I’ve been waiting for a biography of Josephine Tey for years, and was so pleased when I saw that Sandstone Press were to publish this one. Henderson’s book gives a vast amount of new information (new to the casual but devoted Tey re-reader, but possibly not new to a proper detective fiction scholar), and depicts Elizabeth MacKintosh’s life admirably. Henderson should be praised for her assiduous research which must have taken years. I have a sense from the style of some of the chapters that, during her research, Henderson may have been giving talks to local Inverness audiences about her project. The biography’s narrative voice, so to speak, explains a lot about otherwise well-known English places and people, as if expecting her readers not to know who or what these were. Henderson also explains Highland geography, Gaelic culture, and Inverness history and traditions, possibly in more detail than the non-Inverness reader might expect, but it’s all excellent background material. Overall, I did like this biography, and am grateful that it’s been written. But I was annoyed, throughout the book, by Henderson’s preoccupation with her subject’s sexuality.
Henderson has done some speculative detective work which ‘reveals’, she suggests, that Elizabeth MacKintosh had had a brief romance with an officer who died in the First World War: so brief that there is absolutely no evidence for it. I found it annoying that Henderson kept returning to this speculation, turning it later into an assertion, and then into assumed fact. She does the same with the episode of apparent friendship and non-love affair between MacKintosh and a local poet. Rudimentary connections between them (they published their poetry and stories at the same time, they wrote some letters to each other) are embroidered into a fantasy of mutual emotional dependence and literary influence on no evidence, just ‘what if’ guesses as to the possible existence of evidence. It is so exasperating that Henderson spends so much of the biography dwelling on these two ‘relationships’ which had no discernible effect on MacKintosh’s life or writing.
However, once we reach the letter written by ‘Mack’ to her actress friend Marda Vanne, explaining that Vanne’s advances to her had been a complete surprise and that MacKintosh, unlike Vanne, was not in fact lesbian, I did wonder if this was the reason for Henderson’s insistence on ‘proving’ that MacKintosh had been in love with men earlier in her life. Fishing through the footnotes and scattered references in the biography (it is well footnoted) I see that a series of modern detective novels starring a fictionalised MacKintosh depicts her as gay, and that this has exasperated and/or annoyed some of the Tey readership. I’ve never heard of these novels so have no opinion on them, but I enjoyed speculating on Henderson’s motivations for her own speculations. Honestly, does it matter if MacKintosh was or was not gay? There are many reasons for choosing not to marry. Henderson goes on to discuss a female Tey character (sorry, spoiler) who dresses as a man in order to pursue a masculine career, as if cross-dressing is a guarantee of lesbianism. The character displays no homosexual tendencies in the novel at all, and is in fact a rather unmasculine girl in trousers and short hair (fashionable for the period). Again, relying on evidence rather than on fallacies about sexual orientation, would have been preferable.
As you’ll see above, it is hard to keep to one name for Elizabeth MacKintosh. Henderson made a maddening stylistic decision to use the name most suitable for the context of MacKintosh’s life at that point. So she is rarely ‘Elizabeth’, but is called her childhood family name, her school name, her college name, and the names of her literary pseudonyms Daviot and Tey, with several different names being used on the same page, depending on the context. I can see the logic behind this decision, but it interrupts the narrative no end, and feels like a theory applied to the project, rather than a practice that emerged naturally as Henderson’s writing developed. This hopping about between names and personae is exacerbated by Henderson’s continual reportage of MacKintosh’s feelings, motivations, and other internal thoughts that she could not know herself. She is speculating, again.
Yet it is a good biography, and contains a really magnificent research finding from MacKintosh’s literary career that I will not divulge here, but which made me excuse all the biography’s stylistic irritations. Henderson has done Elizabeth MacKintosh proud, even if she takes far too many liberties to make a good story in the face of factual evidence.
This week’s classic detective fiction podcast scripts catch-up from Why I Really Like This Book is on the tremendous New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh (pronounced NYE-oh). Death In A White Tie (1938) is from the same period as Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, and shares a theme of a high society drugs racket with Murder Must Advertise and with Darkness at Pemberley. But this was not the only crime which ensnared the English upper classes in Golden Age detective fiction, though you might not think it – Death in a White Tie is also about the terrors of blackmail, and illegitimacy, with a little light illegal gambling as a garnis.
Death in a White Tie is a good novel, not just a good detective novel, but it is primarily about detection. We care about the characters because we need to care how their lives will be affected by the crimes, and because knowing how they much they care about the victim of murder will help us unravel who killed him. Inspector Alleyn cares a great deal for the murder victim, who is an old and dear friend of his, an elderly man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and who has been asked by Alleyn to keep an eye out for information about the cases of blackmail that are beginning to crop up. Alleyn blames himself for Lord Robert’s opportunistic murder in a taxi, and drives himself very hard over the next 48 hours to gather clues and work out who was in the green drawing room at the right time on the night of the Carrados ball. Alleyn is also suffering from the agonies of unrequited love – it must be unnerving having a policeman in love with you, especially if everywhere you go murders and other crimes take place almost as soon as you’ve left or entered a room. Alleyn is in love with a painter called by her surname, Troy, and this novel is Ngaio Marsh’s version of Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, where the fighting lovers come together, and the intellectually and professionally equal woman loses her fear of physical intimacy because her 40-year old lover just will not stop nagging her to marry him.
