Thursday, April 25, 2013

Those Golden Age Detectives

Elizabeth Zelvin

In the Golden Age of detective fiction, several British mystery writers, all women, reigned more or less co-supreme: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and, writing a bit later, New Zealand-born Ngaio Marsh.

Let’s take Christie first and get her out of the way, because her mysteries differ from those of the others in several respects. For one thing, the world she portrays is rather middlebrow. Hercule Poirot, one of her enduring detectives, is an eccentric Belgian, played for laughs, who stands outside the parade of English society. He has no personal life and no genuine emotions apart from a mild compassion for some of the victims of the crimes he solves and an occasional burst of vanity. The other, that unlikely sleuth, Miss Marple, is a middle-class resident of a village in which society consists of such stock characters as the vicar, the doctor and the squire—hardly elevated enough to be invited to dinner, say, at Downton Abbey, unless no other company is expected.

In Christie’s mysteries, the puzzle is all. If her plots seem clich├ęd to today’s readers, it’s because the twists that were fresh and original in her work have spawned so many imitators. I doubt that anyone would call her stories character driven. The Poirot and Miss Marple series have no arc; their characters are unchanging and eternal.

On the other hand, Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, and Marsh’s Detective Chief Inspector (later Superintendent and Chief Superintendent) Roderick Alleyn have a lot in common. Lord Peter is the brother of the Duke of Devon; Campion is the pseudonymous scion of a family of unnamed but elevated rank, perhaps a ducal younger son himself. Alleyn is the younger brother of a rather stuffy baronet, Sir George. All of them mingle freely with characters across a broad spectrum of society. None of them are snobs in the conventional sense. Yet inherent in the value system and lifestyle of all three is the peculiarly English concept of being “a gentleman.”

At its best, being a gentleman implies unassailable integrity, and that, certainly, is common to all three sleuths. A sense of chivalry and/or noblesse oblige (without hairsplitting over the difference) is deeply ingrained in them by their upbringing. They solve crimes to right wrongs—as well as, in the case of Campion and Lord Peter, because it’s fun.

However, these sleuthing gentlemen take for granted an entitlement based on class. As today’s viewers of Downton Abbey are constantly reminded, traditional British class structure took some direct hits during World War I and crumbled gently thereafter during the decades in which our detectives operated. But gentlemen still knew who they were and recognized the boundaries between their class and others’. In Downton Abbey, Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the War, as Bunter was Lord Peter’s. In civilian life, the lords expect to be dressed, groomed, and waited on, and the intelligent and loyal far-more-than-valets cheerfully provide these services. Campion’s “man,” the cheerfully irreverent Cockney ex-burglar Lugg, is similarly both servant and sidekick. Instead of a devoted lifelong servant, Alleyn has Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Fox.

Class distinctions carry over from the detectives’ private life to their investigations. When a murder is committed, the gentleman sleuths interview the gentry, while Fox, Lugg, and Bunter make themselves at home in the servants’ hall, chatting up the cook, the butler, and the whole roster down to the youngest tweeny, speaking the vernacular over cozy cups of tea.

In spite of these iconic characteristics, all three of these great detectives demonstrate personal growth in the course of the series—Lord Peter the most, as he evolves from silly-ass-about-town in the early books to a character of such depth, complexity, and sensitivity that it is widely believed that his creator, Sayers herself, fell in love with him.

All find partners outside the rigid social boundaries of birth. Alleyn marries Troy, an acclaimed artist; Lord Peter, a mystery writer, a doctor’s daughter he first meets when she is on trial for murder; and Campion, Lady Amanda Fitton, an aristocrat, to be sure, but one who is happiest messing about with airplanes as an aeronautics expert. Their marriages draw all three sleuths into a growing maturity that lifts their investigations far above the realm of mere puzzle.


carlbrookins said...

Nice. A thoughtful, inciteful essay.

Patrick said...

I'm sorry to sound like a pedant, but I really cannot agree with the opening statement of this piece. Any perusal of Golden Age detective fiction will show that the "Crime Queens" that have been chosen to represent the era (i.e. Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham) were far from being the only dominant players. This is especially true of Marsh, whose first novel appeared in 1934 (leaving very little 'Golden Age' for her to 'dominate' over!).

As a result, we tend to forget some of the great male detective novelists of the era, and some of the finest detectives ever created appeared during the Golden Age. There's John Rhode's Dr. Priestley. Henry Wade's Inspector Poole. Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French. John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell, Henri Bencolin, and Sir Henry Merrivale. Clayton Rawson's The Great Merlini. R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke. Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef. The list can go on and on and on...

If I were forced to choose a favourite, I would probably go for either of Carr's creations, especially Dr. Fell and H. M. Both of them are a blast, although H.M. got a lot more comic as his series continued, while Dr. Fell got a lot more serious.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your post, Liz. You might also mention Josephine Tey, my second-favorite mystery writer (after Sayers). Tey's Alan Grant wasn't an aristocrat, though, just a hard-working police detective.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Bonnie, Grant came up on Facebook too. My favorite Tey novels are the Grant-less standalones, Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair, and Miss Pym Disposes, although of course The Daughter of Time, with Grant in a hospital bed, is in a class by itself.

Patrick, the male writers you mention, imho, were masters of the puzzle but not of any depth of characterization, nor did they get into the personal relationships of the detectives you mention. I stand by my admiration for the queens of detection and leave others to talk about the kings.