BOOKS / Second Thoughts: Art critic without a clue: Penelope Fitzgerald on the brush with crime that made her decide to go straight

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The Independent Culture
IN 1975 I wrote a mystery story, The Golden Child (Flamingo, pounds 5.99) to amuse my husband, who was very ill at the time, and I think it did amuse him. I really wanted to call it The Golden Opinion because it was partly about the precious reputation, and in consequence the money, which can turn on the judgment of an art critic.

It was one of those novels which make their first appearance in the shape of an idea, rather than of a person, and it was suggested by the great Tutankhamen exhibition a few years earlier at the British Museum. You had to queue for, on average, two hours and when you got in you weren't allowed to pause anywhere for long. I thought the lighting seemed very low. The second time I went it was even worse. The sacred artefacts, world-famous - as the loudspeakers kept reminding us - gleamed from their cases only dimly. Over a cup of tea from the vending machine (there was no restaurant) I set my imagination a problem. Why would a great museum - not, needless to say, the British Museum - mount a major exhibition which was practically invisible? Mightn't the truth be so embarrassing that the whole mighty mechanism of the establishment would have to be called upon to suppress it? If someone found out, what would they do to him?

I was brought up to believe that mystery stories should have clues, false clues, suspects and a complete explanation in the last chapter. With all these, when I started to write my novel, I did my best, although when I cut down the text some of the clues, and I think some of the suspects, disappeared. Readers wrote to tell me that they had guessed the identity of the murderer at quite an early stage. This matter of guessing, of course, is only one sign of the book's age. The Russians in it are villains of the simplest and most inscrutable kind, French Academicians are still structuralists, a restaurant is called Munchers and a junior exhibition officer is bowed down by mortgage repayments of pounds 118 a month. But I think of The Golden Child as a historical novel. All novels, in fact, are historical.

When the book came out, the sage publisher told me that I would have to write five more, with the same detective, to get any kind of footing as a mystery writer. Less than six wouldn't make a show on the shelves of a public library. I had produced a detective of a kind, of whom I had become fond, Professor Untermensch. But I didn't feel up to seeing Untermensch through five more murders. I had noticed, too, that literary editors often treated these mysteries in a less than respectful manner, sweeping them all together into a paragraph headed 'Crime Corner.' I decided, therefore, to go straight.