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The English Detective Story

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IN THE EARLY 1920s the British were recovering from a war in which three-quarters of a million of their young men died. Recriminations were replacing patriotic euphoria, and the unemployed ex-army salesman was a familiar sight in the streets. But for most people the overwhelming desire was to put those four years behind them. There were innumerable musical shows to go to, both home-grown and transatlantic. Nigel Playfair was reviving Restoration comedies with Edith Evans at the Lyric; Noel Coward, with Hay Fever, was proving that the comedy of manners was not dead. And for reading matter there were Christie, Sayers, and a whole host of lesser names who make up what we today call the Golden Age of the detective story.

One should not take the comparison between the classic crime story and the comedy of manners too far, but the parallels are striking. In 1660 in Britain the metropolitan upper class had just been through two gruelling decades: their king had been executed, their estates sequestered, they themselves had been reduced to risible or pathetic hangers-on at continental courts. Through Restoration comedy they built a new wall around themselves, to keep out the realities of the changed world: they created an artificial world of aristocratic elegance, where their standards ruled, where their wit and taste were exalted, where the rude outsider could be ejected from the charmed circle.

In 1920 the English middle classes had seen empires crumble, new Bolshevik republics established, Labour parties flourishing, a whole battalion of middle-class standards collapse. They suspected, like the Restoration nobility, that their world was gone for ever, and they took refuge Jn a form of literature that was hedged with rules and conventions, that flourished on stereotyped situations and characters, that looked back to a period of stability, a period where class distinctions were easily denned and generally accepted. In the detective story, too, the outsider could be cast out of the charmed circle. Permanently. By murder, or by judicial execution. The detective story was a way of saying that the dykes had not given way.
Which is not to be taken for a criticism. The golden age crime writers created an artificial world, and critics who complain that Sayers and Christie are stereotyped and dated have missed the point as surely as the modern teenager who reads a fifty-year-old Christie as if it were written yesterday has got it. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is not dated, it is dateless.

This highly artificial product, created partly as an escape from an intolerable reality, had the effect of highlighting one aspect of great appeal in the traditional detective story. This was a contract between author and reader' that the latter would be entertained (not necessarily excited, but entertained) by the presentation of a problem that appealed to his intellect. The author promised to present the problem in a fair way, and the reader, if he was to be entertained at all, was bound to keep his mind working to spot the clues and wrestle with their significance. If the reader guessed the solution he was pleased with himself; if he did not he was pleased with the author. In neither case was the author the loser.

It was, like Restoration drama, a literary form abounding in rules, conventions, imperatives, prohibitions. These were wittily formulated by Ronald Knox in 1929 into a Decalogue. Some of the Ronald Knox Ten Commandments seem designed to mark the detective story off from other (by implication lesser) popular literary forms: "No Chinaman must figure in the story" distinguishes it from the cheap thriller; "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable" prevents contamination from the Gothic. But most of the others (for example "The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspections of the reader", or "No accident must ever help the
detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right") affirm the logical rigour which should be maintained, and amplify that part of the contract between author and reader which enjoins "fair play". The term itself, with its overtones of gentlemanliness, is one more indication of the conservativeness of the form. The sort of fuss that arose over whether or not the solution of Roger Ackroyd was "foul" seems to us absurd. But it may, on consideration, seem endearing as well. One cannot, sadly, imagine any popular writer today engendering any sort of even marginally ethical debate.

What the classic English detective story essentially was can be more easily described than defined. When one thinks of likely or essential ingredients one could name: a country house or rural village; a corpse; a closed circle of suspects; an extended family group; a surprise solution. These conjure up the sort of book well enough, but there are many oddities and exceptions. Agatha Christie began with a country house party (Mysterious Affair at Styles) but it was not a setting she was particularly happy with, and Dorothy Sayers only uses it once; Sayers often forswears the surprise solution, and once forswears the corpse; Sayers and Allingham are as happy in London as in the country; Allingham often edges her books in the direction of the thriller by using a basic chase formula.

