- Perilously close to Dalmuir…
Ooh dear. So here’s the thing. There’s this lovely lady called Emma Baird. She is a writer. And I’m going to blame her for this because in all honesty, I can’t remember if I said to her, ‘Wow what a great idea if…’ or if it was her who said that to me. So let’s blame her. Next Monday, not today but next week, she and I are going to step WAY out of our joint comfort zones and stand–or sit, they might have chairs–up in front of easily tens of people, and talk about what it’s like being a writer, and in particular what’s it’s like being an Indie or self-published writer. (note to self: check blouse for food stains, you know what a messy eater you are and no one needs to see that.)
So if you are in the Dalmuir area at 7pm next Monday, the 19th November, and you think, ‘Ooh, it’s a bit chilly out here, what shall I do?’ go into the library and sit down and listen to a saintly Scottish young woman and a mad old bat from England (that’s me) waffle on about what writing is to them, why they do it, how they do it, and why that means you could do it too. Because, think about it, you could!
Isn’t that amazing? Because five years ago, no one had even heard of me, and now, at least 12 people know me and have read my books. I’m exaggerating. It’s about 11.
Seriously though, it’s been a weird five years, full of highs and lows, full of challenges, tears, and ecstatic ‘OMG it worked!’ moments. There was that one crazy day shortly after I published my first book Criss Cross (which is still FREE for eBook download btw) when someone I didn’t know bought a copy of my book. If you have never done this, I really don’t think you’ll understand, unless you paint and people buy your work, or you sing and people pay to listen to you, or… that kind of thing. It was one of the most genuinely surreal moments of my life. Because yes, I know I had written it, rewritten it, edited it and uploaded it to the relevant platforms for the exact purpose of selling it to unwary members of the public, but even so, I cannot help but marvel at this magical revelation: someone bought my book.
Once, a couple of months back, ‘someone’ (no idea who, well, I have a couple of ideas, but no specific evidence) mentioned my book on Twitter, and in one (glorious) afternoon and evening I had 3800 downloads of the eBook. And this of course led to increased sales across all my books for a few days. That has happened a couple of times actually, and it is so strange when you can almost see the little dot that represents your book sales going up and up and up before your very eyes. To think that someone I don’t know, whom I may never meet, who probably lives thousands of miles away from me or perhaps, just a mile down the road, has chosen my book. That is why I do this. It’s not about the money, though that helps, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter, but it’s not the main reason. the main reason is that weird connection thing, where you have written something that someone else thinks, wow, I’d like to read this.
So thank you for buying my book, nebulous, anonymous person-I-have-never-met. I really hope you enjoy it. And as for you Dalmuirites: get ready!
- Autumn brings introspection, and our new annual tradition
I’m always going on about nature and how it makes me reflect on life in general and my writing in particular. Outside my window is a damp, red-yellow scene. We’ve had a fairly mild autumn here in Derby, England with only a little frost, and unusually for us here on our little hill, a lot of rain. It’s never quite enough rain for me. Ever since we came back from Australia, almost seventeen years ago, I’ve been kind of obsessed with rainfall.
But autumn brings with it a conflict of pace. In town, everything is gathering speed as we head towards Christmas; the shops are already selling glittery shiny stuff and there is red tinsel everywhere. But away from this commercial world, the earth is heading towards its winter sleep. The leaves fall, gently, wearily, laying themselves on the ground with a sigh. The animals are hoarding foodstocks, and searching for warm hideaways. Crops come to the end of production, the last petals fall from the roses, herbs turn to straw, and the trees reach naked limbs into the chilly air.
There is so much inspiration to be gained from an observation of the natural world at the moment. As I bring one novel to an end, and prepare to start another, as our new annual tradition of NaNoWriMo gets under way, we all will need all the help we can get with our writing. Now is a time when we are lured by sleep, yet we have to dig down deep to find the stamina and the energy to stick with it and write on into the gloomy days of winter.
My advice is, write early if you can. Get your 1660 words or so written as early in the day as you can. All too often we get to evening and have run out of time or impetus. If you can relax secure in the knowledge you’ve already done your daily word count, you will feel justifiably smug for the rest of the day.
And don’t forget, if you are taking part in NaNoWriMo, keep your WIP on your computer up-to-date: you can’t verify a word count at the end of the month if your story is all written by hand on scraps of paper, or even in your sparkly new notebook! Write as many extra words as you can at the beginning, as you will need this to ease your way towards the end. But hang in there, keep writing, don’t panic. It will come together. Take the occasional day off if you need to, but remember to make up the word count so you don’t fall behind and leave yourself with a Herculean task late in the month.
