First Person Murder

Lately, for my mystery reading, I’ve returned to another old friend from my past: the Lovejoy series by British author Jonathan Gash. It’s a murder mystery series — the sort where the star, who is not a detective of any kind, in each book is confronted with a murder to solve. Usually against their will; they’d rather be doing anything else.

The Lovejoy series has the added attraction that each book spends a fair fraction of the text talking about antiques. The main character, known only as Lovejoy, is an antiques dealer struggling to make a living. He’s also an antiques “divvie” — he has a definite, if somewhat mystical, connection with genuine antiques. He can always tell the difference between real and fake (as he describes it, a bell goes off in his chest).

I just started reading them last week, and I was immediately struck by something.

The revelation may in part be due to having recently read the Bernie the Burglar series (by Lawrence Block; see this post from last month). Both feature a witty but utterly incorrigible first person narrator who is the star of the series.

Interesting central narrators are hardly unusual in fiction, but with a notable exception, they are rare in murder mysteries. (At least in my perhaps limited experience. It’s a large genre, and I’ve hardly explored it all.)

On the other hand, first person narration is standard in detective stories. That’s what suddenly stood out to me. Of all the murder mysteries I know, only Lovejoy and Bernie narrate themselves.

They also have in common the tongue-in-cheek style of the narrator along with a great deal of digression into the narrator’s profession. I don’t know how accurate Block’s burglary info is, but the antique info Gash packs into each Lovejoy novel is really something. That info ranges from how to handle and view antiques to how to fake them. It reeks with the undying compelling fascination and love Lovejoy has for them.

(In contrast, Block is much less descriptive. Bernie will describe how easily he goes through locks without giving overmuch detail about exactly how he does it.)

Lovejoy and Bernie also have in common that neither is honest. And that both are constantly chasing women. Bernie’s adventures there are less cringe-inducing; Lovejoy is something of a cad. (Only somewhat in his defense, most of the women are chasing him just as avidly. There’s a bit of the free-love 1970s tone to it all.)

§

I should mention that “Jonathan Gash” is a penname for a British doctor, John Grant (1933–). He’s written other novels, including other series, but I’m not familiar with any of them. (Until I began working on this post, I hadn’t even realized that Jonathan Gash was a penname.)

The first Lovejoy novel, The Judas Pair, came out in 1977 (when Grant was 44), and the most recent, Faces in the Pool, came out in 2008 (when Grant was 75).

The series is modern and potentially extant, but given that Grant is 88 now, it seems unlikely he will write more Lovejoy novels. That most recent book, number 24 in the series, is probably also the last.

Lawrence Block also is still with us at 82, so it’s perhaps even more possible there could be more Bernie the Burglar books, too. Agatha Christie was publishing in her 80s, although, admittedly, her last books aren’t the usual gems (see: All the Christie).

§

The notable exception I mentioned above is the A.C. Doyle mode where the starring detective’s companion, an explicit documenter and friend, is the first person narrator “behind the scenes” of the investigation. Often, to preserve the mystery, the detective is coy about revealing their thinking to his companion.

(The reasoning always strikes me as dumb. It’s usually some form of not wanting to say anything until they’re sure. Obviously the coyness is really the author’s way of not spilling the beans too soon, but it always strikes me as silly the detective wouldn’t bounce ideas off a friend.)

In any event, we have Dr. John Watson, companion to Sherlock Holmes, as the canonical example. Agatha Christie continued the tradition in Captain Arthur Hastings, companion to Hercule Poirot. Across the pond, Rex Stout seriously upped the ante with Archie Goodwin, companion to, and active agent for, Nero Wolfe.

That last one, Archie, is an interesting bridge between murder mysteries and detective stories. Archie is Wolfe’s detective, and Archie’s narrative style is very much in the vein of Chandler and Hammett. Archie is also different in not being a chronicler of Wolfe’s exploits. The narrative style is less documentarian and more storyteller.

Other than these companion-driven exceptions, I can think of no murder mystery series told in first person, but nearly all detective stories I know are.

There are exceptions, of course. Christie’s gem The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is famously first person (and the person is the murderer). Christie was a great one for mixing up the modes she used. It’s part of what makes getting to know her writing so much fun.

Equally, there are detective stories told in third person, but most are told from inside the detective’s head. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others, forever fixed this style of hard-bitten detective doing the job according to their own lights. Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, along with myriad others, continue that tradition.

§ §

Which raises (or invokes, but not begs) the question: What’s the difference between a murder mystery and a detective story? Aren’t all murder mysteries detective stories?

That’s generally true…ish, but all detective stories definitely aren’t murder mysteries, so they involve different concepts right off the bat.

Whether murder mysteries are a subset of detective stories is debatable. A Venn diagram might be more appropriate.

