Sunday, April 27, 2014

Worsleying Around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Four: The Final Fury

After Parts One, Two and Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's A Very British Murder, I take a last gaze with Part Four, which concerns Dr. Worsley's analysis of the "end" of Golden Age detective fiction.

As I discussed in Part Three of this piece, in Worsley's Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," Worsley, rehashing arguments made over four decades ago by Julian Symons and Colin Watson, emphasizes the social conservatism of the Golden Age detective novel. She refers sweepingly to "the less attractive aspects of these books: the stultifying, repetitive, hide-bound and reactionary world whose values were only reinforced by the solution of the crime."  She declares that mystery writers "so often seemed to set their work in cosy English villages like St. Mary Mead."*

*(yet Miss Marple and St. Mary Mead itself only appeared in one novel and a book of short stories between the two world wars and probably could not have been identified by most Golden Age readers in 1940)

Just how well known was this lady?

I have previously argued that such portrayals as Worsley's hugely simplify the complexity of the period (for example, like P. D. James before her, Worsley does not even discuss the important work of Franics Iles), and I will leave readers to look at my blog or (better yet!) my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012). There are also excellent, academically informed studies from the last twenty years or so that take more nuanced views than does Worsley (though none of these studies are cited by Worsley, they are referenced in Masters).

This invariably orderly, rigidly stratified, Edwardian world of Golden Age English detective fiction that Worsley, Watson, Symons and James posit was destroyed, according to Worsley, by World War Two and "the horrors of the atom bomb and Auschwitz."  It has always seemed a little inconsistent to me that the insanity of trench warfare and poison gas (World War One) created a desire for detective novels, while the madness of atomic warfare and death camps (World War Two) caused an aversion to detective novels, but this war-determinist view is one of long standing (see Julian Symons) and many people subscribe to it.

What replaced Golden Age detective fiction, ostensibly no longer tenable after World War Two?  In her short Chapter 24, "The Dangerous Edge of Things," Worsley references psychological crime fiction, mentioning Graham Greene, and what she calls "the American-led thriller movement," by which she means hard-boiled detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are invoked).  She also throws in filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.  However, it's all quite cursory, crying out for more detailed treatment (what about the impact of Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon, Cornell WoolrichPatricia Highsmith, not to mention other names, and film noir?).

And I'm dubious about the whole end of Golden Age detective fiction stuff that Worsley touts. Concerning the decade of the 1940s, she writes at one point of "a final nail" being put "into the coffin of Mayhem Parva" and at another about how "the popularity of the detective story continued to wane."

Obviously at some point the Golden Age of detective fiction, defined as the period when so-called "fair play" detection was the dominant form in mystery genre fiction, ended, but both (1) puzzle-oriented detective fiction and (2) Golden Age "style" British detective fiction, with quaint villages and country houses (Worsley conflates Golden Age form and style) in fact lived on past the 1940s to make many more fictional murders.

Complete with a new title and a
country house illustration Lucy
Worsley's A Very British Murder
comes to America this fall
Indeed, Agatha Christie became the publishing powerhouse that she is today only after World War Two, with the onset of the great paperback revolution. Worsley acknowledges, as she must, the phenomenal perennial popularity of Christie, which does not sit well with this "final nail" business. If the appeal of Golden Age detective fiction is dead, why doesn't the Agatha Christie industry die? Far from dying, it seems more active than ever.

Post-WW2 paperback publishing was in fact a boon in general to more traditional Golden Age detective fiction authors (for example, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, John Dickson CarrEllery Queen, Rex Stout), just as it was to the tough guys who wrote about hard-boiled crime. For every person who ever bought a Mickey Spillane there have been more who bought an Agatha Christie.

Further, the so-called "cozy" mystery that Worsley associates with the Golden Age of detective fiction became a true identified sub-genre only after the Second World War; and it is a hugely popular one today. Much original Golden Age work is being reprinted and over the many decades since the 1940s a goodly number of modern authors have continued to write puzzle-oriented detective fiction and/or to write in the Golden Age British country house/quaint village style (including cases of outright pastiche; see, for example, Jill Paton Walsh's Lord Peter Wimsey books and the upcoming Sophie Hannah Hercule Poirot mystery). It seems to me that the reports over the years of the death of Golden Age detective fiction (both in form and style) have been exaggerated.

