Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Lost Stories of Christopher St. John Sprigg and Eden Phillpotts on Detective Fiction

When people think of English women detectives from the Golden Age of detective fiction, they think first, I would imagine, of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, followed by Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley.

Christopher St. John Sprigg
Well, here's one you won't have heard of: Christopher St. John Sprigg's Mrs. Bird.

And for good reason.  As far as I know she appeared only in two unpublished short stories: "The Case of the Misjudged Husband" and "The Case of the Jesting Miser."

The original typed manuscripts of these two stories are found in Sprigg's papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Both are longish short stories of around 6000 words apiece.  While neither is a classic of the form, they have a certain appeal and certainly the detective in them, Mrs. Bird, is worth noting.

Although Miss Marple and Miss Silver often are referenced as prominent Golden Age female detectives, in fact most of the books about them were written by their creators after 1940.

Of the twelve Miss Marple novels, only one, The Murder at the Vicarage, was published before World War Two (Miss Marple also appeared in a short story collection, The Thirteen Problems, published in 1932).  Similarly, of the 32 Miss Silver novels published by Patricia Wentworth, only three appeared before 1940.

To be sure, both Christie and Wentworth were well-known mystery writers before 1940.  However, in the 1920s and 1930s Christie won her fame primarily as the creator of Hercule Poirot, while Wentworth was best-known for her numerous non-series mysteries and thrillers (her biggest pre-WW2 novel, a bestseller in the United States, was a thriller called Mr. Zero).

In the United States, the Oklahoma Choctaw mystery writer and reviewer Todd Downing reviewed both the pre-WW2 Miss Marple books and highly praised the "no end quick-witted spinster" Aunt Jane (who likely reminded him of his Iowa grandmother, Awilda Miller), but how many mystery readers in 1935, say, would have recalled either Miss Marple or Miss Silver, compared to readers in, say, 1960?  Many, many fewer, doubtlessly (it was at this time that Dorothy L. Sayers flatly declared that Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley was the greatest woman detective).

Interestingly, however, Christopher St. John Sprigg's seems to have been influenced by Christie's Miss Marple when he wrote his two Mrs. Bird short stories.

the inspiration to nosy amateur village detectives everywhere
To be sure, there are some differences between Miss Marple and Mrs. Bird, the most obvious being their dissimilar honorifics.   

Mrs. Bird, obviously, was married, though she is now a widow.  Mrs. Bird also once was employed outside the home, working as a nurse before her marriage.  And Mrs. Bird is a comparative youngster compared with Miss Marple, being only forty-five.

However, there is considerable similarity between the two women.  Like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird lives in a village (Mirtleham in the latter's case).  Like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird has insatiable curiosity, and makes it her mission in life to know the affairs of everyone in the village.  And like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird is quite adept at solving murders.

Of Mrs. Bird's two cases, the purer detective story is "The Case of the Jesting Miser," which revolves around the strange doing of a village recluse.  I, however, preferred "The Case of the Misjudged Husband," the story of Mrs. Bird's confrontation with a professional ladykiller.  Both stories have some clever lines that I can't quote, for fear of violating the Ransom Center's policy.  But I thought it would worthwhile mentioning these stories, for we now have another instance of a woman detective from the 1930s.  Maybe someday they will be published, if only for historical sake.

marker for the English dead at Jarama
After his conversion to Communism, Christopher St. John Sprigg referred to his detective fiction as "trash" that diverted him from that which he now saw as his true work, heavy tomes of earnest Marxist philosophy, like Illusion and Reality and Romance and Realism.

Those of us who admire Sprigg's detective novels would have preferred a few more of them, but such was not to be, sadly.

Fired with revolutionary ardor, Sprigg joined the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and was tragically slain at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

The attitude that Sprigg came to have about his genre writing can be found in other writers of detective fiction (if not so extreme and negative).

Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he thought he was a distraction from his "serious" work (of course he relented and brought him back again).   

R. Austin Freeman thought the significance of his Dr. Thorndyke tales paled in comparison to his supposed masterpiece, Social Decay and Regeneration, a tome on eugenics.

