To catch a killer…

This post kind of continues from my recent post about how the killer in a traditional murder mystery such as the ones I write–or try to–is always ‘one of us’. It’s important that the killer IS one of us. I have to say, if I read a mystery and the perpetrator is revealed as someone barely mentioned, or the author uses that old chestnut, the guilty butler, or any other member of staff, I am SO bitterly disappointed–with both the story, and in fact the author. Because it just feels like a letdown, like the author ‘phoned it in’, as they say, ie couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job. Even some of my favourite authors indulged in this heinous practise!

In his essay, The Decline of the English Mystery, George Orwell wrote, ‘The perfect murderer is a humdrum little man (or woman, I say!) of the professional classes.’

I think most people could agree that when they read a murder mystery, the most satisfying part of the book is trying to beat the sleuth to the finish line. Or at least, to be able to nod sagely at the end and say, ‘I knew it!’ as the killer is revealed.

We’ve come a long way from this scenario: ‘God must search out the solution to this crime because only He knows the secrets of the heart.’ (Revelations of a Lady Detective, William Stephens Hayward 1864) Now, as the reader ‘we’ want to take God’s place and work it out for ourselves. Is it because we want to impose a rigid order on our lives, have complete control over something? Who knows. We could write a philosophical paper on why we enjoy crime books when we (most of us, anyway) are vehemently opposed to violence.

I have to say, I do get a thrill when the murderer turns out to be someone I had completely ruled out or overlooked. I like to be surprised but I also, more than anything, like to be convinced. So if the evidence is flimsy or entirely circumstantial, I don’t buy into it at all. I need to know the why of it far more than how or all the other questions. After all, in a traditional type of murder mystery the guilty party must have a compelling and urgent necessity to take such a drastic act. Otherwise, they could simply move to another town and live under a new name. Or something normal like that…

So here are a few must-haves for the killer of a traditional murder mystery:

  1. They have to appear innocuous or be excluded from being ‘the one who did it’.
  2. If possible they should be genial, amiable and pleasant to most people, and get on with everyone (apart from the victim 😉 )
  3. They will be very aware of every move the victim makes, and take a lot of trouble to keep themselves informed.
  4. They need to be pretty intelligent to outsmart–for a while at least–the sleuth who will be coming after them.
  5. In spite of being pleasant, genial etc they also should reveal–gradually–an arrogant side with a large dollop of superiority complex: they believe they are able to outwit everyone, and are better than anyone, and that their motive completely justifies or exonerates their action.
  6. Lastly, they will crave attention and status; this means they love to get involved in the investigation into the death of the victim. They want to keep themselves informed in order to plan their next move, and to make sure they are safe.

In mysteries, many killers merely carry out the act to cover their butts: the victim knows something, or has the power to do something that threatens the killer’s safety in some way, whether it is their actual liberty at risk, their financial position, their social status, or the safety or fidelity of a loved one. It must be an utterly compelling reason for them.

If they are truly psychopathic, they will feed off the admiration of others and continually find ways–subtle and not-so-subtle–to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. Sometimes this will lead them to offer to help the detective, or sometimes this will lead to another death, as they either have to cover up the first crime, or feel a need to display their ingenuity.

In the case of serial killers, another death can be the result of their urge to experience that sense of fulfilment and power they got from the act of killing itself. They crave that thrill as an addict craves their addictive substance. The pressure is then on for the sleuth to find the killer to prevent yet another death. And often, the author will ensure that tension ratchets up a notch or three by having the next potential victim someone the sleuth really cares about.

Wow, that turned dark and non-cozy very quickly, didn’t it?

In fact the powerful killer is no such thing: as the story reaches its denouement, they are revealed not as powerful but weak, because they do not have the ability to be satisfied with being ordinary.

But that’s why we love these books–it’s so easy to sit back in our comfy chair and close the book, thinking, “Well, I would never do such a terrible thing.”

Isn’t it?

***

 

 

One of us?

In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is always some Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’

For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings.

We always want to assume that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as kill another person. This implies loss of control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, at least no worse.

So when Major Blaine is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain (sorry about that graphic image, the situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it?) no one I know could possibly have been the one to commit such an act. Therefore – it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’.

But when we look at those around us, how well do we really know them? The Countess, so used to having her own way in everything, and with a reputation to maintain. Or the major’s wife. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works, but is she ever at home? How often did the major actually get his wife’s attention? What about the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable, dispensing wisdom, and charity. Does she really deep down love her neighbours? The Vicar, does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office? What’s he really doing in there? What about Miss Simpson, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two. Then there is the visiting artist along with his famous ‘temperament’. The aunt from another village, always poking her nose in and gossiping with the neighbours. The daughter just returned from university full of frustration with our old stagnant way of life and plans for the future, and of course, the elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick for driving too fast through the village.

Surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?

But now I think of it, how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, the various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on each face in turn, I feel as though I am in a room filled with strangers.

Any one of them could be the killer… that’s the beauty of it.

***

My Mystery Author Heroes: Patricia Wentworth

At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.

This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.

Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.

She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.

Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.

For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.

Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.

To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.

So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.

The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.

I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.

If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles:

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/caronallan/patricia-wentworth-books/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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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