I had always thought that the connection between murder mysteries and comedies was a little specious, or, at least, a little uncritical. The argument is generally fairly broad – that comedy is where bad things happen, but it all works out in the end, and the end is usually a marriage. Critics sometimes casually point to your typical Shakespeare Comedy (aren’t they all the same), and, well, it’s just not that convincing. George Grella’s article “Murder and Manners” goes a lot further than that. He helpfully rings in his frame of reference to the so-called “Golden Age” mysteries by English authors in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s a much more plausible starting point than, say, Mickey Spillane. Grella summarizes in a handily complex sentence:
The whodunit’s plot, full of deceptions, red herrings, clues real and fabricated, parallels the usually intricate plots of comedy, which often depend upon mistaken motives, confusion, and dissembling; it also supports the familiar romantic subplot. And the upper class setting of the detective story places it even more precisely in the tradition of the comedy of manners.
Let’s take that as read – but let’s look at it from the inside out. Is the detective present in the Comedy of Manners? Is the murderer? Crucially – is the victim?
We are used to thinking about the victim in a murder mystery as the corpse. Obviously a corpse is too extreme and permanent for Comedy. There are comedies where people die, but not the kind of comedy we see as linked to the formal structure of the detective story. Grella identifies the key quality of the victim:
The favorite victim of the mystery is also the favorite unsympathetic character of comedy-the blocking character, who works against such natural and desirable ends as joining the correctly matched young couple.
Virtually all victims, then, suffer their violent expulsion because of some breach of the unwritten social or ethical code of the thriller of manners.
If we look through that definition from the other side, we can identify a character that would be a victim – even though they are not killed – in the Comedy of Manners. A character who opposes marriage, who works outside the usual strictures of society: a bounder, a cad. Ideally a foreigner, but by all means, someone adversely related to the proper function of society. That character isn’t necessarily evil, but they are undesirable. There is one character in Right Ho, Jeeves that leaps to the fore when put in those terms: Wooster himself.
Wooster is not opposed to marriage – for other people. The comedy in the novels derives largely from his dual efforts to help others become entangled while remaining free of the net. He is half successful, and half comical disaster. Along with his adverse affect on matrimonial development, he displays a terrible dress sense, and a habit of unconscionably delivering his friends into trouble. He would make the perfect victim if he had an ounce of malice to go with his incompetence. Step by step, Wooster instigates and exacerbates the divisions, creating a complex weave of problems that seem unresolvable. Enter Jeeves:
It seems clear, however, that although the puzzle is central to the detective novel, it does not in fact provide the chief source of appeal; the reader generally cannot solve it by the detective’s means, and thus derives his chief pleasure not from duplicating but from observing the mastermind’s work.
We know from our experience of genre forms, that the situation will be resolved or the best, with no lasting harm to anyone. We understand that somehow, Jeeves will work it out:
Because only unlikeable characters are made to suffer permanently in comedy, pains are taken to make the victim worthy of his fate: he must be an exceptionally murderable man. This prevents regret and also insures that all characters have sufficient motive.
What strikes me about Jeeves methods, however, is not their complexity, but their simplicity. Wooster’s schemes have the necessary hare-brained convolution to generate the comic action, and Jeeves’ plans are therefore necessarily the opposite. Once the absurdities have been eliminated, whatever remains, however obvious, must be the truth.
Thinking about Jeeves as the detective can show us a minor problem with the way that detectives are represented in high-level summaries of genre. The detective is able to resolve crimes that baffle the police because of a combination the detective’s special competence and the specific incompetence of the police:
They are ordinary, bourgeois citizens who intrude into a closed, aristocratic society; unable to comprehend the complex and delicate social code, they are invariably stymied. The amateur detective, conversely, always is socially acceptable and comprehends the code of the society he investigates-he can question with delicacy, notice “bad form,” or understand
lying like a gentleman to the police; therefore, he always triumphs over the mundane ways of the official forces of law and order.
Grella emphasises the detective as an initiate of the society disturbed by crime, but what he elides is that while the detective is initiated, they are always also an outsider. They do not participate in society, either criminal or police or civil. There are a few exceptions, but even most police protagonists are really loners that play by their own rules. Their separation from society allows them to observe matters without emotional entanglements. Jeeves is just such a character. He appears to be a servant, but in Right Ho, Jeeves, he does not attend the servant’s ball. He moves easily between the different strata of society, remaining essentially aloof. The police are inadequate not because of their “bourgeois” nature, but because of their essential adherence to a social system of any kind. There is thus no need to make special exceptions for the likes of Poirot, as Grella and others do in their writing, and no need to see successful police protagonists as exceptional, unless they really do work as part of a team.