The characters in this novel are all inhabitants of high society, as is Alleyn himself. He is an oddity of a policeman since he abandoned a decent career in the Diplomatic service, as befitted his class, for a low life as a policeman, working upwards from the pavement beat. But his class and social connections give him the entrée to all sorts of fascinating crime scenes where regular policemen would simply get nowhere. The victims and witnesses and suspects are his friends, and he gets to interrogate every one of them with the intimacy of long friendship, or at least of having known someone’s brother at school. However, this immersion into late 1930s society is not as realistic as we might assume: despite the late date we hear nothing about the impending Second World War, nor anything about the Spanish Civil War. None of Oswald Mosley’s fascists are lurking as villains or party stalwarts, despite the historical fact of many in the British Union of Fascists being from the upper classes. The high society in this novel might just as well be from the 1920s or the 1880s. The period details have been cunningly left out to keep the characters just isolated enough from history to make them seem timeless, but nonetheless secure in their social position as part of the Upper Ten Thousand who have sat on the top step of English class strata since the Regency.
So, Roderick Alleyn’s mother and niece and old friends dine and eat and dance and go to each other’s houses every day and every night in the performance of that annual class ritual known as the Season. Sarah Alleyn is being brought Out by her grandmother, and so she goes to lots of lunch parties and evening dos, and meets other girls, and is paraded around as a marriageable gel. The mothers of the girls work so hard to get their girls married off: the novel is full of sympathetic, or angry, or exasperated remarks by the male characters about how these women work themselves into the ground, they never rest, they exhaust themselves so unsparingly, and how they must all go to nursing homes or to friends’ country houses for the weekend to have a complete rest and do nothing. Their nerves are a mess, they stay up to three or four each morning waiting for the dances to end so they can take their girls home again, and start the rigmarole afresh. It’s a nightmare life of pleasure: we are expected to sympathise with them all as they lie exhausted in their beds each morning, hollow-eyed from yet another series of dances, as they pick fretfully at their letters and sip their morning tea. Not one character expresses any surprise that the servants who invisibly support this attenuated routine might also be worn out, as well as underpaid, and considerably less well fed and housed. The idle rich who exhaust themselves so doggedly in this novel are supported by, and pay for, an army of servants and other contracted labour, but we don’t hear a cheep about their hardworking lives. Of course not: this is not what we read these novels for. Class consciousness is not required, nor is a socialist reading: we read these novels to thrill at the glamour depicted therein.
However, we also enjoy the piquant juxtaposition of the great and the good being forced to undergo questions from a mere policeman as to their conduct, their motivations, their movements, their business: all the things the original readers would never dare ask real-life high society individuals on whom these characters were modelled. The subversive nature of the high society detective novel produces a subtle pleasure because it is generated by envy and wish-fulfilment, not something we expect in our reading. We expect to find clues and spot inconsistencies in the characters’ disclosures about their actions, but we don’t always notice that, when we eavesdrop on a police interview, we admire the good characters who behave marvellously. We think they are behaving so well because they accept their social responsibilities and tell the truth, and aren’t rude or offensive, thus allowing us to admire them even more. The bad eggs are the ones who flounce about demanding special treatment and who lie and cheat and hide things from the detectives. If we think about the purpose of the detective novel from this period as a way to make the seriously privileged classes go through a ritual of social humiliation to enable order to be restored in society, then we’ve found a useful social purpose for a delightful form of fiction.
All is not perfect in their perfect world. Even the upper classes can have miserable marriages, and not all the girls who are brought Out want to be in that happy gilded circle of privileged persons. The money that the upper classes splash around in pursuit of their pleasures attracts bad people, of course, and this novel has a nice selection of parasitical growths taking advantage of people with too much money to have the courage to spend it meaningfully. Death in a White Tie is much more than who killed Lord Robert: it’s about why that circle of society attracted so much money and bad behaviour in the first place.
(Extra treat for Cumberbatchophiles: I stumbled across this audiobook version of the novel as read by Benderkink Conderwomprat, no, sorry: Benedict thing. You know who I mean. He has red sideburns: it’s horrible.)
Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear was published in 2014, preceded by Cry Murder! In A Small Voice in 2013. These are historical novels published by the estimable and alluring Small Beer Press, in saddle-stitched chapbooks of high quality and good design (e-book versions are also possible). They share a protagonist, the English playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), friend of Will (Shakespeare), Alleyn (the actor), and of the long-dead Kit (Marlowe). Jonson’s voice is the point of these novels, because Gilman writes in perfect, believable seventeenth-century English. She is extremely well-read in Shakespeariana, with the writerly skills to make us believe that sentence structures and vocabulary over four hundred years old mean something now. Half of the wonder of these novels is their poetic beauty, how Greer creates meaning and impact so effectively in a lexical style I associate with being in a respectful theatre audience or teaching in a literature class. The other half is the gripping storytelling.
