Sunday, 20 September 2015


Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874 in Kensington, London. He was educated at St Paul's School, and then attended the Slade School of Art and studied literature at University College, London. However he did not complete a degree in either subject.
Chesterton worked for the London publisher Redway and T. Fisher Unwin from 1896 until 1902. At this time he also worked as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1902 the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column and in 1905 he received a weekly column in The Illustrated London News and wrote this for the next thirty years until his death in 1936.
After the First World War, Chesterton became a leader of the Distrubutist movement and later President of the Distrubutist League; a movement whose political policy was to divide private property into the smallest viable freeholds and distribute them throughout society. His magazine, GK's Weekly, edited with his friend, Hilaire Belloc, promoted these political and sociological outlooks, as did The New Witness, which Chesterton and Belloc took over after the death of Chesterton's brother, Cecil, in 1918.
In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg, to whom he remained married until his death.
Chesterton was one of the great Edwardian men of letters. He was a literary and art critic and a prolific author of essays, verse, biography, short stories and novels. He was dubious about his ability to perform well on radio but was persuaded to give it a try and for the last four years of his life he gave forty talks a year. The talks were very popular, possibly because of their intimate quality, gained because his wife and secretary were allowed to sit with him and he directed his words to them. He was a close friend of Hilaire Belloc and well acquainted with Oscar Wilde. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw disagreed about practically everything and yet were on terms of friendship, often described as 'friendly-enemity.' Chesterton loved to debate and was part of many debates with Shaw, HG Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. When Chesterton died, Shaw is reported to have described him as 'a man of colossal genius.'
Chesterton was a colossal personality in every way. Six-foot four in height and weighing around twenty-one stone, he habitually wore a cape and crumpled hat and carried a swordstick and smoked a large cigar. When he died of congestive heart failure, at his home in Beaconsfield, his coffin was too big to be carried down the staircase and had to be lowered out of the window.
It is hard to believe that a man of such literary genius had been a slow developer academically and had not learned to read until he was over eight years old. He was also clumsy and absentminded. In later life it was common for him to send a telegram to his wife, telling her where he was and enquiring where he was meant to be.
When he was nineteen Chesterton suffered from depression and, for a time, rejected his Christian faith. It was at this time that he and his brother, Cecil, experimented with the Ouija board and became fascinated by sorcery and devil worship. In 1995 he left University College without completing his degree. In the next few years Chesterton returned to his Anglican faith, encouraged by Frances, who became his wife, and, in 1922, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Near the end of his life, he was invested by Pope Pius XI as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great.
On a more secular note, in 1930 Chesterton was one of the founding members of The Detective Club and its first President. It is not certain whether Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers wrote the oath but it seems probable Chesterton had a hand in it. 'Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?' Chesterton's detective is a Roman Catholic priest, but Father Brown does not solve crimes through Divine Revelation or Act of God. He reveals the truth using the knowledge of evil that hearing the confessions of sinners has given him throughout the years of his priesthood.
Chesterton's first fiction novel was a political fantasy, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904.) The best remembered of his novels is The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), in which the protagonist, a poet now working for Scotland Yard, fights an anarchist gang named for the days of the week. The Man Who Was Thursday has been described as a 'metaphysical thriller', certainly as well as being a political allegory it contains a large dose of fantasy and farce.
The detective stories that Chesterton is best remembered for are the five collections of short stories featuring Father Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911); The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926); The Secret of Father Brown (1927); The Wisdom of Father Brown (1929); The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). It is interesting to note that Chesterton created his Roman Catholic priest some years before he officially converted to Roman Catholicism. The first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, was published in the Storyteller in 1910. In The Blue Cross, Valentin, the Head of the Paris police, has tracked Flambeau, a master criminal, to England. Flambeau is an exceptionally tall man and when Valentin is examining the passengers upon the train from Harwich he can easily dismiss the 'very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village... The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats: he had a face as round and flat as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels of which he was quite incapable of collecting.... He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver 'with blue stones' in one of his brown-paper parcels.' This was the first appearance of one of the most astute detectives of the Golden Age. In his Autobiography (1936) Chesterton explained his reasoning behind the deceptive exterior of Father Brown: 'His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on.'
