Friday, April 22, 2022

The Conservatism of Classic British Mystery and That Little Matter of the Death in the Tunnel

One of the matters my Amazon critic--just possibly himself an old academic leftist whose work is filled with clumsy, mechanistic Marxism--finds objectionable about Masters of the Humdrum Mystery is that I contend that John Street portrayed "working men" positively in his books and was interested in their work.  The reason I get into this is that so often British Golden Age mystery is passed off as sweepingly, snobbishly dismissive of the working class.  

God knows this is true of a lot of British mysteries.  But having read all of Street's books I felt he was rather different in this regard.  It's one of the appealing things about them to me as a reader.  Of course Street didn't want to overturn the English social system--far from it.  But his books aren't always filled, either, with the reverence and longing for the old agrarian social order that we have been told characterized all British mystery of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  

Which is how Colin Watson and Julian Symons and academics of a certain time, particularly those of the Marxist school, tended to portray them.  I'll quote here some of the ones that I quote in Masters:

“The social order in [British Golden Age] stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas,” damningly declares Julian Symons in Bloody Murder.  Rather grudgingly Symons allows that Golden Age British mystery writers were not “openly [emphasis added] anti-Semitic or anti-Radical,” yet he adds that “they were overwhelmingly conservative in feeling.”

Colin Watson, author of Snobbery with Violence, another seventies-era, politically left history of Golden Age British mystery and thriller fiction, wrote even more caustically of the works of the period than Symons, asserting that in their books between-the-wars genre writers consistently adopted the views of an obtuse English middle class that saw “working class people as envious, unreasonable and vicious, but too stupid, fortunately, to constitute a real menace in any political sense.”  According to Watson, the placid English village temporarily disturbed by murder in these tales (memorably dubbed by him “Mayhem Parva”) was emphatically a false creation, “a sort of museum of nostalgia” for the social and political structure of a vanished Edwardian England.

A more tempered statement of this view can be found in two highly influential leftist academic studies of mystery fiction from the same era, Stephen Knight's Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) and Dennis Porter's The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (1981).  Both men implicitly treat their narrow and thinly sourced interpretations of Agatha Christie's detective fiction as broadly applicable to the Golden Age British mystery genre as a whole.  “The world of the [Agatha] Christie novel,” insists Knight, “is a dream of bourgeois rural living without the heights, depths or conflicts of real social activity.  It is a projection of the dreams of those anxious middle-class people who would like a life where change, disorder and work are all equally absent.”  Porter likewise stresses the alleged backward-looking, pastoral conservatism of Christie’s mystery fiction.  The Crime Queen’s novels, Porter declares, “projected the vision of a mythic England of cottage and manor house, churchyards and country lanes, where only solvable crimes posed a threat to age-old ways of life.”

Getting back to The Passing Tramp and the present day again, is John Street's world (or the world of many other British mystery writers from that era, like Agatha Christie, for that matter) really "a dream of bourgeois rural living without the heights, depths or conflicts of real social activity....a projection of the dreams of those anxious middle-class people who would like a life where change, disorder and work are all equally absent?"  Does it  project "the vision of a mythic England of cottage and manor house, churchyards and country lanes, where only solvable crimes posed a threat to age-old ways of life"?   Or is there more going on in some of these books?

Personally, I think there's a lot more to these books than these heavy-handed and thinly-sourced academic interpretations assert.  I know a lot of people agree with me, even some academics of the last two decades, who have found a lot more of interest in Agatha Christie, for example.  I don't believe these people are naïve or unsophisticated, to use my critics words.

I quote some more of these people in a footnote:

These views are echoed in such works as Martin Priestman's Crime Fiction (“The social vision of Christie's novels is, famously, very conservative.  Country houses and/or upper-middle-class village communities...purvey a typifying vision of British society as a whole strikingly at odds with many insistent realities of the interwar years, from the devastation of the Great War to the mass unemployment and depression of the 1920s and 1930s....[The detectives of Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and Innes] are very complete fantasy-projections of a readership anxious to believe that an establishment led by such well-bred, well-educated men could still be trusted to protect a threatened and divided British society from itself”--p. 21, 24); Charles J. Rzepka's Detective Fiction (“Here [in Golden Age British detective fiction] was a world embodying the values of the vanishing gentry class”--p. 153); and John Scagg's Crime Fiction (“Golden Age fiction, at least in its British version, often features a rural or semi-rural setting....The characteristic desire of Golden Age fiction to restore or return to a lost order that, in all respects, is superior to the present world, reinforces this pastoral reading”--p. 50).

Whether or not British mystery writers were really uniformly "pastoralists" expressing "the values of the vanishing gentry class" was something I wanted to look at in Masters.  Certainly Street was interested in farming, but he was interested in it as a business, just as he was interested in manufacturing as a business.  He was also interested in the people who actually worked in these fields.  Street's own background was not only in the military, but also in electrical engineering.  Freeman Wills Crofts was a railroad engineer, JJ Connington a chemist.  

I go into all this with a lot of careful detail, but all my academic critic wants to look at Death in the Tunnel, where he asserts Street's sleuth Desmond Merrion, when he sees how nasty it is in that railroad tunnel, isn't expressing any concern for working people.  Perhaps not, but I wasn't talking about Merrion.  I was talking about the author.  I'll leave you with the full passage from the book,  I stand by what I wrote:

In one memorable chapter, Merrion and Arnold, guided by an intelligent and articulate railway ganger, investigate the tunnel of death itself:

Up till now there had been a path beside the down line, which, though uncomfortably close to the trains as they roared past, still afforded a measure of safety.  But at the entrance to the tunnel the path ended.  Thence it was necessary to walk on the permanent way, keeping a sharp lookout for trains, taking to the down line if an up train was heard, and vice versa.  Here and there within the tunnel were refuges, caves dug out of the wall in which the three of them could barely crouch.  More than once they were forced to seek shelter in one of these, when both an up and a down train approached them simultaneously.

The atmosphere was, in any case, positively suffocating, though the ganger assured them that conditions were extremely favourable.  “Why, in some weather you can’t see a flare a dozen yards away,” he said.  “It’s tricky work then, I can tell you, gentlemen.  You’ve got to keep your wits about you, for you know the drivers can’t see you any more than you can see them.  And as to breathing, you’ve got to take a mouthful of air when you can and think yourself lucky to get that.”       

