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 na├»ve 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).


  1. I'm assuming that these critics didn't read either Endless Night or Crooked House in Christie's books - not very pastoral or a vision of "mythic England" in those two. This is like the criticism of the late Michael Dibdin, an author whose use of laughable coincidences suggests that the writing he should have been criticising was his own. As a working class Englishman myself, with a mixture of leftish social views and pragmatic organisational ones I find this type of criticism a sort of of "snobbery from above" as they are effectively criticising a working class audience who bought these books in their millions. They seem to feel that the readers should have been considerably more high-minded and concerned with social issues than they were. Sadly, what the readers themselves wanted was a good puzzle and to some extent the schadenfreude of seeing people of notionally "elevated" status suffering. I talked to Ed Gorman about this once, and he said that in the United States he once talked to the publisher of Jim Thompson, who was convinced the Thompson would be a massive selling author. Ed thought that this was unlikely as most people, often existing within the background to Thompson's books in their real life, would vote for escapism when they got home. I also don't think Street was the only crime fiction author who dealt with the background of a working-class life in his books. Many of the critics you mentioned did not think of crime fiction as having the possibilities of literature, and therefore did not read very widely in the field, principally taking their cue from what they could see on the shelves. I would suggest that some of Allingham's work (Tiger in the Smoke, More Work for the Undertaker) has a more nuanced approach to the idea of class, and Sayer's Nine Tailors is evocative of a sort of working-class life on the edge of disappearance, even at the time.

    1. Yes, they act like working class people didn't read these books, just reactionary and complacent middle class people. Of course leftist intelligentsia read them and maids were reputed to adore Edgar Wallace.

      Todd Downing was part Choctaw and an anti-colonialist scholar of Mexico and what did he read as a young man? Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard, among others.

      I agree that British mystery as a whole was more nuanced that it has traditionally gotten credit with being. Of course today people are more openminded. Academics have been doing a lot of good work on Christie the last decade or so and of course Martin Edwards had popularized this work in his books.

      Aside from the working class issue, the world depicted in British Golden Age mystery quite often is NOT stable.