Why Russell James is Mistaken: Defending the Golden Age

Russell James wrote the best guide to detective fiction imaginable in The A-Z of British Fictional Detectives. Most other guidebooks simply aim to give you a general overview of the genre, often from a quasi-analytical perspective: authors and novels are split by date, by type, by top-ten lists and you leave with an overview of the whole that never shows you the details. James, on the other hand, takes the simple road. He offers an introduction to every [most] British fictional detective ever put to paper, even if he does have to dance around with nationalities a bit to include the works of John Dickson Carr. He offers brief descriptions, tells people what’s worth reading and what’s not: but what this gives to the reader is their own sense of what exactly detective fiction means, and how it got to be what it is. James’s work is an encyclopaedia, where all the other works of literary theory are just published blog entries.

But then nobody’s ever perfect. There are a few factual errors that only a truly sad and pathetic case would spot – drop a line to Five Minute Mysteries for a list – and surrounding the A-Z part of the book are a series of essays introducing the reader to each stage on the way to modern crime fiction: from 40s pulp fiction to modern thrillers. And it’s his essay on the Golden Age that is one of the most fundamentally wrong things ever put to paper. And, hopefully, by explaining why the Golden Age wasn’t bad we’re in with a chance of explaining exactly why it was good.

James’s thesis is essentially that the Golden Age was a blind alley, a misstep on the way towards modern crime fiction. Modern crime fiction challenges the reader, whereas the Golden Age was just nostalgia for the days when butlers buttled, people had smoked herrings for breakfast everyday, and they hadn’t invented sex yet. Reading it is therefore just escapism: and a particularly nasty kind of escapism because the Golden Age is set in a world where the many worked for the benefit of the few and all were expected to know their place. Quoted in P D James’s Talking About Detective Fiction – she agrees – is the Irish novelist William Trevor. Despite not being a detective novelist, his opinion on Golden Age fiction is worth setting down in full because it’s essentially the same argument:

‘These novels are, of course, paradoxical. They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy with the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us…Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world. ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three?’ And is there arsenic still for tea?’

From a socio-political perspective, the Golden Age is an abhorrent idea; an objectionable fairytale: where class struggles, inequality, misogyny etc. were swept under the rug in favour of afternoon cocktails and the odd genteel murder. But this is a moronic way to judge detective fiction because the setting of the Golden Age is secondary, always always secondary, to the story and the backdrop is chosen precisely because it’s so anodyne. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a murder mystery set in ancient Egypt. And the first thing you notice is that the characters and their relationships and motivations are exactly the same as they would be in a novel set in the present day.   The Golden Age is essentially apolitical, though if you had to call it anything it’d probably be small-‘c’ conservative. Not because it’s right-wing, but because it believes in morality over the mythical concept of capital-‘p’ Progress.  Because the Golden Age isn’t interested at all in politics, yet remains fundamentally egalitarian in its belief that people are the same everywhere.  For the people that argue that the Golden Age should have been more interested in politics, you wonder quite how we’d view the Golden Age now: as a piece of history, something to be studied for GCSE coursework, something to be picked apart by English literature thesis: something completely boring, not loved by anyone. Political fiction never ages well, and it’s to the Golden Age’s advantage that it has nothing to say of political relevance. But this brushes over the more important fact: that the stories are simply, obviously, thunderingly moral.

Modern crime teaches us that the world is a worse, more horrible, more evil place than we can imagine, and that the only way most people can go about their daily lives without descending into drink or drugs (like most of the detectives who investigate it) is because they don’t know about it. Modern crime novels teach us that the world is evil, and that only stupid people are happy.  Poirot and Marple and Father Brown were perfectly aware of the existence of evil in the world, they just knew that there was also good. In Christie or Chesterton murderers are redeemable: it’s only in modern crime that we find psycopaths. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the worst crime novels ever written for a variety of reasons, but the one to mention here is the good/evil divide in it: the goodies are the goodies, the baddies are the baddies and there aren’t any shades of grey in between. But in the Golden Age Father Brown walks with a murderer. Poirot warns the initially good not to let evil into their hearts or else it will come in and make its home within. Modern Crime would laugh at the idea that Evil exists as a force, but its villains are black to the core and without either redemption or any sense that they weren’t always that way. The Golden Age believes in Evil as something that exists, mainly in desperation or selfishness, and traps ordinary people – it, consequently, has a better understanding of ‘good’ than any other genre.

