As he walked alone between the yew hedges it occurred to him that in an age when all the deepest emotions can be successfully laughed out of existence by any decently educated person, the sanctity and importance of sudden death was a comforting and salutary thing, a last little rock, as it were, in the shifty sands of one’s own standards and desires.
– Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937)
I’ve been reading some novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the period between the two world wars when the genre was at its commercial peak. There was a flood of stories in the era, and all I’ve done is skim along the top, picking up some of the better-known writers along with a couple of those enjoying recent reprints. Nonetheless, I wanted to make some notes, in particular about how the Great War was portrayed in these pages.
This piece turned out longer than I expected, so I’ve split it into three episodes. Part Two will be along in due course.
Let’s start in 1916, at Styles Court, a manor house in Essex. It’s a modestly grand estate, but one that, like so much of Britain, has suffered from the demands of the war. How many gardeners are employed here, a maid servant named Dorcas is asked, and she replies apologetically:
‘Only three now, sir. Five, we had, before the war, when it was kept as a gentleman’s place should be. I wish you could have seen it then, sir. A fair sight it was. But now there’s only old Manning, and young William, and a new-fashioned woman gardener in breeches and such-like. Ah, these are dreadful times!’
So dreadful indeed that even here there appears to be no escape from the violence that has been unleashed on the world. The elderly owner of Styles is found dead, poisoned. ‘And now, in this house, a murder had been committed,’ records our narrator, sorrowfully.
That narrator is Captain Arthur Hastings, himself a thirty-year-old casualty of the war: ‘I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave.’ He’s friends with the family at Styles and has gone to stay with them, so he’s on the premises when the murder is committed. Fortunately, he knows a retired Belgian police detective who’s living nearby and who might be able to help investigate the crime, even if his methods seem a little unorthodox.
Now in his mid-sixties, Hercule Poirot is a refugee from German aggression, and as such attracts the sympathies of the English, even those of the maid Dorcas. ‘I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule,’ she says, ‘but from what the newspapers say, I make out as how these brave Belgies isn’t the ordinary run of foreigners, and certainly he’s a most polite spoken gentleman.’
Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), is pretty much the foundation document of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. There’d been many detectives before, of course (including AEW Mason’s Monsieur Hanaud, who surely influenced the creation of Poirot), but it was Styles that really set the pattern. And it’s shot through with the insecurity of the times, a sense that things have changed, probably for ever. ‘Alas, that these harmonious moments can never endure!’ laments Hastings at one point, and at another: ‘something indefinable had gone from the atmosphere.’
The legacy of the war hangs heavy over much of the Golden Age. Margery Allingham’s first detective novel, The White Cottage Mystery (1928), centres on the household of Roger Christensen, another who was also wounded in the fighting, though in his case much more severely than was Captain Hastings. ‘I returned from France crippled as you see me now,’ Roger explains, from his ‘hand-propelled invalid chair’. The adjustment to his new life was difficult, remembers his wife Eva: ‘He felt it terribly. He had always been so strong, so keen on riding and games. I think he would have died if it hadn’t been for the baby – he was so proud of it – so glad because of it.’
So what Roger doesn’t know, mustn’t know, is that he is not the real father of this child who has given his life new hope.
It’s a painful story. Back before the war, Eva had a childhood sweetheart, Jack Grey, an orphan whose guardian was a brilliant scientist named Eric Crowther. Brilliant, but disturbed. Crowther was, says Eva, ‘amazingly clever in some things, amazingly small and cruel in others’. He forbade Jack from seeing Eva, and split the couple up, for no apparent reason save that of his own amusement; he ‘seemed to enjoy doing it, as if he knew how he was hurting us, and liked doing it’. Heartbroken by losing her one true love, and feeling that ‘nothing seemed to matter’, she met the kind, strong, handsome Roger Christensen on the rebound, and accepted his proposition of marriage.
But she hadn’t reckoned on quite how heartless Eric Crowther could be. After the wedding, he found out where the Christensens were living, and took a house next door, with his ward still in tow, so that Eva and Jack would be constantly thrown in each other’s way. ‘We held out for a long time,’ she says, but ultimately – with the outbreak of hostilities – the temptation became too great.
‘Roger had gone with his regiment to the front the day before and I was alone in the house,’ she recalls, ‘and suddenly I saw Jack coming down the path. He was going to France the next day.’ There followed her one afternoon of adultery. ‘I just knew I loved him and didn’t care about anything except that he was going away. We just belonged to each other, no one else mattered.’ There would never be another opportunity. ‘Then he went away. I never saw him again. Three days after he landed he was shot.’
