For myself, I'm pleased to announce I've written the introduction to Coachwhip's soon-to-be-published reissue of Katherine Woods' 1934 mystery Murder in a Walled Town, which is set in the fictional French walled town of Neyronnes (probably based on Domme, in the Dordogne region of France). The novel takes place shortly after the new presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt removed the United States from the gold standard, resulting in a steep drop in the value of the dollar relative to European currencies.
In the novel economizing American tourists descend on an inn at Domme, a beautiful, tranquil, out-of-the-way small walled town on a rocky outcrop--and naturally murder soon follows! The Americans are Wayne Armitage, a young teacher at a Pennsylvania boys' school making his first trip to Europe; decayed gentlewoman Margaret Hamilton; Mrs. Wilde, a neurasthenic invalid widow, and her lovely, much put-upon daughter, Christine; John and Elinor Sherrill, old friends of Margaret Hamilton; and "ugly American" businessman Horace Braye and his "nincompoop" wife, Rosalie. Also staying at the inn is the courtly Frenchman Henri de Brassac.
Murder in a Walled Town deservingly won plaudits in its day for its atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters. In its depiction of businessman Horace Braye and social and economic conditions in the US and Europe in the Thirties the novel has some rather startling relevance to today, I think. (See whether Horace Braye reminds you of anyone you might have noticed on the American scene today.)
Born in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania, Katherine Woods (1886-1968) after her graduation form Mount Holyoke College went to work in journalism. In 1912 she became a book reviewer for the New York Review of Books, a position she held for three decades. A regular traveler in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, she published The Other Chateau Country: The Feudal Land of the Dordogne in 1931, following three years later with Murder in a Walled Town. (Woods was a great admirer not only of France but of true crime and crime fiction.) However she is best known today for having written the original English translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, her translation remaining in print from 1943 until 2000.
Much more on Katherine Woods and Murder in a Walled Town is found in my introduction. Check it out, I think you will like the book!
For my contribution for this week, I will be heading to France, to a certain walled town of considerable antiquity and charm which certain fictional Americans visited over eight years ago, with deadly consequences....Post coming tonight, I hope!
By the way, a shout-out to Bev Hankins who created the smashing design for this month's theme logo (with a little help from John Dickson Carr).
And it's another May outing with your Tuesday Night Club Bloggers. Tonight I look at transportation mysteries by electrical engineer and artillery and intelligence officer turned mystery writer Cecil John Charles Street (see below). Here's are links to the other postings by members of the Club:
Interest in transportation is a notable feature in a number of the many of John Rhode and Miles Burton mysteries written by the prolific Cecil John Charles Street. Some notable examples:
Tragedy on the Line (1931), Dead on the Track (1943) and Unwanted Corpse (1954) have dead bodies discovered on railroad tracks--but they haven't been killed by trains! In the recently-reprinted Death in the Tunnel (1936), a murdered man is found in a train.
In Tragedy at the Unicorn (1928), The Secret of High Eldersham (1930), Death of Mr Gantley (1931) and the highly ingenious Shot at Dawn (1934), boats play a role in the tales. Death on the Boat Train (1940) involves a dead body found on a, yes, boat train, en route from the Channel to London. In Death at the Helm (1941), two dead bodies are discovered on a yacht.
John Street in real life was a great car enthusiast and some of his mysteries involve cars in important ways. In The Corpse in the Car (1935), a wealthy (and quite horrid) old woman is discovered dead in her limousine. She's been slain in a particularly insidious manner. The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) concerns cleverly engineered deaths during a British "motor rally," while Mystery at Olympia (1935) involves murder at a popular British motor show.
In Dead Men at the Folly (1932) there's much to-ing and fro-ing in autos on remote country lanes. Blackthorn House (1949) concerns a stolen car ring in early postwar England. In Proceed with Caution (1937), a body is discovered, most gruesomely, in a road crew's tar boiler. There's also a sinister funeral hearse with an empty coffin which is involved in the tale. Street's last published detective novel, The Vanishing Diary (1961), involves a Volkswagen Beetle type car.
In The Charabanc Mystery (1934), a dead body is discovered on a bus carrying a team of village darts players, while Murder of a Chemist (1936) concerns a poisoning which takes place during a coach tour bus's stop at an inn.