See you on the other side.
- So what has Agatha Christie done for us?
Following my two recent posts about Agatha Christie and her famous–or infamous–disappearance, I thought it would be good, and only fitting, to bring the focus back onto her profession output: between 1920 and 1973-ish she wrote 66 detective novels under her married name, Agatha Christie, 6 non-detective novels as Mary Westmacott, and 14 short story collections. In addition a number of her works were adapted for the stage, or were plays that were novelised. How many of us can hope to produce so much work over a period of over 50 years? Even now, in the 21st century, her work is still being adapted for television or filmed for the ‘big screen’. Her work is available in a huge range of languages, and in Braille, large print, and as audiobooks. I’m sure there are few authors who could claim such a massive audience over such a sustained period of time. And forty years after her death, her novels are being reprinted and are easily getting into the upper reaches of bestseller lists. Wow! Let me just take a moment to think about that.
But far from setting out to be a great author, she only started writing at all due to a bet with her sister, and a certain amount of boredom. Yet she has arguably created some of the best and worst detectives in the genre, and some of the most devious and controversial plots to ever trick and mislead the reading public. If we sometimes today find her plots predictable or jaded, that is because we can easily forget that she and a few other trailblazers have, through their work, made us as readers more sophisticated and at the same time, have aroused expectations to fit the genre. We should try to place the books in their original era if we can, as then they were even more fresh, unusual and very, very clever.
So if you’ve been living on the moon, and haven’t read anything by Christie before, or if you’ve only lately come to detective fiction via some other nefarious genre, what are the five books you should read by Agatha Christie?
Well obviously you’ve got to read the first Poirot book, not that sequence is an issue with Christie as it is with many authors. But it’s always interesting to a) read an author’s first book, and b) read the first book to feature a well-known detective. So you absolutely must begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920 and featuring Hercule Poirot: I would say the world’s foremost fictional detective. This is a phenomenal debut, and an intriguing mystery. Later Christie decided she didn’t like Poirot, and she tried to kill him off, but her publisher kept the book on ice for decades before allowing its release. Poirot is rather a comical detective, with personality flaws in the form of vanity and self-importance. His strengths lie in his deep thought processes and his use of logic to work out the details of a crime, that and a reliance on bigotry that overlooks the usefulness of a foreigner on the part of many he comes into contact with. Styles was the real name of Christie’s own childhood home.
You also HAVE to read two other classic Poirot’s: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. These have become genre classics almost
independent of their creator, and the TV series and various film versions have definitely assisted with that. These books have masterful plots featuring an ensemble cast, and represent neat variations on the country house theme by being a ship and a train. The exotic locations just add to the pleasure.
Miss Marple is one of Christie’s other detectives, and is almost as well known and loved as Poirot. She is a single old lady who knits and gossips. She solves mysteries by the simple expedient of listening, asking questions and knowing a great deal about human behaviour. This is largely the result of her long life experience, and that she lives in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Like Poirot, she is often overlooked as a threat to the plans of baddies and evildoers. The best Marple book to start with, in my opinion, is again the book that introduces us to the character, a volume of short stories first published in 1933, The Thirteen Problems (or in the US this is called The Tuesday Club Murders). Another famous Marple book is Nemesis and it is also excellent.
Okay, I said five books, and there they are. But I can’t resist adding a bonus one: Death Comes As The End. It was published in 1945, and is a traditional-style murder mystery, but it is set in ancient Egypt, and the background was gleaned by Christie from her archaeological exploits with husband number two, Sir Max Mallowan. It’s a great story, full of fascinating detail, and inspired me to learn more about history of all eras.
I hope that, having read all the above books, you might feel an impulse to go back and read all her works. They are well worth the effort, and I am sure you will agree, not only are they entertaining and enjoyable, you will also feel that you have come to know the woman behind the works too.
- Murder, Mayhem and Indie Publishing
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… breathe, Caron, breathe…
Dear lady, this month thou shalt stand up in front of people and attempt to inform and entertain… Not much of a tall order is it?
Up there on this year’s to-do list, which always includes something along the lines of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, was’do a workshop/book event’. As someone who’d rather have a tooth pulled out sans anesthetic than stand up in front of an audience*, this is a biggie. I’ve published four books so far and this is my first ‘launch’.