And, more than this, the Golden Age tells you that the world’s an exciting place.  Golden Age solutions are sometimes out-of-a-hat, but what they almost always are clever. Read a book like He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and you won’t find out anything about life in the Blitz, but will instead discover how air-operated dummies work.  P D James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, points out that the Golden Age makes use of the ‘ten thousand doors to let out life’ with victims being stabbed with icicles, licking poisoned stamps and battered to death by church bells: her tone is gently mocking. She points out that the murder methods in Sayers’s Unnatural Death and The Nine Tailors probably wouldn’t work in real life. Which is true, but nobody should read detective fiction to find out how to actually murder someone.  A method of death that’s applicable to reality is a far, far worse thing to read than one that’s outlandish precisely because the latter is supposed to be unbelievable. The Golden Age contains outlandish happenings because it truly believes that the world is a magical and interesting place where strange and outlandish things happen all the time – but in ways that reflect the real world.

Let’s take G. K. C. again, and this time look at a non-mystery story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. For those that haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of an England five minutes into the future where democracy has become irrelevant and the King is elected by lottery as all politicians are the same. A workable system; until a King is elected who wants to split London into independent nations. Reading this description, the novel doesn’t seem overtly political, or even overtly relevant to anything. Initially, it just seems like a vehicle for G. K. C. to poke fun at the notions of progressiveness and civilisation (which he is) and how the most judgemental thing of all is to assume that you know what civilisation means and someone else doesn’t (which is true). But what makes the scene sing is the novel’s one tragic hero: the man who knows that wherever there’s a red sunset on a golden field, there’s Nicaragua. And that’s what carries the story: The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about patriotism, about the loyalty to a place or thing simply because it’s yours.

“When there is a field of marigolds and the red cloak of an old woman, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a field of poppies and a yellow patch of sand, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a lemon and a red sunset, there is my country. Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats. Blood and a splash of mustard can be my heraldry. If there be yellow mud and red mud in the same ditch, it is better to me than white stars.”

Which brings us back to the magic of the world. Fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to Skulduggery Pleasant, have people finding another world that’s hidden from this one: others involve people being transported from one world to the next; science fiction and fantasy base themselves in another, more exciting, world than this. They teach us that there’s another exciting world that’s hidden from us: detective fiction teaches us that the world we’re in is the exciting one, we just have to see it.  It’s not fantasy, because the exciting thing about is just showing us more clearly something that we could see every day. In the Ball and the Cross, both the protagonists are the sort of people who today would spend all day locked in their bedrooms arguing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free: but to Chesterton they’re heroes, because they care about the world. Chesterton writes magical realism not because there’s any magic in the stories, but because he believes reality is magic. There are minor escapades involving hot-air balloons over St Paul’s or escaping from madhouses, but the driving force of the novel is that caring about things matters. Turnbull is a hero, but he’s a person you could (and probably do) meet today. You wouldn’t appreciate him but, to Chesterton, that’s your loss.

Chesterton makes you see heroes in the sort of people you’d loathe if you met them. John Dickson Carr tells us that snakes can’t move on a glass floor. Christie tells you that all people are the same; and that this is a good thing. And you may not find out how to kill someone from The Nine Tailors, but you will get an introduction to basic campanology. Golden Age fiction fundamentally believes that people are interesting, that most people are decent, that evil isn’t something that some people are predetermined to, like a particularly horrible atheist Calvinism, but a choice. And overall, that the world is a wonderful and consistently surprising place. A far better message than that the world is an evil place, and evil people are born that way.


