What I learned from reading Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie.

I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been ‘my thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my faves, with my girl Pat a nose ahead.

Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather old-fashioned by today’s standards?

There is a definite lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Miss Marple often comments, you see every aspect of life in a small village. It’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes wrong.

I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s. (I’m still working my way through her non-series books.) Some of Wentworth’s books I have five or six different copies of, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it.

I recently decided to reread Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes to myself–for funsies–at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink and green then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink, then green…

There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. (And, let’s not forget, it’s been on TV too.) As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)

Point 1. The book is quite long, I reckon it’s about 90,000 words or so. If you think in pages rather than words, it’s about 340 pages. That’s fairly standard for now, but many of Christie’s most well-known works are considerably shorter. (And Then There Were None, for example, is only 250 pages.) BUT the first clue comes on page 31! Wow! And even more interesting, the first red herring comes on page 30!!!!

p31 – the clue is: ‘A face that you liked but that you would find it hard to know again.’

p30 – the red herring is: ‘…the undercurrents that I sensed were nothing to do with Jane Wilkinson.’

Point 2. There are a lot of characters!  It can be hard for the writer to handle a large cast, and just as hard for the reader! To try to keep track of a lot of people without making them all into over-large caricatures takes a lot of skill and hard work. This is something I struggle with.

Point 3. There is a surprisingly large amount of sitting around talking. I know it’s not exactly an action thriller, but it still surprised me how static the story is in many places. Poirot notoriously eschews running from place to place violently searching for clues, preferring to sit and exercise his little grey cells. But still, it was more static than I remembered, and so I feel it would lend itself well to a play or film, (as it has!) because of the economy of sets required. It would be so easy to have a couple of side-boards, a couple of chairs, a different lamp and hey presto! You’ve got a completely different drawing room. Please note, future play-makers.

Point 4. Obviously we have a sidekick. A sidekick, such as ‘ma cher Hastings’, is such a useful device to enable the author to ask and answer questions she puts to the reader. I love Hastings, he is supremely gullible, naive, and a wee bit thick. The perfect sidekick, in fact, as he allows the detective to shine. Hastings, in this book, asks all the questions that the reader might ask given the opportunity, and answers a good many of them himself, almost always wrongly. Having a sidekick enables the author to speak Poirot’s thoughts out loud, so that his detection is not entirely internal, and we, the readers, can be involved.

Point 5. The use of attitudes of the era, and the use of appearances crops up regularly in Agatha Christie’s work. You can tell a wrong ‘un by how they talk about other nationalities, or how they dress or behave.

We see that those who make racial comments are often unmasked later as the perpetrators. Famously, in Death In The Clouds, the two main characters find they have much in common, including their racial attitudes. These commonalities help them to fall in love. But importantly for the reader, they also mark them out as the murderer and his unwitting accomplice.

In Lord Edgware Dies, there’s a touch of that same thing. We can identify some of the worst characters by their espoused attitudes towards other races.

In appearance too, anyone a bit different, or wearing colourful clothes, is set down as dandified and therefore downright suspicious. This works well for Poirot, who is often viewed with mistrust by those–particularly the men–who meet him. We know that Christie hated Poirot, who was probably her most successful character, and possibly got a secret joy from having him so vilely abused by those he met.

But the attitudes of others towards him plays into his hands. They observe his outer appearance, make a judgement about him based on that, and they fall into the trap of underestimating him. Through this, we are invited to laugh at the staid, traditionally-masculine Brit who refuses to get in touch with his feminine side for another forty or fifty years at least. And Poirot emerges triumphant once more–as he should.

Point 6. Suspects are set up and knocked down one by one like ninepins. The reader, along with Hastings, and even Japp, and Poirot himself, turns their suspicions first on one suspect, then these are (reluctantly) dismissed as being the perpetrator. Alibis are given, investigated, found wanting, then reinvestigated and finally the alibi is accepted. Until… well it’s almost become an in-joke that Christie herself invites us to share in – the least likely one is the true murderer. Usually it’s someone who has been suspected, then proved innocent.

