Monday, September 6, 2021

GADderdammerung I: John Street, aka John Rhode and Miles Burton, and the end of the Golden Age

Valhalla in Flames, 1894 depiction by Max Bruckner, original set designer of
Richard Wagner's opera Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)

People often ask me: So, when did the "Golden Age of detective fiction" actually end?  It's like asking when the Dark Ages lit up or the Roman Empire fell, I suppose (though at least we were given an official date for that latter one when I was in school).  

Customarily it's said that the Golden Age existed between the two world wars, around 1920 to 1939, but the problem with this formulation has always been that the Golden Age generation of mystery writers was still going quite strong in Forties.  It's in the Fifties when you start to see some real drop-off in quality, which rapidly accelerated in the Sixties, by which time a lot of the Golden Age writers were, well, actually dying.

One might argue that the Golden Age should be extended at least through the years of World War II.  Certainly in England the postwar years, with the impact of shortages and economic austerity, the accelerated decline of the Empire and the social changes fostered by the Labour government, impacted the writing of Golden Age mystery writers, undermining the classical structure which people associate, somewhat exaggeratedly, with the Golden Age: the country house, the stable and stratified English village, the homogenous society, etc.  Theoretically fair play detective fiction should be able to exist without these elements (you can have a fair play mystery with mean streets and hoodlums), yet in many people's minds it's hard to imagine classic mystery without them.  

However, it was in 1950 that Agatha Christie produced what is generally acknowledged as one of her masterpieces: A Murder Is Announced, which is set, yes, in an English village, one going through some of the social upheaval described above.  The postwar years hardly rendered Christie incapable of writing great detective novels.  Besides A Murder Is Announced, we have The Hollow (1946), Taken at the Flood (1948), Crooked House (1949), Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), They Do It With Mirrors (1952), After the Funeral (1953), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)--a collection which puts many another mystery writer to shame, I think, even the slightly weaker ones (in my view House, Mirrors and Rye).  

Probably it's not until the mid-Fifties when you could really say, okay, the old gel's suffering from some slippage.  (I'm thinking the Poirots Hickory Dickory Dock and Dead Man's Folly, which seem clearly inferior to the gold-star Poirots McGinty and Funeral.)  So it seems that, having not only survived the Labour years but produced some of her best books then, Christie only really starting declining after the Tories came back to power.  

Maybe it was the Suez Crisis (1956) that ruined everything!

You actually can see a similar trajectory with Major John Street, aka John Rhode and Miles Burton, and his 31 (!) postwar John Rhode novels, beginning with The Lake House (1946) and ending with The Vanishing Diary (1961), and his 29 Miles Burton novels, beginning with The Cat Jumps (1946) and ending with Death Paints a Picture (1960).  That's 60 novels in fifteen years, folks, all of them true detective novels, so of course there's going to be variation in quality.  Yet the surprising things is how consistently good the quality is (if you are an admirer of the writer) for some time after the Second World War.  

When did the gas start to run out of the Major's tank?  What follows is how I rank Street's books from this period  (no half stars, which would add more variation).  KEEP IN MIND that three stars is good, four very good, five great.  Two okay, one poor.


JOHN RHODES (all with Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn)

1946

The Lake House****

Death in Harley Street*****

1947

Nothing but the Truth**1/2

Death of an Author***

1948

The Paper Bag****

The Telephone Call****

1949

Blackthorn House***1/2

Up the Garden Path***1/2

1950

Family Affairs****

The Two Graphs***

Dr. Goodwood's Locum****

1951

The Secret Meeting****

1952

Death in Wellington Road***

Death at the Dance****

By Registered Post**

1953

Death at the Inn***1/2

1954 

The Dovebury Murders***1/2

Death on the Lawn***1/2

1955

The Domestic Agency***

Death of a Godmother**

1956

An Artist Dies**1/2

Open Verdict**

1957

Robbery with Violence***

Death of a Bridegroom**

1958

Murder at Derivale***

Death Takes a Partner*

Licenced for Murder***1/2

1959

Three Cousins Die**

1960

Twice Dead***

The Fatal Pool*

1961

The Vanishing Diary**


MILES BURTONS (all with Desmond Merrion and all but one with Inspector Arnold)

