I read my first detective novel at the age of ten or eleven. It was Dorothy L Sayers' Five Red Herrings, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and set in the Scottish hills of Galloway, and started a love affair with the genre that continues. I went straight onto Sherlock Holmes and still revisit his adventures, as well as being passionately interested in "new" cases, for example as collected in The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures.
My Mum liked what she called "nice" murders, for example TV adaptations of Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot or Miss Marples novels, or as investigated by US tecs Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote - based on the books by Donald Bain), or Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder). Maxima also prefers more light than darkness, and likes M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury; she's currently enjoying Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana-based series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Their tastes are a little saccharine for me, but they have a point: murder is never "nice" or anything near to it, but the point of murder fiction is similar to that of horror - to let us approach a dangerous situation from the safety of the distance between oneself and a book, radio, TV, cinema or any of the many platforms from which fiction can be presented. And, like horror stories, detective fiction is mainly composed of morality tales, detailing the consequences of our stepping over lines that shouldn't be crossed for very good reasons; essentially worked examples illustrating the Ten Commandments.
Most examples of the genre proceed upon such similar lines that in 1929 English Catholic theologian and writer Mgr Ronald Knox wrote a "ten commandments of detective fiction", one of which stated that "no Chinaman must feature in the story", a dig at Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu character. I wonder if the British UK series "The Chinese Detective", starring David Yip as Detective Sergeant John Ho, was a knowing wink at this?
Although a fan of televised police procedurals like Juliet Bravo, Softly Softly and, of course, Z-Cars, I've never been a big adherent of the written version until Inspector Morse proved a welcome exception. When Colin Dexter decided that Oxford had been saturated with Wagner-tinged murders and called Morse to Holmes's bosom I was lost - until I met Detective Chief Insector Alan Banks, subject of an award-winning series of novels created by Peter Robinson in 1987.
My first Banks novel was 2001's Aftermath, which turns the traditional detective fiction format on its head: it starts with the accidental solving of a series of missing persons cases, and proceeds to detail the grim aftermath of this discovery and of the attrition of police work in general upon Banks, his team and the people around them. It's probably Robisnon's darkest book and, like many works which explore our shadows, his most profound. He himself found it difficult to write because of the echoes of the horrific activities of Fred and Rosemary West, and of those of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka in Canada, which Robinson has called home since 1974.
Robinson comments himself that Aftermath "isn't a comfortable book; it’s a book that involves and challenges the reader" - and this, I think, is the point of great fiction: it takes you out of yourself and into somebody else's world in such a way that you find you've been looking into a mirror, a process which can be as uncomfortable as it is enlightening.
More than any genre, I think, in detective fiction the mirror is also societal - in The Man with the Twisted Lip, Arthur Conan Doyle presents an environment reflective of the burgeoning drug-use of the times as opium was on the point of passing the baton to heroin:
She had the surest information that of late [her husband] had, when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest east of the City. Hitherto his orgies had always been confined to one day, and he had come back, twitching and shattered, in the evening. But now the spell had been upon him eight-and-forty hours, and he lay there, doubtless among the dregs of the docks, breathing in the poison or sleeping off the effects.Banks' main police characters fall in and out of love, like each other a little less some days than others, and on occasion make a right royal mess of their private lives. On the other hand, he presents us with Jamaican team-member Winsome Jackman, whose good moral sense is often a godsend to her colleagues, and the enigmatic but brilliant Scene-of-Crime Officer Stefan Nowak.
Robinson's 2008 title Friend of the Devil deals with further consequences of events that were uncovered in Aftermath, reflecting how chains of cause and effect can roll tsunami-like through the years. In his present work, All the Colours of Darkness, which I'm reading right now, references to Shakespeare's Othello and Harry Potter are just two of the cultural threads which run through the plot - as well as the music: while Morse was purely a classical aficionado, Banks' tastes include John Coltrane, Madeleine Peyroux and Maria Muldaur as well.
And when I sadly put All the Colours of Darkness down for the last time, I can pick up a dog-eared book I found while doing a shift in XV, the Draughty Old Fen's charity shop: Five Red Herrings. Perfect.