The sad demise of the amateur sleuth: it’s all the fault of better policing

The Golden Age of crime writing is over and all the great fictional detectives are gone. Call it Inspector Lestrade’s revenge, says John Sutherland

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Golden Age of Murder Martin Edwards

Harper Collins, pp.482, £20, ISBN: 9780008105969

‘The crime novel,’ said Bertolt Brecht, ‘like the world itself, is ruled by the English.’ He was thinking of the detective story and the tribute was truest in the ‘golden age’, between the great wars; the period covered, hugely readably, by Martin Edwards.

Edwards’s primary subject is the Detection Club, whose members included the giants of the genre — G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham. Its rules (they loved rules) were given quasi commandment authority by one of the club’s founder-members, Monsignor Ronald Knox, professional churchman, amateur novelist. Most of the club liked to see themselves as ‘unprofessional’, as if fiction were like the annual ‘Gentleman versus Players’ cricket match. Grubby-fingered hacks like Edgar Wallace were unwelcome. ‘Scientific deduction is too easy,’ one Knoxian law decreed. Another was that ‘Love interest is undesirable’. And above all else, detection must pivot on ‘fair play’ with the reader. Like cricket.

The essence of the Golden Age detective novel, P. D. James recalled (writing in this magazine), was ‘plot and puzzle’. Some of the genre’s more generous practitioners appended, in a spirit of fair play, ‘clue-finders’, for the less detectively adept of their readers who may have turned the pages too fast. Or just been too dim.

James went on to ponder the members’ inner drives. The core fascination was not with detection but death, she concluded. The initiation ceremony for club neophytes centred on Eric the Skull, ritually brought in, red eyes glowing, by torchlight (it came close to inducing gibbering breakdown in Ngaio Marsh).

Sayers’s Whose Body? opens with Lord Wimsey looking down at a naked corpse in a bath. The fact that a foreskin is present is one to put in the cluefinder (this was, however, a clue too raw for the publisher, who made her change it to something milder about fingernails).

Francis Iles’s Before the Fact ends, hauntingly, with the wife knowingly drinking the poison her rat of a husband has served up. Why? Because she is, as Keats would say, ‘half in love with easeful death’. Hitchcock was obliged to alter the last scene of Suspicion, his film of Iles’s novel, weakening it.

Many of the club members’ lives (Sayers was, until middle age, an exception) were as asexual as Knox ruled their novels should be. The joint authors Margaret and George Cole neutered themselves titularly as ‘M’ and ‘G.D.H.’ For them writing detective novels was, Edwards suggests, copulation by genre fiction. George’s ‘bleeding piles’ made the real thing difficult, Margaret recalled later in life: ‘His sexual life diminished gradually to zero for the last 20 years of his life. He came to feel that it was all revolting.’

Both Coles are remembered for achievements in public life which dwarfed their efforts in fiction. Margaret was a local politician who helped comprehensivise school education. G.D.H. Cole was a ‘red’ don who taught Harold Wilson, stoking his mind, via PPE (that nursery of our current political leaders), with the political theory necessary to bring in the 1960s early wave of ‘New Labour’. Both George and Mary were hopelessly in love with another PPE graduate, Hugh Gaitskell, a man unrevolted by sex.

G.D.H. starved himself — subsisting, for a dismal period of his life, on seaweed bread, and not too much of it. But not all the club denied their bellies. Chesterton ate himself into a corpulence that not even a pilgrimage to Lourdes could cure.

Edwards includes a charming picture of Gladys Mitchell (Philip Larkin’s favourite detective novelist) doing (very) high kicks with school girls, as a life-long champion of fitness for the weaker sex. Mitchell (unusually trim to the end) could well have run a class or two for her fellow queens of detective fiction. Christie, Sayers and Marjorie Allingham became, in middle and late age, grossly overweight. Shame made them morbidly reclusive and contributed to Allingham’s consignment to an asylum and the horrors of electroconvulsive therapy.

All that glisters is not gold. The problem with English detective stories of this age, said Raymond Chandler, wasn’t that they didn’t contain some very good things. What vexed the discriminating reader was that so many bad things got published alongside them. Julian Symons, gifted practitioner and eminent critic, consigned a large bulk of the period’s works to the ‘humdrum’ category.