Many other Golden Age writers created detectives whose appearance and manner did not mirror their high intelligence, but these detectives always appeared to be deliberately wearing a mask to disguise their abilities. From the first, Father Brown is simply himself, unpretentious, honest, humble and with incredible psychological insight, especially into the nature of Evil. As he explains to Flambeau at that first meeting, '”Oh one gets to know, you know,” he added, rubbing his head again with the same sort of desperate apology. “We can't help it, being priests. People come and tell us these things.”... “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of real evil?”'
The Blue Cross was republished as the first story in the first collection of Father Brown stories, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911.) The detective Valentin only makes one more appearance but Flambeau is a frequent character in many of the Father Brown stories. In the next two stories featuring Flambeau, The Queer Feet and The Flying Stars, (The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911) he is still a criminal, at both times vanquished by Father Brown, until Father Brown persuades him to abandon crime. Many years later, in his respectable old age, Flambeau explains his reformation: '”Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous and seen the cold stare of the respectable; have I not been lectured in the lofty and distant style, asked how it was possible for anyone to fall so low, told that no decent person could ever have dreamed of such depravity? Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have never stolen since.”' (The Secret of Flambeau; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Flambeau becomes a private detective with an office in Westminster, until, in The Secret of Father Brown, he has married and retired to a vineyard in Spain. Flambeau also becomes Father Brown's closest friend As Watson and Hastings rarely get the correct solution ahead of their more talented detective friends, so Flambeau cannot see the solution before Father Brown, but at least the gentle priest treats him with much more consideration and respect than Holmes and Poirot show to their unfortunate followers. On more than one occasion Flambeau's great strength and quick wits in the face of danger save his friend's life. 'Then came another distant detonation , and the door he was trying to open shook under the bullet buried in it. Flambeau's shoulders again filled out and altered suddenly. Three hinges and a lock burst at the same instant, and he went out into the empty path behind, carrying the great garden door with him, as Samson carried the gates of Gaza. Then he flung the garden door over the garden wall, just as a third shot picked up a spurt of snow and dust behind his heel. Without ceremony he snatched up the little priest, slung him astraddle on his shoulders and went racing towards Seawood as fast as his long legs could carry him.' (The God of the Gongs; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Father Brown does not rely on physical clues but psychological clues and an intuition honed by years of hearing men's confessions and his own spiritual exercises. When pushed to explain his 'method' by an American acquaintance, he describes it in this way, '”You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.”... “I planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” ...“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” (The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
The little priest from Essex travels quite widely in the fifty-one stories; to London and many parts of England, and to Scotland, France, Mexico, America and Spain. Chesterton tells us very little of Father Brown's personal life, except that he has a widowed sister and a niece, Betty, of whom he is very fond. 'His gaze was shifted and recalled, however, by the breathless and even boisterous arrival of his niece, Betty. Rather to the surprise of her uncle, she led him back into the emptier room and planted him on a seat that was like an island in that sea of floor. “I've got something I must tell you,” she said. “It's so silly that nobody else will understand it.”' (The Worst Crime In the World; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Some of the information is inconsistent; in separate stories, Father Brown's first name is altered. Nor is it made clear how Flambeau escaped the detective, Valentin, and worked for many years as a detective, still using the name Flambeau, and even had friends amongst the police force, without being arrested. However, this is unimportant. The reader is drawn into the deep psychological insights that Father Brown offers and the sheer common-sense of his approach. When talking to an American police officer about the latter's dependence on the lie detector, Father Brown observes, '”You always forget that the reliable machine has to be worked by an unreliable machine”... “I mean Man.”... “If you could tell by his manner when the word that might hang him had come, why shouldn't he tell from your manner that the word that might hang him was coming? I should ask for more than words myself before I hanged anybody.”' (The Mistake of the Machine; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