They had a mild taste of this when a heavy goods train came through, steaming hard against the gradient.  A torrent of red sparks poured from the funnel of the engine....As the engine passed, the whirl of disturbed air seemed to snatch at them in an endeavor to drag them under the wheels.  Then immediately they were enveloped in a warm clinging murk of steam and sulphurous smoke.  The hot cinders descended on the backs of their necks, the trucks roared and clanged past within a few inches of them.  Not until the train passed and the air had cleared a little did they venture to leave the refuge in which they had taken shelter.
           After leaving the tunnel and drawing deep breaths to cleanse "his lungs of the fumes he had inhaled," Merrion expresses his intense relief to be out of there: “‘My word!’ he exclaimed.  ‘That confounded tunnel must be as near an approach to hell as human ingenuity can devise.  My classics are getting a bit rusty, but wasn't it Hercules who went down into the infernal regions to rescue his pal's wife?...I never realized before what a plucky chap he must have been.  A dozen distressed damsels wouldn't tempt me into that tunnel again.’”  Arnold looks at his watch and finds that “it had taken them nearly two hours to traverse the two and a half miles of the tunnel.”  Admittedly this episode from the novel is a mere vignette, yet in it Street manages to convey his familiarity with--and respect for—the work done by manual laborers.  A comparable passage is lacking in two celebrated train mysteries from the period, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Freeman Wills Crofts' Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930).

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Mastering the Mystery Genre: The Problem with Theory Divorced from Facts

When I published Masters of the Humdrum Mystery ten years ago, I felt the problem with the academic approach to Golden Age crime writing for so many years was that it was airy theory divorced from down on the ground facts.  Over and over I read that Americans of the period wrote left-wing, mean streets, hard-boiled mystery while the Brits wrote right-wing, pastoral country house and village "cozy" mysteries.  American mystery writing was "masculine" while British mystery was "feminine."  

The proof?  Why, it was in the half dozen or so Golden Age era crime writers academics would condescend to look at: Chandler, Hammett, Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh.  Obviously, this was a too-limited approach, even an ahistorical one, that gave only an incomplete picture of Golden Age mystery; but then most of the academics writing about the subject weren't actually historians by training, like I was.  They were, rather, English lit professors. Much of what they write is so theory and jargon laden it's unreadable to laypeople (and perhaps to themselves as well for all I know).  

So when I started reading a great variety of Golden Age mystery writers and got into the original sources from the period and realized how limited the typical academic approach was, I decided to write Masters, which is a far more rigorously informed, and I would say accurate, book.  Facts are what my anonymous Amazon critic disdains as "glutinous."  That's a word he derived from a critic I wryly quoted in my book, who said the same of the intensive facts-based investigative approach of Freeman Wills Crofts' indefatigable Inspector French.  

Facts may indeed be glutinous, because they stick.  The academic theory prevalent from 1980 to 2010 or so hasn't stuck; and it's been coming undone over the last decade, as the bloggers and "connoisseurs" (as my critic dismissively terms them) and the popular writers have done the real spadework and discovered where the bodies were buried.  Now, don't get me wrong, there has been good academic work in the last decade, but by and large academics have been playing catchup with the rest of us when it comes to the facts.  At least some of them have been paying attention to what we have been doing.  Smart boys and girls, those.

I come from an academic background; my father was a business professor who taught economics and international finance in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Alabama and Mexico.  I received my share of degrees, BA, MA, JD, PhD (I was introduced as a "professional student" once) and taught history for a short time.  I love good academic scholarship, but sometimes academia can be a bar to good scholarship, I have found. 

I was interested to find that one of the academics whose work I praised in Masters, Alison Light, is now an independent scholar.  Alison Light can really write and I have learned a lot from her.  Anyone who reads academic historian Douglas Greene's popular biography of John Dickson Carr, will learn a hell of a lot about the history of Golden Age crime writing through the life of one its masters (not humdrum at all); but of course traditional biography is frowned on by so many English lit types (not historians).  

I tried in Masters to engage with academics, but the book was ignored in the review journals.  It's since started to pop up in academic citations, as have my books on mystery writer Todd Downing and LGBTQ crime writers and themes, Murder in the Closet (Edgar nominated), but by anonymous Amazon reviewer gave me a taste of the academic response at its worst: petty, score-settling, deceptive and splenetic.  I sure don't miss that!

The internet is a mixed blessing.  Everyone has an opinion and freely expresses it, which is great up to a certain point, but not all opinions are equally informed.  There's a need for experts and they should be respected.  But in the field of vintage mystery studies, academics are not always the experts.  I think the profession could use a healthy dose of connoisseurship.  And that's where the internet really scores.  

The internet gives experts who aren't necessarily within the academic profession a forum.  My Amazon critic has a blog, but no one reads it.  (It's hard to read, both in terms of its opaque content and its execrable format.)  My blog is moving on its way to three million views.  Heck, even my critic professes to like my blog.  (I don't know how he will feel about the last few posts.)

To be sure, I wish my books sold like my blog is viewed.  That's why my next book, a critical biography, I want to publish with a commercial press.  It's the first book I have written with that goal in mind.  Masters was published with a scholarly press, which unfortunately is rather limiting, given that most such presses aim only to sell to libraries--Remember them?--and price accordingly.  The blog is all well and good (very good, really), but I wouldn't mind making some real money from my books, I'll admit.  Mercenary of me, I know.  But that's what happens when you don't stay in the ivory tower and must venture down mean streets.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

"Mere Puzzles?": The Introduction to My 2012 Book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery

Note: I thought I would give readers of this blog a chance to look at the introduction to my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (assuming you never bought or borrowed the book).  It's 7925 words, counting the footnotes, so its a lot of free content!  Hope you enjoy.--TPT

