Thursday, February 6, 2014

Worsleying Around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Two: Crime Queens, Absent Kings and Ladies in Waiting

There are six short chapters by Lucy Worlsey in the Golden Age section of her book A Very British Murder

The Women Between the Wars (on the Crime Queens)
The Duchess of Death (on Agatha Christie)
A Life Less Ordinary (on Dorothy L. Sayers)
The Great Game (on the Detection Club)
Snobbery with Violence  and The Dangerous Edge of Things (on the decline of the Golden Age detective novel)

Before Worsley gets there, however, she makes this observation, in her chapter on the infamous Victorian-era Constance Kent murder case (much in vogue right now after the recent publication of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, though John Street published a book on this affair over 85 years ago):

Kate Summerscale points out the damage done to the standing of the professional policeman in the 1860s and 1870s was transferred to their image in literature as well.  All the great fictional detectives until the Second Would War--Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion--are amateurs or private investigators.

Let's unpack this passage.  First, does Worsley mean to say that there were only four "great fictional detectives" before WW2?  If so, by what means has she reached this conclusion?  And why does she omit Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, of whom she later notes that he is "a detective from Scotland Yard who often investigates crime in upper-class circles"? Granted, it can be argued that Alleyn, especially during the Golden Age, is hard to distinguish from his aristocratic amateur counterparts, yet, nevertheless, he is a Scotland Yard tec.

Odd Sleuth Out: Roderick Alleyn (Patrick Malahyde)

In fact, there were numerous fictional police sleuth protagonists in Golden Age British detective fiction.  In my review last year of Books to Die For, I mention some of them.  I will do so again:

Henry Wade's Inspector Poole; Michael Innes' Inspector Appleby; J. J. Connington's Chief Constable Clinton Driffield; Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant; E. C. R. Lorac's Inspector Macdonald; G. D. H and Margaret Cole's Superintendent Wilson; Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French; A. Fielding's Inspector Pointer; E. R. Punshon's Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell and later Sergeant Bobby Owen; Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef; and numerous Edgar Wallace sleuths.

Eight of these authors were members of the Detection Club, an organization to which Worsley devotes a chapter, so she should be familiar with them (she mentions "the very successful Freeman Wills Crofts" once, but only in noting that he was a railway engineer).

Freeman Wills Crofts: Creator of Inspector French

Of course there were other prominent Golden Age writers who employed amateur sleuths in their novels.  But the key point in this context is this: if the outcome of the Constance Kent case was so fatal to the portrayal of policemen in English crime fiction (in Worsley's view its impact still was felt nearly eighty years later!), wherefore these prominent police detective protagonists in Golden Age English crime fiction?

This reflects a basic problem with Worsley's approach to the Golden Age, however.  She is reluctant to look beyond a few authors, namely our usual suspects the Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

To her credit, Worsley is quite up front about this.  In "The Women Between the Wars" she writes that

One of the most distinctive features of the Golden Age is the fact that its longest lasting and best remembered writers were female.  Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh--the four Queens of Crime--came, at least in retrospect, to dominate our picture of crime-writing in the 1930s.  Why did these women come to the fore, and why are they still read today more often than their brilliantly talented male counterparts Nicholas Blake and G. K. Chesterton?

A lot to unpack here.  Is Ngaio Marsh in fact more read today than G. K. Chesterton? Was she more read than Chesterton in the 1930s?

Invisible Man? G. K. Chesterton

Ngaio Marsh published her first detective novel only in 1934, after much of the Golden Age had passed, while Allinhgam published her first mystery at about its halfway point.  It was really only in the 1940s and 1950s that the concept of four Golden Age British Crime Queens gelled.  While that historical gelling process in and of itself is interesting, the real story of what actually occurred in the Golden Age is more complex and the players on the stage more varied.

