Detective Novels: A Very British Crime Wave
Detective stories captured the imaginations of the British middle classes in the 20th century. William D. Rubinstein looks at the rise of home-grown writers such as Agatha Christie, how they mirrored society and why changes in social mores eventually murdered their sales.
Between around 1910 and 1950 England was in the grip of a genteel crime wave; a seemingly endless output of murder mysteries, generally set among the upper and upper middle classes and usually solved by a brilliant amateur detective rather than by the police. They were read enthusiastically and with an insatiable appetite by British middle-class readers. The ‘golden age’ of the English detective story during this span of 40 years or so is an important and often overlooked feature of English popular culture, as significant in its way as the dance bands and the early BBC.
The detective story long predates this apogee, however, and is normally said to have begun in the fertile brain of the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), especially in the three stories of his Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841); The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842); and The Purloined Letter (1845). From 1859 Dupin had a French counterpart in Moniseur Lecoq, created by Emile Gaborian (1832-73). Despite these American and French origins, it was to England that detective fiction migrated, took root and flourished, becoming a characteristically British genre.
This transition occurred because of one author and his great detective. The most famous of all fictional detectives is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 and the subject of four novels and 56 short stories. Sherlock Holmes has been called one of the three most famous characters in fiction (Hamlet and Don Quixote were noted as the others). Few writers in history have had such an impact as Conan Doyle. For millions around the world, late Victorian England is the world of hansom cabs, gaslight and fog described in his books, a world where, as Vincent Sterrett, author of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933), wrote, ‘it is always 1895’.
As a seminal landmark in detective fiction the Sherlock Holmes stories have many distinctions that influenced scores of other writers. Holmes is a brilliant private detective, categorically better than the plodders and mediocrities of Scotland Yard, who constantly turn to him when they are baffled, their normal state. This in itself is pure fiction: in real life there were never any brilliant private detectives to whom Scotland Yard turned when they failed and the Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had a remarkable clear-up rate and has always been highly competent. Indeed, the most famous real-life British detectives of the 20th century, such as Walter Dew (1863-1947) and Robert Fabian (1901-78), were Scotland Yard inspectors. Holmes is memorably eccentric, with a range of endearing and less endearing habits (he is a drug addict), a feature of his persona often imitated but never bettered. Nearly all of the Holmes stories are narrated by his faithful Boswell, Dr John (or James: his first name varies) Watson, the original of dozens of other detectives’ ‘Watsons’. Watson is Everyman, constantly amazed and stupefied by Holmes’ genius, but never, despite years of working with him, ever to produce these brilliant insights himself. There is general agreement among the many writers on Holmes that Watson is a lot cleverer than he allows us to understand; he is certainly a fine writer and a memorable phrase-maker.
Most of the Holmes stories are set among the higher levels of Victorian and Edwardian society, a world inhabited by professional men, retired army officers and country gentlemen as well as members of royalty and cabinet ministers. Few take place among the working classes or the very poor. This situation is the precise opposite of the actual occurrence of criminality, which is overwhelmingly fanned by poverty, alcohol, gangs and domestic violence, sometimes accompanied by examples of brutal thuggery, as subtle or mysterious as a punch in the nose. Clearly white-collar crime occurred (there have been a few well-known murders in middle or upper-class circles which were genuinely mysterious, such as the alleged killings by Lizzie Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, or the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931) but these are manifestly the exception rather than the rule.
Several of the other conventions later observed in ‘golden age’ detective novels are also often missing from the Holmes stories. For instance, only seldom does he reveal the actual criminal from among a lengthy cast of suspects, gathered in a room at the story’s climax. Holmes was, of course, killed off by Doyle in 1894 and brought back to life in 1902; the last Holmes story appeared as late as 1927. Holmes and Watson live on in innumerable films, television series, pastiches and societies formed to debate every aspect of their careers.
The case of the vanishing detective novel
In the two or three decades following the First World War, there were literally dozens of outstanding detective writers who are today, sadly, known only to enthusiasts. These include Cecil Street (1884-1964), who wrote a number of excellent novels using the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton; Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957); and Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox, 1893-1970), whose short story ‘The Avenging Chance’ (1928) has possibly the most ingenious of all solutions. Crofts’ detective, unusually, is a Scotland Yard official, Inspector (later Superintendent) Joseph French, but one whose thought processes are very similar to those of the fictional gifted amateur sleuth. In the 1930s Philip Macdonald wrote a number of successful novels about the amateur detective Anthony Gethryn. His most famous Gethryn novel, The List of Adrian Messenger, was written in 1959, after he had moved to California. Many other authors also flourished during this period; their works published by such imprints as William Collins’ ‘Crime Club’ and Victor Gollancz’s ‘Gollancz Crime’ and avidly snapped up by readers in public and circulating libraries as well as through retail sales. Such works formed a major component of middle-class culture in Britain at the time: for every person who read T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, probably 50 more read Agatha Christie and double that number Conan Doyle.
