Friday, July 19, 2019

The World Is too Much with Us: Isms and Phobias in Golden Age Crime Fiction

WARNING: There is offensive racist language in the quoted passages from a vintage crime novel immediately below.  They are quoted without censorship, as they would be in one of my books, in order to give people a clear picture of the perpetually troubling matter discussed in the body of the blog post concerning what I terms "isms and phobias" in Golden Age detective fiction and thrillers.

She found African savagery pitted against Oriental cruelty!
--from the blurb for The Street of the Leopard (1936), by Nigel Morland

The Flying Squad car screamed under the railway bridge and roared up the hill to its destination at the unlawful speed it had maintained all the way from Scotland Yard.

Inside the rocking car, Mrs. Pym, her face black as thunder, sat....

She uttered an entreaty which betrayed the depth of her feelings: "God save us all!  It's positively unholy!  The 'Moon Murders' were enough to drive us insane, but...phew! Niggers and Japs...."

"I think I saw something move out there [said Mrs. Pym]. Do you think the niggers are trying  a flanking movement?

Loddon's natural good spirits were back again, and he grinned.

"Who cares?  If the Japs don't get us, the niggers will."

--from The Street of the Leopard 

Any fan of Golden Age mystery will be used to the criticism that the genre so often has received over the years: that the books are appallingly racist, classist, sexist and homo- and xenophobic, making them hopelessly dated and offensive to a modern audience.  The question of whether modern audiences really are so uniformly enlightened so as not to share any of these sentiments I will leave to the political blogs, though I'll opine that recent world history suggests otherwise. 

In any event, however, I think Golden Age fans get a little tired of their favorite reading material always getting lambasted in this way.  The books are a product of their times, they will counter, we shouldn't hold the authors accountable for the egregious claptrap they sometimes put in their books.  Everybody did it!  They didn't know any better, the poor dears, and expecting anything better from them is unfairly holding them up to our allegedly more elevated modern standards.  Yet in actuality everyone didn't do it back then, or not nearly to the same degree.

I agree that it seems unfair always to single out Golden Age classic mystery writers for these matters.  Often the people doing the singling out are people who don't like classic mystery in the first place.  (What a happy coincidence!)  It's always harder to pluck the mote from one's own eye. 

People will complain, for example, about antisemitism in Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, while passing over in silence the nasty homophobia in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) or the needless cruel derision of blacks and Native Americans in Farewell, My Lovely (1940) because, don't you know, Chandler was a "great writer" and apparently thereby deserves to get a complete pass on this sort of thing.  But of course the isms and phobias, if you will, are common throughout hard-boiled crime fiction of the period.  It's just that historically hard-boiled crime fiction has had more influential apologists.

So it's not just one type of mystery fiction where the isms and phobias are an issue.  Yes, on the whole we find more of them in "thrillers" like Nigel Morland's than we do in pure detective fiction.  (For a blogger's encounter with Nigel Morland, see Brad Friedman's review of Death When She Wakes, 1951 ).  However, it even pops up in the pure detective fiction. 

People will be familiar with passages from the aforementioned Christie and Sayers, for example, but perhaps the most appalling instance of antisemitism in GA detective fiction I'm aware of comes from the pages of The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), by Anthony Berkeley Cox [ABC], one of the most highly regarded British crime writers from the Golden Age, celebrated as the author, as Anthony Berkeley, of The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and, as Francis Iles, the influential crime novels Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932).

ABC thought of himself as an incisive psychological novelist (and he never tired of telling people he was), but the psychological insights he offers in the Berkeley books through the utterances of his surrogate, amateur detective Roger Sheringham, can be embarrassingly puerile, when not actually revolting. Exhibit A: The Silk Stocking Murders.

there's some pretty cross-eyed reasoning in this novel

Initially this tale promises interest as a crime story, with its four strangling murders of women, but its narrative is plodding compared to that of the somewhat similar The ABC Murders (telling title, what?) by Agatha Christie, and its resolution is just plain silly in my estimation.  But the worst, dear readers, is yet to come.

One of the lead characters in The Silk Stocking Murders is a Jewish financier by the name of Pleydell.  ABC actually takes pains to make clear that Pleydell is not one of those objectionable Jewish financiers, don't you know--the sort that with their seemingly inevitable big noses, flashy rings and lisps riddle the pages of Golden Age mystery like they do the pages of Adolf Hitler's incendiary political speeches.  ("Today I will once more be a prophet," thundered the German dictator to the Reichstag in 1941, "If the international Jewish financiers in and outside of Europe should succeed in plunging nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!")

