Robin Stevens on why there’s nothing better than a detective novel and a nice cup of tea.
After years of waiting, Tommy and Tuppence, Agatha Christie’s sweetest detectives (and no, Miss Marple doesn’t count – she’s hard as nails, with eyes that miss nothing), are finally where they belong – a prime-time weekend slot on BBC1. Even for Christie, queen of comfort, they’re a cosy duo – a little bit wide-eyed about the world and (in the books, at least) fond of silly jokes and jolly parties, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that viewers were treated to an ad for the upcoming series of the Great British Bake-Off as the credits rolled. This summer, comfort is back in a big way.
This might seem at first an odd link to make – after all, murder is not exactly a comforting idea – but I think that there’s nothing more connected than a detective novel and a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake. They’re both soothing in the same way, safe and utterly delicious.
Although some crime fiction – think Scandi crime, or Gone Girl – aims to unsettle, that isn’t what detective novels, of the kind that Christie popularised so brilliantly, are about. They’re a closed system, with a set group of suspects and one rather shocking crime. They’re formulaic, and that provides reassurance – someone will die, and that murder will be solved. There’s no room for open-endedness in detective fiction. By its very nature, it presents a finite universe – unlike the real world, where ten things entirely unrelated can go wrong in one day, there is only one crime (at first), and one culprit. As soon as that one villain (or several villains, working together) is unmasked by the detective, everyone else must be innocent – once the murderer is arrested, the remaining characters can have a perfectly happy ending.
I grew up with Agatha Christie – I read my first, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, aged 11, and have been hooked ever since. Her prose is lucid, her plots are tight and she presents puzzles that any child (the most curious section of society) would be desperate to solve. It seemed natural to me to adapt this formula specifically for children, and I wrote Murder Most Unladylike because I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a Christie novel starring children. As usual, there must have been something in the air – a year later, my Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are sharing table space with a huge number of brilliant new children’s crime series: The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine, Elen Caldecott’s The Marsh Road Mysteries, The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry and many others. Child detectives are everywhere, solving mysteries with vast charm and aplomb and eating enormous quantities of cake while they do it, and once again I don’t think this is a coincidence.
We live in frightening, chaotic times, and it would do children a disservice to claim that they don’t notice this as much as adults do. We are all subjected to horrific news stories everywhere we look, and that makes us crave comfort like nothing else. We’re all keeping calm and carrying on, focusing in on small perfection, be that a Victoria sponge or a detective novel. Our impulse is to solve problems – and in detective fiction, just like in baking, we can.
For years I’ve thought that detective fiction was the perfect antidote to life – we can peek at darkness and then banish it with no problems. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safe, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a murder mystery. Daisy and Hazel solve murders and they eat copious amounts of bunbreak while they do it – their adventures comfort me to write, and they’re intended to be comforting to read. I’m delighted that, this summer, Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures are available for comfort-watching as well.