Though people get in quite a bit of travel in Street's mysteries, they don't get out of that country that much. There is, however, Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930), where the fiendish murder which crotchety scientist Dr. Priestley must elucidate takes place in Belgium, and Murder in Absence (1954), where gentleman amateur sleuth Desmond Merrion and his wife Mavis economically take a Mediterranean cruise on a tramp steamer while the roof of their country seat, High Eldersham Hall, is being repaired. There they encounter sundry criminal shenanigans.
Desmond and Mavis also meet murder on the way while vacationing in England in other Miles Burton novels, such as Early Morning Murder (1945), Heir to Lucifer (1947), Ground for Suspicion (1950), Heir to Murder (1953) and Found Drowned (1956).
Readers of this blog will know from my reviews of Death in the Night Watches (1945) and Death on the Last Train (1948) that I hadn't been bowled over with the mysteries of George Bellairs (Harold Blundell, 1902-1985); yet I now have found one I rather like: Bellairs' fourth published detective novel, The Dead Shall Be Raised (1942), which, happily, is being reprinted this year by the British Library, in a twofer with The Murder of a Quack (1943). (BL is also reprinting Death of a Busybody). It's one of three novels the prolific author published in 1942.
Really creative detection does not seem to have been Bellairs' strong point as a crime writer and from what I've read of his books they soon came to emphasize a sort of acid whimsy in place of plot, something that is decently done if you go in for that sort of thing in a great way, but that palled in my case. Yet Bellairs' earlier books, including the ones being reprinted by the British Library, seem better books all round. The Dead Shall Be Raised is, indeed, quite good, in my view.
American edition of The Dead Shall Be Raised,
with a jacket design by Arthur Hawkins, Jr.
It appropriates a title used five years
earlier for a J. J. Connngton mystery
The Dead Shall Be Raised opens with Detective Inspector Littlejohn traveling on Christmas Eve, 1940 to visit his wife in the town of Hatterworth, "high on the Pennine backbone which separates Lancashire from Yorkshire," where she has gone to recuperate with an old school friend after incurring slight injuries in a German bomber attack. (For a Scotland Yard man, Littlejohn seems to have an inordinate number of cases in northern England--perhaps not coincidentally around Bellairs' own native ground.)
In Hatterworth, the Littlejohns are entertained by Superintendent Haworth and his wife on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (Presumably the surname Haworth is a nod to the Pennine town so famously and lucratively associated with the Bronte clan.)
The first chapters of the novel, in which Bellairs describes the activities of late night carolers and a performance of Handel's Messiah--Supt. Haworth sings bass in the Hatterworth Methodist Choir--are quite charmingly done; so much so, indeed, that I was not much minding the fact that murder so far was missing from the tale.
Yet soon enough a body is discovered on the moor, by members of the Home Guard digging trenches for maneuvers. It's that of a man who had disappeared twenty-three years earlier, in 1917, after, it was then believed, having shot and slain another man, a former friend turned rival. The newly-discovered dead man was shot as well, leading to the question, did some villain get away with a double murder in Hatterworth twenty-three years ago?
Here Bellairs has devised an interesting murder-in-the-past plot, enjoyably investigated--though with no astounding feats of detection, it must be admitted--by Littlejohn and Haworth, with crucial assistance from a well-portrayed elderly retired local superintendent who was in on the original case. There's another murder too, I should note, a poisoning this time, to keep the kettle stirring (and which helps the police crack the old case).
Throughout local color, as I've already indicated, is excellent and the characters engaging, all across the social spectrum. Though Harold Blundell graduated from London University with a degree in economics and became a Manchester banker he appears to have come from relatively modest circumstances, the son and grandson of Lancashire artisan joiners (and Methodists perhaps?). I'm sure there will be more on this in the Martin Edwards' introductions to the British Library reissues.
All in all, an excellent vintage mystery, in which one can discern, I would argue, a connection to authors like Georges Simenon and Alan Hunter. A good job!
Between 1929 and 1933 Molly Thynne published six mystery novels: The Red Dwarf (in the US, The Draycott Murder Mystery) (1928), The Murder on the "Enriqueta" (in the US, The Strangler) (1929), The Case of Adam Braid (1930), The Crime at the Noah's Ark (1931), Murder in the Dentist's Chair (1932) and He Dies and Makes No Sign (1933).