However, ABC's explanation of why Pleydell is not so objectionable, despite being a Jew, is itself problematic, though evidently the author thought he was being generously open-minded:

Now that Roger could observe [Pleydell] more nearly than in the court, he saw that the Jewish blood in him not just a strain, but filled his veins.  Pleydell was evidently a pure Jew, tall, handsome and dignified as the Jews of unmixed race often are.

Our suspicion that there's something off here with this praise is later confirmed in this bloodcurdling conversation between Roger Sheringham and the suggestively named Anne Manners, the sympathetic (i.e., non-modern) female character in the tale, in which Pleydell is further anatomized over a British tea:

"I've never met a Jew I liked so much before," Anne remarked.

"The real pure-blooded Jew, like Pleydell," Roger told her, "is one of the best fellows in the world.  It's the hybrid Jew, the Russian, Polish and German variety, that's let the race down so badly."

"And yet he seems as reserved and unimpassioned as an Englishman," Anne mused.  "I should have thought that the pure-blooded Jew would have retained his Oriental emotionalism almost unimpaired."

Roger could have kissed her for the slightly pedantic way she spoke, which, after a surfeit of hostesses and modernly slangy young women, he found altogether charming.

Readers today may be forgiven for finding "slightly pedantic" Anne slightly less charming.  What's so creepy about this teatime duologue between these two genteel racists is the way it's presented as a sophisticated, objective, intellectual discussion.  It's a reminder that this was the great era of "scientific" racism, when the "science" of eugenics flourished, with all the tragedies that it entailed.  The problem isn't the pureblooded Jews, you see!  It's only those Russian, Polish and German ones who have "let the race down so badly."  (What others less polite than Roger and Anne referred to as race mongrels.)  Every last one of them apparently.

In 1933, five years after the publication of The Silk Stocking Murders and the year Hitler took full power in Germany, there were, not so incidentally, 9.5 million Jews living in Europe (including the European portion of the USSR).  Over six million of these--nearly two-thirds of Europe's Jews--lived in Russia, Poland and Germany.  It's about the same number of Jews Hitler and his minions succeeded in killing.  It gives a sort of ghastly significance to Roger and Anne's discussion, one which, to be fair to ABC, I'm sure the author never intended.  But it's hard to look past it today.

see Holocaust Encyclopedia United States Holocaust Museum

To HarperCollins' credit, I believe this passage was not whitewashed but rather left in its recent reprint of the novel, which probably is the main reason it has an average rating of only three stars on  Writes one reviewer, "I found the antisemitism so extensive here as to be sickening...."  I agree, though it's certainly instructive about social attitudes of the time, and thereby has great value for cultural historians.

I's easy to pick on Nigel Morland or Sydney Horler or Sapper, to name a few authors of the sillier thrillers, which are often deemed the tripe of the crime fiction genre (and they deserve criticism, to be sure); yet the works of purportedly "sophisticated" writers like ABC--the filet steaks and truffles if you will--often get a a pass, like those of Chandler.

But how sophisticated was ABC, really?  Let's take a look at another of his books, The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926), also reprinted by HarperCollins.  Like The Silk Stocking Murders, Wychford also averages three stars on  (Were these really the Berkeley titles that needed to be reprinted?  Why, for heaven's sake?  He wrote much better ones.) 

In Wychford ABC, a noted misogynist, takes on relations between the sexes, managing in the process to sound more like Bobbie Riggs than Sigmund Freud.  The novel is subtitled, rather grandiosely, "An Essay in Criminology."  As in a lot of essays (not this one I hope) there's a lot of pontificating, much of coming from our old friend Roger Sheringham.  Many of his expressed sentiments are positively loopy.  In particular Sheringham's thoughts on women suggest that, when it comes to psychiatry, Roger would have made a much better patient than practitioner.

In truth Wychford mainly seems to be about Roger's (and the author's) extreme antipathy toward the modern woman of the Roaring Twenties (an antipathy glimpsed as well in The Silk Stocking Murders), as embodied in the tale by a flippant flapper named, naturally enough, Sheila.  "I'm simply reveling in all this!" sheila burbles at one point.  "It's fun being a detective."  Sheila, take a bow!