Much of the subsequent story hinges on the fact that the cruel Eric Crowther knows the true paternity of the child born to Eva in the summer of 1915, and that he uses that knowledge to wield power over her. It’s not blackmail that appeals to him, but rather the sadistic joy of tormenting her with the fear that he could so easily destroy her life. One of his other victims describes the man: ‘Eric Crowther, though in all other respects an ordinary, self-centre, middle-aged man of rather fine intellect, was, on one point, mad – insane.’ He has:
‘a passion for inflicting pain. Pain interested him. He loved to cause it, to watch his victim writhing, realizing and enjoying to the full with a sensuous pleasure every little twinge and stab … He had studied medicine in Germany and was a great student of the brain – any kind of mental suffering thrilled him.’
As with characters like Dominick Medina in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages (1924), we get the impression that all moral restraints have been cast off. Crowther’s evil has been given free rein by the violent upheavals of the war.
The White Cottage Mystery was a stand-alone story and although it was first published in the Daily Express, it made little impact. It wasn’t until Allingham created her detective Albert Campion the following year that she really made her name.
Born in 1900, Campion served in the last six months of the war, and is initially presented as a typically 1920s silly-ass sort of chap, albeit one with a taste for the outré. Somewhere between the heroes of PG Wodehouse and Conan Doyle, perhaps. This is his flat:
It was tastefully, even luxuriously, furnished. There were one or two delightful old pieces, a Rembrandt etching over the bureau, a Steinlen cat, a couple of original cartoons, and a lovely little Girtin.
But amongst these were scattered a most remarkable collection of trophies. One little group over the mantelpiece comprised two jemmies, crossed, surmounted by a pair of handcuffs, with a convict’s cap over the top. Lying upon a side table, apparently used as a paper knife, was a beautiful Italian dagger, the blade of which was of a curious greenish-blue shade, and the hilt encrusted with old and uncut gems.
Echoing the breezy advertisements placed by other war veterans such as Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, he has a calling card that displays a taste for adventure even if it happens to be of dubious legality:
MR ALBERT CAMPION
Coups neatly executed
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object
He’s the kind of man who (presumably in parody of The Prisoner of Zenda) receives a letter ‘crested with the arms of a famous European royal house,’ with a desperate request: ‘My dear fellow, I am in despair. State Trip to Indo-China indicated. Fed to the teeth. Could you impersonate me, as before?’
These details, incidentally, are from Allingham’s first great work, Mystery Mile (1930), a novel that picks up from The Mysterious Affair at Styles the image of the landed estate struggling to cope with the modern world.
Because Campion has a couple of friends, Giles and Biddy, a pair of twenty-three-year-old twins, who are obliged to rent out their manor house, times being what they are.
The death of the present squire’s father, Giles Paget, had left his young son and daughter the house and worthless lands, with little or no money to keep them up, and some twenty or thirty villagers who looked to them as their natural means of support.
Again, murder intrudes upon what should be a symbol of a historically harmonious social order. This is a neighbour:
‘That house of yours across the park, and this one – they were so quiet, undisturbed for centuries, it seemed that nothing terrible could happen in them. But now we’ve brought you this horror. Sometimes I feel’ – her voice sank to a whisper – ‘that we’ve roused the devil. There’s some ghastly evil power dogging us, something from which we can’t escape.’
The story centres on a mysterious man named Simister, yet another literary descendant of Professor Moriarty, an evil mastermind who controls a huge network of agents, an empire of crime. An elusive, absent figure, no one knows his true identity, or what he looks like. The only thing that’s certain is that he does exist, as Campion explains: ‘Somewhere on this earth there is a man called Simister. He may be a devil – a bogle – anything you like, but he’s as real a power of evil as dope is.’
When Campion finally encounters Simister, the arch-villain displays the loquacity that seems to afflict all arch-villains in such circumstances: ‘The desire to confide is very strong in a man of my temperament,’ he says, as he commences a potted history of his criminal career: ‘My father was the original Simister…’
What? His father? You mean he inherited it all? The greatest criminal empire in the western world was simply handed down to him as a going concern? This is Moriarty & Son? Well, yes. ‘There seems to me to be nothing ridiculous in the idea that a man should leave his son a business of this kind any more than any other concern,’ he huffs; ‘if I made my money out of oil, motor cars, what difference would it make?’ The depiction of the criminal mastermind as corporate executive – or perhaps the corporate executive as a criminal mastermind – is almost Brechtian in its banality. Is this what the world has come to? That good people like Campion’s friends Giles and Biddy inherit the ruins of an estate, but boardroom control of the Simisters’ evil enterprise passes smoothly from father to son?
The imagery of the house under threat is seen repeatedly in the detective novels of the inter-war years, never reaching the literary heights of a later era – Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946), Dornford Yates’s Lower than Vermin (1950) – but still standing for much the same sense of a society under threat, against a backdrop of national decline.
‘Have you ever had rats in the house?’ asks a character in Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning (1937).
‘If you get mice they’re just a nuisance, like flies or too many old magazines, but once you get rats you’re aware of an evil, unseen intelligence which is working against you in your own house. It’s an inexplicable feeling if you haven’t experienced it, but if you have you’ll know what I mean. It’s the “enemies about” sensation.’