Reviewing John Curran's Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks (2009), an exhaustive structural analysis of the Queen of Crime's copious surviving working notes, Agatha Christie biographer Laura Thompson complained that the effect of Curran's book was “to make Christie seem like not much more than the sum of her plots....a mere devisor of puzzles.”  In an earlier article that touched in part on the Secret Notebooks, Thompson asserted that to treat Christie simply as an ingenious puzzle maker was, in her view, essentially an act of denigration. “Her critics have called Christie a purveyor of mere puzzles, of 'animated algebra',” wrote Thompson.  “Yet if she were only that, it is impossible her books could have endured as they have.  [Christie] had an intrinsic wisdom—a grasp of human nature—that informed the geometry of her plots and made them profoundly, morally satisfying.”  This idea expressed by Laura Thompson, that writing puzzles--mere puzzles--is an inherently less worthy endeavor for a detective novelist than revealing to one's readers one's morally satisfying intrinsic wisdom, hardly is held by Thompson alone.  Indeed, Thompson's opinion is the dominant critical view of crime fiction today, and has been so for decades.  Thompson's 2007 biography of Christie constituted a bid by the author to persuade critics and book reviewers to take the Queen of Crime more seriously, not as a purveyor of puzzles (though these puzzles are commonly seen as the greatest such devised in the history of the genre), but as a mainstream author with sober things to say about the human condition.  Thompson's effort to place Christie in the pantheon of noteworthy, serious writers deserving of respectful critical treatment met with little success in the eyes of the mass media, however, reviewers of her biography predictably proving resistant to the idea that Christie could be seen as anything more than a mere puzzler.  London Observer columnist Rachel Cooke, for example, was openly mirthful at the very notion that one could take Christie seriously as a writer: “Thompson quotes the novels...reverentially, as if they were Wharton or Eliot, not the result of the hack-work that meant Christie could write one and sometimes two novels a year for five decades.  She repeatedly tells you how brilliant this or that book is—and what she admires is not Christie's way with riddles, but the stuff nobody else can find in her books: insight, motivation, deep emotion.”  Expressing similar skepticism in her review in the London Telegraph, Jessica Mann, herself a mystery novelist, bluntly deemed Thompson's assertion that Christie's “perfect geometric puzzles” also are “perfectly distilled meditations upon human nature” to be “over the top.”  Yet another reviewer, the Times Literary Supplement's Lindsay Duguid, questioned whether even Christie's clever puzzle plotting could salvage what Duguid found to be the Queen of Crime's intolerably banal writing.  “[R]eading [Christie's detective novels] brings one hard up against the realities of leaden exchanges and flat, repetitious description,” Duguid wrote dismissively.  “One can hardly bear to read on.”  Duguid derisively termed Christie's beloved tales of detection “anti-novels.”[1]

Despite such critical scoffing, Agatha Christie readers for nine decades now, delighted by the ingenuity of those critically derided puzzles, have proven more than able to bear reading on; and Christie detective novels still are enthusiastically devoured today, over thirty-five years after the death of the author, while new Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple films adapted from those novels continue to appear on television (though sometimes in free adaptations that give Christie fans more pain than pleasure).  Additionally, a coterie of British detection writers who, like Christie, first appeared in the span of years known as the Golden Age of detective fiction (a period, from roughly 1920 to 1940, when a “fair play” puzzle with a solution potentially deducible by the reader was generally considered an integral part of a detective novel), remains in print today, most notably Christie's sister Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.[2]  However, another group of impressive Golden Age detective novelists—a group once eagerly read and celebrated, like Agatha Christie always has been, for skill in puzzle construction—today is mostly forgotten by all but book collectors and classical mystery enthusiasts and specialists: the so-called “Humdrums.”  Though these “Humdrum” detective novelists most often are dismissed by the modern critics who deign to take even momentary notice of them as hack purveyors of “mere puzzles,” unworthy of serious attention, these authors actually merit sound scholarly investigation, on account of their intrinsic merit as mystery writers as well as for the light they shed on both the mystery genre itself and English social history in the decades from the 1920s to the 1950s.

            The term “Humdrum”--that damning appellation for a particular band of once widely-esteemed Golden Age detective novelists--was popularized by an influential post-Golden Age mystery critic and crime writer, Julian Symons (1912-1994), whose genre survey, Bloody Murder (1972, reprinted in 1985 and 1993), remains a cornerstone of mystery criticism.  Rather than seeing the period between World War One and World War Two—when considerable emphasis in mystery literature was laid on crafting fairly clued puzzles for the reader to solve—as a “Golden Age” from which modern crime writers had declined, Symons viewed the period as an eccentric detour off the main road of aesthetic development in the mystery genre, from the Victorian era's “sensation novel” (a serious novel where shocking and sensational events, encompassing crime and sometimes murder, play a great role) to the modern age's “crime novel” (a novel about crime, usually murder, ideally including realistic police procedure, social observation and psychological penetration).  Though he recognized her limitations as a literary writer, Symons had genuine admiration for Christie as a detective novelist, deeming her a clever designer of puzzles who was capable as well of composing sprightly narratives.  Yet of the writers he labeled Humdrums, Symons declared peremptorily that he could “no longer read [their work] with any pleasure.”  Symons asserted that most of these Humdrum writers “came late to writing fiction” and that few of them “had much talent for it.”  While they doubtlessly “had some skill in constructing puzzles,” Symons grudgingly allowed, Humdrums had “nothing more” than that to offer readers--and that alone was not enough.[3]

Although it was with Bloody Murder that Julian Symons cemented the notion of a passé Humdrum school of detective fiction in the minds of modern mystery critics and readers, he had written in disparaging terms about this group of writers before Bloody Murder first appeared in 1972.  In a 1959 crime fiction review column in the Sunday Times, Symons, noting the death of detective novelist Freeman Wills Crofts, crowned Crofts' countryman and contemporary John Rhode (a pseudonym of Cecil John Charles Street) as Britain's now reigning “master of the humdrum.”  Four years later, in his first general survey of the mystery genre, “The Detective Story in Britain” (a pamphlet published for The British Council and the National Book League), Symons did not specifically use the term “Humdrum” to identify a particular group of, in his view, dull detection authors, but he clearly had the word or something quite like it in mind when he wrote of Golden Age mystery novelists who “produced books which had almost invariably been plotted with a slide rule, but were written without style or savour.”  In these works, Symons asserted, “plot...was all,” while “wit, characterisation and consideration of the psychology of the people involved in the books” counted for “nothing.”  In Symons' view, the determined adherence of these authors to restrictive rules laid down for the writing of fair play detective fiction in the 1920s trapped them in a sterile, artistically constricted environment that could yield only lifeless sub-literature.[4]

Julian Symons made his disdain for Humdrums clear enough in his critical writings, but he was less clear about just which writers actually comprised this group.  In “The Detective Story in Britain,” Symons cited as specific examples of the inferior writers he had in mind Freeman Wills Crofts, spouses G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, E. R. Punshon, J. J. Connington (pseudonym of Alfred Walter Stewart) and Ronald Knox, adding that these individuals stood “among a host of writers now almost forgotten.”  Ten years later, in Bloody Murder, Symons recalled as notable Humdrums three of these “now almost forgotten” writers, John Rhode, R. A. J. Walling and J. S. Fletcher; while he dropped from the list Punshon and Connington and transferred Knox to another category, “Farceurs.”  Crofts and the Coles held their places, the former being given the dubious distinction of being the best of this dull lot.  In a later edition of Bloody Murder, Symons added to the list Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, who wrote as Henry Wade.[5]  Later critics have followed Symons in noting the existence of a group of Golden Age Humdrum writers, yet the exact membership roll of this group has remained imprecise to this day. 