At various points Roger takes time to recommend spanking as the way the solve the problem of forward modern women like Sheila (and this recommendation is resolutely adopted in one nauseating passage) and to fume over these shameless females being so brazen as to don "male" garments like pajamas.  How dare they!  But Roger absolutely grabs the chauvinism cake with both hands with his jaw-droppingly misogynistic soliloquy on page 124 of my edition:

Sheila, take a bow!
And prepare for a spanking.
"Nearly all women...are idiots....charming idiots, delightful idiots, adorable idiots, if you like, but always idiots, and most damnable idiots as well; most women are potential devils, you know.  they live entirely by their emotions, both in thought and deed, they are fundamentally incapable of reason and their one idea in life is to appear attractive to men."

It may not surprise you to find that ABC in his life had difficult relationships with women.  Though to be fair a lot of men came to dislike him as well.  ABC, who grew increasingly querulous and disputations over the years, became a terror to both sexes in the Detection Club.

Now I know that some of you will say Roger Sheringham often is made to look a fool in the books, and that, I'll admit, is true.  I think there was a part of ABC that was aware to an extent of his own personal flaws and who satirized those flaws in his books by making fun of Roger.  But it's also clear that ABC could behave like a real ass, just like Roger, and, it appears, in a similar way.

No doubt Anthony Berkeley's crime fiction oeuvre has more worth than that of the prolific but not enthralling Nigel Morland, but a lot of the sentiments you find in ABC's works frankly are no more sophisticated than those in Morland's.  There's nothing really sophisticated about the isms and phobias, no matter how much people may have tried to dress it up in finer attire.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.

Nigel Morland, incidentally, once was considered for membership in the Detection Club.  What happened?  Check in with the next post to find out if you don't know.  There will be more about our dear Mr. Morland.


  1. Great post Curtis. Definitely a balanced post, neither white washing nor damning everything in sight. Only read The Silk Stocking mystery once and remember very little about it, except that I didn't enjoy it. I stayed clear of The Wychford Poisoning Case, due to your warning, which you issued on my blog at the time of the reprint. Would you say the isms and phobias become less frequent or more muted in mid to late Berkeley novels? I think it would be really good if they could reprint Professor on Paws, as it has a wonderfully intriguing title (please don't tell me it's full of awful comments lol)

    1. I liked Trial and Error a lot at the time, though I'm not sure I 'd ever feel the need to read it again. I do like some of the Sheringhams, believe it or not! I've always thought the Iles books and The Poisoned Chocolates Case were overrated. His short story The Avenging Chance is brilliant, though.

  2. All that moronic spanking in Wychford... got me laughing and gasping almost simultaneously. The book is not all that good as a mystery either because it turns out there is no mystery at all. No crime even! A shaggy dog story of a detective novel.

    I don't care how much you enjoy maligning "our dear Mr. Morland" for his backward thinking. As a crime fiction plotter he had moments of sheer ingenuity.

    1. Well, I'll give him another chance. I hadn't read your Moon Murders piece, but it doesn't change my mond about Mrs. Pym, lol. Actually I found him more interesting as a person than his books, at least the Mrs. Pym ones. Pronzini included "John Donovan" in Gun in Cheek. But he wrote a lot of books!

      But my larger point is it's easy to beat up on the lowly thriller writers, but what about the mystery toffs?

  3. My policy with regard to authorial bigotry is a simple one: I don't expect writers to be more intelligent or better human beings than the average person and so I'm okay, for lack of a better word, with them being assholes as long as they keep that private. Whatever Morland and Berkeley felt about Jews or Japanese or Black people was their own business; the problem is that they felt entitled to pollute their writing with it. I'll thus skip the books you mention that seem to be pretty poor work anyway.

    Of course this relative leniency of mine is probably helped by the fact that I'm from a country that produced and still produces lots of genius writers with skeletons in the closet. The Berkeley/Morland brand of bigotry is actually pretty mild in comparison with that found in the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jacques Chardonne, Lucien Rebatet, Paul Morand or since we're dealing with crime writers, Léo Malet who really had a thing against Arabs. Being French permanently requires one to separate the artist from their art, for otherwise we wouldn't be reading anything at all - even that republican icon Victor Hugo said some unsavoury things about Africans.

    Still, I agree any writer, even one I admire like Berkeley, should be taken to task for their racist or other problematic feelings when they intrude in their work as long as it doesn't prevent a fair assessment of it. The crime fiction has had enough Watsons, Joshis or Symonses, people who only like writers on the same political side as theirs.

