We don’t tend to think of our escape fiction as following literary fashion, do we? But it does, friends! This became very clear to me when I recently re-read two murder mysteries from the 1980s, The Last House Party and Death of a Unicorn. A friend once handed another one of Peter Dickinson’s novels back to me, saying, “The plot was just like origami. Once you unfolded it, it was just a piece of paper.” He found this annoying: I did not. But I have to admit that I didn’t follow either of these plots especially carefully. And the “origami” criticism was accurate, because both of these novels were energetically cast in a post-modern mold, jumping back and forth in time and point of view. Remember that? The impulse to constantly remind the reader that she is reading fiction? I don’t think I heard the word “immersive” applied to fiction much in the 1980s, did you?
I do remember, though, that many of the writers who engaged in this kind of fractured story-telling — like Dickinson –are very skilled, and that each time the fictional rug is jerked from beneath your feet, there’s a small shock. In those days Dickinson seemed especially interested in the way new information can solve old puzzles, so you can see how the technique works well in suspense fiction. The Last House Party isn’t even strictly a murder mystery, though there is a death: it focuses on a baffling episode of a molested child. That bit takes place in an English country house in the 1930s, during the gathering of a clique of proto-Fascists. (Think Cliveden set.) The present-day narrative includes letters that drop the reader into the African desert in World War II, as well as details of running Snailwood House as a contemporary Stately Home. I have to admit that I am not even entirely sure I know what happened: Dickinson’s exposition is so very oblique that I may have missed a few key points.
The same is true of Death of a Unicorn, but in that case it’s because the central ugly behavior involves post-World War II currency controls. The narrator is Lady Margaret Millett, heiress to another big English country house. In the contemporary segments, she’s the iron-willed chatelaine and author of immensely popular historical romances, but the roots of the story are in the London Season long ago. Wonderful social history, of course — reminiscent of both Julian Fellowes’ Past Imperfect and of The Pursuit of Love, especially in the way it de-glamorizes the aristocracy at play. So if you wanted a faintly jaundiced view of the state of English debutantes from roughly 1935 to 1970, you could read Mitford, Dickinson, Fellowes in that order. Now there’s a project for a rainy day!