Cry Murder! In A Small Voice is a detective novel in which Jonson has realised that someone is kidnapping and killing young pre-pubescent boys of the theatre. He travels to Venice to find the clues to the monster preying on the playhouse boys, and buys a weapon that has to be smuggled into the murderer’s presence in very dangerous circumstances. Only his chosen boys are allowed near him, and have to be prepared and dressed for the occasion. This murderer has very particular tastes, which is why the playhouse boys, with their particular skills in acting as virgin maids and experienced matrons, are at risk. Jonson finds a boy willing to act as a decoy, but once this boy is out of his protective reach, will he survive the murderer’s den?
The narrative style is impressionistic, since we’re seeing the action through Jonson’s perspective. Only crucial actions and reactions are described, often with even the padding of pronouns removed, so the narrative has the trimmed and taut verse structure we are used to from blank verse, in which every syllable is used to force an impression of natural, casual or formal speech. Each line is precise, no words wasted and nothing there that does not work several ways at once: for meaning, for rhythm, for sound effects, for echoes of classical and rhetorical patterns that are simply glorious to listen to. I love Gilman’s perfect economy with beautiful words that work hard.
There’s a reason for this story being told in this way. Jonson was a Jacobean playwright, writing in the reign of James the First and Sixth in the period when John Webster and Thomas Middleton (and Shakespeare) were producing stage dramas that we now categorise as ‘Jacobean tragedy’ for their characteristically violent plots of revenge. Cry Murder! is also a violent, bloody tale of murderous revenge, told in a most fitting idiom. The sociological element of how men saw boys of the period, especially playhouse boys trained to act and dress as women, is important for the plot. Their power was potent, both men’s power over boys, and boys’ power over men. Gilman’s story of Jacobean men explores how sexuality draws on gender-driven relationships. This may sound a bit lit-crit-theoretical, but these terms do the best job of pinpointing how Gilman twists a detective novel into a dark gender-queer fantasia. These boys speak the playwrights’ lines of sexual and emotional experience that they have never felt themselves, and – in this story – many of them never will.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear is set in the same world, some years later, in Jonson’s London, where Will Shakespeare wears the king’s livery and Jonson is struggling not to lose his temper with the pompous, pretentious genius Inigo Jones over a court masque. Jonson has written the plot with a stunningly good role for Henry Stuart, the Prince of Wales, who is to play Oberon, king of the fairies and Titania’s lord. His anxious younger brother Charles, Duke of York, is to lead the bears in the procession, and he is beside himself with excitement about this. These are imported polar bears, kept in a cage in the Palace of Westminster under a bearward’s fond care: what could go wrong? Gilman has moved this sequel out of detection into fantasy, good and proper, because Titania, queen of the fairies, has asked Kit Marlowe – dead, to be sure, but bored out his mind in Arcadia – to procure her a new boy to play with. He arrives at the bedside of the young and very malleable Charles one night – the sleepy boy thinks he is an usher – to groom him with promises, and has everything set up for a supernatural kidnap of royalty. But earthly plotters also have plans to disrupt the masque, and Charles is going to be dreadfully disappointed about the bears.
This too is a beautiful, magical novel, because of how it is told, but I felt it worked rather less well because of the supernatural elements. I’d like to hear a great deal more about Kit Marlowe in Arcadia (I’m sure there’s a Joan Aiken story about the gods and heroes being bored in Elysium: perhaps he could go and find adventure there), but Ben Jonson needs to stay grounded on earth, in his stinking sweaty, familiar London, without any fairy nonsense messing up his plans.
These novels are miracles of poetry and scholarship, and thoroughly entertaining: go buy them immediately.
Getting our knees wet in the sea of this mini-series on great detective classics, this podcast scripts catch-up from Why I Really Like This Book is about that perceptive novel about the advertising industry by Dorothy L Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (1933). This is a novel about office lives and 1930s high society, with a darkness underneath that comes from the inevitable crime: drug-smuggling. Sayers used to work in advertising herself, so into her book her experiences went, though I’m not sure how representative the fictional advertising firm of Pym’s Publicity would have been in the real world. It employs 90 staff, which seems a lot. Not many of these are the creatives: most are the support staff, a squad of office boys, typists, and a lot of mysterious people who make the blocks from which the adverts were printed. Few of these jobs would be needed now. When I began working as an editor in the late 1980s, I worked on ads and editorial copy that were still being pasted up by hand with glue. We did have Photoshop, or its ancestor, but the day-to-day work was done with chinagraph pencils and scissors, so I know that the technical descriptions Sayers uses were accurate, especially in the tense moment when Mr Copley is dictating the copy for an emergency new ad over the phone to the waiting presses.
But why are we in an advertising agency at all? There has been a death on the premises. Mr Pym is nervous about foul play, and brings in a private detective, a Mr Bredon, recommended to him by a friend. Newcomers to Sayers won’t immediately recognise that Bredon is Lord Peter Wimsey, but they might see through his claim to live in Bloomsbury. His real habitat is Mayfair, and he is a celebrated and most brilliant detective. Many of Sayers’ novels give Wimsey a woman to spar with, or to work with: his future wife, the detective novelist Harriet Vane, is not in this plot, though Wimsey does goes off to have dinner with her. The advertising executive Miss Meteyard is Sayers’ alter ego for this novel: an Oxford-educated and witty single woman, who was the first to spot who had probably done the murder, and the first to realise who Bredon actually was.
