‘Strange,’ he thought, ‘how suspicion in a case of this sort swings about from one direction to another. I’ll end by suspecting myself soon, or the Chief Constable! After all, in these detective yarns it’s always the most unlikely person who has committed the murder.
– John Bude, The Sussex Downs Murder (1936)
Part 1 of this wander through some some novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction centred on Margery Allingham, and Part 2 on Dorothy L Sayers. This final part has some of the less famous writers.
There’s yet another war veteran in John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder (1935). Our guide to the remote community of St Michael’s-on-the-Cliff in Cornwall is the local vicar, Rev Dodd, who shares a passion for detective stories with his closest friend, Dr Pendrill. They’re both attracted by the passion and excitement in these pages that’s lacking in their own village. ‘Nothing ever happens here,’ says Rev Dodd. ‘Nothing! It all flows along at the same slow pace, though heaven forbid that I should ever see it changed!’
But the war has left scars even in St Michael’s. One of the residents is Ronald Hardy, who ‘had a Public-School–Varsity education and fought with the infantry in the war as a 2nd Lieutenant’. He was mentioned twice in dispatches, but he still hasn’t recovered. ‘Known to be temperamental and liable to sudden emotional storms,’ notes Rev Dodd, and the explanation isn’t hard to find. ‘The war, of course, played havoc with his nerves,’ explains Dr Pendrill. ‘But what d’you expect? – he was only a youngster when they sent him to France. It may take him years to live down the stress and shock of the war.’
His fiancée, Ruth, has learned to live with the problem: ‘I knew that Ronald was liable to fits of melancholy when in trouble of any sort. It was the outcome of shell-shock in the war.’ But when a man is found shot dead in the village, Ronald is swiftly cast as the prime suspect. ‘Shell-shocked in the war, wasn’t he?’ reflects a police officer. ‘Probably kept some of his service equipment. His revolver, say. In an unbalanced moment there was no reason why he shouldn’t throw logic to the winds and revert to instinct.’
By way of light relief, there’s also a local simpleton named Tom Prattle: ‘a tall, shambling fellow with a knitted balaclava helmet completely encasing his head and ears.’ A local constable explains: ‘Got Germans on the brain, sir. It was the war that sent him rocky. He’s always talking about the Jerries. Poor devil!’
Perhaps the most revealing strand in the book, though, is the way that decent professional men are tolerant of the moral failings of other decent professional men. The victim here is named Tregarthan and it appears that he may have fathered a child out of wedlock. Dr Pendrill is loathe to jump to judgement:
‘I see it like this. Tregarthan had been having an affair with a married woman. Things had turned out awkwardly – the inevitable illegitimacy, I suppose … Passed it off as her husband’s child, of course! Heavens, man! that sort of thing is done every day of the year.’
Even Rev Dodd is sympathetic: ‘momentary weaknesses of the flesh were not uncommon in middle-aged men and Tregarthan had doubtless been sorry for his actions.’
As it happens, however, their interpretation is flawed, based on a benign assumption that this was a consensual relationship. In fact, the man had abused his position of power as a landlord, and raped one of his married tenants: ‘one afternoon, he behaved like a brute beast, like the swine he was, and took advantage of her.’ Times have changed, it seems, without Dodd and Pendrill noticing. The ethical code to which the middle classes are expected to adhere is no longer quite so solid as once it was.
Obviously, the Golden Age is not all about the war. Mostly it’s about trying to create cracking good mysteries, to provide readers with a diverting tale of a world beyond their ken. And it’s about following the rapidly formalizing rules of the genre, while seeking out a novel angle.
But apart from the sheer pleasure of a decent detective novel, I do enjoy the insights it gives into social attitudes. In Mystery in the Channel (1931), for example, the seventh of Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French novels, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police denounces crooked financiers:
Murderers, he held, were by no means necessarily hardened criminals. In their ranks they numbered some of the most decent and inoffensive of men. But for the wealthy thief who stole by the manipulation of stocks and shares and other less creditable means known to high finance, whether actually within or without the limits of the law, he had only the most profound enmity and contempt.
As the hard years of the 1930s wore on, this was to become a recurrent theme in popular fiction. Simon Templar, in Leslie Charteris’s stories of the Saint, was often to be found battling swindlers and white-collar rogues in business and finance. So was Tony Newton in The Brigand (1927), a book billed as ‘Edgar Wallace’s gayest thriller’ (sadly, Newton never returned for a sequel).
Or alternatively, here’s a bit of political satire from Alan Melville’s Death of Anton (1936), as Detective Inspector Minto reads of the international situation in a newspaper:
The government, he gathered, had given a lead to the other nations of the world by sitting on the fence and doing nothing. Many other governments would no doubt have dashed in wildly and done something in the recent spot of bother; the British government, by doing nothing, had restored confidence and brought relief to what had threatened to be a very serious situation.
In the same novel, a circus clown laments how today’s children have been corrupted:
You may have a house packed with children, and you think that this is going to be easy. All you have to do is fall down as many times as possible, landing in a pail of whitewash whenever you can – and you’ll be a riot. And what happens? You find that these wretched children have been to the cinema twice already that week, have been lapping up Noel Coward epigrams, and are bored to tears with whitewash. They want a good smutty line, and the smuttier the better.
Now, there’s a theme that isn’t confined to the Golden Age. The shocking moral and culture state of today’s youth is always a source of regret – particularly to children’s entertainers.
