Caroline: Murder mysteries are all about certainty. It’s all there in that nickname we use for the form — the whodunnit. That word poses a question — who? — which the detective ultimately answers, usually in a satisfying final chapter that tidies everything away into neat boxes labelled “guilty”, “innocent”, “good” and “bad”.
This black and white take on events can be a big part of why these books are comforting to read. No matter what chaos is going on in the rest of your life, you can be sure that your favourite detective will always close the case in a satisfyingly final way. The uncertainties and ambiguities that plague us in real life have no place in crime fiction.
Or do they? This is a genre where deceit is everywhere and characters are constantly adopting false identities. What if the simplicity of these books is just another ruse? There’s a wealth of complexity and, indeed, mystery, to be discovered beyond those stark, black and white binaries.
When we look at the golden age of detective fiction through the lens of queer theory, suddenly nothing is as it seems. And that’s what we’re going to be exploring today.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Queer theory — it’s a phrase and field of criticism that you may well have encountered before, but as an approach to reading it’s not that easy to define in a nice, pithy introduction to a podcast. Let’s have a go anyway, though. What is queer theory?
Benedict: This is not very helpful, but part of the answer has to be, no, I can’t say what queer is because queer theory is so blissfully diverse and complicated. Indeed. It would always probably be more sensible to talk about queer theories rather than theory.
But fundamentally, it’s saying that the assumptions that underpin our understandings of life, our understandings of identity, our understandings of gender, our understandings of sexuality and desire, those assumptions should always be interrogated, should be queered, should be queried. Many of our understandings, culturally are predicated on reductive binary oppositions.
So we grow up thinking that the world fairly neatly divides itself into men and women, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual, innocent and guilty, familiar and unfamiliar, family and stranger. And so on. All of these neat binaries. Actually, of course, once we start interrogating them, we realise that these binaries don’t really work, that they lead us into positions which don’t embrace the full satisfying complexity, the rich complexity of our lives and experiences.
So I would say that queer theories predominantly are about taking those conventional ways of viewing the world, which are often built on these binary structures, and shaking them a little. It’s often very funny, very irreverent, sometimes extremely rude. And those are amongst the qualities that I love about it.
Caroline: This is Benedict Morrison, a lecturer in literature, film, television, and queer theory at the University of Exeter. As well as his work on other areas of popular culture, he’s a particular fan of golden age detective fiction and of looking at it through this queer theory lens.
So, having said what queer theory is, perhaps it would also be useful at this point to think about what it isn’t.
Benedict: The idea that I come up against most often, which I have to unpack slightly, is the assumption that queer theory is always and inevitably about and for people who identify as gay or bi or trans, and this simply isn’t the case. Queer theory is, as I said earlier, a capacious idea, which really embraces anything, which is undermining or complicating the familiar, the conventional, the normative.
Caroline: And how does this work when you put it together with the work of someone like Agatha Christie, say?
Benedict: For example, in The Mousetrap, of course there is queerness in the the femininity of Christopher Wren or the masculinity of Mrs. Boyle. But I thinkthe more exciting queerness for me really is an energy which disturbs the entire house, an energy which by the end of the play has disturbed the marriage, the comfortable, conventional sense of familiarity, which Mollie and Giles have enjoyed up to that point.
There is a degree to which queerness to my mind and queer theory particularly is an opportunity for everybody to question, query, and rediscover or reimagine all the conventional things in their life.
Caroline: Queer theory, then, invites us to question everything. To take nothing at face value. Suspect everybody. I’m sure you can already see how well that meshes with the general experience of reading detective fiction, in which the reader is locked in this structural battle with the writer over the fundamental puzzle of the plot. To work out a murder mystery for yourself, while the author is doing their best to hide their clues in plain sight and drop red herrings all over the place, is an exercise in reading what is beneath the story’s surface. This entire genre is already in dialogue with queer theory, Benedict suggests.
Benedict: I think that one of the really important strategies of queer theory is to disturb or undermine the familiar binary structures that we tend to to adhere to. And I think that many of those binary structures are being critiqued in all sorts of fascinating ways in golden age, crime fiction.
