Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, Dashiell Hammett, Detectives, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellery Queen, G K Chesterton, Georges Simenon, Golden Age, Ian Rankin, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, PD James, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell
A chance conversation in Waterstone’s the other day* showed me that my knowledge of Golden Age detectives wasn’t as good as I thought it was. Either that, or time’s wingèd chariot is taking its toll of my little grey cells …
So here’s a quiz so you can reassure yourself that your memory is fine. Just match the detectives with the authors, some from the Golden Age and a few beyond.
Roderick Alleyn Margery Allingham
Tom Barnaby Raymond Chandler
Father Brown G K Chesterton
Albert Campion Agatha Christie
Adam Dalgliesh Colin Dexter
Alan Grant Caroline Graham
Jules Maigret Dashiell Hammett
Philip Marlowe P D James
Miss Marple Ngaio Marsh
Inspector Morse Ellery Queen
Hercule Poirot Ian Rankin
Ellery Queen Ruth Rendell
John Rebus Dorothy L Sayers
Sam Spade Georges Simenon
Tommy & Tuppence Josephine Tey
Chief Inspector Wexford
Lord Peter Wimsey
I’ll post the answers in a day or two.
*I couldn’t remember the name of Margery Allingham’s detective. The kind man at the till very politely reminded me. He’s in the list above (the detective, not the kind man in Waterstone’s).
What would you call your own detective?
Another case of fame in a writer’s lifetime, but absence from the bookshop shelves today, is Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). I loved his books when a schoolboy. I had quite a collection, now shrunk to the three pictured (following the domestic mishap mentioned in my post about John Creasey at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/no-longer-on-the-bookshop-shelves/).
In the 1960s he was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific author, as I recall. Wikipedia lists over 150 of his novels, plus short stories. American editions of his books alone sold 170 million copies, and he was America’s best-selling novelist for a chunk of the 20th century. He wrote by dictating, and sometimes had more than one book on the go at a time. Given the successful and repeated formulas of his books this might have caused confusion, but if it did I never noticed. According to his obituary in the New York Times he liked being called “the fiction factory” and even “the Henry Ford of detective novelists.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erle_Stanley_Gardner_bibliography)
I can’t find him in first-run bookshops now – though I can still come across Perry Mason films late at night in the upper reaches of my cable channels.
The ever-present characters: Perry Mason, the intrepid and skilful defence lawyer, who always unmasks the real villain in a courtroom climax, to the relief of his unjustly accused client; Della Street, his loyal and efficient secretary; Paul Drake, the private detective who has an apparently inexhaustible number of employees able to drop everything to help Perry, with hardly ever a mention of a bill being presented; and Hamilton Burger, the hapless District Attorney who loses to Perry Mason almost every time. I came to feel sorry for Hamilton Burger. My own image of Perry Mason wasn’t the Raymond Burr of the TV series: my Mason was more, er, youthful, and slimmer. However, I read now that Raymond Burr actually auditioned for the part of Hamilton Burger, but when ESG saw him he said he was just how he imagined Mason.
ESG wrote other characters as well as Perry Mason, including his ‘DA’ series, possibly as a change from the victorious defender Mason, or to show that he could sympathise with the prosecution too?
His titles are great come-ons: to take some at random from the list, The Case of the Daring Divorcee, The Case of the Phantom Fortune, The Case of the Horrified Heirs, The Case of the Troubled Trustee.
And we all love a courtroom drama, don’t we?
ESG never claimed to be a great literary novelist. But he brought pleasure to millions. Thanks, Erle.
‘I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense’ wrote Georgette Heyer, ‘but I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from the flu.’
Nonsense Georgette Heyer’s regency romances may be, but there are times when they are just what the doctor ordered. From the first page we are taken into another world, knowing we are on safe ground where love and happiness will win through, in much the same way as Golden Age or cosy crime fiction leaves us with the reassurance that the baddies will get their come-uppance, good will triumph and order will be restored. Confidence and happiness is catching. Escapist literature gives us more than just a respite from our increasingly unpredictable and confusing world. It makes us feel better.
But why am I sounding so defensive? Perhaps because Georgette Heyer is sometimes viewed with disdainful superiority as being a literary stablemate of Barbara Cartland. Which is a mistake. This is not to criticise Barbara Cartland; I read one of her books when I was young and rather enjoyed it. But anyone who has read more than a page of the regency novels of these two authors knows how entirely different they are.
