I know, I know, it looks like I’ve forgotten my brief for this blog, but I haven’t. This is something I’ve been mulling for a little while, and I wanted to raise it here to see whether it’s been worth my time.
In a recent post about Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) I made an off-hand reference to something I’ve come to hold as a sort of metric in my detective fiction reading, calling 1937 the “most Golden Age year”. Some of you have asked me to expand on this, and what follows shall be my attempt to explain my having said as much.
I generally try to do the books I have by an author in chronological order, and so should be writing about The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) here, but when TomCat described NCftC in the comments of my review of Rawson’s first Great Merlini novel Death from a Top Hat (1938) as “abysmal” saying that it “began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across”…well, I just had to try it out. I mean, sure, TomCat doesn’t like Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941) and so is immediately suspect, but I think I’ve shown myself willing enough to believe the very best of any books I try to read, and it might be interesting to go in expecting a dud. So, let’s get into it…
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, I spend many hours online enthusiastically contributing to discussions about a moderately obscure area of popular culture — hell, I even wear glasses. I must, therefore, be a nerd. I mean, sure, I don’t own a single t-shirt emblazoned with some hilarious-but-obscure quote or image, but that’s mainly because the kinds of things I’d put on a t-shirt — “Hairy Aaron!” or, say, a decal of Gideon Fell above the legend Don’t irritate a man who knows 142 ways to kill you without being the same room — no-one else wants on a t-shirt and so they’re not available to buy.
If you’ve never read a classic-era novel of crime and detection, what are you waiting for? There’s that Agatha Christine lady who wrote those David Suchet books, and the British Library has been putting out affordable classics for a little while now — go ahead and dig in. Sure, some of them are better than others, but if you want a good introduction to this type of thing then Alan Melville’s circus-set Death of Anton might just be the perfect place to start: it’s very witty, written with the lightest of touches, and wastes no time in maundering on in a wannabe hard-boiled fashion while dealing with the seeming imprecations of a circus where death keeps raising its head…
I don’t read many living authors — not intentionally, it’s just that the current trend of a lot of fiction doesn’t intersect with my tastes very often — and so I’m saved the concern of how they comport themselves on a daily basis and how this impacts my feelings about them. But following a comment by Dan at The Reader is Warned about a comment made by John Dickson Carr in She Died a Lady (1943), I got to thinking about the above question.
And so I enter the final decalogue of Agatha Christie’s works — from here to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) — with a return visit to Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and his wife Prudence, known (for reasons I genuinely cannot recall; someone will doubtless enlighten me in the comments) as Tuppence. The Beresfords are unique in Christie canon in that they are the only repeating characters who seem to age in real time, and in doing so they provide an overview of Dame Agatha’s writing career in just a handful of books.
Norman Berrow writes great policemen. His other characters are very good — he has Agatha Christie’s ability to give you an archetype plus enough to be quietly, subtly powerful — but his policemen are superb. After reading three later Berrows featuring Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and his lackeys, I’m leaping back to Berrow’s second novel here, and well before the halfway point I was lamenting the fact that this seems to be the only case calling on Superintendent Mellish, Inspector Sennet, and the delightfully earnest Constable Ensor. They take a standard Country House Mystery and transform it through their cheek, cleverness, and camaraderie into something that feels like the start of a very promising career indeed. Alas, not to be.