The beauty of Chesterton's descriptive writing shows his early career as an artist. 'Father Brown was walking home from Mass on a white weird morning when the mists were slowly lifting – one of those mornings when the very element of light appears as something mysterious and new. The scattered trees outlined themselves more and more out of the vapour, as if they were first drawn in grey chalk and then in charcoal.' (The Salad of Colonel Cray; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Often the atmosphere in the stories is heavy with foreboding and the fear of impending violence and evil. 'There was a rather depressed silence; the room was darkening, the sea-blighted boughs of the garden trees looked leaner and blacker than ever, yet they seemed to have come nearer to the window. … For the whole air was dense with the morbidity of blackmail, which is the most morbid of human things, because it is a crime concealing a crime; a black plaster on a blacker wound.' (The Absence of Mr Glass, The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.) And yet, within two pages Father Brown sees the less terrible truth behind this mystery and the whole tone of the story has lifted into humour. '”But a hatter,” protested Hood, “can get money out of his stock of new hats. What could (he) get out of this one old hat?” “Rabbits,” replied Father Brown promptly.'
This witty playfulness is one of the most unexpected things in Chesterton's Father Brown stories and can often catch the reader by surprise. When Flambeau provisions his small sailing vessel for his month's holiday he 'had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves apparently to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want a fight; a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die.' (The Sins of Prince Saradine; The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.) Or when Father Brown is apologising for speaking hastily in response to a foolish statement: 'A sort of anxiety came back into the priest's eyes – the anxiety of a man who has run against a post in the dark and wonders for a moment whether he has hurt it. “I'm most awfully sorry,” he said with sincere distress. “I beg your pardon for being so rude; pray forgive me.”' (The Oracle of the Dog; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Father Brown is an unique detective. There is less revealed about his personal life than any other detective of his time but more about his thought processes and his belief. He is remarkably courageous, both physically and morally; unconcerned for his own safety or by public condemnation if there is a soul to be salvaged or an innocent person to be helped. The only thing that Father Brown really fears is harm to his Church. 'The priest's next words broke out of him with a sort of cry. “And if it had only been my disgrace! But it was the disgrace of all I stand for; the disgrace of the Faith that they went about to encompass. What might it have been! The most huge and horrible scandal ever launched against us since the last lie was choked in the throat of Titus Oates.”' (The Resurrection of Father Brown; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Possibly the thing that makes Father Brown stand out is that he is less concerned with crime than he is with sin; he cares more about saving souls than punishing crime. Chesterton's own religious conviction shines through the character and words of Father Brown. '”We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them.”... “Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes.”' (The Chief Mourner of Marne; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife by Georges Simenon

Note: Because this review is taken from an English translation I have used the British rank of Chief Inspector rather than Commissaire.

'Ernestine Micou, alias 'Lofty' (now Jussiaume), who, when you arrested her seventeen years ago in the Rue de la Lune, stripped herself to take the mike out of you, requests the favour of an interview on a matter of most urgent and important business.'
This note, handed in at the Police Headquarters in Paris on a scorchingly hot summer day, transports Chief-Inspector Maigret back to a time when he was an inexperienced, young officer on the beat and intended to arrest Lofty, a young prostitute for theft. 'Calmly she'd taken off her wrap, her shift, and pants, and gone and lain down on the unmade bed, lighting a cigarette'... 'The whole thing was ludicrous. She was cool, quite passive, a little glint of irony showing in her colourless eyes.'
Lofty has come to ask Maigret for help. Her husband, Alfred Jussiaume, known as Sad Freddie, is a safe-breaker who has left Paris without warning and gone into hiding, but he contacted Lofty to say that on his last attempted robbery in a private house in Neuilly, he had been terrified by the sight of a dead body in the room; he said that it was a middle-aged woman, 'that her chest was all covered in blood, and that she was holding a telephone receiver in her hand.'
