Reading detective stories in bed (Priestly)

J.B. Priestly has the right idea about reading crime thrillers, in his Delight. (London, 1951, pp.11-13.)

Reading detective stories in bed. I find this delightful at home, and even more delightful when I am away from home, a lost man. The fuss of the day is done with; you are snugly installed in bed, in a little lighted place of your own; and now to make the mind as cosy as the body I But why detective stories? Why not some good literature? Because, with a few happy exceptions and there are far too few of them good literature, which challenges and excites the mind, will not do. In my view, it should be read away from the bedroom. But why not some dull solemn stuff, portentous memoirs, faded works of travel, soporifics bound in calf? Here I can speak only for myself. But if my bed book is too dull then I begin to think about my own work and then sleep is banished for hours. No, the detective story is the thing, and its own peculiar virtues have not been sufficiently appreciated. The worst attempt I ever heard the Brains Trust. make was at a question concerning the popularity of detective stories. The wise men woffled on about violence and crime, missing the point by miles. (But then a man who enjoyed his detective stories at night would not bother being on the Brains Trust.) We enthusiasts are not fascinated by violence or the crime element in these narratives. Often, like myself, we deplore the blood and bones atmosphere and wish the detective novelist were not so conventional about offering us murder all the time. (A superb detective story could be written and I have half a mind to write it about people who were not involved in any form of crime. About disappearance or a double life, for example.) Please remember that most serious fiction now has ceased to appeal to our taste for narrative. The novelist may be a social critic, a philosopher, a poet, or a madman, but he is no longer primarily a story teller. And there are times when we do not want anybody’s social criticism or deep psychological insight or prose poetry or vision of the world: we want a narrative, an artfully contrived tale. But not any kind of tale, no fragrant romances and the like. What we want or at least what I want, late at night; you can please yourself is a tale that is in its own way a picture of life but yet has an entertaining puzzle element in it. And this the detective story offers me. It is of course highly conventional and stylised think of all those final meetings in the library, or those little dinners in Soho (with about six pounds worth of wine) paid for out of a Scotland Yard salary but its limitations are part of its charm. It opposes to the vast mournful muddle of the real world its own tidy problem and neat solution. As thoughtful citizens we are hemmed in now by gigantic problems that appear as insoluble as they are menacing, so how pleasant it is to take an hour or two off to consider only the problem of the body that locked itself in its study and then used the telephone. (We know now that Sir Rufus must have died not later than ten o’clock, and yet we know too that he apparently telephoned to Lady Bridget at ten forty five, eh Travers?) This is easy and sensible compared with the problem of remaining a sane citizen in the middle of the twentieth century. After the newspaper headlines, it is refreshing to enter this well ordered microcosm, like finding one’s way into a garden after wandering for days in a jungle. I like to approach sleep by way of these neat simplifications, most of them as soundly ethical as Socrates himself. It is true that I may burn my bedlight too long, just because I must know how the dead Sir Rufus managed to telephone; yet, one problem having been settled for me, I feel I sleep all the sounder for this hour or two’s indulgence. And what a delight it is to switch off the day’s long chaos, stretch legs that have begun to ache a little, turn on the right side, and then once more find the eccentric private detective moodily playing his violin or tending his orchids, or discover again the grumpy inspector doodling in his office, and know that a still more astonishing puzzle is on its way to him and to me!