The Tuesday Night Bloggers – an opt-in blogging group initially started by ‘Passing Tramp’ Curtis Evans to commemorate Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday but since expanded to include a broader program of authors from the Golden Age – has produced a glorious range of diverse posts from a variety of contributors and perspectives. Mostly I feel incapable of contributing anything half as interesting as what these guys and girls come up with, but Brad Friedman’s recent Ngaio Marsh-themed post on his excellent AhSweetMysteryBlog has got me thinking laterally about something he said, and so I’m going to run in my own direction with an idea that I’m curious about.
Any conversation about Marsh, see, veers into the debate over the Queens of Crime which is rife with obviously-Christie, pro-Sayers (hmmm), anti-Mitchell (yay!), possibly-Allingham (wooo!) debate, but Brad says that his personal “Queens of Crime” included John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. And I thought: hang on a minute, male monarchs? There’s a word for that…
Because, who are the kings of crime fiction?
I mean, sure, it’s obvious, right? Except, when you get down to it, it sort of isn’t. If we take the merry-go-round of contenders for QoC, a certain pattern emerges: the names typically mentioned did a majority of their work during the (still slightly loosely-defined) Golden Age and are primarily known as crime novelists despite having many other varied outlets for their talents (Sayers translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, for pity’s sake). More importantly, they are acknowledged for working within the Golden Age traditions – indeed, even establishing them – and the key word above is surely novelists: these ladies are best-known for their work in the longer form of the crime story, and each produced a good number of varied examples of such. More than that, their contributions to the genre led to its growth, to a diversity in its possible approaches and scope, and the stories they told have endured: they’ve dated, of course, but the core ideas have remained unsullied and so persevered.
If we wish to establish like-for-like parity, then, some exclusions must apply: Arthur Conan Doyle undoubtedly meets the growth and endurance criteria, but is both out of era and predominantly a short story specialist, as were G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Futrelle. Belgian maestro Georges Simenon established a clear and influential school of thought on the crime novel, but one that was clearly at odds with the puzzle-oriented approach of the Golden Age. Edgar Allan Poe arguably innovated the detective story, but while also out of era only wrote a handful of true detection tales and is doubtless better known for his Gothic writings and poetry (no dabblers on the throne!).
Edgar Wallace was more of a thriller writer, producing plenty of exciting tales but relying very little on deduction and investigation. Clayton Rawson, Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin, Anthony Boucher (who transferred his loyalties to SF fairly quickly) and others produced excellent work in the Golden Age tradition, but firstly there wasn’t a great deal of it and secondly it can be said that their influence carries little beyond a relatively small circle (points like this are always up for debate, of course, which is where part of the difficulty lies). The famous decalogue of Ronald Knox is still much-quoted (and much-misunderstood) these days, but does that alone signify an impact or a notable growth of the genre? His books have failed to impress me in either capacity, so for my purposes I’d rule him out too.
Now, yes, there are some key names not yet mentioned and not yet excluded, but hopefully this gives you a flavour of my reasoning and perspectives. And, worry not, I’m going to take my own personal opinions of an author’s quality out of things, so anyone I’ve previously expressed a dislike for may yet be in with a chance of ascending to regnant status. Because, see, over the coming weeks I’m going to outline the cases for my Kings of Crime, purely as an exercise in seeing how this develops. You will have your own candidates, and I would be delighted to hear them, but I’ve made my four choices (one for each suit of cards in the deck) and shall now attempt to argue their corners.
In true TV talent show fashion, and mainly because I work full time and want to do this properly, I shall reveal one per week and then afterwards (if anyone still cares) discuss the almost-made-its. My choices shall, of course, be influenced pretty much exclusively by what I’ve been able to read, and that’s also part of my motivation – there are swathes of you out there who would do a far more authoritative job of this than I, and I’m keen to learn if there’s an author whose marvellous influence and delightful brilliance I’ve been missing out on. Hey, I’m nothing if not adaptable, and nothing is forever…ask me again in ten years and it’ll probably be a different list entirely!
So, are you a sycophant for S. S. van Dine, do you marvel at Michael Innes, or are you still angry about Arthur Conan Doyle? Let me know, and come back to see if your Prince Regent makes it to the throne room (there’s a Westeros reference in there somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s beyond me). And, yes, I’m aware that my timing is terrible. Christmas is coming up and people will have many other things on their mind. Blame Brad, he’s the one who started this…