I started reading Raymond Chandler in the late green Penguin period of crime fiction publishing at the urging of a poet. I hadn’t read any crime fiction til then. No, he said, Chandler is a real writer. Indeed he was. As the man himself sang in a magazine article on his oeuvre, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
When I started working in libraries not long after, I was well aware that crime fiction was the most popular area of the library, so I thought I needed to know more about the genre. As it happened, Julian Symon‘s acclaimed Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel: a history (1972) had just been published and I learned a lot. His basic position was that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were liberators, freeing detective fiction from the cosy respectability the genre had slipped into after the First World War and pointing it in the direction of ‘real’ literature – Snobbery with violence as Colin Watson had characterised the writers of that period in the title of his book about the genre and its audience a year earlier. I let Symons guide my personal reading, and but for one exploratory expedition (couldn’t remember who’d dunnit the morning after) I left the “Golden Age” to itself. (Raymond Williams did a fine job, in his The country and the city (1973) of systematically tracing quotes about ‘golden ages’ back to at least the Romans.) Nevertheless, I hasten to add, it would have been professional suicide to ignore what had gone before; Agatha Christie still ruled the library shelves.
Crime writer Martin Edwards thinks Symons got it badly wrong, and in The Golden Age of Murder: the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story (HarperCollins, 2015) he presents a perceptive, convincing and entertaining case. The book is a between-the-wars history of the Detection Club, an elite, invitation-only group of writers, that started as an informal dining club in 1929, and became a formal organisation, with rules and constitution, three years later. Its object was the promotion of their craft, the provision of mutual support, discussion of concerns and topics of interest, and the maintenance of quality detective fiction’s reputation as opposed to the mass market dross it was often bracketed with.
The guidelines for a writer’s inclusion – they had to have a track record – were quite specific, with:
it being understood that the term ‘detective novel’ does not include adventure stories or “thrillers” or stories in which the detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not “play fair” with the reader.’
Edwards follows the private lives of his protagonists, and maps how their dilemmas were reflected and referenced in their writing. As his sub-title suggests, these were not without their own fascinations – remember Agatha Christie’s disappearance – while also telling us much about the society of the day. The big three were the aforementioned Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and they:
…were conservative in outlook, and their success […] caused a peculiar amnesia to afflict critical discussion of the Golden Age. Detective novelists with radical views have become the men – and women – who never were. Even the distinguished historian of the genre Julian Symons, who should have known better, thought it ‘safe to say that almost all the British writers of the Twenties and Thirties […] were unquestionably right-wing.’ In fact, the Liberal Party and centre-left were well represented among Golden Age authors, while others joined the Communist party or flirted with it […] Some mocked Nazis and Fascists in their detective novels long before it was fashionable to do so. Others wrote mysteries which debated the merits of assassinating dictators.
Martin Edwards particularly fights Dorothy L.Sayers’ critical corner:
Sayers saw Gaudy night as the pinnacle of her achievement as a novelist. Yet the conflicts lying at its heart are not those of a conventional whodunnit, but clashes between principles and personal loyalties. […] Gaudy night so powerfully reflects Sayers’ belief in equality between the sexes that the book is often called the first major feminist novel. However, Julian Symons dismissed it as a ‘woman’s novel’, and Sayers is often patronizingly accused of ‘falling in love with her hero.’ The truth is that Sayers’ unrelenting focus on female independence influenced many other women novelists …
And in a paragraph such as the one that follows, the critical social commentary that Symons ignored – even with a toff of a detective in Lord Peter Wimsey – comes as a surprise:
Long before it became fashionable to critique the consumer society, she offers a picture of a world in which people are sold a dream of health and happiness … Sayers writes with a fierce sympathy about ‘those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.’
More generally the Golden Age victims, or murderees (as Martin Amis calls them), tell their own tale:
That dependable hate figure, the selfish financier, regularly crops up as a victim in Golden Age stories. In many other books, the corpse belongs to a blackmailer who had threatened victims with exposure and disgrace – a powerful motive for murder at a time when most people yearned for respectability. With the economic slump causing much suffering, any unpleasant old miser with a host of impoverished family members was unlikely to survive long in a crime novel, and anyone who called in their solicitor to change their will was signing their own death warrant.