So for example, one of Agatha Christie’s recurring themes is the question of guilt and innocence and the fact that it isn’t always quite so straightforward. To define exactly who the victim is, to define exactly who the culprit is, to define exactly who the detective is.
These identities, these functions are often extraordinarily slippery and that basic binary of guilt and innocence is often being questioned in ways, which I think can be really productive.
Caroline: But hang on, how does this all work with the idea that a murder mystery is all about the resolution as the detective controls the chaos and solves the case?
Benedict: There is I think a really quite tedious way of viewing golden age detective fiction, that it is a very simple three part structure that initially you have a form of order, which exists. This order is then interrupted by disorder at the point of the murder typically, and then the detective swoops in – thank goodness! – to restore order, to tell us all that actually it’s okay. The familiar is now back. We now have truth with a capital T. But even as people claim that this is the structure of a typical golden age murder mystery, they will also bemoan the fact that not everything is tidied up at the end, that there are loose ends, that there are red herrings that aren’t entirely explained, that the the way that the murderer has decided to commit their crime is implausible to say the least.
That there are all sorts of problems with the solution. To me that isn’t a failure of the books. That’s what makes them so exciting. The fact that this truth with a capital T, this order with a capital O, is in fact not quite so reliable as it might seem. That the detective hasn’t stepped to clarify everything. If anything, the detective has stepped in to make the world riotously odd.
Caroline: How does that work in practice?
Benedict: If you take a classic murder mystery, such as A Murder Is Announced. Postwar, so possibly just outside the golden age, but still very definitely borrowing from its techniques and strategies. Effectively, by the end of that novel, we have been taught that such prosaic things as central heating. As a small vase of violets, as a cigarette box, as a lamp. That these things are not just reliable objects, which we can presume to have a straightforward function, but rather they become unstable. That their meaning becomes extraordinarily flexible. Suddenly they become significant in ways that we could never have imagined.
Caroline: This way of looking closely, of examining objects and ideas for their deeper significance, is a major part of this way of reading.
Benedict: To my mind, an attentive reading of golden age murder mystery isn’t about making the world seem more secure. It’s about making it seem much stranger. Suddenly the everyday objects around me in my home become ever so slightly menacing. And so I think that that fits in perfectly with many of the lessons of queer theory, even when it is not specifically about sexuality, it is about identity being undermined in all sorts of ways, about the idea that we don’t really know people, about the idea that desire can exercise itself in ways that are unexpected. And that, as I say, the objects around us are not quite so straightforwardly defined as we might have thought.
Caroline: But not everything has to have some hidden meaning. Sometimes, crime writers deal in stereotypes, manipulating identities to suit the purposes of their plots. And this can be destabilising to normative ideas too, Benedict says — like realising that a picture you thought had three dimensions really only has two.
Benedict: Sometimes people accuse golden age writers, perhaps most obviously Christie, but her great contemporaries as well, of creating very superficial characters. And they talk about this as though it’s some terrible failing in the writing.
I think that this is a very strange criticism to level at these writers. The superficial characters, and I think many of them are superficial, you know, the writers play with types. They, they use stereotypes and interesting ways. But they do that in order to surprise, shock and unsettle. The idea that even the most familiar type imaginable is in fact capable of extraordinary and unexpected things, that some nice retired army officer can be a cold-blooded killer. And I think that that is fundamental to the golden age. And I think that it extends beyond being a, a function of the puzzle plot and becomes also a kind of commentary on the age that the writers were were working in. But beyond that, perhaps a commentary even on, on the experience of being social beings.
When a writer like Evelyn Waugh produces fairly superficial characters, critics can’t get enough of it. They say this is an extraordinary commentary on this interwar moment. When a particularly a younger generation was playing with identity, was trying on different ways of being, was expressing themselves in these outré statements, which were not necessarily based on any kind of deep, significant identity.
