The Judge’s Progress

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The classical detective story – classical in the sense that it is written within a recognized and well-worn structure – is one of the most resilient, versatile and adaptable forms of popular fiction despite regular prognostications by critics that its time has passed. A reviewer of a Sherlock Holmes story published in Blackwood’s Magazine in the 1880s wrote: ‘In view of the difficulty of hitting on any fancies that are reasonably fresh, surely this sensational business must soon come to a close.’ The difficulty of hitting on fancies that are reasonably fresh remains, but the detective story shows no immediate sign of demise, and what I find remarkable is the extraordinary variety of books and talents which the conventions of the genre can accommodate. Novelists who have used, varied and experimented within this form include such very different authors as Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, John le Carré, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and, today, Ian Rankin and Ruth Rendell, and the genre continues to provide ingenious challenges to readers and writers alike. What we expect is a central mystery, usually but not necessarily murder; a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime; a detective, whether amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it; and by the end of the book a conclusion which readers should be able to arrive at themselves by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with essential fairness but deceptive cunning.

The origins of detective fiction are disputed. Stories which combine mystery with excitement can be found in ancient literature and in the Bible, including the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Apocrypha. It is generally agreed, however, that the detective novel proper could not exist until communities developed a recognized detective force and an organized system of law enforcement. Credit for being the founding father of the modern detective story is generally shared between Edgar Allan Poe in America, whose short stories adumbrated every development in the genre, and Conan Doyle in England, the creator of probably the best-known amateur detective, Sherlock Holmes. In this country the detective story flourished between the two world wars, the 1920s and 1930s often being spoken of as the Golden Age. Those who practised the genre successfully included a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Ronald Knox, G. K. Chesterton, the master of the short story, economists and academics as well as the usual purveyors of mystery and thrills. In general the stories concentrated on providing an exciting narrative and an original method of murder, theme and characterization being often subjugated to the demands of the plot. Webster has written that death has ten thousand doors to let out life, and popular writers of the Golden Age made use of many of them, vying with each other to produce the most bizarre and ingenious exits for their victims. Most of these writers are no longer read, except by students of the genre, but there are some who deserve to be remembered and reread, and among them is one of my favourites, Cyril Hare.

Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 and died in 1958. He was a barrister who became a county court judge and took his writing

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About the contributor

P. D. James published her first detective novel in 1962 and for over 40 years never lost her fascination with this murderous business. She got a little tired of readers who expressed surprise that a plump 86-year-old great-grandmother should have harboured such violent fantasies, and she pointed out that her own preoccupations are essentially harmless and peaceable.

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