Most often Freeman Wills Crofts, John Street, Alfred Walter Stewart, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole are mentioned as humdrum writers, with Crofts being treated as the leading figure among them.  In this study I focus on three writers—railway engineer and devout low church Anglican Freeman Wills Crofts; army artillerist, military intelligence officer and electrical engineer Major Cecil John Charles Street; and Scots-Irish chemistry professor Alfred Walter Stewart—as the greatest exponents of the true Humdrum school (Aubrey-Fletcher and the Coles, who are not really properly considered Humdrums at all, I deal with in a separate study). I aim to demonstrate that this school of mystery fiction has been unjustly disparaged by Julian Symons and the many critics who have adopted his views.[6]

What really distinguishes “Humdrums” as a discrete group of writers?  As we have seen, Julian Symons essentially identified Humdrums as individuals who “came late to writing fiction” and placed greater emphasis on puzzle construction and adherence to fair play detection than on characterization and stylish writing.  This is fair enough as far as it goes, though in my view Symons insufficiently values the great technical sophistication of the plots in the best works of these authors.  All three of the foremost Humdrums, Crofts, Street and Stewart, were men of professional backgrounds who brought considerable workplace expertise to their writing of detective fiction, producing some of the finest works in the classical, puzzle-oriented style of the Golden Age of the British detective novel.  At their peak, they were among the most popular and critically-esteemed British detective novelists.  Indicative of the one-time standing of Crofts, Street and Stewart is that they--like the great (and much better studied) Crime Queens Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers--were all founding members of the Detection Club, a social body consisting of the elite of Golden Age British detective novelists.

This trio of writers has been neglected in genre studies for too long.  With the exception of Jacques Barzun's and Wendell Hertig Taylor's monumental defense of the classical Golden Age puzzle novel, A Catalogue of Crime (originally published in 1971, a year before the appearance of Bloody Murder), critical works on the genre in the last forty years overwhelmingly have aped Symons' approach to the Humdrums, treating these authors as writers of little account and giving them at best only sporadic, most often dismissive, mentions in surveys.  In my view, this approach is mistaken.  Not only are the works of these so-called Humdrum authors of note for having once been among the most well-received and widely read detective fiction of the period, but they stand as useful correctives to genre historians, who too often have reached over-broad conclusions about the purported “feminization” and conservatism of the British detective novel in the Golden Age based on interpretations of the books of only a small number of writers from the era, commonly the Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.[7]

In Bloody Murder Julian Symons admits to having omitted discussion of once highly-regarded work by “many Golden Age writers” on the ground that he had examined in detail “the most notable practitioners....and the period can properly be judged by them.”  More recent genre surveys have offered coverage of Golden Age authors that is even further truncated than that found in Bloody Murder.  For example, in his Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914-1940, Leroy Lad Panek cavalierly dubs the Humdrums an irrelevant “group of hangers-on” and immediately dismisses them from his consideration.[8]  I dissent from the view that the works of so many writers from this period can be thus cast aside.  Just as the modern-day British Crime Queens, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, cannot be said to stand for all crime writers of more recent times, the Golden Age Crime Queens (plus the occasional attendant male or two) cannot justly be said to have stood for all the British detective novelists of their day.  In point of fact, the writers who are the subjects of Mere Puzzles differed in significant ways from the today much better known and studied Crime Queens. 

The most obvious difference between the Humdrums and the Crime Queens is the simple biological fact that the Humdrums were men rather than women.  As the reputation of the Crime Queens relative to that of other British detective novelists (a great many of whom were male) rose after World War Two, critics came increasingly to see classical British mystery, in contrast with the American “hardboiled” private detective novel of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as a feminine demesne.  This tendency has accelerated with the proliferation of feminist studies in academia over the last several decades.  While laudably correcting a previous tendency by many male critics toward unjustly dismissive attitudes concerning female-authored mystery fiction, these studies have helped foster an unfortunate neglect of male British Golden Age detective novelists. 

Today many studies either entirely omit male British mystery authors of the Golden Age or too hastily dismiss them.  For example, when setting the Golden Age context for British detective fiction in her 2007 popular biography of Agatha Christie, author Laura Thompson finds it necessary to mention only Christie's sister Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, completely ignoring male writers of the period.  Thompson even concludes that Christie “was probably the least feminine of any of the writers of classic detective fiction”--an assertion that surely would have come as a surprise to John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart.  Similarly, genre scholar Erin A. Smith asserts that the “best-selling and most critically acclaimed British mystery authors of the 1920s and '30s were disproportionately women” (just what is meant by “disproportionately” is not explained).  “There were some successful male authors of classical detective fiction between the wars,” Professor Smith allows; yet she also asserts that British women mystery novelists “were so prominent” in the genre “that the occupation of mystery writing could seem as 'feminine' as teaching or nursing.”  Encapsulating the currently ascendant critical view, Susan Rowland concludes in her 2010 essay, “The ‘Classical’ Model of the Golden Age” (which omits all but one of the Humdrum authors and misinterprets the remaining one, Freeman Wills Crofts, based on a reading of merely one of his thirty-three detective novels): “All in all, the golden age form is a feminized one.”[9] 

Admittedly British mystery writing of the Golden Age, as portrayed by most genre critics and scholars today, does indeed appear to have been as feminine an occupation as, say, nursing; but, as any mystery reader should know, appearances can  deceive and red herrings abound.  From my research I have concluded that certainly a majority of British writers of Golden Age detective fiction were men; and among these men were some of the most popular and highly-regarded mystery writers of the period, including the Humdrum authors.  Over the years the traces of these writers may have become obscured, like rug-covered bloodstains on the parquet flooring in a country house mystery, yet they remained under concealment, awaiting dramatic discovery by curious scholar “detectives.”

