Tuesday ’Tec! Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – A Guest Post from Martin Edwards

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…

Tuesday Tec2

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.

Martin Edwards, who is also the author of his own series of crime novels, the Lake District Mysteries
Martin Edwards, who is also the author of his own series of crime novels,
the Lake District Mysteries

Hercule Poirot

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.

Poirot
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Jane Marple

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.

Miss Marple
Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

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”.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers

Albert Campion

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.

Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg
Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg

Mrs Bradley

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.

mrs bradley
Diana Rigg and Neil Dudgeon as Mrs Bradley and George Moody

Roger Sheringham

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.

the poisoned chocolates case

Inspector Alleyn

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.

Patrick Malahide in the BBC's Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, with Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy
Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang as Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy

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.

Gideon-Fell
Gideon Fell

Inspector French

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.

Inspector Maigret

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.

LA-NUIT-DU-CARREFOUR-1932

* * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * *

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!

47 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – A Guest Post from Martin Edwards

    • Thank you! I’m the same – I know some of them well, have ‘met’ others before, and a couple are completely new to me. But I’ll be correcting that… 😀

    • I don’t know Inspector French either, and although I’ve heard of Gideon Fell, I don’t think I’ve read any of the books. Oh dear! More additions to the TBR… 😀

    • I’ve read a couple of Sheringham short stories in the British Library anthologies and enjoyed them – he’s one I’ll be trying to get to know better. And all the crime buffs talk about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I’m delighted to hear that’s going to be republished… 😀

  1. Wow! Thanks for hosting Martin! I’ve read books starring Hercule Poirot, Maigret, Miss Marple, Inspector Alleyn, Albert Campion, and Lord Peter Wimsey. But I was not familiar with Inspector French, Roger Sheringham, Mrs. Bradley, or Dr. Gideon Fell! So thank you for the introduction!

    • I’m delighted to host him – finally somebody posting on this blog who actually knows what they’re talking about! 😉 They’re the ones I know least too, so I’ll be searching out some of their stuff over the next few months – fun!

  2. What a lovely guest post! Thank very much to both of you. Of course, anyone who knows me will know I’m especially pleased to see both Poirot and Miss Marple here. But it’s also great to see Inspector French and one or two others who don’t get the ‘press’ that some better known fictional sleuths get. An intelligent, interesting and informative post (not that I expected anything else!).

    • Yes, it’s a great mix of the familiar and the less well-known – I’m looking forward to tracking down the ones I haven’t read. Thank you! Haha! It’s so nice to have a post on the blog from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about for a change… 😉 So pleased to get a chance to pick Martin’s brain!

  3. Oh, dear, you weren’t kidding, were you? This list is definitely something designed to pad my TBR (as if the thing needs to be any weightier!) Thanks for many interesting suggestions here.

    • Horrifying, isn’t it? And yet they all sound so good! Oh well, I’m sure if we just give up sleep we’ll have plenty of time 😉

      Hope you’re getting back to normal, Debbie. 🙂

      • Thanks for your concern! I’m healing physically; ’tis mentally that’s taking a while. I understand that’s not unexpected. Sounds like a good “excuse” for more chocolate!!

        • Definitely more chocolate! And I’m sure your confidence will return in time, but it’s a big shock when something like that happens. Just leave it to time to do its work… 😀

  4. An interesting post about old favorites! I’d have thought Sir Henry Merrivale might have merited a line or two in the Gideon Fell entry; come to that, Crispin’s Gervase Fen likewise.

    Nice to see Marsh/Alleyn being given their proper due in light of the habit of some book bloggers of denigrating Marsh’s work!

    I do wish there’d be a Steeman revival!

    • Ah, you’re far more knowledgeable than me! I had to google Sir Henry Merrivale – another one for the list! I’m sure I’ve read a couple of Gervase Fen short stories in various anthologies, but no books that I recall. Oh, dear – stop adding!! 😉

      It’s years since I read any Ngaio Marsh. I used to love her, then decided she was a bit snobbish. But I suspect I’m more able to make allowances for different eras now than I was when I was young. I’m looking forward to revisiting her.

      Don’t know Steeman at all – not even the name, and I can’t see even second-hand translated copies on Amazon. Maybe the BL will take up the challenge…

  5. What a brilliant post and what a coup Fiction Fan!! There are some on this list that are old favourites, and others that are new to me too. I will need to bookmark this page to refer back to.

    • Haha! Thank you! Yes, I don’t usually do guest posts but no way was I passing up on this chance! 😀

      I’m the same – I’m going to set myself a little challenge of gradually reading or re-reading all the books Martin has mentioned. Should be fun!

  6. I love all of these. For those who don’t know Inspector French, can I particularly recommend “Death of a Train” which I think is one of the best war-time detective stories ever written.
    But where, oh where, is Dr Thorndyke? 🙂

    • I shall seek that one out – thank you! Hmm… Dr Thorndyke… I think I’ve read a short story in one of the anthologies but can’t remember what I thought of it. Recommendation for a book?

      • The Thorndykes were almost all short stories, but there is an omnibus with ” The Red Thumb Mark”, “Dr Thorndyke’s Cases”, and “The Eye of Osiris” collected together, which would give a very good flavour of Thorndyke. It also has a really good introduction from RAF himself. Incidentally, he pretty well invented the “reverse mystery”, where you know whodunnit, but the story concentrates on “howdunnit” and “whydunnit”.

        • I popped over to Amazon to look for it and found the entire works for 49p! I shall start with some of the ones you mention – I can feel an excuse for a new list coming on… possibly even a spreadsheet! 😉

    • Thank you! I was so lucky to get the opportunity to host Martin. I hope you enjoy John Dickson Carr – there are a few of these that I’ll be chicking out too… 🙂

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