The Murder on the "Enriqueta" (aka The Strangler) received quite good notices when it was published, one paper pronouncing that in this "unusually good mystery novel...style, plot, and characterization deserve equal laurels," while another declared: Miss Thynne has the ability to make a story arresting, and she exercises it beneficially in this latest thriller. The crime on board the Enriqueta is but the prelude to a succession of exciting events."
One reviewer was even moved to praise the novel in verse:
The Murder on the Enriqueta is a recent thriller by Miss Molly Thynne, A book I don't advise you, if you're busy, to begin, It opens very nicely with a strangling on a liner Of a shady sort of passenger--an outbound Argentiner, And, unless I'm much mistaken, you will find yourself unwilling To lay aside a yarn so crammed with situations thrilling.
vivid, though partly devoured, jacket
by artist Irving Politzer (1898-1971)
Only the first three chapters of Thynne's second mystery, The Murder on the "Enriqueta," take place on a ship: the ocean liner Enriqueta, traveling from Buenos Aires to Liverpool.
However, that's where occurs the novel's first murder: the vicious strangling of a drunken and most unsavory ne'er-do-well Englishman named Smith, who was returning to the UK after some considerable time spent in the Argentine.
A cockney ship steward briefly espied, without realizing it at the time, the murder scene, with the presumed killer standing over the victim:
"Would you recognize the man you saw bending over Smith?" The steward shook his head. "I couldn't swear to him, sir," he answered. "I could see 'im clear enough under the light, but there was a white bandage, or it may 'ave been a muffler, round the lower part of 'is face. Uncommon queer, 'e looked, what with that and 'is green pajamas."
The bandaged/mufflered green pajama-clad killer is a nice touch, a bit of the sort of colorful oddness one gets in the detective novels of John Dickson Carr.
A Scotland Yard inspector named Shand gets who happens to be traveling aboard the Enriqueta gets interested in the queer case. (Readers will be seeing more of him.) Does the crime have connections to organized crime activity in Argentina which Shand was investigating?
Soon, however, we are back in England, plunged into the affairs of the aristocratic Dalberry family. Inclusion of a family tree in the book (I read the American edition) would have been nice, but just for you, my dear readers, I will type out the names of the ill-starred, though eminently aristocratic, Dalberry siblings and children:
1. Maurice+, married, two sons++
2. Adrian+, married Miss Larsen of New York, no children
3. Oliver+ (killed in the Great War), married, one son, "Gillie"
4. Marian+, married American millionaire Conway Summers+, one stepdaughter, Carol
Maurice and his two sons died in a Channel plane crash not long before the novel begins. The family title and estate succeeded to Adrian, who had long lived in Argentina, where he made his pile. Shortly after his succession to the title and estate, however, Adrian was killed in a car crash in Argentina. Into the dead man's shoes stepped Gillie, who grew up in England with his lovely and plucky step-cousin, Carol, who after her mother died was sent by her father to live at Berrydown, the Dalberry ancestral estate.
Carol, by the by, succeeds to her dead American father's fortune when she turns 21, an event which will take place in a few months. A lot of money is floating around in this story! Oh, and I see I didn't mention that Lady Dalberry, widow of Adrian, i.e., the former Miss Larsen of New York, has just returned to England. And guess on which boat it was that Lady Dalberry traveled?
I must warn the fainthearted out there that the Enriqueta murderer will find additional victims in England. Just who will perish next at the remorseless hands of the strangler?!
Out-of-print for nearly seven decades, Molly Thynne's mysteries will soon be republished by Dean Street Press. I will have more detail on this matter soon, as well as the mystery of Molly Thynne herself.
Here begins my further look at Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010). In Part One of this series I looked at a neglected 1950s study on detective fiction by Alma Elizabeth Murch and in Part Two I looked at the different takes on the matter of nineteenth-century crime fiction and women authors that have been provided by genre scholars Howard Haycraft, Julian Symons and Lucy Sussex.
The first chapter of Sussex's Mothers surveys "the beginnings of crime fiction" in the picaresque novel (Moll Flanders), true crime texts (the Newgate Calendar and newspaper reportage) and, last but definitely not least, the Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho).
In his survey Bloody Murder, Julian Symons (1972) specifically excludes the Gothic novel from his consideration of the origins of the detective novel, arguing that "Gothic novelists wanted to arouse in their readers feelings of terror and delight at the horrific plight of the central character, and they used mysterious events to enhance these feelings. The solution of a puzzle was not for them the main interest of the book."