To ease the experience, I bullied roped in another writer to join me and billed it as a Q and A session. Given that most people think they have a book in them, why not appeal to that audience by positioning our event as an exploration of the world of indie publishing? And unlike me, my author chum makes decent money from…
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- Searching for Agatha
As I said last week, literally thousands of people joined the search for Agatha Christie in December 1926 when she disappeared for eleven days. Her car was found, run off the road, at a place called Newlands Corner, in Surrey, in the South of England. Her fur coat was still in the car, and there were some clothes in a suitcase, and some documents, notably an expired driving license. It was assumed–or feared might be a better word–that she had either been kidnapped or murdered–or as her depressed state came to light, had committed suicide.
Indeed, in interviews a few years later, Agatha Christie did admit she had had suicidal thoughts, but it was her Christian belief that suicide was a terrible sin that prevented her from carrying it out. We can see this attitude so often in the news and fiction of that era. When someone kills themselves, they are seen not only as sinful, but as weak, selfish, lacking in moral backbone, and cowardly. So it wasn’t particularly a viable alternative for someone in desperate straits. But to go away, to be completely unknown and anonymous, that was a whole different thing. The prospect of disappearing–even if only for a few days–must have been a tempting one.
But how did she get from Newlands Corner to Harrogate, a distance of 230 miles, having abandoned her car? True, she didn’t check into the hotel for twenty-four hours after leaving home, but I really don’t think could have walked it, no matter how ‘outdoorsy’ she was known to be. She left the house at about 9.45pm on Friday night the 3rd December 1926. The met office reported it as slightly above the average for the time of year, and dry, and about 40f or 4c: which is still pretty chilly. (You can read old met reports here–if like me you revel in that stuff: it’s a fascinating site)
In an interview later, quoted in Surrey Life magazine (Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008/Words by Alec Kingham) says ‘For 24 hours, I wandered in a dream, then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.’ It’s not mentioned here but stated elsewhere, that this newly-invented character was a widow, and I find that interesting: is that why this character was happy? Notably, Agatha was said not to have been wearing her wedding ring, though in view of the wreck of that marriage, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, though the wronged party often does continue to wear their wedding ring, especially until the divorce is finalised. The breakdown of a long-term relationship is known to trigger a deep sense of bereavement.
Alec Kingham claims that Agatha walked to an inn in Shere (interestingly, this is the same small neighbourhood where Archie had gone to a weekend house-party of a friend, and to be with his mistress) and she stayed there overnight, then went on by train the following day, a tortuous route via local lines to reach Guildford, and from there to London, across London and then on to Harrogate, arriving at the Hydropathic Hotel in the evening.
In my view, she had to have planned it. I’m not talking weeks or months, just a couple of hours is all she would have needed. But I don’t believe this could have all been accomplished off-the-cuff. Is it possible her secretary helped? She was supposed to have been unaware of what had happened, other than the fact that Colonel Christie had left the house for good with his belongings following a final scene, and that Agatha herself went out a little later.
It’s been suggested that the site where she crashed the car had been deliberately set up to resemble a crime scene. And certainly if anyone could have planned and created such an event, she could. Who else would carry an expired driving license on her if not a mystery writer out to set up her own disappearance?
Archie Christie told the police that she had once said that if she wanted to disappear, she knew exactly how she would do it, and she maintained she’d never be found. Perhaps that’s why the newspapers featured her photograph with various disguises such as different hair colour and styles, and with glasses.
Certainly she’d have needed money. She had to travel all the way to Yorkshire, presumably by at least three trains and either underground or bus across London. Even in the 1920s, you’d need hard cash for that. And luggage–no respectable hotel will take a guest with no luggage at all, even if they said at the reception desk, ‘Oh I’m only staying for a day or two, the rest of my stuff is in the car.’ So let’s take it as read she had at least a small holdall or suitcase, with a change of clothes. And some cash.
She knew where she was going, she had everything she needed with her. She had to have planned it. Whether or not she had any help from another person remains a mystery, but this could not have been a spur of the moment occurrence.
- Hatless and coatless at 6am: Agatha’s famous disappearance.
1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.
Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.
After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.
Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands
Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.
Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.
And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.
In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.
A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.
The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.
But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life.
My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.