Review: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience


He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dixon)

Heinemann, 1944

As motivational speakers are so fond of saying, we each have our own special talent. For John Dickson Carr, it was the ability to think up a series of increasingly unlikely ways people could be murdered alone in a room sealed from the inside. He’s the undisputed master of this, and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience doesn’t disappoint. The curator of a zoo is found dead in a locked room, sealed with paper from the inside: possibly murder, possibly suicide. Except that also found dead is one of his new specimens: and whatever he might have done to himself, the curator would never have hurt Patience the snake.

As a police officer in an Agatha Christie novels wisely said, most murders are dull:  domestic stabbings, shootings, poisonings, “accidents”, with a cast of two or three suspects at most. This makes detective fiction an improbable genre from the start, and howdunnits even more so. Locked room mysteries consequently have a tendency towards the slightly (very) bizarre from the get-go, and then we factor in the second greatest thing about John Dickson Carr: his genuine love of the eccentric and the arcane.  Writers such as Sayers or Innes sprinkle obscure quotations around like confetti and expect us to be impressed, but never once have they put a murder in a reptile house, with the Young Lovers investigating (a Carr staple, they begin at loggerheads despite never having met and end up a couple by the end) as the only descendants from rival warring families of magicians, the Quints and the Pallisers. Neither of these, naturally, are in any way vital to the plot.

He Wouldn’t Kill Patience wouldn’t know ‘gritty realism’ if it hit it over the head in a dark alley. Despite being set in the Blitz, the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as normal, even though there’s mention of longer-term effects. But neither of those things matter.  Because it’s killingly funny and one of those books that, while wearing its learning lightly (Crispin, take note), has a genuine intelligence and love of knowledge that shines through every page. It’s only a couple of paragraphs into the first chapter, paragraphs that centre entirely on the zoo doorkeeper’s complete loathing for humanity, that you realise that you’re reading a murder mystery written in the style of P G Wodehouse. Carr’s title as ‘Master of the Locked Room Mystery’ is well-deserved, but it causes us to forget that he can also do to other things if he chooses: character, and comedy. Sadly, his comedy is based on absurdism and so never mixes with character, while his character is based on cynicism and so never mixes with comedy. But it means, as the Young Lovers get into an argument on their first meeting and inadvertently set a poisonous snake loose in the reptile house, we get confrontations like this between Merrivale and the grumpy doorkeeper:

‘Don’t incite him sir! Don’t run from him! Stand still, I tell you! Just stand still and he’ll be all right!’

‘I ain’t got the least doubt of it,’ roared the travelling voice of the stout gentleman. ‘Given the proper amount of exercise, he ought to be absolutely O.K. The point is, what happens to me?’

Wodehouse-esque. Especially in that a) the brilliant dialogue is for the page, and this scene would be unworkable acted and b) that line is supposedly spoken as the obese Sir Henry is running for his life away from a venomous snake. Sir Henry Merrivale himself can sometimes fall prey to the disease of many Golden Age detectives: he’s a collection of eccentric characteristics, but never quite works as a character. I gave a copy to my dad as a birthday present [Five Minute Mysteries believes the adage ‘give as you wish to receive’, so its friends and relatives have grown used to being given a nice book each Christmas and birthday], and his one observation was that Merrivale’s background, in this novel at least, just doesn’t fit: a Sir who refers to women as ‘wenches’ and drops his haitches. It may well be that this is explained in other novels – I think The Judas Window mentions it – but it’s still jarring. And despite the brilliance of the opening scene, which works brilliantly by introducing the detective as a potential passer-by / antagonist, Merrivale always has the upper hand, and there’s never really a sense of peril. He’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a sense of humour. Which, in a way, fits, as Carr in essence has the humour or Crispin and the plotting of Conan Doyle, with the addition of lines like:

‘Death was flowing out of the windows, flowing away; but it left a corpse like a straw doll.’