Fourteen years earlier, however, Alma Murch had argued, in her The Development of the Detective Novel, that in her Gothic novels Ann Radcliffe had written tales "in which her readers could expect the riddles to be finally explained, often in conversations between a clever, observant character and his less quick-witted friend." These are, she notes, "two features which link them unmistakably with the detective novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
Douglas G. Greene, the esteemed biographer of John Dickson Carr, similarly has noted that some Gothic novels, like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), "conclude with natural explanations of the terrors, and these novels, when combined with other influences, eventually lead to the detective story."
Sussex comes down with Murch and Greene, declaring that the "Gothic is a Pangaea of genre literatures, containing within it the future continents of horror, science fiction...and crime writing....perhaps most crucial is what mystery is involved in the Gothic context: the depiction of a sensational motif or incident, with its explanation being delayed until much later in the narrative."
Connections between the Gothic novel and Victorian sensation novel and, even later, the Golden Age so-called "Had I But Known" mystery suspense narratives are especially clear. Female authors associated with these mystery forms--Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart--received especially short shrift from Symons, their work getting either ignored or, frankly, denigrated when even acknowledged.
Yet in many ways their mystery writing has had a greater influence on modern crime fiction than the strictly fair play, clue puzzle detective fiction of the Golden Age. (Interestingly, crime writer and reviewer Todd Downing, a great admirer of female-authored mysteries, in 1936 expressly compared Mignon Eberhart's novels with those of "Mrs. Radcliffe," adding that Eberhart had performed some needed "pruning of the Gothic impedimenta"--see my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.)
In her second chapter, "Mrs Radcliffe as Conan Doyle?", Sussex looks at very early examples of women writers incorporating crime into their texts, as well as female investigators.
The Mysteries of Udolpho, Sussex notes "made Mrs. Radcliffe "the most popular and best paid English writer of the eighteenth century"; and the author became "the most successful exponent of what is generally termed Female Gothic," a mode of fiction wherein typically a young heroine "finds herself imprisoned in a sinister castle, usually by a wicked male tyrant, but emerges at the end triumphant to marry her hero."
Something devilish behind it all!
Sussex argues that Radcliffe's Female Gothic, in contrast with Male Gothic (see below) arguably comprises the major 'system' in the creation of the new crime fiction genre, contributing the mystery, rationalism and also the role of the protagonist....Emily in Udolpho is a woman of reason, elucidating the mysteries of the castle....Emily and other Radcliffe heroines walk the mean passages of their various Gothic castles very much by themselves....With the Radcliffe heroine can be seen a narrative model emerging, of women versus crime, women conquering and explicating crime--even if only briefly on the way to matrimony.
Male Gothic, in contrast, focuses on, as exemplified by Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796) "the dangerous male, the tyrant or rake" and "represents the beginning of the psychothriller, with the excesses of Hannibal Lecter being (almost) equalled by those of Ambrosio the Monk, whose tastes run to black magic, rape, incest and murder. Yet, while bad boy Gothic contains crime, mystery and suspense, it is no place for the detective, for the villain is privileged....Male Gothic partakes of the supernatural, something at odds with the emerging detective genre....the logical, ratiocinative search for a criminal has no place in the Male Gothic.
Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) satirized the Female Gothic novel, demonstrating, Sussex points out that "the Gothic sleuthing heroine had become so familiar, a cliche even, that it could be parodied." Catherine "seems something of a goose," concedes Sussex, yet the intuition that prompts her "snooping" at Northanger Abbey "is perfectly correct."
However, in domesticating the Gothic novel Austen and other women novelists who followed her imported a trope from the domestic novel, making the heroine "naive and thoughtless, needing a sharp lesson." Repeatedly in these novels the heroine is thwarted.
Austen's Catherine, writes Sussex, merely
suffers embarrassment; her successors were lucky to escape with a nervous breakdown, if not permanent incapacity....After some effective work the heroine-sleuth usually collapses with stress or brain fever, reverting to passive femininity, and a happy marriage with the man she has saved."
This ultimately renders the "transgressive" heroine-sleuth "conventional and unexceptional."
For the rest of Chapter Two, Sussex looks at this female sleuth figure, first in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), which "includes a murder mystery in its plot structure," and then in several works from this era by Frances Trollope. However she argues the person most successful at this time in combining "murder, the mystery narrative and the sleuth...in novel form" was a writer whose "first novel appeared in 1841 and arguably was the first substantial work of crime writing by a woman." Who was this woman? She gets all of Sussex's third chapter to herself and I will discuss this part, and more, in the next installment.