It’s not surprising that Jane Austen devotees are often voracious readers of Georgette Heyer; it’s not only the regency setting and happy endings the novels have in common but the perfect grasp of comedy. We never tire of the humorous aspects of Mr Bennet, Mrs Elton and Mr Collins and so it is with the unforgettable comic characters who pepper Georgette Heyer’s books. Ask Georgette Heyer fans about which novel or secondary character is the funniest and a clamour of opinions starts up, with Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child a hot favourite.
Nor is it surprising that feminists often approve of Georgette Heyer because rather than creating soppy, milky heroines subservient to men, she shows us strong-minded, spirited young women who think and act for themselves: capable and feisty like Deborah in Faro’s Daughter and Sophy in The Grand Sophy who give as good as they get to any man who tries to rule them, intelligent and sensible like Drusilla in The Quiet Gentleman and Elinor in The Reluctant Widow.
Love doesn’t come one-size-fits-all either. We are shown mature love developing out of friendship in Sprig Muslin, the growth of self-knowledge and confidence in The Foundling, and a perceptive examination of the difference between infatuation and commitment in A Civil Contract.
‘A crash course in romantic novels – Georgette Heyer say – and men might learn what’s expected of them’ I made a disappointed character say with joking irony in my novel Of Human Telling. For Georgette Heyer offers us heroes to meet every changing taste as we grow older: boyishly charming Lord Sheringham in Friday’s Child, autocratic Lord Worth in Regency Buck, reformed rake Damerel in Venetia, philanthropic Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch, wild Lord Vidal in Devil’s Cub, unassuming, kind-hearted Freddy in Cotillion. They may be very different but they have one thing in common: we can feel quite certain that they will always be faithful to the women they come to love and marry.
Georgette Heyer fans endlessly re-read her novels, catch themselves using the regency slang used by her characters, and hoard their tattered paperbacks so that unlike popular thrillers or issue novels you rarely find secondhand copies in charity shops. As the entirely wonderful Freddy Standen in Cotillion would say, stands to reason!
A woman ‘must improve her mind by extensive reading’ pronounces Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and nobody can argue with the principle in spite of the haughty manner in which it is delivered here. But most of us need a varied diet – light-hearted, sun-filled novels as well as more serious, thought-provoking, questioning ones.
There are many other delightful authors whom we may turn to for sheer undemanding enjoyment or when we are feeling ill or in need of comfort. I only know that Georgette Heyer will always, like Sir Tristram Shield in The Talisman Ring, ride ventre à terre to my side.
‘I am not good and I never shall be now… I might be a heroine still…’
Cynthia Kirkpatrick is not the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters but some modern readers may think she deserves to be.
Elizabeth Gaskell brought up four daughters in a happy, high-principled family home. In her portrayal of the sweet-natured, truth-telling Molly Gibson, the actual heroine of this last unfinished novel published in 1866, she writes with all the realism and delicate perception of a good and wise mother. But while it impossible not to love Molly, it is Cynthia, the daughter of a bad and neglectful mother, who is somehow more interesting and arguably Elizabeth Gaskell’s finest creation.
Patricia Beer, in her study of the women characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot Reader, I Married Him writes that ‘Cynthia is perhaps the least hypocritical girl, and the one with the most self-knowledge, that we meet before the twentieth-century novel.’ It’s this that gives her so much appeal to modern readers, who may not always relate to Molly’s struggles to be good when presented with a truly appalling stepmother.
‘Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it.’ We see her being the perfect companion and guest: ‘She exerted herself just as much to charm the two Miss Brownings as she would have done to delight Osborne Hamley, or any other young heir. That is to say, she used no exertion, but simply followed her own nature, which was to attract every one of those she was thrown amongst.’
Cynthia is the daughter of another splendid creation, the widowed Hyacinth, tired of having to earn her own living: ‘How pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; someone who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily furnished drawing room, and she was rapidly investing this imaginary breadwinner with the form and features of the country surgeon.’ Mr Gibson, anxious to provide his daughter Molly with a suitable stepmother, falls into the trap set for him.
The new Mrs Gibson, caring only for her own comfort, has been a lazy mother to her own child Cynthia. She sent her away to school at four years old to be out of the way; on her wedding day to Mr Gibson she even cunningly arranges for Cynthia to be kept in France, not wanting to be outshone. ‘If there is one thing that revolts me, it is duplicity,’ she asserts, but her selfish neglect of her daughter has meant that Cynthia too has a mercurial relationship with the truth.
It is Cynthia’s recognition that she does not love her mother – this at a time when filial love and duty was part of Victorian thinking – and her apparent careless acceptance of the damage that has been done to her which give her character its modern flavour and conviction. As she says to her stepsister Molly, to whom she is a loving and sympathetic listener ‘But don’t you see I have grown up outside the pale of duty and “oughts”. Love me as I am, sweet one, for I shall never be better.’