Although Maigret has doubts about Lofty's story, especially as no murders have been reported, he investigates to try and discover the house that Sad Freddie burgled. This leads him to the home of Guillaume Serre, a middle-aged dental surgeon who lives with his wife, Maria, and his elderly mother. Maigret discovers that Serre's wife is no longer there and Serre and his mother claim that Maria has left them to go back and live, perhaps permanently, in Amsterdam, in her native Holland. Serre and Madame Serre also claim that there has been no sign of burglary in their house.
Who is Maigret to believe? The prostitute and her husband, a habitual criminal? Or the respectable if obnoxious dentist and his mother? He follows his instinct, which leads to a long and harrowing interrogation and a psychologically satisfying conclusion to the investigation.
Maigret and the Burglar's wife is a book based on remarkably skilled characterisation and of exquisitely drawn contrasts. Lofty, whom Maigret recognises immediately when he sees her after many years: 'her long, pale face, the washed out eyes, the big over-made-up mouth that looked like a raw wound. He recognised also, in her glance, the quiet irony of those who've seen so much that nothing's any longer important in their eyes. She was simply dressed, with a light green straw hat, and she'd put on gloves.' And old Madame Serre, 'a little old woman, very dried up, dressed in black, who never passes the time of day with anybody and doesn't look easy to get on with' or as Maigret sees her first, 'the old lady who stood back to let them enter would not have looked out of place dressed as a nun... She'd an innate elegance and dignity which were remarkable.'
Another beautiful contrast is when Maigret goes to visit Lofty at home to question her further about her husband's claim. 'Maigret knocked at a door, which half-opened; Ernestine appeared in her underclothes and merely said: “It's you!” Then she went at once to fetch her dressing gown from the unmade bed, and slipped it on.'
This contrast is even stronger when describing the two sets of characters' living places. Lofty and Sad Freddie live in rooms above a café, in a situation full of noise and colour: 'The wall of the staircase was whitewashed, as in the country. One could hear the racket made by a crane unloading gravel from a barge a little further on... The window was open. There was a blood-red geranium. The bedspread was red too. The door stood open into a little kitchen, out of which came a good smell of coffee.'
The Serre's drawing room is that of wealthy people, but underneath there is the sense of a smothering stagnation. 'She opened, on the left, a pair of polished oaken doors, and Maigret was reminded more than ever of a convent or, better still, a rich parsonage. Even the soft, insidious smell reminded him of something; he didn't know what, he tried to remember. The drawing-room that she showed them into was lit only by daylight seeping through the slots of the shutters, and to enter it from outside was like stepping into a cool bath. The noises of the town, one felt, could never penetrate this far, and it was as if the house and everything in it had remained unchanged for more than a century.'
Although it was written over eighty years ago, Maigret and the Burglar's Wife manages to combine the sense of a time past with a present-day observation of psychological twists. It is still an excellent read.

Note: At this time, Maigret and the Burglar's wife is not available as a new paperback or on Kindle, however there are several second-hand paperbacks available for sale.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Simenon was born in Belgium, the son of an accountant in an insurance company. Simenon was born a few minutes into Friday 13th February but his superstitious mother insisted on his birth certificate being falsified and gave him the more auspicious birthday of Thursday 12th. One of his mother's more notorious ancestors was Gabriel Brühl, a robber who was hanged in 1743; later Simenon used Brühl as one of his pseudonyms.
Simenon's family moved many times in his childhood, a pattern of life that Simenon was to replicate throughout his life. One of the most significant house moves in his childhood was when his parents moved to a large house that enabled them to take in lodgers, which meant that Simenon was mixing with students and apprentices of many nationalities and this early experience contributed to the cosmopolitan flavour of his books.
