In October 1944 and January 1945, the American newspaper columnist, writer, and critic Edmund Wilson published two essays entitled, respectively, ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’. The second was in response to the exhortations from readers who, appalled by the first, sent him recommendations to improve his outlook…recommendations which, by all accounts, failed miserably.
Slightly belatedly, here are my thoughts on the companion piece to ‘The Scoop’ (1931), another portmanteau mystery written for radio by some of the luminaries of the Golden Age. This time around, Hugh Walpole sets the problem of a dead body found in your typical Stage 3 suburban household, and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox contribute to its unpicking.
It is tremendously difficult to write about gender these days without appearing to be trying to sneak through some (usually unpleasant) agenda. If anything in the following causes any reader jump to such a conclusion about my intentions, I urge that hypothetical reader to take a glance through any selection of posts on this site — all written by the author of what you’re reading now — to assure themselves that this in no way features in my plans. I am simply, out of curiosity, asking a question that happens to involve gender.
And the question is this: Has Golden Age Detective fiction been subjected to a deliberate feminisation? And, if so, to what end?
Most fans of Golden Age detective fiction (GAD) will be aware of the portmanteau novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in which many luminaries of the form each contributed a chapter in turn to a murder mystery plot (pity poor Anthony Berkeley, who had to unravel all the clues and events to provide a coherent solution in the final chapter). I’m imagining that slightly — but only slightly — fewer of you will be aware of the precursors to this novel written in the preceding year, where the same sort of approach was taken for two mysteries to be broadcast on radio.
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.
It being the ever-approaching end of the academic year, I’ve tended to focus on short stories for these Tuesday Night Bloggers posts on poison because I simply haven’t had the time to read more than one book a week, and I need to keep those for my Thursday reviews. So this week I thought I’d take on one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short stories featuring her other sleuth, the purveyor of fine wines that is Mr. Montague Egg. This is another one taken from The Big Ol’ Black Lizard Book of Wowsa That’s a Lot of Stories Massive Gigantic Compendium of Impossible Crimes But for Some Reason They’ve Included A Huge Section of Surely the Most Anthologised Stories of All Time, and so once again it has an impossible element. Yes, I am nothing if not fond of playing to type.
Much like you – well, exactly like you, I’d imagine – there are authors I love and authors I don’t. Almost as a counter-point to last week’s My Blog Name in Books, here is my list of nine ‘classic’ crime authors whose work I’m unlikely to ever touch again and – in some cases – whose continued popularity is, in all honesty, a complete mystery to me. I cast no aspersions by this, it’s just interesting to throw some ideas around and get a sense of people’s tastes and preferences.
As ever, there are rules: they must be dead (I’m not one for trolling), I must have read at least four of their books (to give them a fair chance) and they must fall into my self-imposed 1920 to 1950 envelope. Presented alphabetically by surname, too.