Cynthia’s disarming self-knowledge contrasts sharply with that of her mother, who has none at all: ‘I never think of myself, and am really the most forgiving person in the world, in forgiving slights.’ When speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate, Mrs Gibson insists ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’
‘Do you look forward to the consequences of my death, Mamma?’ – Cynthia’s barbs, always directed at her mother, provide much of the comedy in the novel, much as do the exchanges between Mr and Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But there is a greater depth of seriousness and pathos in Elizabeth Gaskell’s examination of relationships between mother and child or husband and wife. Mrs Gibson’s futile attempts to win back her husband’s esteem after he has discovered her shallow self-seeking deceit not only stir the kind-hearted Molly into pity, but also the reader. Mrs Gaskell is careful too not to reduce her to the level of caricature – whereas Mrs Bennet comes perilously close – by small details; we learn that Mrs Gibson was always good to the poor.
‘I wish I could love people as you do, Molly!’ Cynthia knows what she is and what is likely to become of her. She escapes into what an earlier or sterner morality might call worldliness – though Elizabeth Gaskell does not make this judgment – but what nowadays we see as the fun and pleasure that life may have on offer.
Cynthia’s need is to be always admired, and relies on ‘all the unconscious ways she possessed by instinct of tickling the vanity of men.’ But these men mustn’t find her out. ‘I try not to care which I dare say is really the worst of all, but I could worry myself to death if I once took to serious thinking.’ ‘I don’t like people of deep feelings… I’m not worth his caring for’. Her eventual choice shows her understanding of her own inability to commit herself to anyone who wants too much from her or sees the flaws behind the fascinating created self she displays to the world.
A man in a railway carriage, driven to desperation by noisy small children around him being unsuccessfully entertained by their unimaginative and strait-laced aunt, shuts them up with a story about a little girl called Bertha.
‘Was she pretty?’ asked the bigger of the small girls.
‘Not as pretty as any of you,’ said the bachelor, ‘but she was horribly good.’
There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt’s tales of infant life. (from Saki’s The Story-Teller)
It looks as if adults don’t like heroines who are ‘good’ any more than children do. In modern fiction it’s difficult to think of more than a handful of heroines we might describe using the word. Is this because we no longer look to fiction for moral guidance or inspiration in the way that people once did?
This might help explain why Fanny Price is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine; she hasn’t aged well. Patience and gentleness and a faithful loving heart combined with strong principles were enough in a heroine at the time Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park, but modern readers often find Fanny’s passivity spineless and her virtue irritating. They prefer the amusing and witty Mary Crawford, who takes active steps to get what she wants.
It may be that readers often dislike Fanny because she comes across as naturally good – and therefore difficult to identify with. There might even be a sense in which she shows us up, and we don’t like that either. She doesn’t make mistakes about people or find herself initially attracted to a dodgy man, like Elizabeth Bennet does. Elizabeth is morally upright, but she combines virtue with a sense of fun, dawning self-knowledge and awareness of her own errors of judgment; it’s not surprising that many people say she’s their favourite Jane Austen heroine.
I can’t think of a Fanny type heroine in modern fiction – and if a new author tried having one in a novel, agents would probably advise making them less wet. So is it that we don’t want heroines to be any more ‘good’ than we know ourselves to be?
Or can modern writers get away with a ‘good’ heroine if enough of their moral vacillation is shown? Maybe this is the problem with Fanny. Secret suffering and standing up for principles in silence: what’s the interest in that? But if a heroine is seen to struggle with moral choices, between right and wrong and the muddle between them, and then act on her decisions, her goodness is not the passive quality that we are warned to avoid when writing a novel.
The latest publication by a writing group to adorn my shelves is Delayed Reaction, the work of the Just Write writing group from Amersham in Bucks. This collection of short stories is ingeniously put together: they all take place on the 15-08 train from King’s Cross to York, which comes to a halt because of a broken-down train ahead of it. It sits in the Cambridgeshire countryside for over an hour. The delay materially affects the lives of the protagonists of the 10 stories – some for the better, some …
They are free-standing stories but some characters appear in more than one. Why is the Essex boy banker so agitated and so concerned with his briefcase? Why is the woman sitting opposite him so unhappy, and why does she ask his advice on how to commit fraud? What have the expensively clad businesswoman and the slatternly dressed woman in flip-flops got to say to each other? Will the 16-year-old schoolgirl finally change into the frilly pink dress she hates so much? Why for the young man could the delay be literally a matter of life and death?
Leave the last story to last, is my advice. Talk about a twist in the tail …
The writing group must have had a lot of fun at the meetings where they worked out how their characters interlocked!