I've told the general outline of this story in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but since I presume a lot of the readers of this blog haven't read Masters I trust I'm not repeating myself for most people!
the art of storytelling
One of the charming things about Michael Dirda's both charming and illuminating book On Conan Doyle(2011) is his discussion of his childhood mystery reading. I had touched on this subject in my own case in the introduction to Masters, which came out a few months after Dirda's book.
I started reading Agatha Christie when I was eight years old. We were living in Mexico City and while shopping at Sanborns Department Store (I loved two things most of all about Sanborns, the bookstalls and the milkshakes) my mother had bought, for eight pesos apiece I believe, four Pocket Christies: Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy), Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral), And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders.
I read all these on a love seat in our third-floor apartment under a big window from which streamed in a wash of afternoon rays from the sun. I also remember reading a story in one of my Mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines which I recall as being titled "The Machete Murderer," but I don't believe I have the title quite right. However I do definitely recall it as quite horrifying. (I think there was a drawing over the title of a machete and various detached arms and legs).
on the rack at Sanborns in 1974
I liked the Christies but, kids being quite easily distracted, I didn't read another again until, a couple of years later, we were returning from a year in Mexico at the very end of 1976 and at a Sears bookstall in southern Texas my mother bought the first American paperback edition of Curtain, Hercule Poirot's last case. Then later on, in 1977, I read the first American paperback edition of Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple's last (published) case.
By this time I was hooked on Agatha Christie and wanting to get her books myself, without waiting for Mom to pick up some copies. Over 1978-79 I ordered a number of Christies through the mail, with those order slips which there used to be in the backs of paperback books. I probably read about two-thirds of her books at that time. I also discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories at this time and read all those in a boxed gift set from Bantam, I believe, which my parents got me for Christmas, in 1978 I think.
Later on in the mid-1980s, when I started college, my interest in mystery fiction attenuated, but it revived in 1989, when I was in law school and visiting a friend in Chicago. At a bookstore there I came across the Mysterious Press reprint of English professor and mystery writer Robert Barnard's critical study of Christie, A Talent to Deceive, and IPL paperback editions of John Dickson Carr, a writer I had never heard of, some of them with introductions by Douglas G. Greene, a fellow whom I had never heard of then either.
Doug Greene and Robert Barnard
Spurred by Doug's incisive introductions, I was instantly captured by Carr's spell and set out to read everything by him I could find, as I had done with Christie and Doyle back in the 1970s. Just as important, I was also intrigued by Barnard's theories about detective fiction. It was Barnard who introduced me to the mystery criticism of Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) and Julian Symons (1912-1994) and the great dialectic they had engaged in for nearly two decades concerning the nature of crime and detective fiction.
Briefly, Barzun was the great advocate for the detective story, wherein the focus is on detection and ratiocination, Symons the renowned spokesman for the "crime novel," essentially a novel where the focus is on the depiction of crime in a psychologically and procedurally credible manner, unbound by strict "rules" concerning "fair play" clueing and such plot devices. This lively debate continued into the 1990s and partisans of both sides often could be quite dismissive of each other's favored form of genre fiction.
I considered myself a Barzunian and rather dogmatically I only wanted to read true detective fiction, the stuff with clues and startling though deducible revelations at the end of the novel. Besides Carr, I read Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin and other older writers who were still in print or reasonably available at used bookstores, as well as modern authors like Robert Barnard, Peter Lovesey, PD James and Ruth Rendell.
You can see I gravitated toward British crime fiction! I also read classic short story collections published by Doug Greene's then new imprint, Crippen & Landru, and further mystery criticism by Doug (firstly his great Carr biography) and people like Barry Pike and Bill Pronzini.
In graduate school at the LSU library I read Armchair Detective--a great fanzine, started by Allen J. Hubin, that was published for three decades, from 1967 to 1997--and learned about other "new" old writers, but often they were hard, or impossible seemingly, to find. (These were the days before the internet, kids.) This was true as well of writers highly praised by Jacques Barzun in his and his colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor's magisterial A Catalogue of Crime, which for years became my detective fiction Bible.
Where did one find John Rhode (who also was Miles Burton) or J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) or Henry Wade (Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher), for example? Why were these writers, dismissed as Humdrums by Julian Symons, not available? Why, damn it, weren't publishers listening to Jacques Barzun?
