The Classical English Detective Novel. Part II

The Case.

It is generally acknowledged that the "Golden Age" of the English Detective novel was inaugurated with the publication of Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley in 1913, but before we dive into it we'll have to consider some other works first. Even works of another genre, namely the so called "thrillers", which emerged at the same time. Writers of the tradition of H. Rider Haggard, Captain Marryat, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson were perhaps passé and obsolete with the arrival of the twentieth century, but not so their genre. A new generation of writers were ready and waiting backstage. They showed an incredible amount of versatility and genius in adapting the multitude of technological advances as part of their plots, and I daresay that, with the lack of discriminating taste on part of the potentially growing new public (the working classes) and, accordingly, the publishers, the way was paved for the distribution of "bad" literature.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as a thriller with literary merit, I mean: there must be... illustrative titles elude me at present... Well, perhaps they all are a pile of garbage. Perhaps we just need to wallow in literary mire, as compensation for something else, every now and again. Anyway, new people were in. People like William le Queux, E. Phillips Oppenheim, H. C. MacNeile ("Sapper") - the author of Bulldog Drummond (1920), Sax Rohmer with his Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (1913), John Buchan with The 39 Steps (1915), and, above all, Edgar Wallace.

Wallace, born 1875, was the son of an actress, Polly Richardson, who had to leave him with a fisherman's family in Greenwich, near Deptford in the East End of London. From an early age, he accompanied his stepfather daily by horse an carriage, through Deptford, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey and Southwark. Then across the London Bridge to Billingsgate Fishmarket where the stepfather sold his fish. The young boy sucked in the atmosphere of the metropolis which he was to use in later years.

As an interesting aside it can be mentioned that the Tower Bridge wasn't built until 1894, so if you ever see it - what frequently occurs - depicted on the dust cover or as an illustration of one of the early Sherlock Holmes stories, you will know that it's due to bad research.

After a varied career as milkboy, newspaperboy, sailor and soldier, he landed a job as war correspondent during the Boer War. Then a two year's stint as editor of the Rand Daily Mail, and, finally, after a scoop concerning the peace negotiations, he made Kitchener his lifelong enemy, and Alfred Harmsworth his friend, at least for some time. Long enough to get a job as reporter with the Daily Mail in London. Wallace was partly responsible for Harmsworth's involvement in the Unilever Trial which cost the latter a fortune in damages, and he was fired from the paper, but before that he had published his first book in 1905 The Four Just Men. There's a fascinating early advertising stunt connected with the publication of the book, but, alas, space does not permit any greater digressions from the theme. Suffice it to say that Wallace became the greatest "thriller factory" of his day. In 1928 he was the author of every 4th book published in Great Britain. He was a bon vivant who all his life lived beyond his assets. He tried most ways to make money. He was engaged in making films in Britain simultaneously with Cecil Hepworth, and in 1932 he went to Hollywood to write screenplays. He wrote the insane plot of one of the all time film classics King Kong. He died suddenly in Hollywood, indebted to the equivalent of £ 4 000 000 in today's currency, but two years later his estate showed a whacking great profit.

He probably suspected that his books were of little literary value, and all his life he referred to himself as a newspaper man. He was the driving force behind the founding of the Press Club, and later on, when he earned big money, he inaugurated a fund for reporters temporary out of work. He remained chairman of the club until his death. Next time you visit London go and have a look at the plaque put up in his honour upon the wall of a building at Ludgate Circus, commemorating his life as newspaperboy, reporter and editor. The way that he himself would have liked to be remembered.

These thrillers, as they were aptly termed, were strongly objected and reacted to by the school of the "Golden Age". It maintained that there should be, if not verisimilitude, then at the very least, an intellectual challenge in a mystery, and it was in reaction to the thrillers that the new school developed.

As I have already indicated things had begun to happen even before 1913. In 1891 Israel Zangwill, a Jewish politician, published one of the real classics The Big Bow Mystery. It's a so called "Locked Room" mystery, i.e. the crime is committed under apparently impossible circumstances. How did the murderer get in?. How did he leave the scene of the crime? And how did he manage to bolt the door on the inside from the outside? That sort of thing.

