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.
What would a writer prefer? Great success in his or her lifetime, but then dropping out of sight? Or obscurity while she or he lives, but immortal fame afterwards? Chance would be a fine thing, many of us would answer, and we’d be delighted with ‘Local Writer Writes Interesting Story’ on page 4 of the entertainment section of our local newspaper, but we can always dream …
I muse on this because of the mention of John Creasey in my last post (on very valuable commas). How fame can pass. When I was at school he was one of Britain’s most prolific and successful crime writers, under his own name and his several pseudonyms such as JJ Marric and Antony Morton. He sold over 80 million books. His dates? 1908-1973.
On my shelf I have tales of his heroes Inspector West, Commander Gideon and the Toff. These are pictured. I used to have many more, but when I was a teenager my collection fell victim to a domestic misunderstanding and in my absence was given away for sale at the local village fete. (The Gideon book pictured is actually not one he wrote himself, but was written after his death ‘in his footsteps’ by William Vivian Butler. There’s a better picture of covers of John Creasey’s novels at http://www.johncreasey.co.uk/.)
I loved his work. His name is retained in the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award, but apart from that he is largely overlooked. Perhaps his books are too rooted in their time: Inspector West and Commander Gideon are incorruptible, and don’t have damaged back stories. It wouldn’t be overly unlikely in his 1950s novels for a criminal to mutter “It’s a fair cop, guv”. Tethered Camel Publishing recently reprinted some of John Creasey’s titles, but if you look on the shelves in Waterstones you won’t find him.
So fame can be fleeting. Maybe, if I were selling 80 million copies, I’d say “Let it fleet.”
What would be your choice? Lifetime success or posthumous fame?
This rather wonderful, FREE, competition gives you until 30 March to enter the first 5,000 words of your unpublished novel (in the women’s fiction genre), a 100 word mini biography of yourself, and a full synopsis (no more than two sheets of A4 paper).
The prize is a book deal with Orion Publishing and a £6,000 advance.
You also need an original copy of the entry form, from January Good Housekeeping. While this edition is no longer available in the shops, you probably know someone who still has a copy – or might even be able to scrounge the entry form from a copy in your doctor’s surgery or hairdresser’s (please ask permission first!)
The winner of their last competition, Margaret Kirk, whose entry, Shadow Man, set in atmospheric Inverness, currently sits on our own bookshelves, wrote this page-turning whodunnit ‘on a chair in the living room with the cat on my knee’. I have the chair; I have the cat; what’s stopping me?
Unusually the competition asks for a hard copy to be sent to Orion Books, so give yourself enough time to interact with your printer. I’m actually looking forward to the nostalgia of queuing up at the Post Office with my brown envelope…
Here’s a question – should I use ‘colourful’ language to convey life in the eighteenth century?
The prologue of Jessie Burton‘s debut novel, The Miniaturist, about to hit our TV screens on Boxing Day, is as rich as an embroidered sleeve and transports you to the affluence and dissipation of her chosen time and place:
‘words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot and the church’s east corner is crowded…guildsmen and their wives approach the gaping grave like ants toward honey… The church’s painted roof…rises above them like the tipped-up hull of a magnificent ship. It is a mirror to the city’s soul; inked on its ancient beams, Christ in judgement holds his sword and lily, a golden cargo breaks the waves, the Virgin rests on a crescent moon.’
Okay, I can’t hope to match that, so would I be safer sticking to plain. twenty-first-century English, which can be equally gripping?
A world away from eighteenth-century Holland is the taut opening of Margaret Kirk‘s psychological thriller, Shadow Man, which won the Good Housekeeping Debut Novel Competition in 2016 and is set in contemporary Inverness.
‘By midnight there are bodies everywhere. Her tiny flat is crammed to bursting, but people are still stumbling through the door, waving packs of Stella or Strongbow and wrapping her in Cheerful beery hugs.