As can be judged from what he says about old misers, this is a far from po-faced exposition of Golden Age fiction, and Martin is well aware of the clichés involved. As well as changing your will, “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters …”
The Golden Age of Murder throws up many interesting tidbits, side issues and diversions along the way. G.K.Chesterton, creator of the Father Brown mysteries and the Detective Club’s first Honorary President, argued in his essay, A Defence of Detective Stories
… that the detective story: ‘is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’. That reference to poetry is significant. From Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets. They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.’
One such, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, created, in his A question of proof, one Nigel Strangeways, who, “after a brief stay in Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud“ becomes an amateur private investigator, and, says Edwards, “bears a distinct resemblance to [his friend] Auden, with one or two additional quirks such as an excessive fondness for tea drinking.” Indeed, W.H.Auden was a great fan of Golden Age fiction. This blog post’s title is taken from his poem Detective Story – the one with the lines about “A home, the centre where the three or four things / that happen to a man do happen“. Tantalizingly, it was suggested that Auden provide some poems for P.D.James’s poetry writing detective, Adam Dalgleish – Auden and James were both published by Faber – but the plan was scuppered when the poet died.
The Golden Age of Murder is an absorbing read and, as many of the reviews have stated, a real labour of love. It can only add weight to the revival of its subjects’ novels heralded by The British Library’s publication programme – its (out of copyright) Crime Classics series, that its author has had a hand in. The writers are in no position, of course, to complain about the paperback jackets, as Agatha Christie once did to publisher Allen Lane his firm’s treatment of one of her novels, “having failed to realise that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.” Nice one, Martin.
Depending on who’s publishing in any given year, I suppose I read – give or take a finger or two – a handful of crime novels annually. Invariably a new Ian Rankin (who I see as some sort of soulmate), Peter Robinson (more out of habit these days, given no small percentage of Lillabullero‘s traffic comes from a semi-tabulated over-view of his Banks novels), John Harvey (the best crime writer, another poet – his Resnick I’ve long rated alongside Rebus), Carl Hiaasen (if I’m lucky) and … I have a lot of affection, as it happens, for Martin Edwards‘ Lake District Mysteries. Maybe something old, something borrowed too.
So, in the light of The Golden Age of Murder I thought I’d give Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot a spin. For me, along with Heartbeat, I consider Agatha Christie adaptations the bane of ITV3, which can quite often be a source of half decent crime when there’s nothing else on. (I prefer Lewis to Morse, by the way). I wanted to see if my view of the books had been poisoned by the stereotyped period treatments – almost designed to give credence to Julian Symons’ view of the books – given to Miss Marple and Poirot by television companies over the years. I wanted to look for other possible interpretations.
The mysterious affair at Styles (1920) was the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness of some of the descriptive prose. Hastings, the narrator, is an obvious Doctor Watson figure; he’s a Great war casualty, invalided out of the army. But no, seems I can’t just blame David Suchet. Poirot remains, on the page, the same supercilious smarmy little creep that has me leaping for the TV remote whenever there’s a whiff of him on the box. Sorry, mon ami. I shall still finish the book, though, despite Hastings saying stuff like:
Dear old Dorcas! As she stood there with her innocent face upturned to mine, I thought what a fine specimen she was of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out.
It all feels a bit like being in one of those Murder Mystery games that we have fun with on New Year’s Eves (though without the wine). And I will certainly have a gander at at least a Dorothy L. when one falls into my paws. But now for something completely different; it’s a crime, Jim, but not as the Golden Age knew it.
Always a danger sign, that – mention of The lovely bones on a book’s cover. She was cheating. The narrator of that book was talking from heaven. Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue‘s Room: a novel (Picador, 2010) is a five-year old boy – just. “Today I’m five,” is its opening line. I struggled to get over that and failed. Sorry, this is not the language of a five-year old. It got on my nerves, and the occasional interjection of childish words like ‘fasterer’ and ‘forgetted’ and ‘catched’ just made it worse. OK, he’s lived with Ma, an intelligent teenager when kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave a couple of years before Jack was born, by a man we never meet, in the room of the title, all his life. Just with Ma and a television set with dodgy reception, but I still can’t buy it. This narrative stratagem does have advantages in the way the story is told – no internal monologue from Ma leaves more to our imagination, no compulsory wallowing in it – but, as I say, I never managed to transcend it. My loss, some might say. Quite a lot, actually, given its shortlist showing for a number of prizes and its word-of-mouth success at the time.