Of the writers whom we now think of as the big four, Agatha Christie was the first to publish (Styles was set in the war, and came out in 1920), and to judge by sales she is the one most triumphantly to survive. We think of her as an English village writer, but in fact her production is very varied: she liked to alternate her home settings with international excursions, and (like any country gentlewoman) took the occasional trip to London.
Her hold on the reader was due, to my mind, to her productivity, her consistency, her narrative skill, and her clear-eyed concentration on problem, on reader deception. In her heyday (say 1925-1950) she usually produced two, sometimes three titles a year. There is not a dud among them, except for the odd thriller or inferior short story collection. If the characterization is basic, the writing lacklustre, the story-telling on the other hand is superb, brilliantly organized around the need to present a problem and to both conceal and facilitate its solution. The clues are always there, though not always presented as clues, and Christie showed her understanding of the average reader in the way she used everyday objects as clues - things he could relate to as he could not to the intricacies of railway timetables, or some erudite piece of scholarship.

The reader loved Christie, above all, for the panache of her solutions. Styles used a "Yes he did, no he didn't, yes he did" formula (repeated later in Murder at the Vicarage) and later books break every convention and code of honour by incriminating the romantic interest, the narrator, a child, the whole cast list, the detective and so on. And yet in spite of this, the reader always felt that Christie played fair: like the traditional arrested burglar he could always say "It's a fair cop, governor".

Her construction of her stones must have been highly abstract - she worked rather like a mathematician evolving a brain-teaser. It is in this
abstract ingenuity that much of her strength lies, and she decisively tipped the balance away from character and setting, and back towards the supremacy of plot. She understood better than any that popular literature demands story, that it must force the reader to get through just one more chapter before putting the light out.
Dorothy Sayers was a much more intellectual, perhaps a much more intelligent woman than Christie. In the earlier novels she was intelligent enough not to let this show. We note her perceptive treatment of young men physically or mentally shattered by war, of women enforced by the slaughter of war to a life of spinsterhood, even on occasion of intellectuals, usually ridiculed in crime stories. We also note that her intelligence failed her a little when confronted with Bolsheviks, Jews or admirers of D. H. Lawrence - but we all have our limitations of sympathy.

The novels Sayers wrote in the first years of her brief career as crime writer were brilliant and varied. Very often they were not whodunits so much as "How did he's", and the way Sayers rang changes on the basic formula yet kept up suspense to the end is a testimony to her lively mind and story-telling talents. Her characterization is sharp, and she is very good on the shabby, the failures, the commonplace - the second-raters whose moral obtuseness just might shade off into sheer evil. Snobbish she may be, but she has an eye for sheer upper-crust nastiness, notably in the Duchess of Denver.
Each story has shape, but a different shape, and the oeuvre is united by the powerful myth-figure of Lord Peter Wimsey - nonchalant aristocrat, effete man of action, athlete-scholar. Lord Peter is absurd, perhaps, to modern tastes, but television adaptations have suggested that we can still relate to this nobleman with the common touch, the man who can eat pig's trotters with a reformed burglar and only draws the line at the pushy middle-classes.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sayers fell victim to her own ingenuity and intellectual pretensions. This can be illustrated from one of the 'thirties novels (by no means the dullest) Have His Carcase (1932). The solution to the puzzle hangs on a perfectly brilliant use of a simple piece of knowledge - the effects of the disease haemophilia. Christie would have revelled in such a reader-deceiver - she would have surrounded it with one or two double-edged clues from her drawer containing everyday objects, and hey-presto the trick would make a book. Sayers, on the other hand, keeps the trick for the very end, naturally, but to get to it we have to plod through acres of dreary alibi-busting, false identities and (worst of all) code-breaking. It is unbearably heavy, though not as totally unreadable and exhausting as Five Red Herrings (1931).
By the time of Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) she was writing discursive conversation pieces with as she called it "detective interruptions". For all her proclaimed high critical ideals for the detective story, it is clear that she gave it up because she no longer believed in it.