    1. I'll be writing more about Morland soon on this subject, because his social and ethnic background is unique among GA British mystery writers, where Berkeley was much more the usual thing. I wrote this not to attack Morland per se, but to point out that there were other, purportedly more sophisticated writers who did the same things as well. Also, with every passing day, seemingly, I find these things have not dated at all, as some have contended. We're witnessing the same issues all around us every day. GA mystery is more timely than ever, for good and ill.

  4. My own view, rightly or wrongly, is that racism was entirely acceptable by society at large, at least until the Nazi death camps showed where such attitudes tended to lead and it is ridiculous to expect authors to be significantly different from the societies in which they live and work. I'm old enough to remember when it took federal troops to desegregate US schools and that was long after WWII. As others have pointed out racism is far from an historical relic and even now seems very common. Is there really much difference between the Warsaw Ghetto where the people were not allowed to leave freely because they were Jews and the Gaza Ghetto where people are not allowed to leave freely because they are not Jews? Really? Perhaps we simply have a more highly developed set of code words that allow us to be as bigoted as ever while claiming we are not. Like Trump claiming not to have a racist bone in his body while denying a black President was really an American and telling the black Congress members of The Squad to go back where they came from. I hope and believe that we have progressed, but sometimes I wonder. I'm going to shut up now because I've wandered too far from crime fiction.

    1. Oh, that's okay, I kind of cracked open Pandora's Box a bit, lol. I am struck how we seem to be repeating a lot of the same attitudes of the Thirties, that you see in GA detective fiction. It worries me, because it didn't end well the first time!

      I think the antisemitic references did tone down over the Thirties. Writers would have have had to have been pretty oblivious not to notice what was going in Germany. Even Sapper, whose Bulldrog Dummond books I can't abide, I'm sorry, does a mea culpa of sorts in one of the later ones not long before his death. (It's still a wretched book though.)

      I do think some of the GA writers handled these matters better than others though. What really tees me off about the ABC piece is how ABC always had to act like he was such a sophisticated writer and then he offers up tosh like that. I like some of his books, but he's an exasperating author. But then you could say the same about Chandler. That's one thing I like about the Humdrums, they never put on airs.

  5. It's worth remembering that in the 1920s and 30s things were attributed to "race" which had nothing to do with it. How far was it actual racism, how far a matter of perception and language? An old man I knew - a Cockney - regularly referred to "sheenies" and "niggers", but was very careful not to do so when he was with people who might be hurt. It wasn't a matter of cowardice - he fought British fascists before WWII and later led actions to stop his employers restricting black and Indian people to the worse jobs - but that those were "natural" terms for him to use.
    An interesting aspect to "golden age" racism can be found in Napoleon Bonaparte, Arthur Upfield's half-Aboriginal Australian detective. Upfield obsessively - tediously, even - emphasises the effects of Bony's two ancestries on him and directly attributes particular qualities and skills to one or the other of his ancestries, yet nowadays the same things could be expressed in cultural terms and regarded as perceptive and observant. One of the interesting things about Upfield's books is that he portrays Bony as holding positions which Australian Aboriginals couldn't then hold and being regarded with a respect which was non-existent at the time. Was he trying to directly influence people's behaviour?

    1. Well, I guess the extent to whether these terms were natural at the time is some indication of the extent to which racist, or racial, attitudes were ingrained in people. My southern grandfather habitually referred to blacks as "coloreds," which was a common "polite" word for them in the South at the time, and he was known to use the n-word at times. Yet at the same time he concealed a girl's partial black heritage at the school where he was principal, so she could stay in the school. MMany people were complicated in their attitudes.

      I think my main point was that it's easy to go after the thrillers on the language issue, but how about the attitudes in the more sophisticated books? Often people don't discuss that. I think it's worse, because of the way it's portrayed as the high-minded, objective, intellectual discussion, when really it's nothing of the sort. It's just stupid.

      Agatha Christie made it clear she thought of thriller writing as fun but rather sort of slumming and she adhered to some of the conventions of the time. I don't think it meant she was deeply racist. As I discuss myself in my new post, Nigel Morland himself was half Jewish. But both he and Jefferson Farjeon, another Jew, both used the sinister black man trope on occasion. Did it reflect his actual views? I have no idea.

      I think Upfield gets criticized by people today for racism, but he certainly was trying to do something different for his day and prominent liberal critics like Anthony Boucher loved his work.

    2. I should mention that lots of people were calling Japanese "Japs" in the midst of the Thirties, with all that was going on, and of course more were doing so in the Forties. Of course crime fiction, like other fiction, will reflect that sort of things. Still, I find Mrs. Pym hard indeed to love, or even like.