Worsley seems to concede this earlier in the passage when she refers to the four women as a group only in retrospect coming to dominate our picture of 1930s crime writing. But if in fact four "Crime Queens" did not dominate the period, why write about only them in a book on the Golden Age of detective fiction?  Isn't she perpetuating a false perception of genre history by doing so?

Worsley isn't even really saying that the Crime Queens were superior to all the other British mystery writers of the period (well, she is saying that of Sayers, I think; see below) and that they should be the only British mystery writers from the period studied, because she concedes that Blake and Chesterton, for example, were "brilliantly talented" (I assume she's referring to their crime writing as well as their other literary endeavors).

I am not trying to diminish the worth or significance of the Crime Queens, the writing of all of whom I have enjoyed over many years now (even Ngaio Marsh, who can exasperate me sometimes). However, it seems to me that in general studies of the Golden Age of detective fiction the Crime Queens should not be the only writers studied.

Nor, for that matter, should we ignore important British women writers from the Golden Age--writers we might designate "ladies in waiting"--who don't happen to be officially designated "Crime Queens," such as Gladys Mitchell ("The Great Gladys"), Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), Josephine Bell, E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) and women who were crime writers though not detective novelists, like Ethel Lina White, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Joseph Shearing (Marjorie Bowen).

Ironically, given Worsley's coronation of the Crime Queens, she seems really only much interested in the work of Christie and Sayers, or, really, when it comes to it, merely that of Sayers.

"What impresses about the four Queens is not so much their work (though I would make the case for Dorothy L. Sayers as one of the great writers of the twentieth century) but the way in which they set about doing it," Worsley tellingly pronounces.

From Worsley we don't learn about the writing of Allingham or Marsh, just a bit about their "unconventional" lives.  It is Christie and Sayers who get full chapters to themselves. Yet the chapter on Christie is extremely superficial about Christie's work, Worsley, like P. D. James, being convinced that Christie's books are simply comforting little puzzles "where the confusion, dismay and broken relationships she had experienced are simplified into the more straightforward world of detective fiction."

As if anything in Christie's novels is "straightforward"!  What a misreading and a failure to do justice to the Queen of Crime and the type of fiction she wrote.

In her introduction Lucy Worsley revealingly confides that she grew up "believing I was Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries reborn" (paraphrasing Barbara Walters, at least as sent up by Gilda Radner, "if you were a sleuth, which sleuth would you be?"); and one can easily tell from Worsley's book that Sayers is the one Crime Queen she really admires for her actual work.

Wittily whirling through the Golden Age
Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge)

Yet even here, one suspects that Worsley's veneration mostly is for Sayers' 1935 college mystery, Gaudy Night, which she calls the "sparkling fairy on top of the tree of Sayers' work...a beautiful love story and a serious exploration of whether it was possible, in the 1930s, for women to combine work and marriage."

Worsley feels so strongly about the brilliance of that great sparkling fairy that is Gaudy Night that when she read Julian Symons' dismissive comments about the novel in Bloody Murder, she writes, she "threw Mr. Symons book on the floor and stamped on it."

Julian Symons: evidently not a believer in fairies

Personally, as novels I prefer, among Golden Age mysteries by the Crime Queens, Christie's And Then There Were None, Allingham's Dancers in Mourning and Marsh's Surfeit of Lampreys, for example; but I appreciate that Gaudy Night has a unique hold on a lot of women mystery readers, whether or not it causes them to resort to outraged book-stamping against its critics.  However, there many other glorious, shining riches to be found in Golden Age of detective fiction in addition to Gaudy Night.

In the last part of this review, I will assess Worsley's overall portrayal of the Golden Age detective fiction and her explanations for its "fall."

16 comments:

  1. Wow there are so many points to bring up here that I may have to cast caution to the wind and create my own blog (i have no idea how this is done, or if i would just be boring)

    The stuff about gaudy night as literature (in worsleys view) rather than crime fiction reminded me, i'm currently reading on beulah height by reginald hill, one of the best crime novels i've ever read, and although i hate that concept 'the crime novel thats worthy of being a proper novel' it is stunningly brilliant. Two points- i would love you to do a life in crime piece on the author in question, and secondly, there was talk of hill leaving an unpublished ms behind- do you know if there is any talk on it being available?