But I say ‘as good as Conan Doyle’ advisedly. A writer such as Agatha Christie will lay out the clues in a way that the intelligent reader should be able to guess. Since no reader is ever going to be as intelligent as Agatha Christie, that rarely happens, but by the end of one of her novels you’ve suspected all the characters but you’re still surprised. Then, when you read it again, the solution seems obvious. With Conan Doyle or Carr, you’re surprised and you never see the solution coming, but that’s because it’s a conjuror’s trick, like a rabbit out of thin air. As with many Carr stories, there aren’t really any characters and the motive is spurious but then the solution itself is so utterly, brilliantly ingenious that it doesn’t matter, and it’s an entertaining read in its own right. Nowadays Carr is essentially out-of-print in mainstream bookshops, which is quite a shame. Because while he’s utterly, utterly esoteric, he’s also completely brilliant.



Whilst anyone who calls J D Carr a misogynist is demonstrably an idiot, in approximately half of his books there’s a moment that makes you go ‘um…’, even though it’s almost always a sign of either villainy or simply a character taking the piss. Here, it’s in Merrivale’s romantic advice to Carey, one half of the story’s resident Young Lovers:

 “If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand”.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

Writing Women (1): Howdunnits and Whodunnits



One of the most refreshing things about detective fiction is the high prevalence of women within it, both inside and outside of the pages. By nature, detective fiction tends to pass the Bechedel test, even when it was written at a time when fiction generally didn’t. Think of Golden Age fiction, and there’s a good chance that you’re thinking of works by women: Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Marsh, Heyer, Orczy (creator of the first armchair detective), Highsmith, et al.  Under the name Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr was the fourth Penguin mystery author to have ten books specially released in a year: the first three were Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. And now Carr is virtually out-of-print – two of the first three are not. The detective-fiction-cum-thriller genre, the sort that characters buy in railway station bookshops, hasn’t aged well. Its books are out-of-print, its authors forgotten. You may wander into a bookshop and find a Crispin or two, but he’s an author praised for his writing not his plots.  Conan Doyle is still around – but is he? He’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes, not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the detective novelist, and there’s a key difference. But Christie, Sayers and Allingham survive. Why?

The interesting thing, that becomes clear if you go into a second-hand bookshop, is that of all the books written at the time, some date very badly (even Carr can be a culprit) and some do not. Yet, naturally, the ones that we remember are the ones that are timeless or, in the case of Sayers, ahead of their time. And of those, women dominate. Why?

There is a good rule of thumb – and, like most, it comes with an uncountable number of exceptions – which is that men write plot and women write character. It’s tempting, at this point, to start crying ‘sexist!’, but take a moment to consider it. Broadly, mystery fiction is split into two genres: the ‘whodunnits’ and the lesser-known category of ‘howdunnits’. And, though the two often merge and there are several exceptions, there’s a clear gender divide between the two.

‘Whodunnits’ are self-explanatory, and they’re what we think of when we think of traditional detective fiction, and would perhaps be better termed ‘whydunnits’. Read an Agatha Christie, or a Dorothy L Sayers, and you’ll be weighing up character’s possible motives more than their opportunity. The ideal Poirot story, as said by the character himself, is Cards on the Table: a crime without evidence, where the deduction is purely psychological. Any of the four suspects had equal chance to commit the crime but, in terms of character, only one of them would commit that crime. Marple takes this to a further extreme: essentially deductions according to Myers-Briggs types. Dorothy L Sayers has always been more of an author of novels that included crime rather than a crime novelist, but consider Whose Body. Initially, this seems like a ‘howdunnit’: an unidentified body turns up in a bathtub in the home of a couple who swear they’ve never seen the man before (a not to dissimilar beginning to The Body in the Library). But its conclusion, Lord Peter realises who the criminal by adding up all the clues till he thinks of the only person who wants to do it. The solution to ‘Gaudy Night’, meanwhile, comes from identifying the type of character and experience that would want to send poison pen letters: unthinkable in Holmes, unthinkable in Carr.

