Hercule Poirot's Casebook (Photo by Avalon/Getty Images)

The true darkness of classic crime

It was more authentic than its “gritty” successors

Artillery Row

In the half-light before the sun rises, we see dark woods with snow dusting the ground. The camera pans over to a white outstretched hand, then moves slowly upwards to show a young girl’s face with eyes half-closed, a decorative cut or graze on the lip or cheek. Then the screen fades to black, and the theme tune begins.

As the winter nights draw in, we close the curtains, pour out a glass of wine and turn on crime fiction. We see a middle-class family terrorised by psychopaths in the recent Wolf, a pretty police officer held hostage in Happy Valley, Andy Serkis playing a billionaire “cyber psychopath” with a torture chamber in the basement in this year’s Luther revamp. August saw the release of the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novel, a series that began with the defeat of (you guessed it) a billionaire psychopath with a torture chamber in the basement. It’s escapism, sending shivers down the spine as we sit in the safety of our living rooms and watch fear on the faces of abducted teenagers and bodies found in the snow.

We rarely or never see the dark side of these cocktails-and-cyanide societies

There’s another kind of escapism in crime fiction, one that is contrasted unfavourably with the thrillers above. It’s classic crime, where the murders take place before afternoon tea with the vicar: Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile or the recent Haunting in Venice. The setting is amusement-park England, Egypt or Italy, a timeless fantasy distilled and packaged for the export market. The codifier of these stereotypes is Agatha Christie and her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. We first meet Poirot as a World War One refugee, aged around sixty. 32 books and over 50 short stories follow, and we finally wave goodbye to him in Curtain, aged at least 110, World War Two having taken place unnoticed. We rarely or never see the dark side of these cocktails-and-cyanide societies: what it would be like to be female, working class or a war veteran. We rarely or never see the blood and guts of violent death. If the crime thrillers above are “dark” or “bleak” or “sinister”, then classic crime can be damned with the description “sedate”.

On the surface, the crime thrillers — the villains in the clown masks stalking the rainy streets of London — seem more punchy, more real. That’s only on the surface, though.

In Luther, Serkis’ character sounds unusual, but he’s a run-of-the-mill Luther villain, in the company of a serial killer artist in a Mr Punch mask, a serial killer disguised as a clown and a vampiric occult writer. Andy Serkis, in interviews about his “darkest role yet”, described his character as a “construct”. This is where the “dark” and “bleak” crime thrillers fail. Once we scrape away the surface detail, we’re left with a simple story: bad people do bad things. Why? Because they are bad. We’re shown horrific violence, but in a child’s view of the world. Evil is confined to billionaire psychopaths with torture chambers in the basement, vampiric occult writers and serial killer clowns.

Let’s turn back to the body in the wood, but change the gender and age. The camera pans over to a white outstretched hand then moves slowly upwards to show a naked obese middle-aged man, eyes half-closed, a graze on the chin. It doesn’t work, does it?

We’ve always been enthralled by violence, ever since we queued up outside the Coliseum to see criminals torn apart by the lions. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — titled in Swedish “Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men Who Hate Women” — was billed as a way to expose misogynist violence. When the latest instalment, The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons, starts with the disposal of the body of a gangrape victim and only gets worse from there, it starts to trigger uncomfortable questions about what “dark” crime dramas are really selling.

Classics show horrific crimes committed by ordinary people for ordinary reasons

If we turn back to classic crime, we almost never see a writer like Christie showing violence on the page. She doesn’t need to. She is interested in character, in motivations to murder, asking questions like “what makes a good person kill?”, “could a child kill?” and “is driving someone to suicide murder?”. The victim is as likely to be an old man as a young woman. It’s that focus on plot and character that explains the fairyland setting. The backdrop has to be paper-thin, because if you set a story in the war, the story becomes about the war, just as a detective with too much characterisation results in a story about the detective. We get the world of afternoon tea with the vicar because Christie was an upper-middle-class writer writing what she knew. Her greatest hits — And Then There Were None, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, Five Little Pigs, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd — work regardless of the time or place.

People in Christie’s world rarely kill out of sadism. In the stories above, they kill out of love, jealousy, to protect another, to secure a legacy to fulfil a dream. We often end the stories feeling sympathy or pity for the murderers as well as the victims, or for the murderer and not the victim, a feeling impossible reading or watching a story where the villain is yet another billionaire psychopath (or murderous clown). Attempts to “update” Christie to compete with crime thrillers miss the point. 2018’s adaption of Ordeal by Innocence added in “darker” surface detail, self-harm and blood on the carpet. It was praised for being “rich, dark, adult and drawing on a backdrop of postwar grief”. Yet, it changed the plot from “good person is manipulated to do an evil thing” into “bad person does a bad thing”, leaving the story as light as a feather.

Scrape away the blood and guts from the plot of many crime thrillers, and we’re left with that childishly innocent view of the world: bad people do bad things. Read or watch classic crime, and looking past the cocktails and afternoon tea will show a world much darker and more disturbing: horrific crimes committed by ordinary people for ordinary reasons. Away from the cartoon villains, it’s a much more adult world. As the nights draw in, sip the red wine, and watch Suchet’s Poirot on screen unapologetically.

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