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."