Warning! This post may be fatal to your TBR…
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!