- Zips vs Buttons: The 30s: what were they like? Part 2
Welcome back to my foray into the 1930s. If you are over a certain age, the 1930s actually doesn’t really feel like an historical era but, you know, our mums’ and dads’ time, it feels ‘recent’. So it’s very easy to forget the massive changes and events that shaped, not just the 30s, but our own current era. I’m trying to give a little bit of the flavour of life in the 1930s in Britain.
This week I want to say something about technology, and about fashion. In some ways the two are inter-related. The zip? If you’ve never thought of that as a technological breakthrough—think again.
Can you imagine having no zips at all on your clothes? Trousers: buttoned or elasticated. Jeans ditto. Skirts, ditto. Jackets, jumpers, dresses… How would you close a long dress? Immediately any garment has got to be wide enough to admit either your hips or your shoulders, or depend entirely on button-type closures. Not that women habitually wore trousers in the 1930s, and jeans were very much an American work garment.
In fact the zip had been invented way back in the 1850s but in spite of lots of interest and various refinements of the design, it only became widely used in the early part of the twentieth century for boots, or for survival and specialist protective gear, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that it began to be used first for babies’ and children’s clothing, then for men’s trousers in place of the button fly. French fashion designers raved over its convenience, and emphasised that it had the benefit of preventing “The possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray”. (When I was a kid, public loos still had a notice just inside the exit reminding gentlemen to check they were ‘properly dressed’ before leaving the premises.) From there, due to the convenience and the ability to follow smooth lines, it came into the women’s and general clothing applications we know and love today.
Fashion was also the prisoner of technology with regard to laundering. Artificial fabrics had been around for a while, but were often confined to small items of clothing, or occasional items such as evening dresses or accessories, to avoid the need for frequent washing, due to their relative delicacy compared to natural fibres. Rayon and artificial silk required special laundering care, so it helped to have a maid with nothing better to do than to carefully iron your dainties.
Country wear for the well-to-do, especially for outdoor pursuits, was often tweeds by day, which were hard-wearing natural fibres, easy to launder—if you had a maid and somewhere to hang the garments to dry—and the pattern was great for disguising spills and light spatters (presumably blood from all the hunting…or maybe fish guts?). The colonies were still very much the mainstay of British textiles, with silk and cotton coming in from all over Asia, and the United States, either as fabric or as raw material to be made into fabric for the garment trade located in the Midlands and North. Hollywood’s glamorous influence on lifestyles meant that there was a greater demand for variety in fabric and in styles, and most women made the garments for themselves and their families at home, often completely by hand.
Very few households in Britain had washing machines in the 1930s, and tumble dryers were just a pipedream. Everything had to be washed by hand and dried naturally. The washboard and mangle (or you might prefer, wringer), were still depended upon as the main artificial aid to laundering.
But by the 1930s, with the exception of the very poor or very remote, the majority of British households had electricity. The National Grid was set up in 1934 to bring together all the separate private electric producers and their varying tariffs. In addition to this, manufacturing processes had been refined. The Great Depression hit American factory production, but in spite of this, the 1930s saw the increase of the household appliance: vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, central heating for the well-off, electric cookers, and so forth began to be desirable objects. There were also home-grown manfacturers such as Ewbanks of Accrington, Lancashire, still in production today. The marketing of their products was aimed at women, who were advised to ‘talk it over with your husband’. The advertisers promised a new standard of cleanliness and efficiency. The emphasis was on keeping up with the times, being seen to be ‘modern’ and scientific, and the promise of making the drudge of domestic duties ‘simple’. For the many middle- and upper-class families who’d lost most of their ‘help’ to the better paying factories, these items were very much the must-haves of the generation.
If you think this gave women more time to chat on the phone, well… yes I suppose it did. Many middle class and upper class homes had telephones by the outbreak of the second World War. Households began to have telephones from the 1910s, thought they were often treated with grave suspicion and a certain amount of contempt. But if you think you could just wander from room to room as you chatted, you’d be wrong. The telephone was fixed in an out of the way place – a back lobby or study, and there you had to go to make your call.
And you couldn’t just dial the person you wanted to speak to. No! Although some areas did have a direct-dialling service, most did not. For most households, well into the 1930s, you had to ring the exchange and ask for a call to be put through to the number you wanted. If dialling out of your own area, you might have to wait for this to be completed. You had time to go off, make a cup of tea, and maybe a sandwich, and then the operator at the exchange would call you back and tell you the connection had been made. There were some automatic exchanges but remember, this was still relatively new technology and there were still many refinements to the system to be made.