But to end where we began, with the war, and with two more of its veterans. Beyond its circus setting, Death of Anton also features a shabby, peevish character named Mr Winter, who’s never happier than when he’s whinging. ‘Right through the War, I was – beginning to end, and a couple of wounds in that leg there,’ he says; ‘and what has the country done for me, eh? Not a ruddy thing, it hasn’t.’ He rants against officials and about having to pay tax, and then returns to his theme: ‘I joined up in 1914 and I was right through the War until the end – and what I have got in return, eh? If a bloke what fights for his country isn’t good enough to…’
At which point his wife loses patience with him: ‘Oh, shut up!’ Inspector Minto is no more sympathetic: ‘The man whose one attitude towards the War is one of personal grumbling was not one of Mr Minto’s favourite types.’
And finally, there’s J. Jefferson Farjeon’s excellent thriller, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937), the pages of which turn more insistently than any other novel I’ve discussed.
It includes an almost ethereal casualty of the war, William Strange, who enlisted at the onset of hostilities, when he was thirty-four, suffered shell-shock in 1917, and has never fully recovered. But he has no bitterness: ‘In the war, I hated! Then a shell exploded everything, and left the useless husk you have known. But I went on. Only in a different world.’
He has, explains his daughter, acquired a habit of getting ideas fixed in his head that cannot be shaken. What sort of ideas, she’s asked, and she replies: ‘Well, one is that there is going to be another war.’ Mr Maltby, the psychic investigator who is as close as we come to a detective, doesn’t see anything unusual in such a notion: ‘That fixed idea is not born only of shell-shock.’
As the story develops, resolving a crime committed back in 1917, it’s Mr Maltby himself who explains the psychology of 1930s politics:
‘It is impossible to function fluently through a sense of guilt. That is why any general, however wrong he may be – Napoleon, to avoid the politics of mere contemporary examples – must believe in himself to be successful, or dupe himself into such a belief. Indeed, that is the job of all politicians who, through their own inefficiency muddle nations into war. If they do not fool themselves into the assumption that they are God-fearing idealists, they will never get the millions who must pay for their damage to believe the same thing.’
And a couple of years later, the nations of Europe were indeed to be muddled into war once again.
So, there we have a dozen novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. What can we conclude from this somewhat formless ramble? Are there common traits?
Well, there are the standard stereotypes of the time: the house-proud maid, the police officer who defers to the professional gentleman, and so on, together with women settling for second-best husbands at a time when there was a shortage of marriageable men. And there’s the refinement of the Sherlock Holmes blueprint: our detective is still likely to be an amateur but he’s now (normally) relocated to a non-metropolitan setting, and invariably investigating murder – there are none of the stolen plans, quirky puzzles or blackmailings found in Conan Doyle.
There’s also the remarkably high prevalence of war veterans, many of them still suffering the effects of what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. I suspect that this is more than just observation of contemporary society; it’s also because the condition provides a strong dramatic element in fiction. But in any event, it ensures that the late conflict is never far from the story.
The obvious interpretation of the great fad for detective fiction in the 1920s and ’30s is that the national trauma of the war required a cultural readjustment. In a world scarred by industrial, anonymous slaughter, the killing of an individual might have come to seem insignificant, but a civilized society needed to restate that murders are serious affairs. I started this (in Part 1) with a quote from Margery Allingham about how ‘the sanctity and importance of sudden death was a comforting and salutary thing’ – and I think it’s that sanctity and importance that these novels represent. Every killing must be investigated and the perpetrator brought to justice.
So as not to be too traumatic, the murders are fairly tranquil affairs: the victims are generally poisoned, or else they’re shot with a single bullet that produces remarkably little blood. They don’t tend to suffer long, painful deaths. When there are exceptions to this, the unexpected violence can be shocking. From Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning, this is Chief Inspector Stanislaus Oates’s account of a bomb attack on a sleepy railway station in the Home Counties:
‘The men who were killed were in a frightful condition. Konrad had a piece of metal blown clean through his head. It had dug a furrow you could put your wrist into clean through the top of his scalp. And the poor porter chap! I won’t make you uncomfortable with a description. They got a steel nut out of his stomach.’
The essential storyline in the books could perhaps be seen as a microcosm of the Great War, with the addition of a satisfactory resolution. Violence erupts into a settled community, threatening life and morality, but within a couple of hundred pages, the mystery has been resolved by the brilliance of our detective, and life can resume its proper rhythm. It’s an inoculation after the fact.
But that’s not quite right. Because there’s also the sense of an evil having been unleashed by the conflict in Europe that is hard to put aside, even if the local incarnation of that evil in any particular book is defeated. This is not ultimately a reassuring world.
More than that, there’s the fact that so many of these narratives are driven by events that reach back not only to the war years, but beyond. The unhappy families in The White Cottage Mystery, Police at the Funeral, The Nine Tailors, Mystery in White – they are still being tormented by the misery of Victorian values.
It’s as though the war has not wiped the slate quite as clean as might be expected, that there is still unfinished business from the antebellum era. It takes the floods of The Nine Tailors and the snow-drifts of Mystery in White for the past to be truly washed away, so that – hopefully – a new world can emerge.
Except that the uncertainty, the unease, remains. On the last page of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot concludes: ‘The happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world.’ But that optimism, that sentimental humanism, is not destined to last. In these novels, the murderous genie of the trenches has not yet been put back in his bottle.
Note: The works of Margery Allingham (1904–66), Agatha Christie (1890–1976) and Dorothy L Sayers (1893–1957) remain in print, as far as I know, and are easily available. The novels mentioned here by the lesser known writers – Freeman Wills Croft (1879–1957), J Jefferson Farjeon (1883–1955), John Bude (1901–57) and Alan Melville (1910–83) – are all to be found in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.