Lord Peter Wimsey
Dumped for Dante?
Dorothy L. Sayers left Lord Peter Wimsey for her religious radio plays and her Dante translation.
In a 1949 letter she impatiently complained of "sentimental Wimsey addicts" imploring her to write another Lord Peter mystery.

Todd Downing too, I found, had ambitions to give up detective novels for mainstream fiction, even though he genuinely loved detective fiction and continued to read it long after he stopped writing it.

I discovered another expression of this attitude recently in correspondence of the English author Eden Phillpotts.

Phillpotts was tremendously prolific writer who wrote quite a few mystery novels but was most highly-regarded for his highly serious Thomas Hardy-esque mainstream regional novels set in Dartmoor.  He is best known today, within the mystery field, for urging a certain young neighbor of his, Agatha Christie, to stick with writing.

In a letter that is undated but that probably comes from the 1920s, Phillpotts writes:

"But then I write miles of tripe...'Shockers' amuse me and rest me.  They take the place of 'golf' or other distractions.  America has no use for my serious folk books....But for murder, detectives and nonsense of that sort grown-up children are always avid."

What a disappointing attitude from someone who wrote 26 crime novels between 1921 and 1944!  But not altogether surprising (perhaps Phillpotts excepted from the category of "tripe" his 1930s Avis Bryden trilogy, quite a fine piece of work, in my estimation, from a purely literary standpoint).

Tripe!  Trash!  Do many modern mystery writers have this sort of "inferiority complex" about their mystery writing today?  What do you think?


  1. That is a very interesting question indeed about modern/contemporary writers. My guess is very few would have a dismissive attitude about their own work or the genre in general. Perhaps someone can find some quotes.

  2. I recall a discussion on the GAD group (from my lurking days) on this subject and I think that the prevailing opinion was that a lot of the crime writers today have, uhm, too much confidence?

    Anyway, I remember P.D. James being brought up and how much her books have bloated over the years, and I can’t recall who said this, but someone made a joke along the lines of "Oh, no, she thinks she's a serious writer now," after discovering that her books were putting on weight with every new publication.

    I recognized this, because in my early days as a mystery fan I tried a few modern thriller/crime writers like Elizabeth George. I have to admit that the first few I read, Well Schooled in Murder and Payment in Blood, were descent, if not entirely my kind of mystery, but after that the (literary) rot started to set in with in-depth character studies and struggling inner demons usurping the books. I couldn't abandon them fast enough!

    So while I don't like her books in general, I do like her attitude on this subject as can be read on her website (her answer after being asked why she doesn't write serious literature):

    "One reader’s literature is another reader’s garbage can liner. To hold up a piece of writing to the eye of snobbery as is done over and over in Europe is to defeat the purpose of reading a novel in the first place. Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that’s brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe."

  3. This is fascinating, not lesat the discovery of Mrs Bird. I've just bought Sprigg's debut novel, though haven't read it as yet. I wouldn't read too much into the "trash" comment, as it might have been either a throwaway remark or one that he'd have reconsidered had he lived a bit longer (like his enthusiasm for Communism). But it's true that people like Sayers, Freeman, the Coles and others under-estimated the lasting value of their detective stories and over-estimated the work they were more passionate about. As for yuur final question, I line up with Michael Gilbert, Robert Barnard, Reg Hill and others who were not in any way pretentious about their writing but didn't feel there was anything terribly inferior about the genre they worked in, either.

  4. No, it seems to have been an attitude more characteristic of the day. Now, of course, many would say their work in the crime genre is just as good as, if not better, than much mainstream literature.

    But I think you can see the attitude with, say, Ruth Rendell, when she speaks of the Wexfords as something clearly inferior to her other books, or when P. D. James dismisses "dear Agatha" as an author of "mere puzzles." Reginald Hill himself seemed to grow rather restive with the form near the end. The last books, one might argue, pleased him more than his fans, but I don't think he minded the exchange.

    What's always interesting to me about the case of Sayers is that she made such a to-do about transforming the detective novel into the crime novel of manners with Gaudy Night, than abandoned her next Lord Peter novel unfinished and wrote exasperatedly of "sentimental Wimsey addicts" clamoring for another Lord Peter novel. I wonder what she'd make of Lord Peter fandom today?