1946

The Cat Jumps*****

Situation Vacant****

1947

Heir to Lucifer****

A Will in the Way***1/2

1948

Death in Shallow Water**

Devil's Reckoning***

1949

Death Takes the Living***1/2

Look Alive****

1950

Ground for Suspicion****

A Village Afraid****

1951

Beware Your Neighbour***

Murder Out of School**

1952

Murder on Duty**

1953

Heir to Murder***

Something to Hide**

1954

Murder in Absence****

Unwanted Corpse***

1955

Murder Unrecognized**

A Crime in Time**

1956

Found Drowned**

Death in Duffle Coat**

1957

The Moth Watch Murder***1/2

The Chinese Puzzle***

1958

Bones in the Brickfield****

Death Takes a Detour***

1959

Return from the Dead***1/2

A Smell of Smoke**

1960

Legacy of Death**

Death Paints a Picture**


So there you have it.  Like I said in my last post, I've become nervous about over-praising books these days, so I'm very chary indeed of five star ratings.  Thus I have Street with his last "masterpieces" in 1946, one Rhode and one Burton.  (And I know there are going to be people saying, I kept seeing people saying The Cat Jumps was so great, but I just don't get it....)

So, all totaled from 1946 to 1954 we have


18 RHODES 1946-54

1 5-star

7 4-star

5 3.5-star

3 3-star

1 2.5-star

1 2-star

17 BURTONS 1946-54

1 5-star

6 4-star

2 3.5-star

4 3-star

4 2-star


So I guess you could say I prefer Burton in this period, though honestly I would like to go back and reread some of these.  But for now from 1955 to 1961 we have: 

13 RHODEs 1955-61

1 3.5-star

4 3-star

1 2.5 star

5 2-star

2 1-star

13 BURTONs 1955-61

1 four-star

2 3.5-star

2 3-star

8 2-star


In Masters I wrote that the later Burtons are better than the later Rhodes, generally speaking, and I think this opinion holds up as far as the post-1954 books go, although only moderately so; but honestly I would have to reread some of these.  The Puzzle Doctor liked some of the Burtons I considered forgettable at the time.  (And, to confirm it, I have since forgotten them.)  However, no Burton title is as bad as The Fatal Pool or Death Takes a Partner.

Also I have Burton's Bones in the Brickfield as the best mystery by Street, either as Burton or Rhode, in the 1955-61 period.  I suppose I've just "doomed" this book now!  On the other hand, I'm currently rereading and rather enjoying A Village Afraid, of which eminent Streetist Jacques Barzun damningly pronounced:

One of his very worst.

So, you never know, do you--despite what those experts say!

So when did Street really start to decline then?  Looking at the above, I would say 1955/6 (about the same time as Christie--see, Suez again!) if you put a blunt instrument to my head, but even after that he had his moments.  Why did he stop writing in 1961?  I think he must have been his health.  He was 77, had been overweight for years and was a longtime drinker and smoker.  He died three years later in 1964.  The impressive thing is that he kept going so prolifically for so long.  An indomitable fellah, indeed.

15 comments:

  1. Thank you - I enjoy posts like this one as it let's me know which are the stronger versus weaker books from prolific authors. I was offered recently an excellent copy of The Paper Bag but am glad I didn't spend the money for the very good copy given your three-star rating.

    Can I be greedy and ask you for which of the Rhode / Burton titles prior to 1946 that you would rate either five or four stars please? I would find that very helpful. Many thanks.

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    1. I'll try to get around to it soon! But keep in mind I liked The Paper Bag, For me three stars is "good." Maybe I should add that above, lol. One would be poor, two okay, three good, four very good and 5 great. I don't know how much they were wanting for that copy of the Paper Bag though!

      Maybe I should have included half stars!

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    2. There, I bumped some up to 3.5, including The Paper Bag. Hope that doesn't fill you with regret now! ;) Honestly, I'm trying to err on the strict side. If you asked me to rate A Pocket Full of Rye under this system I'd give it 3.5 stars. Personally I would want to get any Rhode/Burton book rated three stars or higher! But we know how much they can cost. Happily Mysterious Press is going to start reprinting the Rhodes as eBooks, I hope the Burtons follow.

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    3. I'll try to get the wartime Rhode/Burtons up and rated next, and soon!

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    4. Useful to know that 3 or 3.5 stars is a good book and the comparison to Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye is helpful to know what you mean.

      If I see The Paper Bag offered again, I will consider adding it to my collection. Despite this one offered to me in Very Good condition with a Very Good dustjacket, the price was too high when I did not know it was a good one. An internet search for that title yielded almost no reviews or context.

      Looking forward to your pre-war Rhode / Burton rankings when you have time. I continue to value your blog and have learned significantly about GAD from your postings. Thank you that.