She doesn’t remember inviting them all – doesn’t recognise half of them, when she stops to think about it – but so what. For the last four years, she’s been juggling coursework with her shifts at the all-night garage, slogging away at her degree while it felt like the rest of the world was out getting laid, or legless. Or both.’
Using minimal description, this writing convincingly evokes a student party. There’s also that clever ‘bodies everywhere’, hinting at further – dead – bodies to come.* No wonder the novel grabbed the judges’ attention.
Yet few of us are familiar with Georgian London, so how am I to write my own book, The Maid’s List, without sounding like a pastiche of Georgette Heyer? Dame Hilary Mantel has written of ‘the need to broker a compromise between then and now’. Easier said than done, if you’re neither Mantel nor Burton.
On this blog we write about books, about reading and about writing, but never share our own draft efforts. Perhaps we should, since I believe it helps to see how others struggle to get their stories onto the computer screen. I’m therefore giving you an extract from The Maid’s List, complete with a touch of purple that I’m still working to eradicate.
‘I’m convinced these men are no better than my master, and wonder afresh what they do gathered around that table, with voices that seem to haggle like those of market traders. Silk-stockinged men, with gold-topped canes, sprawled in the worn leather chairs, with their knees spread wide and lace frothing at their cuffs. I rattle the glasses on my tray, to warn them I’m at the door. One of them has taken the pot from the cabinet and is pissing into it. He glances up from the yellow stream and grins as if to say, you’ll have the privilege of emptying this. Which, indeed, I will. Probably while it is still warm.’
As always, I suppose it’s down to the individual write to do the best she/he can. After all, the more variety there is in books, the richer the reader experience.
*Spoiler alert: having recently started Shadow Man, I could be jumping to conclusions here!
Each year I try to write a Christmas short story, usually with a murder in it. With varying success. I find I have contradictory emotions on just having finished The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by the great PD James. On the one hand I realise that what I produce comes nowhere near the quality of these stories. On the other, I’m spurred to greater effort.
These four stories aren’t festive tales. And at the same time they are so atmospheric. PD teases us about what we’re reading: in one she says that the butler and his wife, the cook, are “indispensable small-part characters in any country-house murder”; and in another Adam Dalgliesh is flagged down on a country road on Christmas Eve, when “… his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers on an upmarket weekly magazine.”
The Mistletoe Murder (1995) is set in wartime, at a Christmas house-party in a practically empty country house. The period is well evoked, as is a pervading sadness. A gruesome killing takes place and there are very few suspects. The clues are there for us, but I didn’t manage to work it out. The ending was beautifully unexpected. A story told with real atmosphere.
A Very Commonplace Murder (1969) is a sordid story set in Camden Town, involving a voyeur who spies on lovers in a house opposite his place of work. The scene of adultery becomes a scene of murder.
The Boxdale Inheritance (1979) is an Adam Dalgliesh story. He is asked by an elderly Canon (his godfather) to investigate a murder that happened in 1902. An inheritance depends on it. That ancient crime took place in another gloomy large house, with a family assembled for Christmas, a family riven (as is de rigueur in such a setting) by jealousy and greed. Unbreakable alibis abound. The principal clue to the solution is presented to the reader but in such a way that I sailed straight past it.
The Twelve Clues of Christmas (1996) also features Adam Dalgliesh. One Christmas Eve he finds himself at an unwelcoming Harkerville Hall, deep in Suffolk, faced with a bizarre apparent suicide. Again, members of a divided family are in attendance. Our hero solves the mystery by spotting the twelve clues of the title.
He concludes that story by observing, ”My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.’” You’re too modest, Lady James.
Talking of Agatha Christie – one of the few whodunits I’ve read a second time is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which I reread in order to see where the clues to the solution were. And yes, the main clue is there: as clear as day when you know its significance, but when read the first time it’s hidden in plain sight as just a piece of description. Similar to that in The Boxdale Inheritance.
So: if at this early stage you’re looking for a seasonal stocking-filler for a whodunit-lover, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories would fit the bill. And if you’re yourself a writer of Christmas short stories, here’s a standard to aim for!
