Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worsleying around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Three: The Lower Orders and Our Social Betters

It has taken me a while to get around to this, but here is Part Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's genre survey A Very British Murder.  See here for Part One and Part Two.

After a short chapter of about 2000 words on the Detection Club (this is acceptable, though you will learn much more about the Detection Club from Doug Greene's observations on it in his biography of John Dickson Carr, my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play and Peter Lovesey's essay on the Detection Club, forthcoming in Mysteries Unlocked), Worsley in Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," adopts the old Julian Symons-Colin Watson take on Golden Age English detective novels, castigating the books for their "attitude that servants are not really human" (the chapter title is the same as the title of Colin Watson's book on the subject).

Worsley cites as evidence for this assertion Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and his manservant Magersfontein Lugg.  Do Allingham readers agree that the memorably-portrayed Lugg comes off as "not really human"?  And what about Dorothy L. Sayers' Bunter?  He may not be human, but, if so, it's because he's super-human, not subhuman!

Not really human? Lugg and Campion

Worsley also cites a character in Sayers' The Nine Tailors (a Mrs. Gates), who says of a chauffeur, "I believe him to be a perfectly truthful man, as such people go."  Worsley doesn't mention that immediately after this comment the person Mrs. Gates is talking to mentally refers to her as "this old cat." Worsley may have missed this, but Mrs. Gates and her retrograde social attitudes (and, yes, they were retrograde attitudes, even among Sayers' readership, in the 1930s) are being satirically portrayed by Sayers.  This is not evidence for Worsley's claim, but rather evidence against it.*

*(Here is a character's description of Mrs. Gates from earlier in the novel: "But I'll tell you who would have noticed anything, and that's Mrs. Gates--our housekeeper, you know....She's a perfect ghoul...She's quite nice, really, but she ought to live in a Victorian novel....")

Of course Worsley, like Symons and Watson before her, is right that there are plenty of objectionable classist attitudes about servants legitimately attributable to authors of Golden Age mysteries, but the argument can be overdrawn.  In fairness to the Golden Age mystery, there was more nuance on this matter than often is admitted.

Worsley goes on to pronounce that "in the Golden Age, too, the detective was usually of a specific social class, much more elevated than it had been in the days of Inspectors Field and Whicher, when detection was considered dirty work....Agatha Christie cleverly allowed Hercule Poirot to sidestep the issue of class by making him Belgian and therefore, notoriously, hard to categorize.  But a great many of his colleagues sprung from the ranks of the aristocracy."

Predictably, Worsley then goes on to offer as evidence of the "great many" Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Roderick Alleyn.  Once again only resort to the Crime Queens is made. But what about the resolutely bourgeois Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), Superintendent Wilson (GDH and Margaret Cole) and Inspector Macdonald (ECR Lorac)?

These are three examples, just the number Worsley offers, but additional ones could be offered (and have been on this blog).  It's simply not true that the readership of Golden Age mysteries could not abide a smart middle class policeman as a series sleuth.

a middle class copper

Part Four will consider Worsley's explanation for the "fall" of the Golden Age detective novel.


  1. Very true, and very well put. I'm very familiar with Watson's book and while there is a love of the genre there, I agree with you that these theorists have missed the point. To my mind, the readers at that time (and perhaps to this day) didn't necessarily wish to see one class elevated at the expense of another; what they wanted to see was accurate portraits of all levels of society, perhaps a little bit burlesqued or simplified. I have found that duchesses and scullery maids and yeomen and professionals are all made fun of a little bit, at least in the better Golden Age detective novels.

  2. Well said, Noah. This is a lazy cliche. The fun of Golden Age detective stories, for me, is that they have a wide-ranging cast of characters of all types and classes. Eccentrics, spiritualists, fake mediums, landladies, foreign students, secretaries, women with shady pasts, rose-growing suburbanites. The crime gives them a reason for meeting, collaborating and possibly changing their opinions of each other. You're not just stuck with tasteful middle-class couples whose job is to remind the reader how tasteful and middle-class he is.

    1. Lucy, Noah, I think like you it does help to look at these books fresh, with open minds, and not with preconceptions based on forty plus year old genre surveys! Thanks for the comments!

  3. As a mystery reader, recently following this blog, I feel like I am taking a free college course in the genre. Always interesting information well written, focused, uncluttered. This blog deserves a blue ribbon award.

    1. Stepheny, you really made my my day! Putting these blog posts together does take time and effort, but knowing people like you really feel you are getting something out of it makes it all worth it. Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. Well, class prejudice is pretty common in ALL British writing, of any era. Not least our own. I see it in political asides on more than a few mystery blogs!