As thoughtful citizens we are hemmed in now by gigantic problems that appear as insoluble as they are menacing, so how pleasant it is to take an hour or two off to consider only the problem of the body that locked itself in its study and then used the telephone.
So wrote J.B. Priestley - somewhat prophetically - in Delight, when discussing the simple pleasures of detective stories. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Since lockdown began, I’ve been finding immense comfort in escaping into Agatha Christie novels whilst the horrors of the global pandemic continue to escalate around me.
A murder occurs on board a cruise down the Nile in (the aptly named) Death On The Nile, and Hercule Poirot expertly deduces the killer’s identity through analysing a bottle of nail polish. When, in The Murder At The Vicarage, Colonel Protheroe is brutally murdered in the sheltered little village of St. Mary Mead and it suddenly seems as though all of the characters had both the motive and the opportunity to pull the trigger, Miss Marple correctly singles out the culprit - just as I knew she would.
It seems I’m not the only one taking comfort in crime fiction during lockdown. Wayne Brooks, Associate Publisher for Fiction at Pan Macmillan, has noticed that he’s been reading significantly more crime novels since the pandemic began. “I’m reading Alex North’s The Whisper Man, and then I’m [also] going back to Patricia Highsmith”, he comments. “I’ve also become a huge fan of Lisa Jewell and love to listen to her books on audio.”
“I am reading a lot of crime fiction at the moment, both new and old”, agrees author and Crime Writers Association member Christine Poulson (An Air That Kills; Cold, Cold Heart). “There are stories of people reading Agatha Christie while fire-watching in the blitz and I can well believe it.”
This idea of Agatha Christie, especially, being historically present at times of crisis is confirmed by James Prichard, Chairman and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd. - and, incidentally, great-grandson to the “Queen of Crime” herself. “We have seen many times in the past that people turn to Agatha Christie when they are ill, or lonely, or recovering from a personal crisis”, he explains. “My father retains a fan letter written to my great-grandmother from a Polish prisoner-of-war, who was given a copy of an Agatha Christie book that she read and re-read in a labour camp during World War II. It was her only reading material and contact with the outside world for seven months.”
The current surge in crime fiction popularity has led to a boom in industry for the genre. “Our crime shelves are...definitely looking emptier”, comments Emma Corfield-Walter, founder and owner of Book-ish bookshop in Crickhowell (Winner of Best Independent Bookshop in Wales in 2019 and 2020). “I have noticed that we’ve sold quite a lot of historical crime”, she adds, listing C.J. Sansom (the Shardlake series; Dominion) as one of their biggest sellers, along with Welsh author Alis Hawkins (The Black and the White; the Teifi Valley Coroner series). Wayne Brooks, too, has noted high sales of crime fiction such as Peter James’ Dead At First Sight, and Ann Cleeves’ The Long Call - and James Prichard has noted a greater level of engagement with Agatha Christie Ltd. since the beginning of lockdown, observing that “our social media channels are seeing high levels of interaction”.
So what is it about crime fiction that makes it so comforting during a crisis? Personally, I’m inclined to agree with J.B. Priestley; there is something so hugely reassuring in taking time out to consider a simple problem that I can actually wrap my head around, at a time when the exterior world is so unknowable and uncertain.
Another factor could be that sense of resolution; of order being restored. “While we read about the terrible ordeals endured by characters in the crime genre, we know that by the end of the story the ‘goodies’ will overcome the ‘baddies’”, suggests author and CWA member Leigh Russell (Deathly Affair; Rogue Killer). “At the moment, I think we all crave that comfort while we wait for a release from lockdown, and a vaccine to free us from our current anxiety and isolation.”
Emma Crick puts forward the idea that, psychologically, crime fiction presents a problem that someone else has to solve. “You’re not really being challenged because somebody else is doing all the hard work behind the scenes...you don’t really have to work anything out”, she explains, describing crime fiction as leading readers “by the hand”.
When I’m so terrified by the all-pervasive effects of the coronavirus, I want to be led by the hand. I want to be presented with a problem I can process, as opposed to the vast and insoluble horror that is COVID-19. And I want to know that, come the end, my questions will be answered and justice will have been restored.
Let us hope that crime fiction’s resilience in times of crisis won’t continue to be tested. So far, however, this is a test that the genre seems to continue to pass - just take a look at the shortlist for the 2020 CrimeFest Award and the longlist for the 2020 CWA Daggers, both release this week, and you'll see ample evidence that it is in the rudest of health. For anyone looking for a sense of order amidst the chaos swirling all around us, I can recommend getting hold of a copy of And Then There Were None, and losing yourself in what James Prichard has termed “Agatha Christie at her very best”.