What most disappoints about A Very British Murder is that while the book may join P. D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) as the primary go-to source for readers eager to learn the history of the detective fiction genre--it will be published in the United States this fall--in the main it simply repeats old arguments from the books of Julian Symons and Colin Watson (the major difference is that Worsley, like James, holds Dorothy L. Sayers in much greater esteem than do Symons and Watson).

Like James' book--which, incidentally, I would recommend over Worsley's--Worsley's work constitutes a lost golden opportunity to say something new about the Golden Age. There has been a lot of original, stimulating thinking about the Golden Age of detective fiction since the publication over forty years ago of the landmark books of Symons and Watson, and it would have been wonderful to see a high-profile book like A Very British Murder include some of those insights.  Ah, well.  Better luck next murder book!


  1. Thanks for putting this together. It seems to me that Professor Worsley has only looked at those writers whose books are still selling, whether it is because of the merit of the books or because of better marketing. It's a shame actually. You expect books such as these to be researched well and to be more comprehensive especially as regards to those books and authors who have fallen by the wayside.

    1. Well, Neer, I know 4000 words is a lot to devote to a subject, but I have to say that I found both the James book (which is worth reading) and Worsley's disappointing. A person might still want to read Worsley for the chapters on Victorian murder (if they don't want to read Judith Flanders' superior, but very detailed, book), but on the Golden Age a neophyte would be much better advised seeking out, among popular histories, Symons' book, which is still in print, and supplementing it with James, who takes a more sympathetic look at Dorothy L. Sayers and the (in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated) conservatism of the period. Even Worsley's coverage of her ostensible focus in the Golden Age, the Crime Queens, is disappointing.

      There's a great photo of the Detection Club's Eric the Skull though!

  2. My impression of critics like Colin Watson is that they starred off with a theory (Golden Age Detective Fiction is a Bad Thing because it's not left-wing) and then cherry-picked the genre to find evidence. It seems this is still the favoured academic approach.

    1. Well, I think it depends on the academic! I'm reluctant to takes swipes with so wide a brush. For what it's worth Worsley's book is a popular history, not an academic one, even though she has an advanced degree (in architectural history). There are many academic studies that are better grounded in the primary sources than Worsley's. So, for that matter, are Symons, Watson's and James' popular books.

    2. I saw the series, and for all it’s flaws kinda enjoyed it. I get the impression that she was avery likeable TV presenter casting about for her next subject, and someone suggested murder mysteries because she “loves” Sayers.

      I want to recommend to those who liked Curtis's relentless dismantling of Worsley's book — which is excellent work by Curtis — Michael Crichton’s essay on the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.

  3. To quote writer Dominic Fox "This narrative that says that everybody before about 5 minutes ago was UNAWARE but now we are AWARE and YAY". Those Golden Age detective writers reflected a conservative society, and the more conservative we make it out to be, the better WE look. Because we are AWARE and YAY. (They reflected their society - they weren't responsible for it. And that Harriet Vane was a bit of a rebel.)

    1. Lucy, I think there indeed is a lot of that attitude. It all can be rather self-congratulatory (aren't we so much better people now)., when in fact every era has failings.

      What struck me, however, going back and rethinking books from GA the last fifteen years is how they often are more interesting on social matters than they are credited with being. There's no question that British detective fiction authors from that era tended to be "conservative," just as, I think, they tend more to be liberal today. But there is still more variety within their thinking that a lot of people seem to believe. And you do even have some "left" thinking that made its way in there!

      I'll give you an example with Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (naturally). The "Humdrum" British mystery writers are often portrayed as indistinguishable old fuddy-duddies, but not quite, I say!

      John Street, who came of a military/landed gentry background, was an army artillerist and intelligence officer and a one-time early electrical engineer. His politics seem not to have been Tory but Liberal (British form), at least during the Golden Age. He's actually rather worldly. After becoming estranged from his wife he lived with another woman for 25 years before they were able to marry. Street was often dismissive toward complacent landed gentry and very interested in industry.

      Freeman Wills Crofts was a railway engineer and low church, evangelical minded Anglican whose religious views hugely influenced his work. He actually became quite critical of the wealthy during the 1930s, on social justice grounds.