Besides being male, the Humdrums also differ from the Crime Queens in their occupational backgrounds.  In their writing they made use of significantly different real world vocational experiences, particularly an intense familiarity with science and technology.  A survey of the Crime Queens reveals a paucity of such vocational experiences on their part.  Agatha Christie was the daughter of an American expatriate living on inherited income.  She herself had no professional background, with the exception of some volunteer dispensing work during World War One, until she became a successful writer.  Dorothy L. Sayers, the daughter of a country clergyman, attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages and medieval literature.  She later worked nine years in the advertising business, experience she used in her detective novel Murder Must Advertise (1933).  Margery Allingham, the daughter of a newspaper serialist, began writing professionally by the age of nineteen.  Ngaio Marsh, daughter of a bank clerk, produced Shakespearean plays in addition to writing her series of detective novels.  Conversely, the Humdrums came to fiction writing from well-established technical/scientific vocational backgrounds: John Street, an English army artillerist, intelligence officer and electrical engineer; Freeman Wills Crofts, a North Ireland railway engineer; and Alfred Walter Stewart, a chemistry professor who taught at Queen's College, Belfast and the University of Glasgow.[10] 

Naturally enough, the vocational experiences of Humdrum authors influenced their writing, making it diverse from that of the Crime Queens.  This divergence of professional backgrounds among British Golden Age writers and its diversifying effect on the genre fiction they produced is a point typically missed in discussions of Golden Age detective fiction that draw mostly on the Crime Queens for evidence.  For example, Erin A. Smith claims that “classical English detective fiction, murders aside, trafficked in remarkably feminine currencies—emotion, private life, domestic spaces.”  Leaving aside the question of the merit in the view that emotion, private life and domestic spaces invariably are “remarkably feminine currencies,” it will become readily apparent to readers of this study that Humdrum works often trafficked in more stereotypically masculine currencies, such as the very public spaces in which businessmen and the police performed their professional functions.  To note the single most extreme instance known to me of a Humdrum British Golden Age detective novelist trafficking in remarkably “masculine” currencies, in Mystery on Southampton Water, a 1934 Freeman Wills Crofts novel concerning industrial espionage and multiple murder involving feuding cement companies (we are a very long way from country houses here), the author rather strikingly goes so far as to entirely omit female characters from his tale.[11]

The error in which too narrow a focus on the Golden Age Crime Queens can result is apparent as well in P. D. James' “autobiographical fragment,” Time to Be in Earnest (1999), in which the modern-day British Crime Queen asserts that Golden Age detective novelists “had very little knowledge of and even less apparent interest in forensic medicine.”  P. D. James offers in proof of her assertion the point that “many of the most eminent [Golden Age writers] were women with no scientific training” and concomitantly little interest in realistically portraying science in their fiction.  These “many” eminent women writers James cites turn out to be three of the four usual Crime Queen suspects, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh (Agatha Christie qualified as a dispenser during World War One, gaining wide knowledge about drugs and poisons which she put to ingenious murderous use in her tales).  James' reliance on three women writers as her evidentiary basis leads again to an overly sweeping generalization about the Golden Age, for the Humdrum writers she fails to consider in her analysis of the period tended to be scrupulous in dealing with precisely those points of technical accuracy she chides Golden Age writers for ignoring.[12]

            The critical focus on the Crime Queens has led to a general consensus that not only was the Golden Age British detective novel an essentially “feminine” genre, but that it also was politically and socially conservative as well as classist and racist, being riddled with disdain and condescension toward the English working class, foreigners and ethnic and racial minorities.  Three of the Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, created aristocratic gentleman sleuths who often carry out their investigations in milieus deemed outrageously snobbish by hostile critics of the classical form of the mystery genre.  Moreover, while Agatha Christie's most famous Golden Age detective, Hercule Poirot, was a solidly bourgeois Belgian émigré (middle class and foreign, no less!), Christie often has been accused of a snobbish treatment of servants in her work, on account of such notorious passages as this reflection from the bright young heroine of  her 1925 mystery, The Secret of Chimneys:  “I certainly knew her face quite well—in that vague way one does know governesses and companions....It's awful, but I never really look at them properly.  Do you?”[13]

            Drawing largely on the works of the Crime Queens, genre critics typically portray the world of the British Golden Age detective novel as a unitary one that is, to quote P. D. James in Talking about Detective Fiction, “middle-class, hierarchical, rural, peaceable.”  On this matter critics have been heavily influenced by poet and voracious detective fiction reader W. H. Auden's 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage.”  In this essay Auden discusses his preferred sort of detective story, that in which murder takes place in a placid English village.  Murder disrupts the orderly life of the village, Auden explains, until the detective arrives “to restore the state of grace” that, Eden-like, previously existed there.  Although Auden in actuality was writing only about his preferred sort of detective story (“I find it very read one not set in rural England,” he admits), his essay all too often has been taken as a generalized description of all British detective fiction from the Golden Age, leading once again to the drawing of misleadingly sweeping conclusions about the genre in this period.[14]

            More conservative critics, like Auden himself as well as P. D. James, have taken a benign perspective of this purported portrayal in Golden Age detective novels of an Edenic, rigidly stratified, pastoral world.  Indeed, P. D. James, who was born in 1920, argues that these works essentially portrayed, without overmuch exaggeration, a place that actually existed for many individuals during the years when she grew into adulthood:


[I]t was an England I knew, a cohesive world, overwhelmingly white and united by a common belief in a religious and moral code based on the Judeo-Christian inheritance...and buttressed by social and political institutions which...were accepted as necessary to the well-being of the state: the monarchy, the Empire, the Church, the criminal justice system, the City, the ancient universities.  It was an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration, and in which there was small sympathy for the criminal....[T]he 1930s were years of remarkable freedom from domestic crime....It was therefore possible to live in a country town or village and feel almost entirely secure.  We can read an Agatha Christie novel set in what seems a mythical village, in which the inhabitants are happily reconciled to their allotted rank and station, and we feel that this is an exaggerated, romaticised or idealised world.  It isn't, not altogether.[15]


