Writing as a conversation

Featuring various fictional detectives

As a writer, I sometimes ask myself why I am writing. What am I hoping to achieve, knowing that there are so many beautiful, meaningful books already out there?

When I asked this question a couple of years ago to one of my writing tutors, I phrased it this way: “When there are people like Arundhati Roy writing fiction, why should I write anything?” (I had recently read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and had been stumped by how beautiful and harrowing it was.) To which my tutor answered, “Because Arundhati Roy could have thought the same thing, and the world would have been poorer.”

That is one argument. We should write, because what we write, how we phrase it, the words we find to express it, the narratives we choose to tell, might resonate with readers in a new way. Chances are, whatever we write, we will write something that has been done before, in some form or other. But the way we choose to do so might still be able to make a connection with a reader. The context in which we write keeps changing too, so the stories we tell might resonate differently according to what is happening in the cultural landscape.

There is another argument, I think, and that is to consider writing as a conversation. Not only a conversation with the reader, as I’ve outlined above, but a conversation with other writers and bodies of work.

An example which I find intriguing is the conversation happening from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle, then to Maurice Leblanc. Bear with me, and I’ll take you through this brief literary history.

In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe publishes The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which the character Auguste Dupin, a fictional detective, appears. Wait forty years or so for the character and the concept to settle in people’s minds. We’ll soon get to meet the most famous of all fictional detectives. In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first appearance in fiction in 1887, we have Sherlock openly reference Auguste Dupin as he solves his first case. In so many words, he discards Dupin as being an inferior version of himself, and goes on to explain how his methodology and deductions work, arguing they are much more realistic than Dupin’s.

Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes now, and a wealth of stories have spun, in a variety of formats, off the back of the famous detective. But even before the age of adaptations, the literary conversation around detectives in fiction continued.

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Arsène Lupin is a fictional French character, written by Maurice Leblanc, who first appears in 1905. He’s the opposite of the famous detective: rather than being the smart, in-control detective who always solves his cases, he is the smart, in-control thief who always escapes the law. He has a lot in common with Sherlock: his capacity to disguise himself and change his appearance, the format of his stories (short stories and novellas), the tone and structure of each adventure. Maurice Leblanc apparently told his publisher that, Sherlock Holmes having extensively covered the detective’s side of the story, he would explore the criminal’s point of view.

In case it isn’t obvious that Maurice Leblanc is answering Sherlock, he published a story, Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late, in 1906, in which Sherlock is defeated by the quick-witted thief (yes, the title does give the twist away).

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Between Edgar Allan Poe and Maurice Leblanc, a conversation has been happening between writers and readers of detective novels over 65 years. This is not to say the conversation was always friendly – apparently Arthur Conan Doyle was reproached for criticising Auguste Dupin, and in turn, Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t like Maurice Leblanc’s portrayal of Sherlock. When he protested, the character was renamed ‘Herlock Sholmes’.

Arguably, the conversation continues after that, as writers of detective/crime fiction read within their genre and react to what has been done before. Authors keep riffing off the concept of the private, often whimsical detective. We get a chance to have a smart little old lady fill the role (at last!) thanks to Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. And we meet the more hard-boiled, more drunk, more messy crime-solving style of Philip Marlowe when Raymond Chandler brings him to us.

It would have been a shame if, having read Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle had decided he had nothing to add to the conversation – a much-loved fictional detective and his sidekick would never have seen the light of day. And Arsène Lupin is all the more fun to read because of the gap in the story he fills. Out of the blue, rooting for a thief might seem counterintuitive – but knowing he’s the smart, playful underdog to a detective who is all-too-used to saving the day? Now that’s a story we want to hear.

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When we write a story, it doesn’t sit in a vacuum. Rather than having an individualistic view of writing – the writer in their ivory tower, detached from the world, who has to produce something original, something never done before, something which is also detached from the world – we could start thinking of writing as a communal work. We become writers after being readers, after all, and we read as we write, so fiction stays alive by reacting, answering, developing ideas which have already been thrown out into the cultural landscape.

 

By ourselves, there is only so much we can do. It is hard to justify why, as an individual, I might want to write and be read. But by exploring other authors’ works, by being conscious of the history of our genre and of our chosen format, we may be able to create a narrative which becomes part of a much larger story, that furthers a conversation that writers have been having, sometimes over centuries.

Maybe one answer to why I write would be: “Because I want to join the conversation.”

18 June 2021