Another "locked room" mystery, a very rare book, heard of by many, read by but very few, is the Frenchman Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907). Also a first class mystery. Leroux is probably remembered best for his "horror" classic The Phantom of the Opera.

The same year saw the debut of Dr. Thorndyke by F. Austin Freeman. Freeman was one of the greatest innovators since Poe. He was a medical man, and after some varied experience as a ship's surgeon on the South America line he retired in bad health and started to write. His first book was published in 1902. It was written in collaboration with another writer and appeared under the title The Adventures of Romney Pringle, under the joint name of Clifford Ashdown. It's not a very good one but it has become a collector's item, one of the most rare in the genre. To this day only 6! copies have been found. In 1907 he introduced his "scientific" detective Dr. Thorndyke of 5a. King's Bench Walk, and address equally famous as 221 b. Baker Street in the first decades of this century. He appeared in a book called The Red Thumbmark. As Freeman was a doctor he tried out his plots in the laboratory, and he's the only writer, besides Conan Doyle, who has had any impact on real crimefighters, and that to an even higher degree than the former. Modern jurisprudence has adapted several of Dr. Thorndyke's techniques, viz, microphotography of dust and hair etc. for comparison.

Freeman invented a whole new style of writing, the so called "inverted" story. In The Singing Bone from 1912 we know from the very beginning who the murderer is. This could be called the very first "Columbo" story, although it was Dr. Thorndyke who solved the case.

Freeman continued to write very good books through the 20s and 30s, and must be considered one of the giants of the Golden Age, not only for his works but also for his influence on other writers of the period. Now, at last, we're down to brass tacks. Edmund Clerihew Bentley was an editorial journalist, a childhood friend of G. K. Chesterton. As a private joke between them, and in answer to the latter's The Man Who Was Thursday, he wrote Trent's Last Case, with the novel twist at the end, i.e. the delayed time of the murder, which, for a while, baffles the great detective and makes him draw erroneous conclusions. This book is an all time classic, not only for the place it occupies in the literary history of the detective story, but also because it's highly readable even today.

Next in line we have from 1919 The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts who, with the introduction of Inspector French later on, must be considered the inspiration of Simenon's Maigret. This kind of stories are, what today is called, "police procedure" stories, i.e. they deal with crime, from the point of view of the police. It has become a hackneyed genre, especially in the US, with its tough cops, coatless behind their paper littered desks, displaying guns in shoulder holsters under shirts with sweaty armpits while eating hamburgers and drinking stale coffee from sterile paper mugs.

Crofts' books were written in a different age, but gives a much more credible picture of the daily sweat of a hard working law enforcement agent's not very glamorous life. All Crofts' books are worth reading although they rarely constitute mysteries in the sense of the classical criteria, but I still recommend them. For instance The Cask, The Cheyne Mystery, The Loss of the Jane Vosper.

Dame Agatha Christie needs no introduction. Her name has become a household word in detective fiction. hers is actually better known than Conan Doyle's as millions of people who know of Sherlock Holmes believe him to be an historical figure. A. C. mainly operates with two detectives. In the beginning of her career, Hercule Poirot, who made the debut of them both in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Later on, in Murder in the Vicarage (1930), Miss Marple was introduced. There is no doubt that Agatha Christie is, by far, the most read mystery writer in the world.

Personally I don't care too much for her books, but I daresay that no one is likely to go wrong by buying them. If you've read one, you've kind of read 'em all, so you know exactly what you get, except for the identity of the murderer. They are so well known and easy to come by that I abstain from elaborating on her authorship.

A. A. Milne, whom everybody knows as the author of the delightful children's books about Winnie-the-Pooh, has, however unlikely it may seem, written a detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922). It's the only one he wrote, and I really don't know any reason for it to be included, except for curiosity and the fact that it is generally included in essays and articles on the subject. You won't find it the least bit mysterious, in fact, it's painfully obvious who the murderer is from the very beginning. Still, it's got something else rather indefinable about it. Some transient quality, echoing a lost time or era; not unlike the atmosphere in some of the works of Sir James Barrie. A preoccupation with a future time never to be, and, when not redeemed, a past time that never was.