The arrival and rise to world hegemony of this thing called the internet ultimately was to change everything, however. More on this soon.
Note: You will find much more about this time, touching upon a lot of people and entities not mentioned above, in Marvin Lachman's The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom (Poisoned Pen Press, 2005). Magazines like CADS and Mystery Scene, which go back three decades now, and the more recent Give Me That Old Time Detection, and groups like Malice Domestic and the Dorothy L. Sayers Society and the Margery Allingham Society and, of course, the Bouchercon mystery conferences. You'll find out about them all in detail in Marvin's book.
Martin Edwards' recent win of not only the Agatha but the Edgar for mystery criticism for his book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015) seems like something of a turning point in attitudes toward the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Winning the Agatha, to be sure, was great for Martin, but not exactly an improbable event, for the Agathas have never been what one would call indifferent ground for books on British mystery. The Edgars, however, are always a tougher nut to crack with studies of British subjects, unless they deal with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. (The history of Edgar wins shows Arthur is even more popular than, well, Edgar; seven books about Holmes and his Great Detective have won Edgars in the last twenty years, versus three about Poe.) Winning the Edgar in this case feels like quite a big deal.
Twenty years ago Douglas Greene's classic biography of classic mystery writer John Dickson Carr--American, a member of the Detection Club and an Anglophile, not to mention one of the great exponents of the clue-puzzle detective novel--lost out to Robert Polito's masterful biography of noir master Jim Thompson--a decision that, whichever book one might have sided with at the time for the win, long seemed symptomatic of the general preferences of Edgar voters. Aside from Doyle and Poe, the Edgars by and large seemed to go for tough stuff and noir.
When my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (very academic-ish title, I know), which looked at the rise and comparative fall of the clue-puzzle mystery through the careers of a trio of British puzzle purists and Detection Club members, was published four years ago in 2012, it received, both publicly and privately, high praise from a number of people who happened to be past (and in the case of Martin Edwards future) Edgar winners and nominees, (See Jon L. Breen's review here.)
However, Masters was not nominated for an Edgar, so certainly was not in a position to win one. One of the books which was nominated that year was Books to Die For, a tome which repeated a lot of the dismissive conventional wisdom about the Golden Age of detective fiction. (See my review here.) The juxtaposition seemed telling to me.
A year after the publication of Books to Die For, we saw the publication of the disappointing A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession (2013), Lucy Worsley's book on British mystery fiction, which has a very superficial take on the Golden Age. A few years earlier there appeared P. D. James' similarly disappointing (though elegantly written) brief mystery genre survey, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009). None of these books, it seemed to me, were really bringing anything new to the table, as far as the Golden Age of detective fiction was concerned. (See my four-part review of Worsley's book: one, two, three, four.)
Meanwhile there was a great deal of very interesting discussion going on at internet fan groups, websites and blogs, where you found people who were really well read in Golden Age detective fiction (more on these sites--some of which have been around for quite some time now--to come this week). Something was in the air, which even the James and Worsely books, limited and blinkered as they were, indicated.
In my case, I have been involved, since the publication of Masters, with other writing projects, including my books Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013), Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014) and The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015).
I also published as a pamphlet essay of nearly 20,000 words, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, a study of how the Detection Club handled the fair play requirement to membership over the years (as well as the disruptions of the Second World War). People will see mentioned this work in the endnotes in Martin's book along with Masters and some additional, shorter pieces from Geoff Bradley's great magazine CADS. (People who go in for reading endnotes, anyway.)
I have also been involved in reissuing Golden Age detective fiction with Coachwhip Publications. I think the greatest success in this venture so far has been with J. J. Connington, one of my book subjects--his books now all have been reprinted--and the American Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing.
However, what really captured wider public attention, surely, was the British Library's reissue a couple of years ago of titles by largely forgotten Golden Age mystery writers John Bude and Jefferson Farjeon. (I will pass by in silence M. Doriel Hay. Okay, not quite, Mavis.) The success of these and other reissues have proved what I had long contended: that there is a significant market for Golden Age detective fiction by "forgotten" writers.
On my blog back in 2011, on the day after Christmas, I had reviewed the very Farjeon title the BL chose to reprint, Mystery in White, a holiday bestseller in England for them. My review, as far as I know, was the first blog piece on a Jefferson Farjeon novel anywhere on the net; the very name of my blog was a tribute to Farjeon's tramp series character, Ben.