The intersection of which (green) has stories with a self-identified working (or perhaps retired but dragged back into the game) detective solving murders. For example, there are the Joe Leaphorn & Jim Chee (& now Bernie Manuelito) novels, by Tony Hillerman (and now Anne Hillerman), or the Risolli & Isles novels, by Tess Gerritsen.

The murder mysteries outside the intersection (blue) involve an amateur solving a murder because reasons. There are quite a few of these: G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, and, of course, both Lovejoy the antique dealer and Bernie the Burglar.

The line can be fuzzy. The Perry Mason novels, by Earle Stanley Gardner, are all murder mysteries, but is lawyer Mason a detective or amateur? (FWIW, I consider him among the amateur murder solvers in large part because the police can’t stand him.)

There are also the detective stories that don’t involve murder (gold). A lot of the Robert Parker Spenser stories don’t, nor do many Chandler and Hammett stories. (Likewise many of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, although Father Brown is a priest, not a detective.)

Point is, I don’t think all murder mysteries are detective stories. I draw a line between self-identified detectives and amateurs caught up in solving a murder.

§ §

As an aside, names can be interesting. Lovejoy is known only as Lovejoy. Robert Parker’s Spenser is known only as Spenser (there’s another character known only as Hawk).

An especially interesting case is Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories. They’re told first person by the “Continental Op” (a detective working for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco), and we never learn either a first or last name. Hammett plays clever with dialog (not a real quote): “He asked me my name, and I told him. His eyebrows raised. So you’re the guy…”

§ §

As another aside, Agatha Christie has two famous characters: Hercule Poirot (and companion Arthur Hastings) and Miss Jane Marple. The former is formally a private detective (sometimes retired, sometimes active). He’s also (despite an utterly dreadful BBC adaptation saying otherwise) a former Belgian police detective.

The latter is an elderly lady who lives in the country, definitely an amateur.

Christie’s lesser known Tommy and Tuppence series, along with her other novels (including the Miss Marple series), are generally all told in third person. Tommy and Tuppence are a man and woman team, husband and wife by the second book. And unlike Christie’s other characters, they age, grow old together, and have children.

It, once again, demonstrates the sheer range of Dame Agatha Christie as a writer!

§ §

Before I end I’ll mention in passing I tried a novel by Patricia Wentworth (1877–1961). She wrote the Miss Maud Silver series. Miss Silver is a retired governess turned private detective.

It was not my cup of tea. Very rambling and I didn’t find it engaging. That said, I read one of the last books published when she was getting old. (Christie’s last books weren’t indicative of her writing skill, so I’ll have to try an earlier Wentworth to know.)

While I’m on the subject, a few months ago I tried a novel by Ruth Rendell (1930–2015) and liked it okay. She wrote the Chief Inspector Wexford series. I’d read more of those (once I get through my reading list).

§ §

Lastly, here are the Lovejoy books (apparently only the first rates its own wiki page):

  1. The Judas Pair (1977)
  2. Gold from Gemini (1978) [in US: Gold by Gemini]
  3. The Grail Tree (1979)
  4. Spend Game (1981)
  5. The Vatican Rip (1981)
  6. Firefly Gadroon (1982)
  7. The Sleepers of Erin (1984)
  8. The Gondola Scam (1984)
  9. Pearlhanger (1985)
  10. The Tartan Ringers (1986) [in US: The Tartan Sell]
  11. Moonspender (1988)
  12. Jade Woman (1988)
  13. The Very Last Gambado (1989)
  14. The Great California Game (1991)
  15. The Lies of Fair Ladies (1992)
  16. Paid and Loving Eyes (1993)
  17. The Sin within Her Smile (1993)
  18. The Grace in Older Women (1995)
  19. The Possessions of a Lady (1996)
  20. The Rich and the Profane (1998)
  21. A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair (1999)
  22. Every Last Cent (2000)
  23. Ten Word Game (2003)
  24. Faces in the Pool (2008)

I had no idea there were this many. Twice as many as the 12 in the Bernie the Burglar series (the last of which is collection of short stories).

My library system seems to have most of these. I’ve read the first three, and I’ve got four through eight queued. (The series is a bit flamboyant, so I may want to take a short break after reading eight in a row.)

§ §

I have to mention, once again, how very much I like online library access to ebooks. Both Amazon Prime and Apple Books have been wondering what happened to me. I seem to have just vanished. I keep meaning to post about the app (as I once did about Cloud Library), but in a word: Libby!

Closing tip to Amazon and Apple: Pricing books 50 or more years old at $9.99 (or more!) probably isn’t a winning strategy if selling them is the point. A good example is the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe books. I bought the ones priced at $4.99, but won’t touch the ones priced at $8.99 or higher. I’ll snap up a lot of stuff at $2.99 or $3.99 that I won’t even look at above that.