Next in line we have Dorothy L. Sayers. She always insisted on the "L" so let's keep it out of reverence; it's so often left out. In my opinion she is one of the top three, all time mystery writers. Just who of them is 1, 2 or 3, is a matter of time or place, in short, it differs. What I like about her books is that they are more than mysteries. They are plain novels, with mystery thrown in for good measure. The great detective in her books is Lord Peter Whimsey, the aristocrat derived from the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, completely down to the manservant Bunter, who, in many aspects is indistinguishable from the celebrated Jeeves. Lord Peter had his debut in 1923 in Whose Body? Miss Sayers wrote twelve mystery novels, eleven of which featured His Lordship, and some short stories. All of them extremely readable. My own favourite is Murder Must Advertise from 1933. It gives a vivid picture of the daily routines in an advertising agency of the same period, based upon her experiences of working for such an agency in the early '20s.

Anthony Berkely Cox is a comparatively unknown writer to the general public, probably because many think that he does... does what? I hear you say... well cox... still didn't get it? sox... spelled s-u-c... oh, the penny finally dropped, did it? Nevertheless, he's one of the cornerstones of the craft. A genuine classic. However, his prime detective Roger Sheringham, is not very sympathetic. Nor is he infallible, as a matter of fact, he is the fictitious detective with the most flops to his (dis)credit. This is perhaps a contributing factor to his relative obscurity: nobody remembers the losers. Sheringham appeared for the first time in 1925 in The Layton Court Mystery. Other books that can be recommended are The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), and, above all, The Poisoned Chocolates Case from 1929, a vegetable tour de France veritable tour de force, because of it's 8!! solutions.

A paradoxical circumstance surrounding A. B. C is that he is much better known under another of his nom de plumes, Francis Iles, under which he published Malice Aforethought (1930), and Before the Fact (1932), the latter filmed by none less than Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, with Nigel Bruce in a minor part. Bruce is dearly remembered for his classical "Watson" to Basil Rathbone's "Holmes" in a long line of films that have become cult classics by now.

As the '20s were drawing to a close, it didn't look as though anything original could come out of the, by now, slightly hackneyed genre. Across the Atlantic nothing much had happened, and by now no other countries, with the possible exception of France, could offer anything that just faintly resembled competition. The Americans were more into the "hard-boiled" mysteries of Dashiell Hammet. The tough private investigator epitomised in Sam Spade, the hero of books such as The Maltese Falcon.

The chivalrous knights of skid row; the back street heroes of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The "lonely defenders of common decency" and reactionary morals. With a bottle of bootleg whiskey and a gun in the otherwise empty filing cabinet. Fighting mobsters, hypocrites and corrupt cops and politicians for $25 a day plus expenses, i.e. whiskey, gasoline and pocket money to lose on horses. They generally shoot it out with their antagonists, and the final pages of these books always bear a striking resemblance to the last act of Hamlet, and perhaps that is what lends them the literary respectability that they are somehow tainted with. At least a lot of avant garde critics seem unable to distinguish good entertainment from true art.

Honestly I'm not trying to knock the genre. I'm an ardent admirer of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The latter's books are bubbling over with literary style and creative language, metaphors and analogies. They are delightful, but the genre has, alas, been attempted by less gifted writers. Besides, they fall outside the criteria of the kind of literature we are dealing with here and now.

In most historical studies this is the moment that the celebrated and grossly overrated S. S. van Dine is dragged out of oblivion. Highly acclaimed as the inaugurator of the renaissance of the detective novel in America. This, on the strength of The Benson Murder Case from 1926. van Dine's super detective was definitely upper ca-la-ss, and all this blatant snobbery makes me feel lousy.

The truth is that it's nothing but a lot of racist shit, for in 1925 Earl Derr Biggers - talk about nobility? - published the first novel featuring the Chinese master sleuth Charlie Chan, The House Without a Key. I don't understand this attitude. I mean: The Charlie Chan books are a hell of a lot more readable than any of van Dines. The credit of reviving the American mystery novel goes without any doubt to Biggers. Credit where credit is due.

But never mind, let's get on with it.

In 1926, an American journalist, Willard Huntington Wright, created the gentleman detective, Philo Vance, who starred in the aforementioned Benson Murder Case. It was followed by a dozen or so other "Murder Cases", often based on contemporary causes célèbres.

