AS A WRITER of detective novels I am asked from time to time which detective novels I enjoy reading. Dare I admit -- guilty as I am of having imposed six whodunits upon the world -- that I no longer read much detective fiction? Here, as is the wont of those professionally engaged with literature, I bring a great mind to my defense: Walter Benjamin observed that of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is the most praiseworthy. "Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books they could buy but do not like."
Yet surely I can characterize what I liked about those mysteries I read before taking up my pen, what I still like in a few authors currently writing. I am afraid the authors I admire are highbrows who work in the detective genre partly for the fun of watching other highbrows sneer or read, often simultaneously. Few detective novelists believe themselves, even secretly, to be Dostoevsky or Henry James; they know their feebler pens require the strong narrative thrust of detection. On the other hand, those whose works I prize perceive themselves to be in an important comic literary tradition, and are, in fact, just a little more serious than they make out.
It was W.H. Auden's failure to understand that the detective novelist may lack high talent but does not lack complexity of mind that led him into an assertion -- in his essay "The Guilty Vicarage" -- about the genre with which I wholly disagree. Since this is, I think, the unique Auden opinion I refute, it remains, for me, memorable. Auden speaks of the "immediacy" of the detective story: "I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on."
"Contrariwise," say I, with Tweedledee. Let the literary critic Kathleen Tillotson speak for me: "What do you reread in bed by candlelight when you know who marries whom and what is behind the black veil?" Those detective novels I admire are precisely those which one rereads: their pleasure lies in the company and ambience they provide. These "popular" works offer what Jane Austen's novels offer: the pleasure of a moral universe inhabited by witty, interesting people. That Jane Austen was a genius and the best detective novelists but competent journeymen is not to the point. No one who likes oysters or Jane Austen has ever tasted them but once, and the same goes for the efforts of certain mystery writers.
What do I mean by a "moral universe"? I mean a complex social world which the detective understands and the police, usually from another universe, do not; a world where words are kept, trust is not a mug's game, and truth is a practical matter. No detective admired by me thinks he or she knows the truth of anything abstract, from literary theories or the class struggle to the creation of the earth, but she or he knows truth from lies in a particular situation, and prefers it.
Am I not in danger of liking "snobbish" literature, or (which happens to me more frequently) of being called "elitist"? It is all a matter of whether we choose the company of dukes or dustmen. My experience with dukes and dustmen, not extensive, suggests that as a class each is singularly unpromising. Still, Shaw created an attractive dustman with distinct conversational possibilities and nobody, as far, as I know, has created an equally promising duke. Lord Peter Wimsey's brother and father, both dukes, were complete washouts for all conversational purposes. Honesty forces me to recognize, however, that the duke is likelier to have the leisure for good conversation, and good conversation is indispensable to the sort of novel I enjoy.
Connected with this point, though not closely, is the treatment of women in the books I admire. In most fiction, women characters, like their sisters in the world, tend to occupy a subordinate or ancillary position, but in the books I admire they stand equal with men where reason and conversation are concerned. There are no genuine male chauvinists in these novels (none, at least, who fails to come to a sticky end), and many actually take off from the assumption that a woman may be a competent professional, courageous, highly intelligent, and more interesting to a man if she doesn't simper. In none of the books are women confined to domesticity on principle, nor relegated to a world of hair-dressers and shopping lists, nor considered primarily as house pets or ego massagers.
Most of the authors I admire are not exclusively writers of detective fiction, but respected members of some other profession. They are, in addition, English. I very much doubt that this will continue to be true: that Susan Isaacs, author of Compromising Positions , is an American suggests a watershed. But in the past Americans rarely appealed to my (it will now be abundantly clear) eccentric tastes. I used to read Rex Stout, but unlike Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey, he did not, for me, survive his death. Some writers change. Nicholas Blake (poet C. Day Lewis) began on a grand, high note, but deteriorated into sterotypical views of women and much else. Michael Gilbert, on the other hand, has allowed vigorous professional women to enter his most recent works. Gilbert, by the way, is an odd choice for me, given his violence and forays into the world of spies.
But I cannot account for my preferences: I can only suggest that, after (re)reading the suggested books, those curious about my tastes will guess what I like. These dozen novels, representative of others, all have conversation, unconventionality, above all a protagonist who cares for truth enough to take risks in its pursuit and who, if elitist, is so without prejudice.