There was always a danger that Margery Allingham might follow in Sayers' footsteps. Her detective, Albert Campion, began as a straight crib of Wimsey, though with typical zany cheek, the desire to go that crucial one step further, she declared to a fellow crime writer that "his destiny was to inherit the British throne", and that he was based on the then Duke of York (later George VI). Again, in the late 'thirties a foolish critic wrote that "to Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to feature in a story which is also by any standard a distinguished novel". When a crime critic says something like that you can be sure the book under review is a dreary middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-brow sort of piece, and indeed Dancers in Mourning (1937) is one of Allingham's dullest books.
But though, sadly, she took that review as the greatest compliment her books had ever received, she climbed back up from the slippery slope that that kind of attitude leads to. She did not try to write competent novels for the middle-classes, but she brought to the traditions of the popular crime story a quirky imagination, a zest and a truly Dickensian gift for creating and utilizing grotesques. More Work for the Undertaker (1948) is her best work of this kind: it has a marvellous sense of place, and the family of decaying intellectuals is both funny, alarming and touching, m the manner of the great Victorian.

The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is her best work in the chase genre: the villain genuinely attractive and terrifying (she is usually good with young thugs), and the atmosphere of London in a pea-souper brilliantly caught. Agatha Christie rightly paid tribute to the variety of Allingham's production : "Everything she writes has a definitive shape . . . each book has its own separate and distinctive background."
This is true, and the character of her work changed a good deal during her career. There are the early high-spirited romps (fiendishly difficult to bring off, because effort is so immediately visible). Then there are more serious works in the late 'thirties, some of which escape ponderousness. Then the complete mastery of the 'forties and 'fifties, in which her eye for absurdity, as well as her feeling for evil, are given full rein.
She did dull work, as well as first-rate work, throughout her career, for she was essentially an erratic writer. But Police at the Funeral (1931), Hide My Eyes (U.S. Tether's End, 1958) and The China Governess (1962) as well as the two just named, are brilliant, nourishing works. She proved that the crime story could be a work of art without ponderousness, pretension, or aping the middle-brow novel. Only Ruth Rendell, in our own time, has done work that one would think of mentioning in the same breath.

Ngaio Marsh began her career with a murder game in a country house-party (A Man Lay Dead, 1934), and continued it with the one where the stage gun that should be loaded with blanks has real bullets in (Enter A Murderer, 1935). A suspicion of cliche, in fact, hangs over much of Marsh's production.
She is wonderfully readable, she brings off some kinds of thing enormously well, but she Is no trail-blazer, and at times her determination to follow in other people's footsteps becomes just a little tedious.
The country house murder is her forte, or at least the kind she docs most often: as late as 1972 she was serving up the one where a house-party is snowed up on Dartmoor with only ex-convicts for servants. She gets away from this stereotype now and then, notably with the odd occult murder, the odd New Zealand murder (which mostly prove that patriotism is not enough) and, best of all, the theatre murder. A touch of backstage releases Miss Marsh's inhibitions most wonderfully. There is no danger there of those embarrassing displays of Edwardian snobbery when Alleyn (her detective)'s gentlemanly origins are revealed: just a collection of egos competing for attention, which almost always makes for a good read.

The puzzle in Marsh is meticulously worked out, though it sometimes lacks the brilliant sleight-of-hand of Christie's inter-war production. But where Christie relaxed the meticulous plotting in her later books, Marsh has retained all her care and fairness. The danger is that she plots so carefully and ingeniously that the investigation of the minutiae and the final explanations may become a heavy-handed working over of boring details. And If there is about Alleyn a touch of stiffness, as of a gentleman from Trollope who doesn't quite know what he is doing in a detective story or in the twentieth century, nevertheless he dates wonderfully less than most of the other Golden Age detectives.
When did the traditional whodunit die? It didn't, of course, for readers -any glance at railway bookstalls will tell that. All the writers I have talked about are still triumphantly read, and many others such as John Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts and Anthony Berkeley are read by devotees and enjoy spasmodic revival.
But for writers? Critics keep telling us it is dead, but in fact probably half the crime books published today still stick broadly to the classic formula. At least half of Ruth Rendell's production, more than half of P.D. James (to name the most obvious successors of the big four I have talked about) adhere to the classic mould, have detectives that are recognizable successors of those towering twenties figures. What writers have learned is that the formula is adaptable, that it will take more realism, more humour, a wider class range, more psychological depth than the Golden Age writers used. But the basic formula is still very much alive and useful. The whodunit is not dead. It is hardly even dozing.

Layout © R.D. Collins

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