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    5. Here are Jon Jeremy's recommendations from the GAD WIKI: RHODE
      The Ellerby Case
      The Murders in Praed Street
      *The House on Tollard Ridge
      *The Davidson Case
      Pinehurst
      *The Hanging Woman
      Dead Men at the Folly
      *The Motor Rally Mystery
      *The Claverton Mystery
      *The Venner Crime
      *The Robthorne Mystery
      *Poison for One
      *Shot at Dawn
      *The Corpse in the Car
      *Hendon's First Case
      *Mystery at Olympia
      *Death on the Board
      *Proceed with Caution
      *Invisible Weapons
      *The Bloody Tower
      *Death on the Boat Train
      *Death at the Helm
      *They Watched by Night
      *Dead on the Track
      *Men Die at Cyprus Lodge
      *Vegetable Duck
      The Paper Bag
      The Telephone Call
      *Family Affairs
      *The Secret Meeting
      Death at the Dance
      Death at the Inn
      Licensed for Murder

      BURTON
      *The Secret of High Eldersham
      To Catch a Thief
      The Devereux Court Mystery
      *Death in the Tunnel
      Murder of a Chemist
      Death at the Club
      *The Platinum Cat
      Death Leaves No Card
      Mr. Westerby Missing
      Up the Garden Path (Death Visits Downspring)
      *Murder M. D.
      *The Three Corpse Trick
      *The Cat Jumps
      Situation Vacant
      Death Takes the Living
      Ground for Suspicion
      Bones in the Brickfield The starred names are his personal favourites.

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    6. I'm 99.9% certain these are mine, lol. That must have been a post I made to the old Yahoo GAD site which got transferred to the GA Wiki.

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    7. Decided to bump up Look Alive to 4!

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    8. Scott, you're going to kil me after all this, but I've decided to upgrade Paper Bag to four stars, lol. I'm totally goign to have to review this books soon. ;) but it does have a unique plot within the Rhode oeuvre, with similarity to a Sayers short story, so it's pretty interesting. But it's not a straightforward x murdered y story.

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    9. Of course then I said I'd give Christie's Pocket Full of Rye three stars, so the question becomes I suppose, is The Paper Bag better than A Pocket Full of Rye? I guess I would say it's a more original book. Rye has all the Christie devices, but they feel a but worn perhaps.

      I think that, certainly by Christie's standards, Rye is not quite a 4-star book. I think some fans grade practically everything 4 or 5, judging by Amazon reviews, but I don't agree with this. Fore example, Sparkling Cyanide is very good, but it's not on par with And Then There Were None, say, or even Mrs. McGinty's Dead, say, so I couldn't give it five stars. It's probably a four-star book, I think, more original than Rye, for example, but not a five star. That being said, it's probably better, as a detective novel, than most.

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  2. I've always regarded the 1940s as part of the Golden Age with the old guard still actively writing and new names appearing on the scene. You can even include the 1950s as the decade the fire of the Golden Age was reduced to glowing embers in a dying fire, but I've since come to regard the Golden Age more as a life cycle than a period of time.

    1910-1919: the (nofficial) cradle/infancy of the Golden Age
    1920-1929: the Golden Age's childhood years
    1930-1939: the Golden Age's energetic adolescence/ young adult
    1940-1949: the Golden Age fully matured into adulthood
    1950-1959: the Golden Age's twilight years

    You probably can apply this to individual writers like Carr, Christie and Street.

    "That's 60 novels in fifteen years, folks, all of them true detective novels..."

    Didn't he also offer plots and tricks to Detection Club members who were stuck on a story? That man was the human incarnation of the Plot Genie!

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    1. Brilliant analogy comparing GAD evolution to infancy, childhood, adolescence, adult and twilight. I haven't read enough Rhode / Burton to know that was the case (so I will trust that it is). Definitely a great characterisation for Carr and Christie.

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    2. Yeah, I think most people prefer the vintage mysteries of the Forties to those of the Twenties so it seems kind of strange to exclude the Forties from the Golden Age.

      I enjoy a lot of the Street books even from the Fifties but there's no question to my mind that the overall quality dipped in that decade. If your a real fan you might enjoy most of them, though even a real fan will be tested by The Fatal Pool. But even then there are some ingenious bits some of them, like the way the bank money was stolen in Robbery with Violence or the murder scheme in Licenced for Murder or the poisonings in The Dovebury Murders.

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    3. Yes he invited Christianna Brand down to his house to look at not his etchings but his plots. He said she was free to use any of them. Of course Street reused devices in some of his books. Burton's Crime in Time reuses the murder method of Rhode's Murder at Lilac Cottage as I recollect. But overall he was amazingly fertile with original devices.

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