Miss Meteyard keeps quiet about these discoveries because she is the kind of person who does not stick her nose into other people’s business. The rest of the office has less self-control: sides are taken with gusto whenever anything interesting happens or a crisis strikes. Bredon, or Wimsey’s, best method for finding things out is to stir up quarrels and get people gossiping angrily. He detects mischievously by asking the most ridiculous questions, so he can get an outburst reply, full of fascinating hidden details that somebody else might have preferred were kept quiet, or had just forgotten. Bredon is on hand to be helpfully discreet when Mr Tallboy’s pregnant mistress arrives angrily at the office, and he is available to spread the news and encourage discussion about why Mr Copley and Mr Tallboy had had a terrible row. He takes Miss Dean to lunch and is tailed in a most amateurish way by the jealous Mr Willis. He is spotted in Piccadilly at night by Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton, but he looks blandly through them, and they are mortified, since he clearly takes them for prostitutes. This rude behaviour is necessary, because the girls see Wimsey in Piccadilly, not Mr Bredon, and nobody must know that they are the same man.
Wimsey’s detecting is not only done in the agency in office hours. At night he is mingling with a very fast lot, whom the police know are dealing in drugs, but cannot pin anything on. He picks out the murdered man’s former mistress, Dian de Momerie, and lures her into car chases and midnight drives, waiting for her to give him the information he needs. He keeps his two identities separate, so Bredon works in the agency by day and parties with the bright young things at night, while Wimsey, his almost identical and far more respectable cousin, helps his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Denver, with her grand reception, and accompanies Royalty to the theatre. At the climax of the book, when Bredon is arrested and Wimsey comes to Scotland Yard to discuss things with the police, the papers print a photo of the two men side by side, and this puzzles Miss Meteyard exceedingly: how can they be in the same photo if her theory has them as the same man? Regular readers of Sayers will at once realise that this photo is one of Bunter’s productions, Wimsey’s servant, assistant, photographer and cook. Bunter silently and invisibly assists Wimsey all the way through this book, though we never see him. How else would Wimsey’s car be available and refuelled, with or without a chauffeur, whenever needed? Wimsey constantly changes his clothes in the car and in different clubs: someone must be providing the changes of clothes and taking care of Bredon’s evening outfit of a Harlequin’s costume and mask.
There is another aspect of doubling in this novel that gives it a very dark edge. We’ve already got Wimsey and Bredon, office life and nightlife, working and partying. The drugs that Dian buys from Major Milligan flow freely though the parties and social networks of the bright young things, but Pym’s advertising agency is supplying another kind of drug to the masses. Time and again Sayers shows us the cynical and manipulative attitudes that create advertising to sell margarine and health tonics to the buyers of newspapers, showing us really quite pointed parallels between supply and demand, showing where the profit goes. The novel’s most open condemnation of advertising as potentially harmful comes from Wimsey’s brainwave solution for a new advertising campaign for Whifflets, an invented brand of cigarette. Sayers copies the example of the real-life Mustard Club, and the Cooperative Stores loyalty scheme, by positing a Whifflets coupons plan that you can collect and exchange and use as currency to pay for your holiday and other social outings. She is brilliantly persuasive about the undoubted success of such a scheme, how millions of smokers will be collecting coupons to join in, and how the joyful owners of Whifflets will be slapping their thighs in triumph at having beaten the rival campaign of Puffins, which was giving away coupons to collect for a free aeroplane. That’s a great period detail, by the way: in the early 1930s aeroplanes were so newly fashionable and affordable that flying was the new motoring. But behind all this is the biggest drug racket of all. These happy ad execs know perfectly well that smoking is a killer, and that the more successful the Whifflets scheme is, the more likely it is that lung cancer and death will result. They particularly want to tap the female market, since there aren’t enough women smoking.
Advertising is a fantasy built on assumption and consumption. Sayers sends a pretty strong message that advertising is as pernicious a drug peddler as the cocaine merchants arrested by the police. Lord Peter Wimsey dips into and out of this world, dabbling brilliantly with an inspired new marketing campaign here and a stupendous performance as the last bat in a cricket match there. He solves the crime, he absolves the murderer, the victim is avenged, a marriage is arranged and the typing pool get cakes for tea.
I love this novel. Rereading it was a deeply satisfying experience: I was gobbling it up on the train to and from work, and someone else cooked dinner so I could finish the novel before I fell asleep. Sayers is a superb storyteller, but the story is only about 30% of the fun. You’ve got marvellous characters, who are partly old acquaintances and partly new and perfectly formed creations. You receive a total immersion into the early 1930s, into office life and high society. You get the fun of puzzling out a complicated murder because you don’t know where the victim was in the web of criminal relationships. You are presented with a bucketload of clues, only some of which are useful, and some are downright misleading. You have the pleasure of Wimsey’s company, and a lot to think about from the running discussion of whether a public school education actually does make a difference to a person’s quality. It is a classic detective novel, because it offers so much more than detection, but detection is the whole point, for reader and hero.