‘Howdunnits’, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite: focussing not on the murderer but on the mechanics of the crime, and are better-known as locked-room mysteries (strictly speaking subcategory). Think not just of Carr, but of Jonathan Creek, or even of Sherlock Holmes. In these, there will be a murderer but the character and motivations of the murderer are never the focus. Because the driving factor of the story is the crime itself.

the lead villain in, say,  Conan Doyle’s ‘Silver Blaze’ did it is entirely spurious. How the crime was committed takes up the entire story. The early Poe stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter – are the earliest examples of detective stories based upon mechanics. We wonder how two people are brutally murdered in a locked room, how the purloined letter is concealed. And, once you know how, there’s little pleasure in reading them again. It’s exactly the same in almost all Holmes: we wonder why there’s a Red-Headed League, what is the speckled band, what is the meaning of the Dancing Men. And, without an explanation, there’s the thrill of not knowing, the hint of the supernatural.  And, like with ghost stories, the eventual explanation always feels like something of a let-down: for the same reason that the explanation of a magic trick is never as interesting as the trick itself.

The reason why The Hound of the Baskervilles bears re-reading, why it alone is the story you connect with the name ‘Sherlock Holmes’, is because it combines both the who and the how, because you can only imagine the story working with that murderer and when you reread it you can see the clues – almost uniquely among the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s closer to Christie than it is to Carr.

And once you understand this, you understand why, generally, the best format for Sherlock Holmes was short stories. After the how? question was asked, the audience  were intrigued but didn’t have time to get bored (and bear in mind that while we call A Study in Scarlet a full-length novel now, it’s damn thin at 50,000 words and was originally published as part of an anthology). It’s also why, at the other end of the scale, the best format for Agatha Christie was full-length novels, as it gives us time to fully explore all the characters – the Poirot and Marple short stories are spurious at best.

Wikipedia defines ‘surprise ending’ as ‘a plot twist occurring near or at the conclusion of a story, an unexpected conclusion to a work of fiction that causes the audience to reevaluate the narrative or characters’, and that pretty much sums it up. The twist endings of howdunnits are the literary equivalent of pulling rabbits out of hats, and once we know how the trick was worked – and there’s seldom any way we could guess – there’s nothing more left to see. A character-based ending, on the other hand, is something that the writer has to build up to: pointing at Character X and saying ‘oh yes, it was them, what a surprise!’ doesn’t work if it could equally have been Characters Y, Z and Q. By the end of a good character-based mystery, you know that the murderer could only have been that character and not anyone else: but you’re still surprised. To go back to the example of Whose Body: with regards to the ‘howdunnit’, any explanation as to how the body got into the bathroom would make sense: but it would take a complete rewrite to change the murderer and the reason for the crime. With almost Conan Doyle or Dickson Carr, you could change the murderer’s identity completely and the story wouldn’t be affected, as it genuinely isn’t the point of the novel. A story with a twist ending works best with the suspense that comes before the trick is explained; a story that’s character based leaves you genuinely satisfied with the revelation because you knew that the signs were there.

And this is why some detective fiction survives and some doesn’t. For Sherlock Holmes the format and character survive: the man solving mysteries based on clues no-one else can perceive. The two-pence thrillers sold in railway stations haven’t disappeared, they’ve just been replaced by the next generation: still sold by Smith’s,  they can now get away with slightly more sex and slightly more violence, but people read them for the same reasons. John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery, may have gone from our shelves but his spirit lives on in Jonathan Creek.

But Dame Agatha and Lady Dorothy live on, still in print, still adapted: and it’s their stories themselves that remain, not just the lead detective or the format. Because they wrote character-based stories and those stories remain timeless. Which brings us back to gender, and explains why we have many Queens of Crime, but never yet a King.