They adhered strictly to the rules and was instrumental in bringing the American mystery novel on the map again, but they haven't aged with grace. They are heavy as lead, and one could say that, like Sax Rohmer and H. P. Lovecraft, Wright, who used S. S. van Dine as pseudonym, had a tendency to overload his prose with adjectives, but nevertheless, he shouldn't be forgotten in the historical context. I'm inclined to recommend The Bishop Murder Case from 1928. Don't bother to read the rest of them unless you have to or you are specially interested. There are a lot of footnotes on all kinds of subjects, quoting sources and authorities long forgotten, and , I suspect, very little known in their day, that are not without interest in themselves.

In 1929, literary lightning struck an innocent book buying public. Two cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, had their debut under the pseudonym of Ellery Queen. This is also the name of the detective hero. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery. Until one of them died in the mid '70s, they published some 50 books. They have been incredibly creative, original and versatile. So much so, in fact, that their admirers can be divided into two categories. those who like their early works best and those who prefer their more mature period. I consider Ellery Queen to be another of the top three mystery writers. Personally I belong to the first category of fans, and I even maintain that the so called "Geography Suite" plus Halfway House, stand alone in mystery fiction. They have an added incentive in the famous "Challenge to the Reader". After approximately two thirds of any of the books you are confronted with a page that reads something like this:

Who killed von Schnottenscheiss? At this stage, the observant reader will have gathered enough evidence to enable him to, without doubt, point out the murderer. By a number of logical conclusions and psychological observations, the astute reader will easily be able to tell who killed the Wall Street tycoon.


Of course, the "astute" reader will be able to do nothing of the kind, but when you read on and the great detective reveals the identity of the murderer, and explains to the multitude of "Watsons", how he arrived at his conclusions, and why the only person who could have done the dastardly deed was the retired surgeon, because there were only six butts in the ashtray when there should have been seven, you realise that you'll probably never yourself be called in on a case to help a baffled police force. Your guess wasn't even close.

In some Ellery Queen books you may make a lucky guess, and sometimes the murderer turns out to be among the five or six people that you suspect the most, but in some, especially in the "Geography Suite", you are not even that close. The reason for the name is that their first books had geographical allusions as part of their titles. I'll list the books here for the benefit of whom it may concern. The "Geography Suite", i. e. the first books by Ellery Queen with the challenge to the reader are:

1. The Roman Hat Mystery 1929
2. The French Powder Mystery 1930
3. The Dutch Shoe Mystery 1931
4. The Greek Coffin Mystery 1932
5. The Egyptian Cross Mystery 1932
6. The American Gun Mystery 1933
7. The Siamese Twin Mystery 1933
8. The Chinese Orange Mystery 1934
9. The Spanish Cape Mystery 1935


These, and the follower,

10. Halfway House 1936

are in my opinion strong contenders to the list of the top ten detective novels of all times. Add to those the four books that the two cousins wrote under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross, featuring the deaf master sleuth Drury Lane, and you have a mystery feast to be treasured. I honestly envy anybody who hasn't already read these books. Imagine! having all this suspense to come.

It's true that the Ellery Queen novels lack a lot in depth of character, personal relations and literary style, but the plots are unbelievable, and I suspect that that is the main reason for the modern school of readers and writers not being so keen on them. There is a sad lack of interest in the plot at the expense of psychological verisimilitude in the modern aficionado, but it's due to change sooner or later.

Finally we have arrived at the last of the big three, John Dickson Carr alias Carter Dickson. Born in the US but from 1930 - the year of his debut - until 1950 living in Britain. His first book was entitled It Walks by Night.

His career can be divided roughly into three periods: 1930-1933, 1933-1950 and after 1950.

The first couple of years he was sort of experimenting. Most of his stories were set in Paris, and his first favourite sleuth was Juge d'instruction, and also head of the Paris police, Henri Bencolin. In 1933 or 34 he is so settled in the genre that he can operate with two new master detectives. One has to admit though, that they are rather alike.

The first of the new ones, Dr Gideon Fell, who always appeared in a broad-brimmed slouch hat, cape and a bandit's moustache, was obviously cast in the likeness of G. K. Chesterton, and the other, Sir Henry Merrivale, has many features in common with Sir Winston Churchill, too many to be mistaken.