The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18th September by Miss Emily Wharton, a 65-year-old spinster of the parish of St Matthews in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged 10, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared.
This, the irresistible opening sentence of A Taste for Death by P. D. James, was among the excerpts in the handout at a scintillating lecture given by Professor Alison Shell entitled ‘Anglicanism and Women Novelists: A Special Relationship’ at the Barbara Pym Society meeting in London on 7th May.
Crime and humour: these seem to be the predominant threads in Anglican fiction. Spinsters loom large … we were treated to excerpts from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and of course Barbara Pym.
Professor Alison Shell is currently co-editing with Judith Maltby Anglican Women Novelists which includes essays on P. D. James, Rose Macauley, Barbara Pym and others from Charlotte Bronte onwards. The good news is that it’s being published by Bloomsbury early next year, so there’s not long to wait for what sounds like a fascinating study.
Belsize Park, British Library, Christmas, College bursars, Cornish coast, J Jefferson Farjeon, John Bude, John Rowland, Kent, London Underground, Mavis Doriel Hay, Oxford, River Cherwell, Sussex Downs, whodunits
Another hurrah for the British Library Crime Classics series! It reissues whodunits from the Golden Age by authors who have dropped from general sight but who still can give much pleasure.
I found Mystery in White – A Christmas Crime Story, by J Jefferson Farjeon (1937), a most atmospheric piece. A group of strangers are trapped by heavy snow on Christmas Eve in a country house, which mysteriously has fires burning and food ready, but no-one is home … Then murder is done. I could almost feel the cold, see the snow on the ground outside. A great gift for Christmas for an aficionado of the genre.
The Sussex Downs Murder (1936) is set north of Worthing, in real Sussex countryside, based on the village of Washington near Chanctonbury Ring. Written by John Bude. The Rother brothers run a quarry. Soon after John Rother’s disappearance bones turn up in the quarry, and then in loads of lime sent to local customers. The plot includes delights such as a mysterious runner in a broad-brimmed hat, an anomaly in the amount of petrol in an abandoned car, a false telegram sent to lure one of the protagonists away, etc. Superintendent Meredith is the sleuth on the case.
Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay (1935) is in the sub-genre of Oxbridge murders. A group of students at the all-female Persephone College in Oxford meet one wintry afternoon on top of the boathouse to form a secret society dedicated to the cursing of the unpopular College bursar: and what should float down the River Cherwell, right past their meeting place, but a canoe containing the said bursar’s corpse …. Here the traditional detective sent from Scotland Yard is Inspector Braydon. The cast of suspects includes exotic types such as Draga Czernak, a Montenegrin student at Persephone who feels insulted by the bursar; Ezekiel Lond, a misogynist old man who lives in a ramshackle house next to Persephone, and who much resents the sale by his father of the land on which the College stands; and James Lidgett, a farmer-cum-builder who wishes to develop land next to Persephone. Great stuff. For once, I guessed the villain early on.
Those are the three in the series I’ve read so far. Three pleasures still to come are:
Calamity in Kent (1950), by John Rowland, in which a corpse is found locked inside the carriage of a cliff railway at the seaside resort of Broadgate – given me by a ninevoices friend who knew of my liking for this stuff (thanks, Val).
Murder Underground (1934), by Mavis Doriel Hay (she of the Cherwell): the rich but unpopular Miss Pongleton is killed on the stairs of Belsize Park tube station. I’ve given this to my Londoner daughter as a present. She commutes to work on the Metropolitan Line but as Belsize Park is on the Northern Line she might not hold it against me. I hope she’ll lend it back to me to read in due course.
The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), by John Bude (he of the Sussex Downs): a local magistrate is found shot dead in the house of the local vicar (not in his library, surely?). Looking for something else, I found this in a place my dear wife might be using for storing this year’s Christmas presents, so I have high hopes for Christmas morning! I must put it back secretly.
Thanks, BL. Go to http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/publishing/crime-classics-booklet.pdf for the complete list.