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    1. I'm all for more blogs from GA crime fiction readers especially, grimwig.

      I agree with you that around that time Hill achieved remarkable accomplishments in detective fiction. I need to blog about him sometime. Was going to do Dialogues, but Patrick Ohl beat me to it! May do that and Beulah sometime.

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  2. What I take from Gaudy Night (I reread it recently) is a yearning for an alternative lifestyle for women: the cosy, institutional world of the single-sex college. Sayers scrupulously points out its downside: that women may grow old there without growing up. But in a world where women had a stark choice between marriage and career, a secular nunnery appeals. (PS Surfeit of Lampreys is one of Marsh's worst! I class it with Dead Water and Tied Up in Tinsel.)

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    1. One problem I have with Gaudy Night is I think the academic life is tremendously romanticized.

      On Marsh, at least we agree about Dead Water and Tied Up in Tinsel. I think how one views Lampreys often depends on whether one sees Marsh really criticizing the family or not.

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    2. Queenie Leavis, who had a great deal of experience with academic life, was a contemporary reader who thought GN greatly romanticized its setting. Of course Leavis passionately hated crime novels too (and the fact that anyone actually read them)!

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    3. I think someone like Harriet Vane (i.e., Sayers) likely would be inclined to view academic life in a more idealized way, not living it first-hand. ;) On the other hand, a lot of women academics especially love the book, so maybe their experience with that life has been different from what mine was!

      It is funny that you mentioned Dead Water. I started that one last year and left it unfinished!

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  3. Really enjhoying your look at this book - I recorded her TV series, which preceded the book I think, but haven't watched it yet. Sayers certainly is the one she venerates. Troubles is I understand completely why Symons so critiqued GAUDY NIGHT (I prefer the TV version frankly) and in a way one suspects that this is a novel admired by people who don't really buy in to GAD literature - I think that's why a lot of people like Chandler, because it can be claimed as serious literature. I love Chandler and I think it is great literature but I don't think this is in any way not synonymous with great detective stories and I suspect that Worsley doesn't see it that way ...

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    1. Sergio, I haven't seen the series, and would like to, to see how it matches the book. Was the GA part just one episode I take it? Of course there is only so much one can do on a television episode, but I do think there was more this section of the book could have done. I have to confess I found the book section on the GA disappointing.

      I think Gaudy Night is one of those detective novels that often appeals to be people who don't like detective novels! On the other hand, I've talked to passionate Golden Age mystery fans who really like it. Both Chandler and Symons didn't think much of it as a novel, while John Strachey and Somerset Maugham lamented that Sayers had stopped writing clever detective stories to become a popular mainstream novelist.

      There actually is an interesting mystery in Gaudy Night, I think, and it complements the theme of the book, but it tends to be dwarfed by all the other material. It does seem to me more a mainstream novel with a mystery element.

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    2. The series, in three parts, focussed only on the Golden Age in its third episode - the one before that considered the mid to late Victorian era while the first focused on real-life crime in the first half ogf the 19th century. I find it fascinating that Sayers still seems to inspire such passion in her fans and detractors - she is, like Chandler I suppose, perceived as the one that elevated the genre but this presumes that it needed elevating! One can nitpick books to death and I;m not sure it's always fair - I remain of the opinion that Sayers, while a fine prose stylist, have faults hat are just too front and centre to be ignored. But this does not in any way explain why so many are quite so devoted, does it? But when it comes to GAUDY, in terms of her actual accomplishment as opposed to what she set out to do do, I would much rather read NINE TAILORS any day!

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    3. Well, I think Gaudy Night really speaks to a lot of women readers (often women in education fields themselves) with the issues it addresses. And of course so many readers love the Harriet-Peter saga. It's historical fact that Sayers' sales started really increasing when she introduced the love element. Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon were terrific sellers.