      J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) was a chemistry professor and often bracingly sardonic and cynical in his writing.

      I found the books by these authors much more interesting and varied on social grounds than I would have expected from the view of the GA presented in the traditional genre histories.

    2. "But there is still more variety within their thinking that a lot of people seem to believe."

      It was a more tolerant age. Differences in political opinions were expected, and respected.

      Being a communist didn't stop Cecil Day-Lewis (Nicholas Blake) from becoming a popular writer of detective fiction. An idea that writers of detective fiction in that age were monolithically conservative is clearly absurd.

  4. I think in fairness to Colin Watson, his study was never meant to be an all-encompassing history of the genre, and instead was an overview specifically focussing on the trend for upper class/public school educated detectives (and non-detectives- he takes in bond and hannay), and if and why, it had gone out of fashion. So for this reason he didnt mention the people that didn't fit as they weren't relevant to his argument, but i don't think, unlike other writers, he implied they were the only type of character around at the time. Sometimes i think, much as i adore him , P G Wodehouse has a lot to answer for !

    1. Of course it's unfortunate that so many people today (like Worsley) seem to think that Golden Age detective fiction was only about aristocratic gentleman and village spinster detectives (well, Poirot excepted)!

  5. Must admit, after I got to meet Worsley at an event last week (very briefly and she was really nice by the way) I rewatched the final episode of her TV series which is basically what you cover hear and I found myself pretty unconvinced. Hitchcock plays a big role here too and surely what she should have done is talked about Patricia Highsmith rather than the fperson who made the film version. I couldn't really see why ...

    1. Sergio, interesting to hear. I'm sure Worsley is very nice and quite charming and she will make a great host at the CWA dinner this year! I'm not familiar with Worsley's work in other areas like domestic history, but I imagine it's interesting. And of course I like a lot of things about the work of Julian Symons, Colin Watson and P. D. James (I would have loved to have met Symons).

      It's just so disappointing to me that the James and Worsley books cover such little new ground, aside from being more sympathetic to Dorothy L. Sayers, whom Symons really seems not all that crazy about, when you come down to it! Although actually I think Symons is rather more sympathetic to Christie, so maybe it all balances.

      Like with other aspects of the Golden Age, Worsley could have done a lot more with the decline part. People new to the history of the genre would really be better advised to get Symons' book which is still in print. If they want a more sympathetic look at the Crime Queens, they should give the James book a look.

      We're over forty years on from Watson and Symons, however, and from my perspective, it would be interesting if these broad histories were to explore some new ground, as stated above. Actually a lot of books have over the last twenty years, a lot of them academic books, and I think it would have strengthened Worsley's book immeasurably had she drawn on this more recent research.

  6. My memory of "Snobbery with Violence" is not that it's animated by a particular hatred of the Golden Age detective story. Watson obviously had a lot of sympathy for Agatha Christie, for instance. And he disliked attitudes shown in other genres (Raffles and James Bond).

    1. Nigel, I wouldn't call it hatred for the genre but Watson does take GA detective fiction to task for social attitudes (especially about servants), as does Symons for that matter, and Worsley follows suit.

      Of course one finds these attitudes in the books of the era (British and American). In my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery I spend some considerable time on this matter and document it when I find it (and I do find it). On the other hand, I also find much more nuance than I would have expected from Watson. In fact I find one specific instance of Watson not really getting the details right about a book by John Street, which I discuss (this concerns not snobbery but the alleged sexual primness of Golden Age books, another charge he makes against them).

      Watson also accuses the books of the era of sanitizing violence. Again, it depends on the book! John Rhode's The Bloody Tower has a quite graphic account of the blown-off face of the murder victim. I think there is no question but that was a move toward greater realism in the GA detective novel in the 1930s, and this is something Watson and Worsley (who also follows Watson on the violence question) tend to ignore (at least Symons talks about Francis Iles and psychological realism).

      However, despite my disagreements with Watson, enjoy Watson's fiction and I think Snobbery with Violence is a worthwhile book (I agree wholeheartedly with some of it, like his discussion of the indefensible thriller writer Sydney Horler). It just needs to be challenged on some points, not simply echoed as Worsley does!