            To be sure, most critics, likely viewing the genre from a more left perspective than P. D. James, are far less sympathetic than she concerning the social and political biases that they perceive in the Golden Age British mystery.  “The social order in [British Golden Age] stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas,” damningly declares Julian Symons in Bloody Murder.  Rather grudgingly Symons allows that Golden Age British mystery writers were not “openly [emphasis added] anti-Semitic or anti-Radical,” yet he adds that “they were overwhelmingly conservative in feeling.”  For his part, Colin Watson, author of Snobbery with Violence, another seventies-era, politically left history of Golden Age British mystery and thriller fiction, wrote even more caustically of the works of the period than Symons, asserting that in their books between-the-wars genre writers consistently adopted the views of an obtuse English middle class that saw “working class people as envious, unreasonable and vicious, but too stupid, fortunately, to constitute a real menace in any political sense.”  According to Watson, the placid English village temporarily disturbed by murder in these tales (memorably dubbed by him “Mayhem Parva”) was emphatically a false creation, “a sort of museum of nostalgia” for the social and political structure of a vanished Edwardian England.  A more tempered statement of this view can be found in two highly influential leftist academic studies of mystery fiction from the same era, Stephen Knight's Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) and Dennis Porter's The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (1981).  Both men implicitly treat their narrow and thinly sourced interpretations of Agatha Christie's detective fiction as broadly applicable to the Golden Age British mystery genre as a whole.  “The world of the [Agatha] Christie novel,” insists Knight, “is a dream of bourgeois rural living without the heights, depths or conflicts of real social activity.  It is a projection of the dreams of those anxious middle-class people who would like a life where change, disorder and work are all equally absent.”  Porter likewise stresses the alleged backward-looking, pastoral conservatism of Christie’s mystery fiction.  The Crime Queen’s novels, Porter declares, “projected the vision of a mythic England of cottage and manor house, churchyards and country lanes, where only solvable crimes posed a threat to age-old ways of life.”[16]

            However accurate a view of the Crime Queens this may be (it has been persuasively challenged by other scholars and in my own opinion is not entirely merited), in my view Humdrum authors treated various sociocultural issues in a more nuanced and unpredictable manner than critics and reviewers typically have allowed of British mystery writers in the Golden Age. In her study of Agatha Christie, Merja Makinen has astutely pointed out that political conservatism does “not necessarily rule out a questioning and even subversive attitude” toward particular generally accepted cultural and political norms. While it is true that the Humdrums, like the majority of Golden Age British detective novelists, can be classified to some extent as “conservative,” nevertheless they are not the High Tory, gentry-worshiping caricatures too often found in genre surveys.  Although John Street came of genteel origins, he was a political Liberal who despised hidebound social structures and in his writing sympathetically depicted energetic men of humble backgrounds rising in both urban and rural business environments through their hard work.  Similarly, Freeman Wills Crofts through his novels made his unassuming, petit bourgeois policeman, Inspector French, one of the most famous fictional English detectives of the Golden Age.  Also notably, John Street vigorously condemned anti-Semitism, while Freeman Wills Crofts, a strong believer in the Social Gospel, after the onset of the Depression became extremely critical of big business and private greed.  To be sure, the post-World War Two writings of Street and Crofts, which were produced at a time when an ascendant Labour government was pushing through ambitious and controversial left-of-center political reform, are more reactionary in tone than their earlier works; yet those earlier works are much more varied than critics typically have allowed of mystery genre fiction in the Golden Age. Even Alfred Walter Stewart, the most consistently conservative of these authors, is notable for the acerbically cynical and unsentimental view he takes of much of humanity in his J. J. Connington tales.  English society, as portrayed in books by the Humdrums, often is far less closed, comfortable, stratified and stable than one would expect from a reading of most genre critics.  In short, greater familiarity with writings by these neglected authors gives us a significantly better balanced understanding of the Golden Age of British mystery fiction.[17]

For scholars of mystery genre history, the treatment of gender issues by the Humdrums also has interest, despite the fact that the Humdrums were uniformly male.  John Street, who in his own personal life defied social strictures of his day by living with one woman while he was married to another, created some dynamic and rebellious female characters that do not conform to gender-bound conventions of the time.  Boundaries, whether professional or sexual, sometimes are transgressed by these daring women.  To be sure, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart offer more traditional treatments of female characters, yet these treatments are of interest in their own right; and they receive attention as well.[18]

While an ever-increasing number of studies of Golden Age detective fiction have appeared since the trailblazing publications of Jacques Barzun's and Wendell Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime and Julian Symons' Bloody Murder nearly forty years ago, few of these studies have attempted to follow Barzun and Taylor and integrate the so-called Humdrum detective novelists into their analyses by taking serious, informed looks at their work.  Rather, they have echoed Symons' dismissal of the efforts of Humdrum authors as “mere puzzles,” unworthy of serious critical consideration.  Yet works by this particular group of writers once were seen by many critics as supreme examples of the mystery art form, and they were quite popular with readers.  Moreover, these books remain prized by admirers of Golden Age detective fiction even today.  It must be said, with respect, that there was more to the Golden Age than the four Queens of Crime, important as these women clearly are in the history of the genre.  “To read the detective novels of these four women,” notes P. D. James of the Golden Age Crime Queens, “is to learn more about the England in which they lived than most popular social histories can provide.”[19]  Beyond doubt one can glean valuable historical detail from the books of the Crime Queens, yet one can do so as well from the books of other popular Golden Age detective novelists, most certainly including the Humdrums.  Detailed study of “Humdrum” detective novels and stories is justified because it shines light on neglected works and because it informs understanding of both the genre as a whole and of the time and place in which that genre thrived.  In the Golden Age's country house of mystery there in truth were many mansions, some of which, having stood for decades sadly shuttered and neglected, now receive a long overdue airing.

[1] London Daily Telegraph, 2 September 2007, 22 August, 4 September 2009; London Observer, 9 September 2007; London Times Literary Supplement, 3 October 2007.

[2] Josephine Tey sometimes is named as the fifth Crime Queen, but most of her genre work (as well as her most esteemed genre work) appeared after 1945.

[3] Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, rev. ed. (1972; repr., New York and Tokyo: Mysterious Press, 1993), 14, 118.

[4] London Sunday Times, 19 August 1959, 23; H. R. F. Keating, “A Double-Strung Crossbow,” in Patricia Craig, ed., Julian Symons at 80: A Tribute (Helsinki: Eurographica, 1992), 114; Julian Symons, The Detective Story in Britain, rev. ed. (1962; repr., Harlow, UK: Longmans, Green, 1969), 23.  Rules for writing detective fiction that emphasized the primacy of puzzle construction were promulgated by numerous figures in the 1920s and into the 1930s, most famously by American detective novelist S. S. Van Dine (the pseudonym of critic Willard Huntingdon Wright) and Ronald Knox, the prominent Catholic priest and British writer (among his other accomplishments, Knox penned six detective novels).