And later the same character returns to her theme:
‘The rats are right in the house now … We shall have to see them soon. It’s like being besieged by ghosts. Jimmy’s insane with worry and everybody’s different. I thought it was only in the house but now I’m beginning to find the whole world’s like it.’
Allingham’s most powerful version of the motif, though, comes in Police at the Funeral (1931).
Caroline Faraday is eighty-four years old at the time of the story, and she rules ruthlessly over the tattered, inadequate remnants of her family in the old house she shared with her late husband, the venerated academic Dr John Faraday. He died in 1896, and everything has been kept the same ever since. The old routines and rhythms are preserved, and nothing so modern as a telephone is to be found in the place.
‘The mode of living of the house hasn’t altered since she first set it down in about eighteen-seventy,’ says Joyce, the only younger member of the Faraday family with any spunk (possibly because she’s related by marriage, not blood). Marcus Featherstone, the family solicitor – his father had the job before him – sums up the situation:
‘There they are, a family forty years out of date, all vigorous energetic people by temperament, all, save for the old lady, without their fair share of brain, and herded together in that mausoleum of a house, tyrannized over by one of the most astounding personalities I’ve ever encountered.’
Joyce and Marcus are engaged, and both are intimidated by the house, seeing in it a twisted darkness that is out of time, a haunted shadow of Victorian England:
They knew the history of its inmates, and for them this great comfortable dwelling was a place of unknown horrors, of strange lumber from the lives of the family which had lived there ever since it had been built. To them it was a hotbed, a breeding ground of those dark offshoots of the civilized mind which the scientists tell us are the natural outcome of repression and inhibition. To them the old house was undergoing an upheaval, a volcano of long fermented trouble, and they were afraid of what they were about to find.
Even Campion is affected by the atmosphere of the place: ‘It was not so much a terror of the unknown as a sense of oppression brooding over the house, a suffocated feeling as if he were set down inside a huge tea-cosy with something unclean.’
Apart from Mrs Faraday and Joyce, the rest of the family have descended into genteel torpor, consumed by self-doubt and self-loathing. One of the old woman’s sons has written a scurrilous memoir of his father, in which ‘Doctor Faraday, stripped of his academic honours, emerged as a narrow-minded, self-important man who hid his shortcomings beneath a hypocritical cloak of sanctity and his wife’s charm’. But it’s just an act of petty spite, not a sign of anything so positive as rebellion. As another son says: ‘Once we old families start going downhill we go down pretty fast.’ He’s an ex-soldier, but it’s striking that he’s never seen active service. Campion, who has served in the front line, is scathing: ‘this old boy has gone through two campaigns, including the Great War, without killing so much as a rabbit.’
As is customary in such stories, the life soporific is rudely disrupted. Into the house comes the black sheep of the family, Cousin George, an alcoholic reprobate who consorts with tramps and regularly serves gaol terms for offences committed when drunk. He turns up, uninvited and unwanted, threatening to reveal shocking secrets, and generally disturbing the peace:
The quiet old house was seething. Fifty-year-old customs had been swept ruthlessly aside, habits of a lifetime were shattered, as it seemed as though the very furniture protested against this desecration of its calm.
Meanwhile, Campion has been called in by the solicitor Marcus, an old friend, to investigate the disappearance of Uncle Andrew. The missing man duly turns up dead – this is, after all, a murder mystery – and his is not the last killing. But it all seems a little remote, this ‘long fermented trouble’. There’s a sense that the past, with its heavy weight of late-Victorian hypocrisy, is playing itself out in violent catharsis. ‘I’m not afraid for myself,’ says Joyce. ‘I feel that it’s all nothing to do with me. This is the older generation’s affair.’ And her fiancé’s father, the retired solicitor, is not entirely surprised by the deaths. ‘I wondered when the bad blood in that family was going to show,’ he reflects.
So what is Cousin George’s great secret? What is the shadow hanging over this miserable family. Well, it transpires that George’s father was similarly wild in his youth, so much so that he was sent out to the colonies, from where he returned with a pregnant wife who – though she looked white – was not racially pure. ‘George bears our name and he is always threatening to reveal his half-caste blood, of which he is not in the least ashamed,’ explains Mrs Faraday; ‘a touch of the tarbrush! It is unthinkable.’
TO BE CONTINUED…
PS One other thing that struck me while reading these novels, and which seems relevant since I’m writing during the coronavirus pandemic, is that the Spanish flu outbreak seems to have left no cultural mark. A quarter-of-a-million people died in Britain, around a third of the number that died in the war, and there’s not a mention of it in any of these stories. Obviously it wouldn’t generate the same kind of plot lines as does a wounded veteran, but even so, you’d expect the odd reference in the back-story: a fortuitous inheritance from an aunt who died, or whatever. But there’s nothing at all. That won’t be true this time.