Over on Vulpes Libris I’ve posted a brief but heartfelt paean to the Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah. These are mildly addictive, in the ‘just one more before I turn the light out’ sense, and thoroughly ingenious detective stories, dating from 1913 right through to the 1930s. But I enjoy them most as a record of daily life in Edwardian and Georgian England, where a lucrative fatality from poisoned mushrooms will take you to a photographer’s laboratory, and the creepy neighbour of your newly rented house in the suburbs seems to want to dig up your garden at midnight. Highly recommended.
I accidentally began rereading Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn detective novels before Christmas, and have now, a month later, read them all, bar the four that I didn’t have which have yet to arrive via Abebooks. These novels are Marsh’s most well-known works, superb Golden Age detective novels in the classic whodunit style, published from the 1930s right up to 1982. Rereading them in order brought me the enjoyment of favourite situations and snatches of dialogue, the rediscovery of details that I’d forgotten, and happy encounters with things that I’d missed on previous, gobbling readings the first time around. This time, wallowing in her character delineation, I’ve been struck by how Marsh tells the reader, quite forcefully, what she wants them to think and feel. I haven’t covered every novel in what follows, just the ones which tie into my theory of Ngaio Marsh as a novelist of performance. [Be advised: this is a long post.]
It is crucial for the dynamics between Roderick Alleyn and everyone else in the novels that he is a gentleman. His brother holds the family title, and Alleyn was at Eton, Oxford, the Foreign Office, and served as an army officer in the First World War. Then, inexplicably for his class, he began in the police force as a beat constable in the East End of London. He is working in a traditionally ungentlemanly trade, crossing class boundaries in a way that Holmes and Watson never did. Other, more senior, policemen in the Alleyn novels are clearly also gentlemen, since offended gentry folk betray their ill-breeding by threatening to report Alleyn to these senior officers with whom they claim to be on close terms. Marsh is very interested in showing how class can be used to indicate moral worth, strength of character, simple good manners, and general dastardliness. As a New Zealander she was extremely well placed to observe how the English (the Irish, Scots and Welsh are not singled out for their criminal propensities) used social class in their lives. By placing Alleyn in an unusual cross-class role, the characters’ reactions to his challenge to class boundaries become a gauge of their common sense and human decency, and their own class allegiances.
Marsh took a while to get the hang of constructing her plots. Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead (1934), has the technical flaw of hiding too much from the reader, with previously unknown facts being brought out of a hat like rabbits by Alleyn for his reconstruction of the murder. This will not do: the dissatisfaction we feel in being asked to praise rabbits we’d never known existed proves an important rule for satisfying detective fiction: the reader must be able to solve the crime themselves, and have all the relevant facts available.
In Enter A Murderer (1935), the first of her theatrical novels (in her day job Marsh would become a distinguished theatre director in New Zealand), is a strong whodunit that respects the rules and simply hums with authenticity. Alleyn’s interest in a leading lady of the stage seems misplaced, since her mannerisms and effects are superficial. There is no integrity in her responses to him, so clearly she is No Good, even though she may be innocent. We are learning that Alleyn requires utter honesty in his relations with women, and though he might respond to forceful femininity, that just shows us what a masculine man he is. Marsh is keen to point out his asceticism, and his intellectual background.
Vintage Murder (1937), in which Alleyn travels round the world to recover from an operation and finds himself solving a theatrical crime in New Zealand, is the novel in which Marsh really begins to write. It’s a novel of feeling and emotion rather an analytical whodunit to a recognised formula. For the first time Alleyn is written in the first person, and there is a proper setting of landscape and culture and language to which the characters respond and relate. New Zealand is also a subject of the plot. Marsh’s feelings about her own country when set beside England and the English are revealed by how Alleyn is respectful in his admiration for the landscape, and bewildered by the dialect. Marsh’s depiction of the Maori doctor Dr Te Pokiha is startlingly crude, for all that she intends him to be read as a gentleman, her highest accolade. ‘Savage’ is only one of the words used to describe him (this atavistic comparison returns some thirty years later in 1969 in A Clutch of Constables, in As Black As He’s Painted in 1974, and in Light Thickens, in 1982).
Now that we have Alleyn the full man, so to speak, rather than the two-dimensional detective, he’s allowed to develop as a personality. In Artists in Crime (1938) Agatha Troy the celebrated artist and Academician (unusual but aspirational for the 1930s art scene in Britain) is a second narrative focaliser, the object of Alleyn’s helpless adoration, and the owner of the studio in which the artist’s model is most foully done to death. Tension rises, over whodunit, and will they or won’t they. It takes a second novel, Death In A White Tie (1938), mixing crime and passion to settle things between Alleyn and Troy. The novel reinforces Troy’s suitability for Alleyn since she is of the same social class, lives near his mother, and they have friends in common. The murder in Death In A White Tie is less violent than Marsh’s usual style (so far we’ve had two stabbings, one shooting, three poisons, and a blow to the head), but the most upsetting so far. This is because the victim is a focalising character, and we see his perspective for some time (Marsh does this again in Death At The Bar, in 1940), while he works for Alleyn to determine which of the high society ladies in the Season are being blackmailed and by whom. We come to like this nice little man, and so we feel completely convinced of the horror of the crime and Alleyn’s shock and distress on being presented with the body of his friend.