[5] Symons, “Detective Story,” 23.  Symons' addition of Henry Wade to a later edition of Bloody Murder seems to have been a response to the high praise meted to Wade in Jacques Barzun's and Wendell Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime, an encyclopedic tome Symons earlier had admitted to finding “extremely eccentric” in its appraisal of mystery writers.  Julian Symons, Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (American edition of Bloody Murder) (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 247.  Symons gives no indication that he had actually read any Henry Wade novels in the interim, however.  Since Henry Wade was one of the more consciously literary of British Golden Age crime writers, Symons’ conscription of him into Humdrum ranks seems senseless.  Possibly Symons was motivated more by pique with Barzun than anything else.  “What Barzun finds entrancing I think dull,” Symons dogmatically declares, ignoring the fact that the two men actually appreciated many of the same authors.  Symons, Bloody Murder, 283.

[6] Though I disagree with Symons’ pejorative use of the word Humdrum in reference to these writers, the term has entered, seemingly permanently, into the lexicon of mystery genre criticism and I therefore adopt it for use in this study.

[7] On the feminization of the Golden Age British detective novel, see note 9.  Key texts positing the High Tory, backward-looking conservatism of Golden Age British detective fiction include, besides Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, the following works: W. H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage,” Harper's 196 (May 1948): 406-412, reprinted in W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1962) and Robin W. Winks, ed., Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (Woodstock, VT: Foul Play Press, 1988); George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4 (fall 1970): 30-49, reprinted in Winks, Detective Fiction (as “The Formal Detective Novel”); Colin Watson, Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972); Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1980); Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1981); Martin Priestman, Detective Fiction and Literature: The Figure on the Carpet (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991); Martin Priestman, Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present (Writers and Their Work) (Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1998); Charles J. Rzepka, Detective Fiction (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity, 2005); John Scaggs, Crime Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); P. D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2009).

[8] Symons, Bloody Murder, 137; Leroy Lad Panek, Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain 1914-1940 (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1979), 12.  For another significant example of this truncated coverage of Humdrum writers, see Stephen Knight's recent ambitious attempt at a broad genre survey, Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity (Basingstoke, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).  Professor Knight devotes three sentences to Crofts, one sentence to Street (for his pseudonym John Rhode) and none to Stewart.  Despite this general neglect of Humdrum writers, a few recent studies have given some overdue attention to the scientific detective novelist R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943), a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle who might be styled the Father of the Humdrums.  See Knight, Crime Fiction, 69-70; Lee Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 35-36.  In addition to the Crime Queens, the British Golden Age novelists who have received the most critical attention in surveys are Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote crime fiction under the pen names Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles, and a pair of male authors who might be termed the Detection Dons: Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of poet and professor Cecil Day Lewis) and Michael Innes (pseudonym of literature professor John Innes Mackintosh Stewart).  Other detective novelists one sometimes sees mentioned in surveys are the American-born (but, for much of his adult life, England-dwelling) author John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room, or impossible crime, mystery, and Gladys Mitchell, creator of the bizarre psychiatrist detective Mrs. Bradley.  Little substantive analysis comparable to that performed on the Crime Queens has been done with these authors, however, though a fine biography of Carr and worthy short literary studies of the genre fiction of Innes and Cox have appeared in the last twenty-five years.  See Douglas G. Greene, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (New York: Otto Penzler, 1995); George L. Scheper, Michael Innes (New York: Ungar, 1986); Malcolm J. Turnbull, Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1996).

[9] Laura Thompson, Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (London: Headline Review, 2007), 374-376; Erin A. Smith, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), 39; Susan Rowland, “The ‘Classical’ Model of the Golden Age,” in Lee Horsley and Charles A. Rzepka, eds., A Companion to Crime Fiction (Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 122.  On the rise of feminist crime fiction studies since the 1970s see Heta Pyrhonen, Murder from an Academic Angle: An Introduction to the Study of the Detective Narrative (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994), 108-113 and Merja Makinen, Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity (New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,  2006), Chapter One.  Examples abound of this insistently gendered academic approach to Golden Age British detective fiction.  For example, in her Crime Fiction survey, Lee Horsley notes that the British Golden Age of detective fiction is “generally thought of as a period during which detective fiction became feminized” (p. 38).  John Scaggs declares that the “Golden Age in Britain was defined by” the Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh (Scaggs, Crime Fiction, 26).  Charles J. Rzepka asserts that Agatha Christie's audience was “largely female” (p. 157) and that during the Golden Age period “detective fiction shifted...away from adventure elements that had traditionally appealed to male readers and toward plots of ratiocination...which most women at the time were more inclined to admire” (p. 157-158).  In Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), Sally Munt insists that the Golden Age of British detection is “commonly conceived” as having run from “the first novel of Agatha Christie (1920) to the last novel by Dorothy L. Sayers (1937)” (p. 7) and she speculates that male critics who disparage the Golden Age are motivated by “a hidden agenda to repudiate women authors' work as relevant to a purely historic moment, an arcane form now superseded by the masculine hard-boiled thriller”(p. 209, n.28).  The overly sweeping distinction between universally tough, “masculine” American mystery fiction on the one hand and universally genteel, “feminine” British mystery fiction on the other has been endorsed most recently in P. D. James' recent short genre survey, Talking about Detective Fiction.  “A reader coming from Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler to Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers could reasonably feel that these writers were living not only on different continents but in different centuries,” declares James.  In James' view, the differences between female- dominated British Golden Age detective fiction and the works of the American male hard-boiled writers “are so profound that it seems stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category.”  James, Detective Fiction, 70, 72. Contradicting all this, sources contemporary with the Golden Age often expressed the view that both authors and readers of British detective fiction, particularly in the period from 1920 to 1935 or thereabouts, were predominantly male.  For example, in a 1929 essay, “The Professor and the Detective,” Marjorie Hope Nicolson, then Dean of Smith College (she later became the first female graduate school professor at Columbia University), asserted that “the detective story is primarily a man’s novel” and that “the great bulk of our detective stories today are being written by men”—phenomena she attributed to mainstream fiction having become “too largely feminized.”  Marjorie Nicolson, “The Professor and the Detective,” in Howard Haycraft, The Art of the Mystery Story (1946; repr., New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992), 123.  Additionally, George Orwell recalled in his “Bookshop Memories,” originally published in 1936, that while “women of all kinds and ages” read novels by such mainstream bestsellers as Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping and Jeffrey Farnol, men “read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories....[T]heir consumption of detective stories is terrific.”  George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories,” Fortnightly (November 1936), reprinted in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., George Orwell: An Age like This 1920-1940 (Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I) (Boston, MA: David R. Godine, 2000), 244.  For further consideration of this matter, see Chapter 1, note 22.