If we think in these terms, we could start to think that a Comedy of Manners is almost a stillborn Murder mystery. We need to look a little closer at the key differences between the complexity generated by the investigation compared to the complexities generated by Wooster’s interventions. Complexity in a murder mystery is ideologically simple, as Grella explains:
It is not, as [Edmund Wilson] implies, a manhunt, but rather an exploration of a posh and stylized milieu; further, the final accusation is less an attempt to fix guilt than a means of expelling a social offender.
All of the complexities that emerge during an investigation are really about exposing the functions of the underlying society. If you look closely at the “clues” in most detective summations, they are actually fairly simple, boiling down to means, motive and opportunity that can be expressed in direct terms. Few authors genuinely manage to add a second layer of complexity, requiring the solution of a completely separate puzzle to provide the answer for one of the core questions. I tend to think of this as the particular speciality of the hard-boiled writer following Chandler’s lead, especially Ross Macdonald; though Christie certainly produced novels of genuine complexity, I think she is the exception from among the Golden Age authors.
Because the actual mechanisms of the crime are generally simple, most of the apparent complexity, the so-called Red Herrings, whose exploration provides the bulk of the story material, are the real point. They provide the fodder for social commentary, melodrama, characterisation, and other literary demands.
Which brings us to the murderer. Of course, since there is no corpse, there is no true killer, but we can look past the story mechanisms to ask, what is the role of the murderer? It is, put simply, to impel the action of the story. Without a murderer to kill the victim, the characters exist in a kind of stasis; stasis, because the characters are prevented from moving through their natural “comic” plotline toward marriage. Wooster invariably plays a role in the evasion of this happy event, but in almost all of the Jeeves stories that I’ve read, there is an initial perturbation that occurs before he arrives on the scene.
In that sense, the Comedy of Manners is self-impelling. This is a wholesale inversion of the usual idea, derived from Auden, that the detective novel represents a closed trip from stability to stability via murder and investigation. Things are poised before a murder, but they are not actually unstable. Not so in the Comedy of Manners – indeed, the situation is almost universally improved from its starting point in a Jeeves novel. Compare this to the achievements of Poirot:
Poirot, naturally, always employs his magic for good purposes, insuring that the fabric of society will be repaired after the temporary disruption of murder. It is not surprising that he especially tries to establish or restore conjugal happiness, a symbol of a newly reintegrated society and the traditional goal of all comedy. [Emphasis mine]
We can perhaps think about the difference in emphasis by comparing Comedy to Tragedy. In Tragedy, we often see a series of nigh-inexorable events playing out for the detriment of everyone based on an early poor decision. King Lear decides to expel the wrong daughter, and the rest of the action plays out like a sick Rube-Goldberg machine. Murder mysteries have the same kind of inevitability. As described above, however, the problems in Comedy almost seem to be spontaneously generated from nothing at the beginning of the story and the main function Wooster serves is to add complexity to a situation which might naturally seem to work itself out in the end without much trouble – hence the simplicity of Jeeves’ solutions.
I think this source of story impetus represents a major branching point among the different kinds of comedy. The best Jeeves stories do often have a sense of inevitability about them – once Wooster begins to implement a scheme, we know that things will go wrong, and in the longer works, like Right Ho, Jeeves, there is a careful establishment of potentially unstable story elements, ready to be bowled over by his interference. Modern comedies, however, tend to rely more heavily on a surrealist element, invoking pure random chance – try figuring out the end-point of a Simpsons episode from the opening teaser, I dare you. The inevitability of a Comedy of Manners is part of its basic construction, as a formula fiction, something the Simpsons tries (and often fails) to not be.
If we were to gather up all these loose ends, would we conclude that Grella is right to describe the formal detective novel (just one kind of detective novel) as being essentially a comedy of manners (just one kind of comedy)? Is the term “thriller of manners” applicable?
I think that there is an undeniable similarity between the forms. They have similar story shapes, similar casts of characters, similar settings, a similar tone. There is clearly a benefit in using comic forms to explain some of the features of the formal detective novel, and clearly some possibility of using the reverse analytic pose too.