Reading detective stories was one of the characteristic aspects of the British middle classes in the interwar years. Their emphasis on rationality, the inevitable triumph of justice and the existence of an unofficial super-detective tells us much about interwar Britain. So, too, do the stock characters and unstated prejudices in these works: country folk and domestic servants were almost always depicted as halfwits, butlers (who almost never ‘did it’) were always too fond of their master’s wine cellar; women were usually highly moral and often depicted in a two dimensional way, although female detective writers generally presented female characters in a more realistic manner. A good many detective novels had a stock foreign Jew as a suspicious character (although seldom as the villain). But significantly, during the mid-1930s as Nazi antisemitism became ever more brutal, sinister Jews disappear from these novels, often to be replaced by sympathetic Jewish refugees: the sinister foreigner figure tending to be replaced by a Greek or ‘Levantine’.
Most of the well-known British authors of ‘golden age’ detective stories were drawn from the middle classes, like their audience. Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman were young doctors who turned to writing fiction while they awaited their patients; Crofts was a railway engineer in Northern Ireland; Chesterton and Berkeley were journalists; Cecil Street a career army officer. But some were far less conventional. A.B. Cox made repeated attempts to intervene with legal authorities to prevent Edward VIII from marrying Mrs Simpson. Dorothy L. Sayers – whose best-known biography, written in 1975 by Janet Hitchman, is entitled Such A Strange Lady – was a leading Anglo-Catholic writer and apologist, often linked as an exponent of that position with T.S. Eliot. However, in 1927 she produced an illegitimate son before marrying another man two years later, a scandalous proceeding at the time for someone of her background. Although many of her early novels contain their share of genteel antisemitism, in the early 1920s Sayers was the mistress of a Russian-Jewish novelist living in England, John Cournos, whom she wished to marry but who spurned her affections.
Apart from a few superstars such as Agatha Christie, financial rewards for these interwar authors were rather meagre: a few hundred pounds per book – a useful income, but nothing princely. Most of the notable writers left middle-class level estates when they died – Freeman left £6,471; Crofts, £21,738; Street, £36,606. Even Dorothy Sayers left just £36,277 and Conan Doyle only £63,491.
There were many echoes in America of Britain’s ‘golden age’ detective fiction in the works of such writers as S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright, 1888-1939); John Dickson Carr (1906-77); Rex Stout (1886-1975); Ellery Queen (the pseudonym used by Frederick Dannay, 1905-82) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-71). Ellery Queen was also a major critic, anthologist and magazine editor (of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine). These often imitated their British models, although seldom wholly successfully. But America also saw the rise from the 1920s of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre and its detective type; the tough private cop symbolised by Dashiel Hammett’s (1894-1961) Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Raymond Chandler’s (1888-1959) Philip Marlowe. Apart from violence and a hostility to authority that defined their works, the Marxist Hammett’s and Chandler’s novels in the 1930s were often marked by an explicitly left-wing agenda that sought to expose the deep corruption and inequality they saw at the heart of American politics and capitalism. Britain had no real parallel either to their political agenda or (until much later) to their violent toughness: some notable English detective novelists, especially the left-wing economists G.D.H. Cole (1889-1969) and Margaret Cole (1893-1980) and Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of the Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis, 1904-72) were committed socialists, but everything they wrote within the genre is almost Tory by definition, upholding a firm belief that established society would punish its evil-doers who deserved punishment regardless of their circumstances.
The American hard-boiled genre had a major influence on American crime fiction of the later 20th century, with innumerable imitators such as Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar, 1915-83). Yet the ‘classical detective story’ found few real echoes outside the English-speaking world. Probably the best-known exception was Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret stories, which appeared between 1931 and 1972. But these are really ‘police procedural’ works, not pure detective stories.
By around 1960, the classical English detective story was in serious decline and today the genre no longer exists, at least in its old form. There were, of course, some outstanding latter-day writers in the field, like Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft-Cooke, 1903-79), V.C. Clinton Baddeley (1900-70) and Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, 1906-94). But even the most recent writers who use an independent amateur detective to solve a crime with a cast of suspects, such as Simon Brett’s fine Charles Paris novels and the works of Peter Lovesey, routinely employ more sex, violence and abnormal psychology than was imaginable in Britain before 1939. The best-known living crime fiction writers, such as P.D. James, generally eschew private detectives for police inspectors and straightforward puzzles for stories with twists at every turn. A relaxation of attitudes regarding overt depictions of sex and violence have proved too tempting to most authors. Also, detective writers simply ran out of ingenious plots and puzzles to solve. Then there is the incalculable impact of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, the first of which, Casino Royale, was published in 1953. Bond was certainly not the first heroic spy, but Fleming transformed the genre forever.
Crime fiction has evolved during the past century from a demure celebration of rationality to the polar opposite position. Arguably this mirrors the transformation of British society as a whole. The core belief in rationality at the heart of Britain’s educational system, especially the grammar schools and the universities, possibly reached its zenith during the period when the classical detective story flourished as did a belief in science and technology as beneficial to mankind. So, too, did the equally central belief in the fairness and incorruptibility of British justice and the assurance that evil-doers would inevitably get their just deserts with murderers sent to the gallows. These core beliefs disintegrated in the 1960s – hanging was abolished in 1964 – a fact reflected in the evolution of popular crime fiction.
William D. Rubinstein is a Professor of History at Aberystwyth University, Wales and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
- Erik Routley, The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story (Gollancz, 1972)
- T.J. Binyon, Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction (OUP, 1989)
- Julian Symons, Bloody Murder (Warner Books, 1972)
- Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, eds., Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (McGraw-Hill, 1976)
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (Harper Row, 1971)
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