Delayed Reaction is produced in aid of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. ISBN 978-0-9931222-2-4 RRP paperback £6-99 e-book £5-99 Go to http://www.delayedreaction.org.uk/ for purchase details and other details about the Just Write group.
Adieu Alan Rickman. As well as his more famous roles let us not forget his fabulously odious Obadiah Slope in the TV Barchester, and his noble Colonel Brandon in the film Sense and Sensibility. The curl of Slope’s lip on its own made me squirm – it could convey insincerity, smarminess, contempt …. Contrast it with the Colonel’s concern for the ill Marianne and his anxiety to be of use – “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad”, he pleads.
The fourth and latest in the series of The Grantchester Mysteries was launched at the Church House Bookshop in Westminster last week, on 19 May. It’s Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins. It’s by James Runcie.
Like its three predecessors it has as its hero the Vicar of Grantchester, Sidney Chambers. Sensitive, likeable, with an MC (and traumatic memories) from WW2. This new volume consists of six stories, each self-contained: we see Sidney conscientiously carrying out his full-time parish ministry but also fitting in the solving of mysteries. The Forgiveness of Sins takes us from 1964 to 1966. As before we are still largely in the Grantchester and Cambridge setting.
At the launch James Runcie told us that his intention in writing the Grantchester Mysteries series was to explore the social history of Britain between 1953 and 1979, a period of enormous social change. The crime genre is a happy way of doing this and is, of course, highly popular at the moment. He speculated on whether the present-day appeal of the crime genre relates in some way to our squeamishness about death: it is no longer ever-present in daily life as it was in times past, and crime fiction provided us with one way of handling its mystery and issues of loss.
When creating Sidney Chambers the author had wanted to get away from the comic or foolish clergyman so often portrayed in the media, away from Derek Nimmo or Dick Emery caricatures and their modern equivalents. He has certainly succeeded in that. In answer to one question he told us that when writing Sidney he does not have in mind James Norton (who plays him in the TV series Grantchester), though when composing DI Keating, with whom Sidney collaborates when solving his mysteries, he now does so with actor Robson Green’s voice in his head. Sidney is a composite of various clergy James Runcie has come across, and the author’s upbringing was such that he came across more clergymen than most.
I’m much looking forward to reading The Forgiveness of Sins. The previous volumes are Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, SC & The Perils of the Night, and SC & The Problem of Evil. They are published by Bloomsbury. The ISBN of SC & The Forgiveness of Sins is 978-1-4088-6220-9 and its hardback RRP is £14-99.
The photo shows James Runcie at the book launch.
Tanya’s mention of Anthony Trollope in her blog of 8 April is so timely as a birthday present to the great man – he was 200 last Friday (DOB 24 April 1815). There was an impressive tribute to him by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, in the ‘Church Times’ of 17 April. Unfortunately I can’t give you the link to it on the CT website as it’s behind a paywall (boo hiss).
Two Barchester-linked items from it relating to characters caught my eye:
From time to time I visit Harrow-on-the-Hill and a walk near the School takes you past a lane down the hill called Obadiah Slope. Each time I’ve seen it I’ve asked myself whether it was so named because of the Trollope character, or did Trollope name his character after the existing road name?
I now know the answer – at least, I do so long as the Bishop is correct. He says that the school named the road after the character. He writes that when Trollope went to the school “his dishevelled appearance and penury excited the derision of the other boys.” But in later years the School “made amends by christening the path down to the dining hall Obadiah Slope.”
It’s wonderful that someone at the school had the sense of humour to do that.
The second concerns Mrs Proudie. Trollope, we read, was at his club the Athenaeum one day when he overheard two clerics talking about his novels. (What must that feel like‽‽) They were complaining that he used the same characters time and again in his novels, and “the detestable Mrs Proudie” was the example they cited. Trollope admitted to them that he was the author, and pledged that “As to Mrs Proudie, I will go home and kill her before the week is over.” This he did, “though I have sometimes regretted the deed, so great was my delight in writing about [her], so thorough was my knowledge of all the little shades of her character.”
I think those clergymen did a disservice to literature, though they did lead to our getting the wonderful scene where the hen-pecked Bishop Proudie wrestles with his conflicting emotions when he learns of his wife’s death – misery, relief, pain, satisfaction. It’s in Chapter LXVII if you have your copy of The Last Chronicle of Barset handy.
Why did Trollope pay such attention to the views of just two of his many readers? Maybe because they were friends. or clergy, or members of his club, or maybe he was just so humble. Those of us who enjoy crime fiction must be glad that the creators of Poirot or Wimsey or Rebus weren’t members of the Athenaeum in 1867.