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Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.

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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.

Book Corner – April 2017 (2)

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The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman

I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.

On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.

The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.

There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises”  – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.

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The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.

It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.

Whodunit?

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It’s a curious thing. At a time when, according to Government statistics – and we know how inventive they have become in their use – the level of crime here in Blighty is on the decrease, our TV screens are chock full of murder and crime series. It seems we have not lost our love for stories of crime, although preferably as dispassionate observers from the comfort of our armchairs.

Our love affair with whodunits dates back to Victorian times. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is generally acknowledged to be the first major detective novel introducing the sleuth Sergeant Cuff, modelled on Mr Whicher of the Yard, to the great British public. No less a critic than T S Eliot thought it to be not only the first but also the best of its genre. The hey-day of the detective novel was the 1920s and 30s when the format became formulaic and anyone who transgressed from the norm, notably Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and her use of unreliable narrators, they faced a storm of criticism.

So formulaic had the genre become that S S van Dine, an American detective writer who created Philo Vance, published 20 rules for writing detective fiction in 1928. According to van Dine, the author should ensure that the reader is as able to solve the mystery as the detective and shouldn’t have any wilful tricks played on them. Love interest was out of bounds and the detective should never be the culprit. The culprit’s identity should be revealed by logical deductions and there must be at least one corpse. The story must feature one detective, the culprit must be someone who has played a more or less prominent part in the story and the use of spiritualism to reveal their identity is taboo. The culprit should not be a servant – too obvious a suspect states the lofty van Dine – and there should only be one. Secret societies have no place in a detective story nor do professional criminals. Long descriptive passages are to be avoided – they just get in the way of moving the story along – and the truth of the problem should always be apparent, assuming the reader was bright enough to piece all the clues together. Finally, the crime should not turn out to involve an accident or a suicide and the motivation should always be personal.

Next time you pick up a detective novel, see how many of van Dine’s rules are observed.