(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anna Clarke’s mysteries are often not what the average reader of detective fiction expects; in fact, they are frequently not mysteries in any traditional sense but studies in the development of a murderer. A number of elements make Clarke’s novels strong and intriguing; the most interesting of these are her use of multiple sleuths, her focus on the psychology of crime, and the literary motif that runs through many of her works. These secure Clarke’s place among mystery writers.

Clarke’s use of multiple sleuths is the most unusual element of her writing. Although she introduced a series character, Paula Glenning, in Last Judgement (1985), in her earlier work she used different characters in each mystery. Her detectives are always amateurs because her interest lies in the human mind rather than in crime and detection. Indeed, unlike the traditional detective story, a Clarke story does not begin with a crime. Either the crime does not occur until the final chapters, or there is no awareness that a crime has occurred.

Perhaps surprisingly, Clarke’s approach to characterization does not lead to loose plotting. Indeed, her plots are tightly constructed. Because there is frequently no mystery for the reader to attempt to solve before the detective does, there is no need for red herrings and their attendant problems for a writer who must discreetly insert them. In Last Judgement, the plot moves inevitably from opening action to denouement. Although references to James’s obsessive desire to possess his grandfather’s papers suggest that he is capable of murdering the old man, the focus is always on Mary and her decline into madness. Also, the occasional breaks in action serve only to create suspense. Even in Plot Counter-Plot (1974), a complicated story of two authors at personal and professional odds with each other, there are no loose ends.

This care with plotting stems from Clarke’s literary interests, which in turn provide a motif for much of her work. In Last Judgement, characters include a renowned author, two professors of English literature, and a literary critic. The plot, as character James Goff points out on several occasions, resembles The Aspern Papers (1888) by Henry James. At the center of this plot is the struggle for possession of the notebooks, letters, and drafted novels of the great author. Again, in My Search for Ruth (1975) it is a literary form that dominates: A young woman writes a chronicle while searching for her true identity. According to the critic Larry E. Grimes, Ruth chooses “a compulsive, personal, primary encounter with the stuff of literature itself—image, character, plot.”

Clarke said of her writing, “As far as I have any conscious feeling about writing novels at all beyond the obsessional story-telling, I am interested in the workings of the human mind and their effects on character and action.” This is borne out by all aspects of her work. Her characterization, her nontraditional use of sleuths and of criminal acts, her tightly woven plots, and even the literary motif she adopts so frequently support her interest in the mind. She is the purest of mystery writers, for as Nancy Pick says in Desire to Kill (1982), “All human beings are the stuff of which murderers are made.” It is this premise that lies at the root of mystery and detective fiction.

Last Judgement

In Last Judgement, there are crimes against the heart or spirit, but there is no criminal act until the next-to-last chapter. The result is that the story, in part, is about how a number of individuals either come to understand that some violence will occur or remain oblivious to its possibility. For example, a male nurse, Hector Greenaway, sees Mary Morrison, the central character, as a trapped, weak animal that is likely to be dangerous; yet when he voices his concern to Dr. Joan Conway, the doctor sees only a young woman overworked and worried by her frail stepfather’s ill health. Hector does not understand how he knows what he does of Mary.

Similarly, Paula Glenning at one point comes to realize that Mary is laughing silently at her. Paula relives the scene:She had had an overpowering sense of oppression in that horrible dark, dead room, and had seen Mary as trapped and crushed by it, unable to free herself. But had Mary really felt like that? . . . It was Paula who had given way to her feelings. Was Mary such a helpless victim? Had she found her own way out? Perhaps she had made up her mind to murder the old man. Perhaps she had already done so.

It is this sensitivity to atmosphere that marks Clarke’s amateur detectives.

Mary Morrison’s madness is...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)