‘The crime novel,’ said Bertolt Brecht, ‘like the world itself, is ruled by the English.’ He was thinking of the detective story and the tribute was truest in the ‘golden age’, between the great wars; the period covered, hugely readably, by Martin Edwards.
Edwards’s primary subject is the Detection Club, whose members included the giants of the genre — G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham. Its rules (they loved rules) were given quasi commandment authority by one of the club’s founder-members, Monsignor Ronald Knox, professional churchman, amateur novelist. Most of the club liked to see themselves as ‘unprofessional’, as if fiction were like the annual ‘Gentleman versus Players’ cricket match. Grubby-fingered hacks like Edgar Wallace were unwelcome. ‘Scientific deduction is too easy,’ one Knoxian law decreed. Another was that ‘Love interest is undesirable’. And above all else, detection must pivot on ‘fair play’ with the reader. Like cricket.
The essence of the Golden Age detective novel, P. D. James recalled (writing in this magazine), was ‘plot and puzzle’. Some of the genre’s more generous practitioners appended, in a spirit of fair play, ‘clue-finders’, for the less detectively adept of their readers who may have turned the pages too fast. Or just been too dim.
James went on to ponder the members’ inner drives. The core fascination was not with detection but death, she concluded. The initiation ceremony for club neophytes centred on Eric the Skull, ritually brought in, red eyes glowing, by torchlight (it came close to inducing gibbering breakdown in Ngaio Marsh).
Sayers’s Whose Body? opens with Lord Wimsey looking down at a naked corpse in a bath. The fact that a foreskin is present is one to put in the cluefinder (this was, however, a clue too raw for the publisher, who made her change it to something milder about fingernails).
Francis Iles’s Before the Fact ends, hauntingly, with the wife knowingly drinking the poison her rat of a husband has served up. Why? Because she is, as Keats would say, ‘half in love with easeful death’. Hitchcock was obliged to alter the last scene of Suspicion, his film of Iles’s novel, weakening it.
Many of the club members’ lives (Sayers was, until middle age, an exception) were as asexual as Knox ruled their novels should be. The joint authors Margaret and George Cole neutered themselves titularly as ‘M’ and ‘G.D.H.’ For them writing detective novels was, Edwards suggests, copulation by genre fiction. George’s ‘bleeding piles’ made the real thing difficult, Margaret recalled later in life: ‘His sexual life diminished gradually to zero for the last 20 years of his life. He came to feel that it was all revolting.’
Both Coles are remembered for achievements in public life which dwarfed their efforts in fiction. Margaret was a local politician who helped comprehensivise school education. G.D.H. Cole was a ‘red’ don who taught Harold Wilson, stoking his mind, via PPE (that nursery of our current political leaders), with the political theory necessary to bring in the 1960s early wave of ‘New Labour’. Both George and Mary were hopelessly in love with another PPE graduate, Hugh Gaitskell, a man unrevolted by sex.
G.D.H. starved himself — subsisting, for a dismal period of his life, on seaweed bread, and not too much of it. But not all the club denied their bellies. Chesterton ate himself into a corpulence that not even a pilgrimage to Lourdes could cure.
Edwards includes a charming picture of Gladys Mitchell (Philip Larkin’s favourite detective novelist) doing (very) high kicks with school girls, as a life-long champion of fitness for the weaker sex. Mitchell (unusually trim to the end) could well have run a class or two for her fellow queens of detective fiction. Christie, Sayers and Marjorie Allingham became, in middle and late age, grossly overweight. Shame made them morbidly reclusive and contributed to Allingham’s consignment to an asylum and the horrors of electroconvulsive therapy.
All that glisters is not gold. The problem with English detective stories of this age, said Raymond Chandler, wasn’t that they didn’t contain some very good things. What vexed the discriminating reader was that so many bad things got published alongside them. Julian Symons, gifted practitioner and eminent critic, consigned a large bulk of the period’s works to the ‘humdrum’ category.
Edwards strongly demurs. He has never, one deduces, read a detective novel of the golden age that he didn’t like (and he’s read a vast number). He joyously, and with infectious enthusiasm, summarises plots by the score. But he’s a literary evangelist in manacles. You can write about the last, fatal scene of Anna Karenina, but you mustn’t (spoiler alert) divulge who the killer is on the Orient Express (Freud’s favourite detective novel).
What, then, took the gold out of British detective fiction? P.D. James points to the simple fact that the police got better at their job. Both she and Ruth Rendell, the two recently deceased queens of the genre, observed the fact by making their series heroes professional flatfoots. Call it Inspector Lestrade’s revenge.
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