The reader has to invest in Alleyn as the moral centre of these novels, otherwise the effects are lost. In the next novel, Overture to Death (1939), Alleyn arrives only in the second half of the novel to solve the crime of who shot the pianist, so we have already had a lot of exposure to the characters who may or may not have planted the gun. When Alleyn thinks that X is unpleasant or that Y is reliable, this is what we must believe, no matter what Marsh may have encouraged us to decide from our own observations. We can’t disagree with Alleyn, because he is the only moral arbiter in the novel. He is also now a celebrity within his own world, since he has written a standard text on policing, and is famous by his class position and his marriage. He is expected to be brilliant, which he knows and deplores, and neatly demonstrates in a delightful, self-deprecating performance of a perfect Holmes on his first appearance in the village, to the open-mouthed delight of the local police. It’s a shame to make such a distinction between the capabilities of country and city policemen, but it seems to have been a mark of the genre. Sayers did it all the time, Allingham too, and T H White guyed these expectations beautifully in Darkness at Pemberley in 1932.
In Death at the Bar (1940) a fairly unpleasant character is murdered, so to reinforce the horror properly, to remind us that unexpected death is a crime, not waste disposal, Marsh nearly kills off one of her detectives, which is a bit of a shock. In both this novel and in Overture to Death, actors become part of the cast of suspects, which reopens opportunities for class arguments again, over whether a properly middle- or upper-class woman can also be an actress, whether an actor who never stops acting is ever trustworthy. We’re also seeing an increasingly dominant theme in the Alleyn novels that morality is based on public performance, either how one conducts oneself in public (which is where social class is used to trap the unskilled), or the art and profession of performing as an expression of a person’s moral values.
In the Second World War, Alleyn – bizarrely – has been sent to New Zealand to track down traitors who are signalling to enemy submarines. In Colour Scheme (1943) he is in a transparent disguise, investigating a really unpleasant murder by immersion in boiling mud. In Died In The Wool (1945) (my favourite of Marsh’s tasteless punning titles) he’s tracking down the murderous Nazi sympathiser who’s after the plans for a secret weapon. Both novels are conversation pieces, where the characters and readers talk through and work out the solutions to the murders together, with Alleyn coming on rather late to reveal the truth. Died in the Wool is particularly effective for how Marsh uses her murder plot to work out ideas about New Zealand class-consciousness and political idealism, set in a mountain sheep farm.
I think Marsh must have had an immersion into nightclub society at this time in her life, as she produces some louche background characters in Final Curtain (1947), and for the events in Swing, Brother, Swing (1949). Class is all over the shop in both novels, too, because the main objections to two characters marrying are their totally different class and cultural backgrounds, and so, of course, it cannot be allowed to happen. Performance is still strong as a setting, though Marsh’s distaste for 1950s boogie-woogie is very apparent: obviously nothing good will come of such a racket.
Opening Night (1951) is a stunningly good thriller, the kind that you are compelled to read to the end without stopping, your teeth chattering with its tension. Helena Hamilton, another magnificent leading lady of the stage, dominates the moral temperature of the novel. She has to tolerate a drunken husband, so consoles herself with serial love affairs: the murder takes place just as she is about to end one and begin another. She has two foils: the modest and determinedly obscure ingénue understudy who takes on the leading role with half an hour to spare, and the melodramatic upstagey chorus girl who should never have been cast in the first place, but she will milk all the drama out of the situation for her personal gain. This novel presents performance as a moral indicator again, with Alleyn reinforcing the values that Marsh wants the reader to observe: class-based, as ever.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) takes us back to the drug-addled faux-religious milieu of Death in Ecstacy (1936), in a tremendous thriller made powerfully urgent by the introduction of the Alleyns’ small son. Marsh simply piles on the obstacles in this novel – Troy being unable to speak French, cars driving fast around winding roads to reach fortified castles, spotting the kidnap victim across the rooftops in a crowded hilltop town – so the detection rather takes second place to an almost Bond-like feel to the plot. In fact, we see Alleyn having his first bout of fisticuffs, and winning. Since he is chronologically in his 60s, at least, in this novel, we should tactfully assume that Marsh has allowed him to remain at 40ish for a decade or two, and Troy must be in her mid-30s.
Off With His Head (1956) feels like an hommage to early Margery Allingham from the 1920s, with its plot about an unexplained folk dance of such extreme ritual significance that the mythic murder it enacts actually happens. One of the characters even has Campion as a surname, and the village is dominated by an imperious county lady: it’s all very Pontisbright. Modern characters are allowed in, as are garages and betting shops, so the effect is a curiously time-slipping mixture, grounded by the ancient rituals of the dance at midwinter. And once again, moral values are purified and tested by the act of performance, this time in public view in the dance.
False Scent (1960) takes us back to glamorous London theatreland, and a spectacularly effective theatrical party with artistic and business temperaments at full blast. The ingénue actress appears at a party looking like Audrey Hepburn, and is, naturally, a social success, to the ruling leading lady Mary Bellamy’s furious displeasure. Her histrionics are made unforgettably effective because the reader doesn’t hear them: our imaginations fill in the truly awful things she says and does, a very economic way to suggest the depths no-one should ever go to. Hidden performances are suggested by the glimpses of Mary’s shocking behaviour and (again) theatrical excesses.
