Ian McMillan: Struth, it’s a sleuth

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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All the suspects are gathered in the drawing room and the weak afternoon sun is doing its very best to get through the curtains unnoticed. The eccentric and shabbily-dressed genius detective is pacing across the carpet, reeling off the names of the suspects and telling us a few things about each of them, as he shows us how he worked out who committed the crime that the book hinges on. There’s Dr Oldcastle with his shifty eyes and his half-share in the chutney business that he set up with the deceased. There’s young Martha Sefton, model and aspiring film star who may or may not have been having an affair with the deceased’s cousin. There’s upstanding Cyril Bobley, pillar of the community, with his finger in more pies than a Bake-off contestant, who just happened to be visiting the murder scene at the time of the dreadful deed with a sponsor form.

And there’s… oh come on, I’m bored with this. Cut to the chase, man, will you? I flick to the back of the book to find out the name of the murderer and then I go and put the kettle on. In the end, although I enjoy a good game of Cluedo as much as the next person, when it comes to whodunnits I just couldn’t care less. As the detective walks up and down the room eliminating people and heading towards the inevitable, my mind is wandering further than he is and, although I’m reading the book, I’m thinking about cricket.

As the detective walks up and down the room eliminating people and heading towards the inevitable, my mind is wandering further than he is and, although I’m reading the book, I’m thinking about cricket.

Now, I realise that some people love whodunnits and they like solving them, discarding the red herrings and combing every paragraph for clues. I think the key word for me here is “solving”; and I’ve always thought that a book needn’t be like a cryptic crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube and that if you don’t get the right answer that doesn’t make you a lesser reader and it doesn’t make the writer a lesser writer. I do read detective books every now and then, but I read them for the stylish prose, the descriptive passages, the witty dialogue. When it comes to plot: Kettle on! I like Raymond Chandler because he, too, was often pretty unsure about where the plot was going, and I like John Harvey’s novels about his world-weary detective Charlie Resnick, because Harvey writes with a jazz fan’s appreciation of rhythm and style.

Maybe I should write a detective book that’s just built around style and fancy writing, a whodunnit where the way the sentences sing is more important than who wielded the fatal blow. I could have a detective who wasn’t really that bothered about tying up the loose ends and exposing the villain to the full force of the law, but was more concerned about wandering lonely as a cloud and appreciating art.

In the end, of course, that would just be a book and not a detective book. I thought it was Cyril Bobley, by the way, but I was wrong.

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