring order because, as he knows all too well, that order was corrupt to begin with. Villains are typically either rich men who made their money dishonestly or, worse yet, people of limited moral imagination who aspire only to what money and power can buy, who want to move up in class and don’t care how. In this noir world, cops are on the take, lawyers and judges all have a price, as do doctors and newspapermen. In a sea of corruption your only hope is a lone man, someone you can hire but who can’t be bought off by anybody who has more money.

This does seem more-or-less right, and I wonder if it holds true for film?

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