Edwards strongly demurs. He has never, one deduces, read a detective novel of the golden age that he didn’t like (and he’s read a vast number). He joyously, and with infectious enthusiasm, summarises plots by the score. But he’s a literary evangelist in manacles. You can write about the last, fatal scene of Anna Karenina, but you mustn’t (spoiler alert) divulge who the killer is on the Orient Express (Freud’s favourite detective novel).

What, then, took the gold out of British detective fiction? P.D. James points to the simple fact that the police got better at their job. Both she and Ruth Rendell, the two recently deceased queens of the genre, observed the fact by making their series heroes professional flatfoots. Call it Inspector Lestrade’s revenge.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • JSC

    I think part of the difficulty in writing a modern murder mystery isn’t just that plod has got better at his job, but that modern policing is very much a team sport. There’s less room for a captivating and dynamic protagonist when his chief role is delegating tasks to other people in offices miles away from the action. There’s something about the crimes of the modern criminal too, they’re less dastardly and more despicable which for some reason seems to not make them a worthy adversary.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      The traditional detective genre relies on a finite number of suspects. “Dr. Pepper in the library with candlestick.” But the reality is that it’s the criminal classes rather than the middle class that commit crime. “The police are looking for a black man with a grudge against the police.”Doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects that much. Which helps to explain the exaggerated media coverage when a member of the upper class is in the frame.

  • Curtis Evans

    There are a number of us in recent scholarship who are challenging the traditional view of the Golden Age, on which John Sutherland clearly still relies, of Symons James, etc. For one thing, there were a lot of police detective lead sleuths in British GA detective fiction, contrary to the myth. This review seems more interested in the sex lives (or lack thereof) of the Detection Club authors than in the books they wrote.

    For my own take on Julian Symons and the Humdrums, see my Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (2012). Edwards’ book, in my view, is another step in the right direction of reassessment. Obviously not every book from the Golden Age deserves praise and we must retain our detached discernment; but it doesn’t do simply to cite Julian Symons’ book, originally published over forty years ago, as the end of the story. Mystery genre scholarship didn’t end with Julian Symons.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    The continuing (though declining?) popularity of “GA” detective fiction has always been a mystery: it’s just all too mannered, affected, snobbish, hackneyed, formulaic and wildly improbable. Christie was an excellent writer, certainly – but the content is too boring for words. (A visit to her former home Greenway, on the River Dart in Devon, offers clues: a vast tonnage of ugly knick-knacks in glass cases…)
    Sutherland mentions Raymond Chandler – an infinitely more entertaining and interesting writer.
    Still, perhaps it be worth looking up this book for that “charming picture of Gladys Mitchell (Philip Larkin’s favourite detective novelist) doing (very) high kicks with school girls”… Larkin would certainly have appreciated it.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Plod seems to stitch up the innocent on a regular basis. Surely nobody needs to resort to Wikipedia to call to mind at least three examples of blatant miscarriage of justice. From Dr. Crippen to Barry George; wrongful convictions that are never fully corrected. So what about the cases that we never hear about? Ratio of wrongful convictions? One in a hundred? More like one in 10. Or perhaps people are sent down for a crime they didn’t commit, but got away with many that they did. So that’s all right, then? No: Rough justice is what it is.
    “Punishing the innocent is a crime” A notice that needs to be posted up in every police station throughout the land. Unfortunately, the police take the attitude that everyone is guilty of something; most haven’t been apprehended and convicted yet.
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Callipygian

    He has never, one deduces, read a detective novel of the golden age that he didn’t like (and he’s read a vast number).
    Blimey: I have. Allingham’s Police At The Funeral was fab; her Dancers In Mourning was competent; her Tiger In The Smoke was, to my mind, embarrassingly Enid Blytonish and very hard to get through. After that, I didn’t bother with her.

    I also find the John Bude books deeply inadequate. They have recently been revived but I fail to see why: they lack all interest of character and motive, and read like an insurance adjuster’s report. On the one hand dated and unworldly, they are also obsessive about the most boring of details, so that you really wish after a while that someone would murder the author — and then write engagingly about how he covered his tracks! I’ve part-read two of ’em. Anything more would be masochism.

    Also, I disagree that Christie was ‘grossly overweight’. She was flabby and fat-ish and had swollen ankles as an old woman. She had never been an athlete or a looker and old age had just made it worse (as it always does). That’s all.