This is a satisfying plot device actually, as it means working out timelines and getting your cats, ornaments and salt and pepper pots to help you envision the action on your dining table, just so you can be sure that what you think happens, could in fact have happened.

Point 7. This investigating, dismissing then returning to a suspect develops layers in the plot, and this is the intriguing and absorbing nature of crime fiction: edging closer and closer to a hidden truth, or to a definitive set of events. This is the intellectual riddle that draws readers to this type of fiction, and is so satisfying, because at the end, you think, just as the detective (or the writer) thinks, ‘Ah, now I know everything.’

Point 8. There are other points too, but I’ve waffled on quite a bit. So I’ll end with this: The detective.

The detective of any single book or series is clearly of supreme importance. Hercule Poirot (in this particular book) begins by being lauded by Hastings as a great man, but then as always, Hastings, and the police, and everyone else, loses their faith in him and begins to think he’s past it. Poirot himself declares his greatness, which Hastings wryly smiles over, because neither Hastings nor the reader would ever say such a thing about ourselves, but Poirot does not hesitate to state his abilities and announce his talents.

However, if he is vain, that’s not to say he is confident. He can be humble, he can admit he has made a mistake. In fact if there is one characteristic that defines Poirot for me it is his willingness to admit he has made a mistake and to reevaluate the evidence. He constantly rethinks his approach, going over and over the facts, because if there is one thing he trusts more than his own judgement, it is logic. He knows there must be an explanation and he will not rest until he finds it. The detective and the writer have a lot in common – persistence is everything.

So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned or observed in Lord Edgware Dies. As a review, this isn’t much cop, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done.  Enjoy!

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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.

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Searching for Agatha

The newspapers had a field day and speculated about disguises.

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.

Agatha and her daughter Rosalind

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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The influence of books

carries mini office

Is it possible to gauge the influence our reading has on us over time?  Think back to the first books you ever read as a child – can you still remember them?  Have you read those same books as an adult and still found those same ideas and images grabbing you as they did that first time?

I can remember my mother reading The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner to me when I was a very young child.  I can remember that sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t find my way through the complex language to the story inside.  But I always wanted to hear more, I always longed for the next chapter, begged her not to stop reading.  I can remember thinking, when I’m older I can read and read and read and never stop.  I can remember reading fairy stories from a  huge colourful book, to the poor guy who came to mend the boiler, when I was no more than 5 or 6.  I suppose I also loved having a captive audience!

I can remember being so inspired by the stories I read that I started writing my own stories – not usually more than a page long to begin with – and not usually very interesting.

The books that have shaped my life?  I loved Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, the Famous Five, the Lone Pine Five, all the usual books that kids in the 1960s read.  The Ann of Green Gables books by L M Montgomery are very special to me – because that was when I learned falling in love is not only about heart-pounding attraction, desperate emotional rollercoastering, but it can also be realising that your friend is the person you most want to keep in your life forever, without whom your life would be bleak and colourless.  The Wind in the Willows taught me that children’s stories don’t have to be facile.  Shakespeare’s plays taught me that I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it.  Enid Blyton‘s books showed me that being nosy is a sure way to get into trouble and end up tied up in a cellar (but oh the adventure!).  Many, many books taught me to believe I could write,  Agatha Christie, Tom Holt, Jasper Fforde and Patricia Wentworth taught me what I wanted to write and that you don’t have to be highbrow or obscure to be a good writer.  Books made me take that leap of faith, try, experiment, and when things didn’t work out, I had somewhere to go to recover.  If all else fails, they make a bloody big pile you can hide behind.

But over all of this, the books themselves, crowding about me like friends, took over my life to the detriment of all else – apart from my family of course 🙂 and I can honestly say that nine times out of ten, I’d sooner spend my money on a book than a bar of chocolate – and those who know me know that is really saying something.