      I gather you, like Symons himself, like Philo Vance better than Lord Peter, which I find interesting, I enjoy the Lord Peter books, one can see the Wodehouse influence in the early ones, which I enjoy, though some people can't stand it.

      Besides Tailors, I also would note Murder Must Advertise and the two earlier Vane books, Have His Carcase and Strong Poison. I even like The Five Red Herrings, the railway timetable novel. Once one has read all the Freeman Wills Crofts books, The Five Red Herrings is pie.

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    4. For me, with GAUDY, it's that gap between ambition and actual achievement that gets in the way - and yes, I must be one of the few people around saying nice things about the Philo Vance books! I think Symons was very right when he points to Wright's intellectual credentials being much more significant than Sayers' and that this is reflected in the books - but I like a lot of the Sayers books a great deal (MURDER MUST ADVERTISE is a favourite, bit less keen of FIVE RED HERRINGS and CARCASE though) and re-reading UNNATURAL DEATH recently was (mostly) a pleasure and her prose was much, much better than Wright's - I think his time came and went but he was too rigid with his formula - maybe if he'd married Vance off we would remember him more fondly (but I doubt it) :)

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    5. Philo of course had a sort of romance in one book--wasn't too convincing! The funny thing about Wright's credo against atmosphere and literary writing in a detective novel is, I think one thing that made the Greene and Bishop murder cases so popular was they did have atmosphere. The weirdo family being knocked off one by one in the creepy old mansion in Greene is classic melodrama.

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  4. Curt,

    I just read a piece by some academic bloke claiming that after 1934 "much of the Golden Age had passed," and while the Gold Standard differs from reader-to-reader, 1940s hardly qualify as a winding down/transitional period with the big names still publishing (sometimes their finest and most mature works) and new writers such as Brand and Crispin debuting. It's another example of how little there's actually being read and I suggest this guy picks up a few Rhode, Carr and Roos novels to educate himself! ;-)

    But seriously, I'm starting to come around on Worlsey. Someone who threw Bloody Murder to the ground and stamped on it isn't beyond saving.

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    1. TomCat,

      Well, this gets into the vexed question of how broadly you define the "Golden Age of the detective novel." If you go by the customary definition of between the wars, give or take a few years, much of the Golden Age had passed by 1934. If you extend it to 1950, say, it was still about half over in 1934. So you can't say the whole GA was dominated by four Crime Queens. I've found that a lot of writers just aren't that interested in the 1920s, a period when there weren't four active "Crime Queens." So that was kind of a plea for people to give the 1920s more of a look.

      Maybe it should be extended to 1950, but I think that's complicated by the paperback revolution and the rise of the hard-boiled novel to new heights of popularity, spy fiction, the shortening of the mystery novel, the advance of psychological crime fiction, etc.

      Certainly people were still writing Golden Age mysteries for some time. Indeed, people are still writing them. I'm going to get into Worsley's take on the end of the GA in the next piece.

      I must say that as often as I have criticized Bloody Murder's treatment of the Humdrums, not once did I throw the book on the ground and stamp on it. In fact I don't believe I've ever done that with a book. I confine myself to pointed annotations.

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  5. "But if in fact four 'Crime Queens' did not dominate the period, why write about only them in a book on the Golden Age of detective fiction? Isn't she perpetuating a false perception of genre history by doing so?"

    It sounds as if she knows she is painting a false picture and is going to go ahead and do so anyway. You have to remember that female critics seem to have a lot invested in belittling the contributions of male writers.

    "Worsley feels so strongly about the brilliance of that great sparkling fairy that is Gaudy Night that when she read Julian Symons' dismissive comments about the novel in Bloody Murder, she writes, she 'threw Mr. Symons book on the floor and stamped on it.' "

    The Harriet Vane novels seem to me to be the least satisfactory of Sayers' books.

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