It was wonderful to see this particular reissue take place and enjoy such resounding success, though I doubt many people who read the book were aware I may have had any connection with it. The British Library has gone on to score other successes with their attractively designed volumes with introductions by none other than Martin Edwards himself, including titles by my book's other two Humdrums, John Street and Freeman Wills Crofts.
The success of the British Library (joined in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press) has encouraged other publishers to get involved with reprinting Golden Age mysteries, including Dean Street Press, with whom I have done quite a bit of work over the last year. DSP has brought forth titles by Detection Club members E. R. Punshon and Ianthe Jerrold, as well as Annie Haynes, Harriet Rutland, Robin Forsythe, Basil Thomson and Patricia Wentworth--and more is on its way this year.
Martin Edwards' Golden Age of Murder tells the fascinating story of the lives of the talented men and women who were members of the Detection Club in the 1930s, arguably the greatest decade in the history of true detective fiction. Though Martin includes chapters on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, many of the writers he discusses obviously were terra incognita to many mystery fans out there and I think his book is having a great impact on popular perceptions of the period.
A fan of Golden Age detective fiction for many years now (as well as a writer of esteemed modern detective fiction), Martin has not only ventured beyond the Crime Queens in his own critical writing but has read blogs and books which have delved more deeply than was traditionally the norm into myriad untapped veins of research. Just as Sarah Weinman's recent work on psychological suspense fiction has revivified popular interest in mid-century mistresses of psychological mystery praised by a variety of knowledgeable bloggers, Martin's book is shining more light on the Golden Age, beckoning readers to explore its riches for themselves.
Let it shine, oh, let it shine.
Expect a fuller review of Martin's book soon, along with more on the various websites, blogs, authors and presses which have been and currently are involved in this exciting ongoing revolution in the perception of the Golden Age.
All aboard as the redoubtable Tuesday Night Bloggers take you on a murder tour during the month of May. We will be looking at detective novels which include travel, holidaying, and/or transportation in some significant way. Here are links to posts by contributors to the Club:
Only the first chapter of George Bellairs' Death on the Last Train (1948) actually takes place on a train, but its grimy cloud of sordidness hangs over the entire short novel. As the book opens a "fagged out" Inspector Littlejohn, Bellairs' series sleuth, is traveling in connection with a case on the Salton-to-Ellinborne train, which, we learn, is in quite a sorry state:
The train consisted of three rickety wooden coaches in disgraceful condition. The three first-class compartments were dirtier than the thirds. The lighting was of the kind introduced at the outbreak of war when a glass globe covering a small bulb in the middle of the roof was blacked all over and then the light allowed cautiously to percolate through a glorified pinhole. The whole sorry contraption was drawn by an aged tank locomotive with steam leaking from every joint.
We are a long way from Agatha Christie's Orient Express: no international cast of Russian princesses, Hungarian counts, wealthy American matrons and nosy dapper Belgians here!
When a shot rings out and a passenger, Timothy Bellis, if found dead in a compartment on the stopped train, Littlejohn finds himself marshaled into yet another murder investigation. The dead man was a notorious adulterer and there was much bad feeling against him in the declining town of Salton, where he had been the victim of a series of increasingly threatening letters.
an earlier. altogether brighter
train jacket byArthur Hawkins, Jr.
Littlejohn essentially does what he did in his Death in the Night Watches (1945): he goes around interviewing a series of individuals until he finally gets information which points out the murderer for him. Utterly lacking is the kind of complex murder plot you so often get in, say, the transportation mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts.
What Bellairs offers in the place of plot complexity is a series of satirical portraits of the townspeople of Salton. In contrast with those etched in the dull and bland Night Watches, the acid portrayals in Last Train often are amusing, but there's a cruelty to them as well which some might find distasteful. So many people are mocked for physical attributes--squints, pendulous breasts, poor teeth, bad breath, etc.--one gets the feeling that Bellairs sees Salton as some sort of circus freak show.
I have read two additional, very early, Bellairs detective novels, one of which is being reprinted by the British Library, and these are both, I'm happy to say, superior to both Night Watches and Last Train. Indeed, both of them are really rather good.
I shall be reviewing these two books here soon. However, if you're not looking for plot complexity and you don't mind the nastiness to much of the satire in Last Train, you might well enjoy the bumpy ride.