Stay first person, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “First Person Murder

  • Wyrd Smythe

    There is also the BBC TV series, Lovejoy, which starred Ian McShane. I really liked that series, but haven’t seen an episode in many years. Somewhere along the way I picked up the DVD set for season two, but never found any other seasons. None of my streaming platforms have the show.

    Ah, well, so it goes. At least the library has the books!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Lovejoy’s cavalier — sometimes even Cro-Magnon — treatment of women was a bit cringe-worthy even in its day. It’s especially grating now. That said, it’s pretty clear even through Lovejoy’s self-justifications and rationalizations that he’s a real piece of work. One thing he doesn’t have in common with Bernie the Burglar is being much of a gentleman or, really, even a decent human being.

    Ironically, Lovejoy in some regards is more dishonest than Bernie the Burglar. Certainly more lacking in principles and scruples. He really is an early anti-hero.

    What I’ll be interested in is seeing if either Gash’s writing, or Lovejoy’s behavior, evolves as the books move from the 1970s to the modern era. (As an example, Robert Parker’s Spenser was a borderline alcoholic womanizer in the early novels, but changed with the times. However, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, although the era changes, the characters don’t age.)

    ((OTOH, all Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone stories take place in the 1980s, which is the other option. Just leave your character in a specific era. That’ll be the other thing to watch for as the Lovejoy books arc over the decades.))

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    On the relation between detective and mystery stories, there are also “inverted detective” stories, where the audience knows the murderer from the beginning and watches as the detective figures it out. Columbo used this format for years and it never seemed to get old. Although I don’t know how much it’s been used in literature.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, yes, that’s right, the reverse “who dunnit”! And Columbo was a classic — one of my favorites. You’re right that it never got old.

      Thinking about it… it seems a mode seen more on the police story side. A lot of serial killer stories involve knowing the killer. The focus is on the cat-and-mouse game between the villain and police. Silence of the Lambs, for instance, is kind of that way. I’ve never read the book, though. In some of Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles books, point of view jumps to the killer. (Agatha Christie pretended to do it in The ABC Murders, but it was a fake out.)

      Some of the private eye stuff, too, doesn’t have a “who dunnit” aspect and the villains are known.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m going to have to watch myself. It’s been a while, but I used to be into the finer tequilas. The margarita used to be my main drink, although one can drink good tequila straight. (These days I’m into craft beers.)

    So I have some very nice tequilas in my cupboard, and they’re just sitting there gathering dust. A couple opened bottles have been in my freezer for decades, one a small Patron silver, the other a fifth of Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado.

    We’ve been having a serious heat wave lately, and I’ve been putting off turning on the A/C, and it occurred to me that I could beat the heat by adding some tequila to my Diet Mountain Dew. (I’m retired, so who cares, right?) Plus, I could finally get those bottles out of my freezer.

    The Patron is gone now, I’m working on the Cuervo. Then there’s the bottles in the cupboard… (There’s some nice vodka and some nice gin in the freezer, too.)

    Just gonna have to be sure it doesn’t get to be too much of a habit. I do have a family member who slid into alcoholism very late in life. He started with a brandy every night in study. Eventually ended up in AA.

    OTOH, given the presence alcohol has had in my life, I think it’s safe to say I’m well past the point where if I were prone to problems with it, they’d have shown up a long time ago.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This is an old (old) picture from an online party long ago, but there they are, the Jose Cuervo and the Patron (also the gin and the vodka). 😀

    • Wyrd Smythe

      There is even my Diet Mountain Dew hiding behind the Jimmy Buffet DVD box. The DVD itself is playing on the TV upper right. That was a fun party, and the best part is that no one had to drive home. (This was back in the early 2000s, IIRC. Maybe even earlier?)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m getting into Lovejoy #8 (The Gondola Scam), and it turns out my library only has #1–#9 and then #23 and #24, so huge gap of just over half the books. That’s kind of disappointing.

    These Lovejoy books have a pattern I hadn’t picked up on back in the day. They’re murder mysteries, but each murder is someone Lovejoy knows and likes enough to seek revenge. Sometimes he’s suspected of the murder, but not usually, so (unlike the Bernie the Burglar books) he’s not trying to clear his name but even the scales. He’s even ended up being responsible for the deaths of some of the worse murderers.

    There is something of a brutality to these that’s more American than British. The Lovejoy mysteries remind me a little of the Chandler and Hammett stories in tone. That first person narration adding to that sense. There is also that these were written in the late 1970s and 1980s, when mainstream fiction was playing with being more edgy, especially with sex. But it’s also the era of a lot of those men’s adventure books, like Remo Williams, the Destroyer.

    That’s one reason I’m disappointed the library has such a gap. I was curious if the writing would evolve as the books went into the 1990s and new century. At least the last two are available. If there’s a change, they should make for quite a jump!

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