Therefore that people were unstable and strange and surprising. When Agatha Christie does something, which is not entirely dissimilar, people dismiss it as the inadequacies of a writer who couldn’t quite pull off character. I think this is a great shame. I think that there are, there are really important lessons to be learned about how character in life, the characters of those people around us, certainly strangers, but even friends are capable of surprising us in extraordinary ways. And I think that that is fundamental to the way in which character works queerly in golden age, crime fiction also.
Caroline: After the break: a queer reading of Hercule Poirot.
Caroline: So far, we’ve established that queer theory encourages us as readers to question everything and accept nothing at face value. And that while the inclusion of queer characters in detective fiction is a fascinating subject — there is a whole other episode of this podcast about that, called Queer Clues — queer theory is more about the destabilising forces operating on these texts, encouraging us to see beyond established binaries.
But that’s not all it is about.
Benedict: One of the other interests in queer theory are ideas of origins and endpoints. And the fact that they don’t really exist in the way that we conventionally think they do. That various narratives or identities don’t have straightforward beginnings and endings.
Caroline: Hang on, I hear you thinking. Surely there is no more ending-driven genre of book than detective fiction — we read to the end to find out whodunnit, after all. Well, yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that the writers of detective fiction can’t do interesting and subversive things with this expectation of clear beginnings and definite endings.
Benedict: Christie, for example, explicitly discusses this in Towards Zero. When she talks about how a murder doesn’t begin where most detective novels suggest it does. That actually, it begins long before as an idea, which begins to bubble away in a murderer’s mind. The order restored model, which so many people continue to cling to when discussing golden age murder mysteries, it just doesn’t work because the endings don’t result in a nice, straightforward, neat world. The final full stop is always really a comma. There is something which echoes on.
Caroline: The final full stop is always really a comma. I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since I had this conversation with Benedict, and the more I consider it the more it seems perfect for the golden age of detective fiction. At first glance, the endings of books like Death on the Nile, say, or The ABC Murders seem to be absolutely final. The culprits are identified and brought to justice, and the those innocent characters who remain are freed to go about their ordinary lives. Job done, book closed, very nice, thank you very much. Except when I zoom out and think about the events of these books — the murders, the near misses, the traumas — I realise that if we imagine these characters with humanity, there’s no way that the end of the story can be, well, the end of the story. The people involved in the events we have just read about will bear their imprint for the rest of their lives, the horrors that they witnessed shaping their responses and choices for decades to come. Golden age writers loved to toy with this sense of finality. There are even books, like Christianna Brand’s 1946 novel Suddenly At His Residence, that wait until the very last sentence of the story to reveal the solution to the puzzle. The mystery isn’t really over, because nothing is ever really over. The final full stop is always really a comma.
But I don’t want you to leave this episode with the impression that queer theory is about taking texts extremely seriously. Quite the reverse.
Benedict: I think generally speaking, one of the things that writers such as Christie are not given enough credit for is the fact that they are often very funny. I think the situations are often heightened in ways which are delightfully camp and silly. One of the things that I really admire about queer theory actually is that it has embraced ideas such as the silly, which are very often dismissed as childish and trivial and not important. It has embraced them and celebrated them. It has found room for us to talk about their achievements. I think that silliness is wonderful and all you need to do for example, is read something like The Secret Adversary. The Secret Adversary, which in some ways is about such high stakes ideas.
You know, this is about the security of England and Europe. And yet Tommy and Tuppence’s opening dialogue. You know: what ho, old bean? All of that stuff? It’s wonderfully comic in a kind wood house style. There is something magnificently silly about novels, such as that even when they’re also being extraordinarily serious.
And I think that, that balancing act between the silly and the serious at their best golden age writers, pull that off magnificently. Sometimes they don’t get it quite right, but at their best, it is sublime.
Caroline: So now having established the new areas of focus the queer theory gives us with detective fiction, let’s look in more detail at a character who seems to unite so many of these different aspects. Hercule Poirot.
Benedict: Hercule Poirot is in all sorts of significant ways queer. And I should stress that by that as should probably be clear by now, what I’m not suggesting is necessarily that he’s locked in a long term relationship with Hastings or anything like that. Those things are possible. And for people who want to discover those kinds of relationships in the novels, that’s absolutely fine. It’s an enjoyable pastime, but I think that there’s something more interesting and subversive going on.