It’s not a bad book, obviously. ‘Disturbing’ was the word on most of the Book Group members’ lips on the first run around the table. Donaghue got the idea from the notorious Fritzl case in Austria a couple of years previously, and it examines the issues of socialization, survival and recovery with sensitivity, intelligence and some wit. When they dramatically escape about half way through (oh come on, you can guess that from the chapter titles) we move into – albeit earth-bound – classic science fiction territory of the stranger in a strange land kind, with Jack struggling to understand what is real and what is television. His mother’s harrowing re-adaptation to the real world is painful to experience, even through Jack’s eyes. It ends … not without hope. I’m the only male in the Book Group and I was the least keen there; interestingly, three of the women said they wouldn’t have thought there was any point in recommending it to their husbands, who I know are a lot more than John Grisham readers. Enough. I’m glad it’s over. And so onto something more enjoyable.
Given that the reader has a good idea what’s going to happen, Robert Harris does a pretty good job in Pompeii (2003) of keeping us interested in how it specifically comes to pass and how it happens to the people (some real, some not) that he has chosen to tell the story through. No, more than interesting – rather keeping us hooked and thrilling us both with the action and the morality of those involved. Each chapter as the big day approaches is given a latin denomination and an excerpt from volcanology textbooks, which both distances the reader and allows the parallels with contemporary politics and social power to emerge for themselves. He skilfully keeps a lot of balls in the air and even throws in a bit of romantic desire for motivation to drive things along.
One is left in awe at what Roman civilization achieved – the aqueducts still standing, the baths, the water supply systems running for miles – but left in no doubt too about the violence, venality, slavery and corruption that accompanied the technical triumphs. Checking something in Wikipedia I learnt that Roman Polanski nearly filmed Harris’s book, seeing parallels with Chinatown in it; it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that does make perfect sense.
Harris has fun with what they thought was happening then and what the preserved Pompeii stands for now, with thought patterns and ideas of causation then and now. Here’s Attilius, the good guy engineer brought in at short notice to sort what they originally thought was just a small problem in the water supply, after the man on the job has disappeared, contemplating the end (of the world as he knew it) and feeling far from fine:
He strained his eyes towards Pompeii. Who was to say that the whole world was not in the process of being destroyed? That the very force that held the universe together – the logos, as the philosophers called it – was not disintegrating? He dropped to his knees and dug his hands into the sand and he knew at that moment, even as the grains squeezed through his fingers, that everything would be annihilated […]: everything would eventually be reduced to a shoal of rock and an endlessly pounding sea. None of them would leave so much as a footprint behind them; they would not even leave a memory.
But my favourite is your actual Pliny the Elder, natural philosopher, man of action, friend of emperors, who, even as naval commander as the volcanic endgame unfolds, is taking notes for another volume of his Naturalis historia:
He placed his fingertips together and frowned. It was a considerable technical challenge to describe a phenomenon for which the language had not yet been invented. After a while, the various metaphors – columns, tree trunks, fountains and the like – seemed to obscure rather than illuminate, failing to capture the sublime power of what he was witnessing. He should have brought a poet with him …
He comes to this cheery conclusion of his studies, waiting for his end on the beach where he has told the others to leave him:
Man mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer – it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us – we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little – a comfort to think these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him – unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent – and he saw in Her fires the futility of human pretensions.
And fear not, Robert Harris finishes Pompeii with a forgivably corny piece of storytelling magic.
I finished reading The mysterious affair at Styles earlier today, and I have to say its conclusion – the who, how and why of the murder in the country house – is stupidly complex: one small aspect of the solution, for instance, involves one person signing another’s name in the studied handwriting of a third. But I still enjoyed it, particularly when Poirot was just reasoning things out, rather than being Poirot with all his quirks. As a period piece one was expecting this sort of thing:
‘It will be the talk of the village! My mother was only buried on Saturday, and here you are gadding about with the fellow.’
‘Oh,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘if it is only village gossip that you mind!’
‘But it isn’t. I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about. He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.’
But not the unexpected response:
‘A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing. It leavens the’ – she looked at him – ‘stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.’
This is the same woman who sends the stolid Hastings, on being told “… I want to be free!” by her, off on one:
And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish. I seemed to see her for a moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.
Then in court, there’s the defence barrister Sir Ernest Heavyweather. Seems the 30-year old Agatha Christie had something about her.