The case of the roman policier

I've been asked to write a post for a blog on my pick of crime fiction for Christmas, which I will do shortly. And I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag here by saying which book. But thinking about the book to choose out of the many I have read and re read this year brings me back to the Golden Age of Crime fiction, which seems to have stimulated a fair bit of debate and response on this blog and by e mail. So I thought it worth mentioning here another strange little gem with a lovely title that I'd like to pinch for one of my marine mysteries, and, aptly enough, the action in this novel takes place on water, not the sea but the Norfolk Broads. It's called Death Under Sail and it's by C.P. Snow.

Now you wouldn't have thought an eminent scientist like Sir Charles Snow who penned masterpieces such as The Masters, The New Men and The Affair would have written a detective novel but he did. It was his first published novel in 1932 and his only detective novel. In the author's note he says, 'Why I started with a detective novel is obscure to me now and would have been so at the time. I suspect I had a sense that I was one of those writers who have to nose their way among experience before they know what they are good for.' I identified with this immediately because when I started writing fiction in the truest sense rather than dabbling with my pathetic attempts at short stories, I wrote historical sagas, three in fact, which still sit on my computer. I don't know why I did this when crime ( reading it not committing it) was my first passion but I guess that I was one of those writers that had to nose my way around various styles and genres before finding what I truly wanted to do.

But to get back to Death Under Sail, Snow says it was 'great fun to write'. It's also great fun to read with a quirky glimpse into upper class and educated 1930s Britain . But Snow also says in this same introduction that writing detective novels takes 'almost as long as a novel proper.' Ouch! Crime novels aren't proper novels? We beg to differ, sir. He ends his author's note (written in 1959) by saying that if he had another lifetime he would like to have written more detective stories but not in the same style as Death Under Sail. He would like to have had a shot at a real 'roman policier' (a novel whose plot consists of a police investigation or an investigation of a private detective - I looked it up on Wikapaedia). He claims that no one not even Simeon has done it quite the way Snow would like to have seen it done and he believes the field is still wide open - He obviously didn't read many crime novels then!


Martin Edwards said…
I quite liked Death Under Sail when I read it, about 25 years ago, and so I read Snow's last novel, A Coat of Varnish, which was a crime novel of a very different sort. I was disappointed with it - my recollection is hazy, but I don't think I cared much either for the characters or the mystery. It's a shame that he didn't write more crime fiction when he was at the top of his game.

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