The makers of Broadchurch have been suggesting that the second series, starting tomorrow, may not feature another murder. As far as I can gather from their coy pronouncements, the intention is to let the first murder – that of an 11-year-old boy – continue to resonate.
As a crime fiction writer, I disapprove of using child murder as the hook. It's too manipulative. The consumer is morally prohibited from saying, "I don't give a stuff about who killed that kid." I am reminded of the prescription for the ideal book dedication, as laid out by the humorist Stephen Potter for writers trying to defuse the ire of reviewers: "To Phyllis, in the hope that one day, God's glorious gift of sight may be restored to her."
The Broadchurch people seem to think they can go a long way on that one tank of petrol, and certainly there are precedents for crime fiction without murder. See, for example, Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night. Some of the best Sherlock Holmes stories have no murder, including The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Admittedly, it is primarily a comic tale (as we can tell by the fact that it involves lower-class characters). Another Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge, features a murder that turns out to be a suicide, thus contravening the rule set out in an essay by the American mystery writer S S Van Dine: "A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide." That essay appears in a volume of 1945 called Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction, a how-to guide given to me by my wife… and received with mixed feelings, since she had just read my own first crime novel.
Here, from the same volume, is the crime fiction connoisseur Howard Haycraft: "The wise writer will restrict his homicides to three or four at the most." I have been writing a series of historical thrillers set on the railways, and these have featured three or four per book. I was given pause after reading that there were only seven murders on the whole of Britain's railways between 1827 and 1929, but then I resumed the slaughter – and without guilt.
As I once assured an earnest young policeman who was handing out leaflets headed something like "So you think crime's a joke?" to an audience I was about to address, "We crime writers are great moralists." It's no accident that golden-age British crime fiction was written after the First World War, and with the horrors of the Second looming. The incessant killings depicted by Agatha Christie should be seen as so many pretexts for Poirot or Miss Marple to administer the moral corrective the times so clearly required.
Another moral defence of a murder early on in a story is that it gives the message: "This is crime fiction, an exercise in style played by fixed rules. Nothing too pompous." Fasten your seatbelts, Broadchurch fans.
Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'Night Train to Jamalpur' (Faber & Faber)Reuse content