I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Forty

The Detection Club

I have made no secret of my love of detective fiction. Many observers regard the period between the two World Wars as the hey-day of this particular genre. In 1928 a group of the finest exponents of the art form, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley established a club, the Detection Club, although formal records were only established in 1930. Anthony Berkeley was the prime moving force behind the initiative and the early dinners were held at his house. G K Chesterton, of Father Brown fame, was its first president.

Although it was a wonderful excuse for a splendid repast every now and again, it had some more serious aims. It allowed writers to swap tips and help each other overcome the dreaded block or to develop even more ingenious and innovative twists and turns to keep the ever eager readership on the edge of their seats. Their latest works were critiqued – that must have been a nerve-wracking ordeal for even the most self-assured and oft-published author. Rather like any other pukka club, members were elected by secret ballot, giving the established members the opportunity to vet and, if necessary, black ball a potential recruit. Recruits were supposed to have published two detective novels of merit.

Once their membership had been approved, the neophyte underwent a rather bizarre initiation ceremony which involved black candles, a voluminous red robe, originally designed for the portly Chesterton and a skull named Eric, although later forensic examination showed it was that of a female – Erica perhaps. In addition the new entrant was required to swear an oath, possibly written by Sayers. The oath required a response to this rather ponderous question, “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?” A simple assent would ensure entry into the hallowed ranks.

The Club, which acquired premises in London’s Gresham Street, sought to establish some rules of engagement to ensure that the reader was treated fairly, developing ten commandments which, on pain of expulsion, members were required to follow in their novels. These included mentioning the culprit in the early part of the story, precluding all supernatural and preternatural agencies and restricting the use of secret passages or rooms to one per story. The use of hitherto undiscovered poisons was verboten as was any appliance requiring a long and elaborate explanation. Cliché devices were to be avoided and the detective couldn’t commit the crime themselves.

The detective wasn’t allowed to be the beneficiary of any accident nor should they have some unaccountable insight which proves to be correct. Neither could they use clues which have not been brought to the reader’s attention when they are discovered. The detective’s accomplice cannot conceal any thoughts and should be of a lower intelligence than the reader. And twins or doubles can only be deployed if the reader had been carefully prepared to anticipate them.

As well as establishing this template, the Club members collaborated on a number of projects. The Floating Admiral, published in 1931, was a collaborative game of consequences with each of the twelve chapters written by a different member of the club. Each writer was required to write their portion with a definite solution to the crime in mind and couldn’t introduce new complications just to increase the complexity. To add to the fun, G K Chesterton wrote the prologue, Anthony Berkeley pulled the pieces together and each author was required to pen their solution to the mystery, each of which was published.

Ask a Policeman (1933) and Verdict of a Policeman followed a similar pattern and in 1930 radio audiences were entertained by The Scoop and Behind The Screen, which were collaborative detective serials.

The club is still in existence and continues to, sort of, police the genre.

Hobby Of The Week (2)

I am firmly in the camp that views golf as a long walk spoiled, a comment falsely attributed to Mark Twain but which seems to have been first used in print by H S Scrivener in 1903. As a sport it is slightly counter-intuitive in that the worse you are, the longer it takes. Usually, in competitive sports if you are a complete duffer, you are able to get off the field of play in pretty short order.

I can just about tolerate miniature golf aka crazy golf but I am not as obsessive as Richard and Emily Gottfried, whose exploits came to my attention this week. They have visited and played 743 miniature golf courses, from Cornwall to Loch Lomond and aim to finish the lot – there are some 800 in total – over the next twelve months. The only worm cast on the green is that more seem to be opening up – there were only 600 when they started – making their self-imposed task even more difficult.

It all began, as it often does, at Southsea in Hampshire in 2006 when the couple played a pirate adventure golf course there. Richard won a free game, they returned the next day and they were hooked.

As Emily commented, it was a way of “getting out and about the country.” As someone who once visited all the football grounds in England and Scotland, I can empathise with that.

Property Of The Week

The dearth of properties in our green and pleasant land is such that enterprising builders will cram a house into any available space. A property close to transport links is an added bonus and at first glance this newly built, two-bedroom terraced house in Langley Mills in Derbyshire, on sale for £140,000, seems just the ticket.

However, on closer inspection the bus shelter is right in front of the garden path, blocking the garden path. The only way you could get to or from your front door is by climbing over the garden fence.

The estate agents (natch) say that the bus shelter will be removed but as to when, who knows?

What Is The Origin Of (138)?…


This week’s phrase is an is an interesting example of what grammarians call a rhyming-compound which is made up of two discrete words which rhyme with each other. What is also interesting about it is that it has two discrete and very different meanings, one of which has now gone out of fashion. When I use willy-nilly I use it to mean something that is haphazard, almost random and which looks as though there is no over-arching plan behind proceedings. An example of its use adverbially in this context is “the children ran around the garden willy-nilly.

But the original meaning is completely different. It meant whether you liked it or not, that something was obligatory – the only choice you had was Hobson’s choice. For those of us who know our Latin there is a phrase which is superficially similar, nolens volens, which meant willing (from the verb volo) and unwilling (from the verb nolo). That this may the root of our phrase is given some credence by the Old English sentence in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, dating from around 1000 CE, “forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, will ne nelle we.

We are familiar with will-root but the nill-root is a bit unfamiliar to the modern eyes. The word nill which usually preceded one of the personal pronouns came from the Old English word nyllan which itself was a contraction of ne (no) and willan (will). So nill is the opposite of will and the y at the end of each word is a further contraction, this time of the personal pronoun ye. By the time we get to the 16th century will you, nill you was in common parlance and pops up in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Taming of the Shrew (1596) Petruchio is given the line, “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you” while in Hamlet (1609) the first clown says, “if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes.

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first usage of willy-nilly to the start of the 17th century. Up to this point the phrase was used to indicate that the person had no choice in the matter but over the next century or so it began to take on the meaning of being indecisive, akin to shilly-shally which itself is a reduplication of shall I or shall I not. A form of shilly-shally first appeared in William Congreve’s The Way of the World which was published in 1700; “I don’t stand shill I, shall I, then; if I say’t, I’ll do’t.” That the two were considered synonymous is demonstrated by this passage from The Orange Girl by Sir Walter Besant, published in 1898; “Let us have no more shilly shally, willy nilly talk.”

Of course, one of the hallmarks of indecisiveness is operating without a clear sense of direction or plan. It is relatively easy to see how our phrase could develop its more usual modern sense of randomness, without direction or planning or showing a degree of disorganisation. It has come a long way from its original formation and meaning. There are examples of willy-nilly being used adjectivally to describe something like a set of orders but its usual grammatical form in modern parlance is that of an adverb.