An aspect of John Dickson Carr's novels is that they are hilariously funny in the midst of a diabolical background. This evokes similar atmospheres as in the best plays of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and other exponents of modern absurd drama. For example, an absurd incongruity is that Fell and Merrivale really are nothing but grown-up children. Fell is always interrupted by his cases in the pursuit of his academic endeavour, the writing of his Magnum Opus, viz, The Drinking customs of England from the Earliest Days. A subject which, of course, constantly demands "studies in the field" as it were, in order to keep up to date on it.

Sir Henry's mental make-up is very much the same. He's employed by the Government and is "something" to do with Intelligence, MI5, or Secret Service. He caught a lot of spies during World War II. His great fear is that he will end his days in the House of Lords, and he's always suspecting people of trying to manipulate things with that purpose in mind. In addition to that, he has a notion to the effect that "Fate" is conspiring to "do him in the eye" as he puts it. Indeed, something seems to bear this out. For example, the case of the Chinese visitor who came to his office and introduced himself to Sir Henry, who kicked the unfortunate man down the stairs, believing that some of his acquaintances were behind this "practical joke". "How was I to Know," complained Sir Henry afterwards, "that this bloke's name really was Fu Manchu?

Insane incidents like this are encountered galore in the whole of J. D. C.'s production. On the surface the plot takes you through scenes not unlike those in Waiting for Godot. In contrast to this, the culprits always have crass, down to earth, motives for their crimes, and in between the surprising clews and general circumstances surrounding the crimes, we are faced with the weirdness and unreality of the cosmic forces.

John Dickson Carr is the undisputed master of the "impossible" crime, particularly the "locked room" variety. You just won't believe the number of solutions that exists to this problem. Not only does it occur in a lot of his books, but in no less than three of them, viz, The White Priory Murders, The Ten Teacups and The Three Coffins, sometimes published under the title of The Hollow Man, he ventures into lengthy discussions of the means and ends of this phenomenon as such. From the last book has even this part been extracted and included in other people's anthologies, and heavily quoted in essays and articles on the subject.

With all these excesses of slapstick, clews and strange settings, it's of course impossible to find out who the murderer is, and, naturally, J. D. C. is denied any depth of character in order not to give the game away.

This kind of novels should be judged as puzzles, and not as psychological studies. If more readers realised that they could perhaps face them unprejudiced.

In his late period he concentrated more on writing biographies (he wrote one on Conan Doyle), historical essays and detective novels in historical settings, a venture he began as early as the '30s.

John Dickson Carr ends the period, but these writers didn't stop writing suddenly in 1940 of course. Some of them had died by then, and others kept working far into the '40s and '50s, but a new generation of mystery writers took over after the war. They had new ideas of how to write. The "puzzle" was generally abandoned, but I would like to mention two of the new ones.

Nero Wolfe made his debut in 1934, during the Golden Age, in the book Fer-de-Lance. This and his other pre-war books have a special atmosphere and freshness that is harder to find in the later ones, but his great period is reckoned after the war, when most of them were written.

They are delightful. The author, Rex Stout, who lived to become almost a hundred years old, created a couple of classical sleuths in Nero Wolfe, the monstrously fat orchid lover, who never leaves his house in West 35th Street, Manhattan, on business, but sends his anything but stupid legman Archie Goodwin to face the cruel world, whilst he himself escapes the dreariness of everyday existence by way of his prodigious reading the cream of the world literature, and eating the most superb food, supplied by his master chef Fritz Brenner.

He is without comparison the highest paid detective in or out of fiction. Fees to the amount of $50000-$100000 are not exceptional where Nero Wolfe is concerned.

Another writer who started in the thirties, but didn't break through until after the war, is Francis Durbridge. I remember with nostalgic pleasure how, as a boy, in the early '50s, I used to listen to the weekly instalment of Paul Temple and the Gregory Case, The Dixie Case, The van Dyke Case and so on, and later, in the '60s and '70s watching the Francis Durbridge series on TV. F.D.'s speciality is in the tradition of John Dickson Carr: the element of surprise, the odd clew, the cliff-hanger from one chapter to the next.

As an ending note I must say that the nearest to the classics that we come today are the works of P.D. James, Ruth Rendel and Colin Dexter, etc. Followers of a great tradition.

(c)1998 LBL.

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