Famously, Alexander Graham Bell suggested using the word ‘Ahoy!’ to answer a telephone call, but fortunately Thomas Edison came up with ‘Hello!’ and that remains good enough for most of us. From the exchange though, you might have heard those well-known words, ‘Go ahead, caller, you’re through.’
- Between a rock and a hard place: what was it like in the 30s? Part One
I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of murder mysteries set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I wanted to show just how different life was for everyone, not just young women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and writing centres around this, but the era presented both challenges and successes for many nations around the world. Let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people? It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war, as villages and towns slowly rebuilt themselves literally and figuratively. Attitudes were poles apart, with very ‘modern’ liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs.
To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more distant, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die or be injured in the space of just a few short years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of that terrible disaster.
While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly-emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go home and cook and clean and have babies. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom and equality. This continued to grow throughout the 20s, into the 30s and is still an issue today.
And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men, in terms of work, pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted parliamentary representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘your husband/father will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, and this came down to everyone over 18 in 1967. But in the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed to make an informed choice. Women began to move into political life, but still very much, generally speaking, in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician, becoming a cabinet minister in 1924.
People of colour and of different backgrounds were, in the majority of cases, socially separate from the white Christian majority. Again this continues today, doesn’t it, though it seems incredible to discriminate against someone due to skin colour. Reading the popular literature of the day could lead you to think there were no people of colour in Britain in the 1930s. But there have been vibrant non-white communities living in Britain for over two thousand years. We just didn’t admit it. People of colour were treated with hostility and resentment, and opportunities were often denied them through financial penalties or social stigma and racism. But here too, there were pressing demands for social change, and many welfare and interest group sprang up, working to change attitudes and lives practically and politically, for example, The League of Coloured Peoples and The Negro Welfare Association, to name two. However, there were successful non-white professionals such as lawyers as early as the 1850s, for example, John Thorpe and in the 1860s, Monmohon Ghosh. (More info available from the Society of Black Lawyers) And the Jazz age (1920s and 1930s) was enabling black musicians, artists, entertainers and actors to produce and perform their art, albeit without the same freedom and acceptance of white people.
Next week: Life in the 1930s: Technology and Fashion.
- What was the ‘Golden Age’ of British mystery writing?
We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.
When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.
What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.
Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.
Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.
So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)
Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:
Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.
Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.
Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.
Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.
Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.
Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:
S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.
John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.
In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels: such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.
Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.
What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.
- Lenny Kravitz and me
As soon as the calendar is turned to the page for September, like many people, I begin to think of Autumn. Yet it’s still technically summertime, and the meteorologists have promised us another heat-wave, so really the year is less advanced than I imagine. We’re still in the third quarter, after all.
But we can’t help looking forward, can we? We have a tendency to push ahead a bit faster than we should, always looking to the future, the next thing, always rounding up. Do we have a primitive urge to be cautious going out to meet trouble before it reaches our home? We seem to over-prepare these days (think how much you buy for Christmas or any time the supermarkets are shut for just one day), and we have a tendency to expect and assume the worst, whilst professing to hope for the best.
For several months now, I’ve been thinking of myself as 58. I try to crowbar it into as many conversations as I can, as if I were 90: ‘I’m 58, you know!’ Partly it’s because I can hardly believe it myself. On the inside I feel like I’m still 14? 16? 30? But in actual fact, I’m not 58 until mid-October. So, I’m still 57, yet I actually only embraced the concept of being 57 when I was—you’ve guessed it–561∕2. I know I’m not the only one. Why do we do things like that? Is it so har dot be in the present?
Remember that old song Enjoy Yourself? The line goes, Enjoy yourself, It’s later than you think. What a depressing thought. It’s already too late. Wow. Do we want to believe that? If so, we might as well give up now; what’s the point of trying?
I’m trying to avoid the usual clichés, ‘take time to smell the roses’, ‘it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey’, but it’s quite difficult to do that and get my point across. (Yes I do have one…even if it’s a different one to my planned finishing point.)
I have a stubborn streak. I think most writers do. We need it to get us through all the demands of writing, rewriting, polishing, revising, rewriting, editing… part of me says, it’s never too late. There’s always more to come, a bit more you can do. Like a soap opera, the story never concludes, the writers just add another episode. Like the Lenny Kravitz song, It ain’t over til it’s o-o-o-over.
I’m going to live my life, and end on a cliffhanger. On my gravestone, I want the words: ‘To be continued…’