Death at the Dolphin (1967) is similarly packed with truly unpleasant people. This novel of the revival of an abandoned London theatre is one of Marsh’s great classics, a really clever and emotional hommage to acting and producing, something on which she was now an authority. She had used a travesty of performance in Dead Water (1963) to very gruesome effect: in Death at the Dolphin the characters’ performances all contribute to the unravelling of the clues. Nobody isn’t acting, at all.
It’s the same with A Clutch of Constables (1969): almost no-one isn’t playing a role. Troy takes the unexpectedly cancelled cabin in a Broads riverboat cruise, without realising that its occupant had also died unexpectedly. Out of a crew of three and six passengers, two are murdered and several could be the murderers. Alleyn is performing in this novel, far away in time and space as he lectures on this case to eager constables at the Police College. This is a truly innovative way of telling the story, by holding up the reading to keep the tension at peak while he explains the back story to this or that point of deduction. It’s another thriller with detection introduced on the side.
When In Rome (1970) and As Black As He’s Painted (1974) are fascinating as period pieces depicting the end of the swinging sixties and the funky seventies. There is no more pretence that Alleyn is ageing: he is now permanently in his early forties and speaking the slang of his day. Drugs are the main concern in Rome, and post-colonial birth pangs in Kensington. Marsh tackles casual ex-colonial racism as best she can, since Alleyn is most emphatically not a racist, unlike the cabal of villains, but he and other sympathetic characters says things that are still eyebrow-raisingly Not On by our standards now. Marsh was now in her eighties, she wrote as she had always done, and – as we’ve already seen with her Maori characters – if you weren’t white, you were definitely Other, no matter how noble and distinguished you might be otherwise.
In Light Thickens (1982) Marsh is almost completely back on form, if we read this novel as being set in the 1960s, not twenty years later. It’s her last novel, another great evocation of the working theatre and the transformative power of Shakespeare. The excellent emotional triangle of a leading lady and two leading men is subverted by the lady refusing to have anything to do with a love affair with either man, but focusing on her roles instead, a true professional. Marsh enjoys herself by delivering cutting things about the Equity representative who degrades his talents with unprofessional sabotage, and wasting police time. No stronger message could be sent about the responsibilities of the performer.
It’s invidious to compare Marsh to Christie or Sayers or Allingham: all four are tremendous Queens of Crime, supported by the slightly less prolific Josephine Tey. Personally, I find Christie’s novels too short and simplistic, and if I had to admit to finding a flaw in Dorothy L Sayers’ novels, I do get bogged down in the endless literary references, never mind the extensive extracts in French. Of the remaining three, I love Tey’s work for the way each novel she writes is a standalone work, no others need be read. I love Allingham for her spectacular cleverness in evoking eccentricity and unique characters, and for inventing parts of London and Essex that ought to exist. But I love Marsh’s novels for simple reading pleasure. She wrote no duds, every novel is rereadable and engrossing, and her standards of writing and plotting never stumble. She was a great writer of character and setting, which I think I enjoy reading more than whodunit plot. I really don’t mind who saw the footprint or left the dagger in the library, but I revel in how her characters react to these discoveries, because in each novel they inhabit a perfectly formed world.
Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is a fat and heavy hardback (the paperback is due out in 2016) endorsed by Len Deighton, as a study of the British writers who created the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an absolute treasure chest of writers’ names and novels that have disappeared into oblivion, and a useful though patchy outline of the evolution of the detective story market between the wars. It is also a ramshackle mess, and shockingly badly written.
Martin Edwards is a former solicitor and an award-winning (so says his personal website) author of many detective novels. His lifetime of reading detective fiction has certainly formed the basis for this book, since only a true fan and a devoted reader could amass so much information. There are many nuggets: my favourite two are that A G Macdonell wrote as Neil Gordon! Edward VIII played erotic jigsaw puzzles! Unfortunately, this book also needed an editor. Edwards has skimmed the work of many biographers and critics by presenting their views with his own in an unattributed mass of statements, supported, some of the time, with a vague endnote saying that he has benefited from the work of X and Y. I am appalled that Harper Collins allowed him to get away with such sloppy non-attributions.
He was also in need of a fact-checker. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s sister was Lady Peck, not Lady Winifred Peck (their father was not noble), and she was the author of 25 books, not ‘several’. Naomi Mitchison and her husband Dick did not have ‘an oysters and champagne lifestyle’, nor a ‘Scottish baronial castle’ (it was just a big house). There were many ‘lady detectives’ predating Lady Molly of the Yard, in Victorian fiction magazines. St Giles in Oxford is not usually described as a ‘boulevard’. As Prince of Wales, Edward VIII was called David before his accession, not Edward, but the correct way to refer to him would be ‘the Prince’.