Caroline: This requires us to think a bit more deeply about a figure who has become so emmeshed with the idea of golden age detective fiction that I think at times we barely even see him anymore. But Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s little Belgian sleuth with the egg-shaped head, is an incongruous figure in so many ways. There’s his physical appearance, of course — his natty suits, his patent leather shoes, his well-groomed moustaches. And some of his habits too, mark him out: he likes sweet liquors, absolute symmetry, and not having to get his clothes dirty. But above all, it is what he represents that is so disruptive. Poirot, you see, is the ultimate outsider. Who even is he, really?
Benedict: Many of those binaries that I’ve been talking about today, questions of the foreign and the familiar for example, are complicated by Poirot. There are moments when he is of course sometimes as a deliberate performance on his part so un-English that it is almost extraordinary that he really plays on this status, this particular function as foreign, but there are other moments when that really recedes and he becomes extraordinarily familiar, extraordinarily, extraordinarily English in certain ways, but he is also endlessly enigmatic.
And I think endlessly inconsistent. There is a tendency in fans of long running series, whether they are book series or TV series, to try to find the continuity, to try to find the consistency, to try to find ways to make sure that the character who appears in book one and the character who appears in book 40 are the same character.
I think that Christie deliberately or otherwise, who knows? I think that Christie makes that difficult. I think that Poirot is playfully, irreverently, strangely inconsistent. He is somebody who doesn’t seem to age until he ages extraordinarily and abruptly. He is somebody who at times says that he would never pretend to be someone other than himself, that he couldn’t do it. And at other points pretends to be someone other than himself. He’s somebody who at points talks about how he has no family and then, at other points, invents a brother. He is somebody who is consistently playing with the parameters of his own identity and therefore with our understanding of him.
And I think that that isn’t something to be overlooked or dismissed or ignored in a slightly embarrassed way. But rather to be embraced as a wonderful statement on how all identity is queerly in flux, is queerly in process. Poirot is a wonderfully unstable, strange enigmatic changing character. And that is one of the many reasons why I adore him.
Caroline: As well as the books and plays themselves, Benedict also works on the way in which screen adaptations have influenced the way these stories are understood. And of all the different portrayals of Hercule Poirot on screen — and we all have our ideas about which are best and which are worst, of course — there’s one that stands out for him as capturing the very changeable queerness of this character.
Benedict:And that’s why, and I know that this is controversial, but that’s why for me, Albert Finney is the Poirot. I once heard his performance described as Kabuki-like, and I think that’s absolutely right. His performance is a bizarre kind of mash up of extreme gestures, of strange vocal inflections, of a very dodgy accent, but all of these things actually with enormous charisma and star quality as Albert Finney, of course brings, all of them are constantly reminding us that Poirot is not just a straightforward character, but rather Poirot is play. Poirot is instability. Poirot is enigma. Poirot is uncertainty. The moment when Finney pulls down his case and the kimono nightgown falls into his arms and he laughs and the camera pulls back and up and we’re confronted with a moment of this near aerial shot of Poirot just laughing.
It is one of the moments for which cinema was invented. I adore it. And it prepares us for the doubleness that Poirot eventually has to embrace when he presents two possible solutions. And then he effectively asks stage manager Bianchi, as he’s called in the film, to decide which of those two solutions he should now go and perform in his report.
Poirot is an actor, too, in Murder On The Orient Express. And for me, all of that play with identity, all of that play with star status, all of that play with the instability, the uncertainty and the non-essential nature of character, those things are all resolutely, wonderfully queer.
Caroline: And there we have it: your whistlestop tour of queer theory in relation to golden age detective fiction. I hope everything that Benedict has had to say has convinced you how much fun this way of looking at some of your favourite murder mysteries can be: these are books that are both serious and silly, certain and uncertain, conforming and radical all at the same time. And of course, everything in between.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Benedict Morrison. Among his many publications, you can read him on Agatha Christie’s theatrical work in the new Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie.
Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/queeringthegoldenage. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.