[10] For biographies of individual Crime Queens, see: for Agatha Christie, Janet Morgan, Agatha Christie: A Biography (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985) and Thompson, Agatha Christie; for Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (New York: St. Martins, 1993); for Margery Allingham, Julia Thorogood [Jones], Margery Allingham: A Biography (London: Heinemann, 1991) (rev. ed. published as The Adventures of Margery Allingham, Chelmsford, Essex: Golden Duck, 2009); for Ngaio Marsh, Margaret Lewis, Ngaio Marsh: A Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991) (reprinted by Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press, 1998) and Joanne Drayton: Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (Auckland: HarperCollins, 2008).  For  collective studies of the four Crime Queens (as well as, in the first book, Josephine Tey and, in the second book, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell), see Jessica Mann, Deadlier Than the Male: Why Are Respectable English Women So Good at Murder? (New York: Macmillan, 1981) and Susan Rowland, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction (Basingstoke, UK and New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[11] Smith, Hard-Boiled, 39.  Mystery in Southampton Water is discussed in Chapter Two.  For another Humdrum novel where female characters are practically nonexistent, see Night Exercise (1942) by John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street).  Among the women who briefly appear in the novel, which is about a murder that takes place during a Home Guard practice operation, only a pubkeeper's wife and a Civil Defense secretary have even a few lines (though the secretary, Miss Purser, is admiringly described “as the sort of person who would carry out details of routine undisturbed with a Panzer division on her doorstep.”  John Rhode, Dead of the Night (English title: Night Exercise) (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1942), 241.

[12] P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 33.  In her detective novel Have His Carcase (1932), Dorothy L. Sayers acknowledged the help she received on certain technical points from John Street, while she gave co-authorship credit for her epistolary mystery The Documents in the Case (1930) to Dr. Eustace Robert Barton, who aided her with the book's medical and scientific details.  Similarly, Ngaio Marsh gave co-authorship credit of her third detective novel, The Nursing Home Murder (1935), to a prominent New Zealand gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Henry Jellett.

[13] Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys (London: Collins, 1925), 228.  Christie's other most famous series detective, Miss Marple, the elderly, genteel spinster living in the quaint English village of St. Mary Mead, is often treated as a major Golden Age figure, though in fact, as noted by Alison Light, she appeared only in one novel and one volume of short stories before 1940.  Disdain for aristocratic English detectives and their social milieus clearly colored early influential criticism of British Golden Age detective novels made in the 1940s by the American man of letters Edmund Wilson and the great hardboiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler (see Curt Evans, “‘The Amateur Detective Just Won’t Do’: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction,” The American Culture,; and this disdain is often echoed today by genre critics writing about the hardboiled tradition.  “Christie's armchair supersleuth, Hercule Poirot...can find the solution to any mystery with his ingenious faculties of deduction.  After he solves the case, everyone breathes a sigh of relief while the butler pours a round of sherry,” sarcastically writes Gene D. Phillips in Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 1, in a statement representative of numerous others that can be found within the body of hardboiled genre criticism.

[14] James, Detective Fiction, 72; Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage,” reprinted in Winks, Detective Fiction, 15, 21.

[15] James, Detective Fiction, 70-71.

[16] Symons, Bloody Murder, 108; Watson, Snobbery with Violence, 140, 171; Knight, Form and Ideology, 117-118; Porter, Pursuit of Crime, 194-195.  For a concise statement of Watson's views, see Colin Watson, “Mayhem Parva and Wicked Belgravia,” in H. R. F. Keating, ed., Crime Writers (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1978), 47-63.  These views are echoed in such works as Martin Priestman's Crime Fiction (“The social vision of Christie's novels is, famously, very conservative.  Country houses and/or upper-middle-class village communities...purvey a typifying vision of British society as a whole strikingly at odds with many insistent realities of the interwar years, from the devastation of the Great War to the mass unemployment and depression of the 1920s and 1930s....[The detectives of Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and Innes] are very complete fantasy-projections of a readership anxious to believe that an establishment led by such well-bred, well-educated men could still be trusted to protect a threatened and divided British society from itself”--p. 21, 24); Charles J. Rzepka's Detective Fiction (“Here [in Golden Age British detective fiction] was a world embodying the values of the vanishing gentry class”--p. 153); and John Scagg's Crime Fiction (“Golden Age fiction, at least in its British version, often features a rural or semi-rural setting....The characteristic desire of Golden Age fiction to restore or return to a lost order that, in all respects, is superior to the present world, reinforces this pastoral reading”--p. 50).

[17] The characterization of Agatha Christie's novels as High Tory, backward-looking and pastoralist has been forcefully challenged by a chapter in Alison Light's Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1992), in my view the most important work of literary criticism from the last twenty years touching on British Golden Age mystery.  Light has influenced this study with her idea of “conservative modernity.”  Among authors of recent genre surveys, Lee Horsley recognizes that the “standard view of the uniformly insular and snobbish character of inter-war detective fiction is effectively challenged by...Alison Light.”  Horsley, Crime Fiction, 39.  See also: Gill Plain, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body (London: Routledge, 2001), which challenges the liberal-conservative binary in comparing the works of the hard-boiled American crime novelist Raymond Chandler with those of Agatha Christie; and Susan Rowland, Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell,  which carefully notes nuances in the conservatism of the Crime Queens (“Despite the reputation gained by Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh for providing unproblematically conservative country house mysteries, these rural economies prove surprisingly non-coherent and fragile”--p. 43).

[18] For an especially illuminating academic study of the treatment of gender issues by a Golden Age detective novelist, see Makinen, Investigating Femininity.

[19] James, Detective Fiction, 81. An exception to my generalization about genre studies of the last forty years, Ian Carter's Railways and Culture in Britain: The Epitome of Modernity (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), offers an example of how an informed inclusion of Humdrum authors can enhance a literary study.  In a chapter of eighteen pages (excluding notes) on Golden Age crime fiction and British railways, Professor Carter devotes three persuasive pages to the works of railway engineer turned mystery novelist Freeman Wills Crofts.  Mention also is made of books by the other subjects of this study.  For additional broader literary studies that include analyses of detective fiction, see Alison's Light's Forever England, Gill Plain's Women's Fiction of the Second World War: Gender, Power, Resistance (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996) and Nicola Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)--all of which draw in part on works by the Crime Queens--and Chris Baldick's impressive comprehensive literary survey, The Modern Movement (The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 10. 1910-1940) (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).