The structure of the book is bizarre, as noted by Simon in his Vulpes Libris review. Book titles float in and out of time, unconnected to their date of publication, so although we can sense that the book begins sometime in the 1920s, it wanders towards the 1950s in and out of chronology, with episodes and authors’ biographies beginning in the middle of their lives, jerking back and forth without any sense that history matters when you are discussing real lives or publications. The second half of the story behind The Detection Club’s Behind The Screen is given on pp.89-90, yet the first half is finally told on pp.162-3. Perhaps Edwards was playing with an alternate theory of time in which ‘the Three Cups Hotel – a favourite of Jane Austen, Tennyson and Tolkien’ (p.217) relocates itself outside time so that all three authors could chat together. Edwards certainly doesn’t bother to refresh his understanding of history by reading any: he cites two detective novelists’ memoirs as his only sources for the history of the 1930s.
There is a colossal imbalance between the amount of attention given to Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, compared to that given to all the other authors. The life and odd habits of Anthony Berkeley in particular, clearly Edwards’ special subject, are pressed upon the reader throughout the book, like an irritating chorus. It is certainly very useful to learn so much about this author whose works have not remained in the public’s affection so much as those by Sayers and Christie. However, I was not persuaded by Edwards’ culminating theory (mostly imaginary, as he admits) that Berkeley and his great friend the novelist E M Delafield conducted a chaste but passionate affair by ‘planting clues to their mutual devotion in plain sight’ in their novels: ‘She inspired and obsessed him. Without her, he was finished as a crime writer’ (p.425). Edwards’ exposition of this theory smacks of Mr Mybug insisting that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels because they were all drunk (see Cold Comfort Farm). Edwards then goes on to criticise a Gaylord Larsen novel about the Detection Club as ‘a masterclass in howlers so extraordinary that the reader’s initial astonishment turns to hilarity’ (p. 431). Pot: meet kettle.
Nor am I persuaded by Edwards’ suggestions that random lines used by Berkeley in his novels (or his initials) inspired much more famous works by Christie and Sayers. If he bothered to give evidence, or publication dates, his case might be strengthened, but without them I am not. With so much noise being made about Berkeley, Sayers and Christie, we hear very little about the works of other Detection Club authors, from the still famous such as Ngaio Marsh, or the totally forgotten, such as Newton Gale. This is a disappointment. It is definitely useful to learn so much about Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, for example, but in The Golden Age of Murder they and their works exist in isolation. There is no integration, and no sense of assessing a body of work across authors or time, or of trying to present a coherent and balanced picture of the writers who drove the detective novel industry.
Instead, the book presses scandal and personal drama upon us. Edwards insists, over and over, that Sayers had felt perpetual shame and guilt about the existence of her illegitimate son. All the Sayers biographies have already dealt with this in a far more balanced fashion, so what is Edwards’ point? His interest in the bodies of his subjects and what they do with them is repetitive and prurient. Sayers’ and Christie’s appearance, weight and shape are brought to our attention, repeatedly, as if their waist size or choice of hairstyle influenced their writing. If any author exhibits non-standard sexual interests in their lives or fiction (particularly whippings), we are sure to be told about it. Authors who did not marry have their sexuality speculated upon as a matter of course. These are wearying preoccupations to put up with if all we want to know is how they wrote their books and what inspired them.
Throughout The Golden Age of Murder there are many, sometimes lengthy, retellings of true crimes from the past, because they apparently influenced certain novels from the period. Given that Edwards has, rightly, sought to avoid plot spoilers in his discussion, it makes no sense at all to give the true crime origins of these plots as well. But most of the time he doesn’t bother connecting the history with the novel, he just enjoys indulging this sideline of antiquarian true crime for its own sake.
My final grumble is that Edwards’ passion for using all his research produces crass, or ludicrous, non sequiturs. On P G Wodehouse’s step-daughter Leonora: Her sudden death in 1944 was a crushing blow. “I really feel that nothing matters much now.” Her widowed husband, Peter Cazalet, went on to train Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s racehorse that mysteriously collapsed fifty yards short of winning the 1956 Grand National while being ridden by Dick Francis (later, like his son Felix, as a member of the Detection Club) (pp.129-30). Why connect horse-racing with her death, except to show off about your research?
On the ‘Hay-on-Wye Poisoner’ Major Armstrong: Armstrong was found guilty. He remains the only English solicitor to have died on the scaffold. True to type, he was wearing his best tweed suit (p.136). We have to ask: did murderers, or solicitors, routinely wear tweed?
On the novelist J R Ackerley: Joe Ackerley was the illegitimate half-brother of the future Duchess of Westminster, and his fondness for sailors and guardsmen caused E M Forster to warn him to give up looking for ‘gold in coal mines’ (pp.167-8). It’s nice to know that having a lively illegitimate half-brother did not prevent a ducal marriage.
On Agatha Christie: Christie was Ackerley’s favourite detective novelist. He regarded her persistent lateness in delivering her contributions as tiresome, but found her “surprisingly good-looking”. Yet he did not rate her highly as a broadcaster (171). They were broadcasting on radio, so I can see that lateness might be tricky, but why would Christie’s looks even be relevant?
On Helen Simpson: Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that women could have it all. Convent-educated, she was a keen snuff-taker with a love of fencing and witchcraft (p.214). We need to know how the convent led her to epées and broomsticks.
It’s not a bad book, just ridiculously distracting, with all these monstrous elephants flirting in the room in front of the interesting stuff. I wish Edwards had followed his obvious urge to write Anthony Berkeley’s biography instead.