Simenon's relationship with his mother was stormy and often cold, especially after the birth of his brother whom she much preferred. (It is reported that when Simenon's brother died, she said to Simenon that she wished it had been him rather than his brother.) Perhaps to make up for this deficit, Simenon was very close to his father and devastated by his death when Simenon was only seventeen. Many psychologists have theorised that Simenon's dysfunctional relationship with his mother was the root cause of his extreme promiscuity (in old age he claimed to have slept with at least 10,000 women) and his self-serving egotism, which led to his investigation for collaboration with the Nazis after the Second World War.
From 1914 to 1918 Simenon attended the Collège Saint-Louis, a Jesuit high school, but in 1918, when he was fifteen he left the Collège, using his father's failing health as his reason. For some months he had short-term jobs until, in January 1919, he took a job at the newspaper the Gazette de Liège. Simenon's job was to report on unchallenging human interest stories but his contact with the newspaper gave him the opportunity to explore politics, bars and cheap hotels as well as arousing an interest in crime and criminal investigations. It was at this time he attended lectures by the ground-breaking criminologist Edmund Locard. While at the newspaper he wrote over 150 articles under the pen name G. Sim. Also under this pen name he published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, in 1921, and under the name Monsieur Le Coq he published more than 800 humorous pieces between 1919 and 1922. During these years he became increasingly familiar with the seamier side of city night life, consorting with prostitutes, anarchists, bohemian artists and criminals, including murderers. This experience forms the background for many of his books, including his best-remembered series featuring Commissaire Maigret.
In 1922 Simenon's father died and he and his mistress, Régine Renchon, moved to Paris. In 1923 they returned to Liege in order to be married. Despite Simenon's lack of faith, his mother insisted that Régine should convert and they should be married in a Roman Catholic Church, and all of Simenon's children were later baptised into the Catholic Church.
Simenon seemed to favour nicknames for the women in his close family circle, which he insisted they respond to rather than their given names; Regine was always known as Tigy, while Henriette Liberge, their cook and housekeeper, was known as Boule (literally translated as Ball) due to her plumpness. Boule was sexually involved with Simenon for several decades, but she was by no means the only woman to have an affair with Simenon; throughout his life he had numerous liaisons with other women, perhaps the most famous of which was his relationship with the singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.
A reporting assignment had awakened Simenon's pleasure in boating and in 1929 he had a boat built. Simenon, Tigy, Boule and their dog, Olaf, lived on board this boat and travelled the French canal system. It was in 1930, while boating in the Netherlands, in and around the Dutch town of Delfzijl, that Simenon created his most famous character, Commissaire Maigret. There is a commemorative statue of Maigret in Delfzijl, which was unveiled in 1966 by Simenon, and the ceremony was attended by actors, of many nationalities, who had played Maigret.
Between 1930 and 1934 Simenon travelled extensively in eastern Europe, Africa, Turkey and the Soviet union, culminating in a two year trip around the world. He and his family then settled in a succession of houses in France and in 1939, Marc, Simenon's only child with Tigy, was born.
Simenon's conduct in the Second World War has cast a shadow over his reputation, although most people now tend to the view that he was apolitical and opportunistic rather than a collaborator with the Germans. In the early 1940s Simenon had a serious health scare when he was misdiagnosed with heart disease, the condition that killed his father. Also around this time, Tigy finally had confirmation of Simenon's sexual relationship with their housekeeper, Boule. Although Simenon and Tigy did not divorce until 1949, for the last few years their relationship was only a marriage in name, especially as, despite Tigy's protests, Boule remained with the family.
In 1945 Simenon chose to avoid questioning about his relationship with the German invaders and left France for Canada and the United States. Simenon, Marc and Boule all learned to speak English, but Tigy struggled with the language and longed to return to Europe. It was at this time that Simenon met Denyse Ouimet, a young woman seventeen years his junior, and they started a tempestuous love affair. In 1949 Simenon and Tigy divorced and in 1950 he married Denyse. It is interesting to note that apparently Denyse did not have a nickname bestowed on her by Simenon and to speculate whether she refused to accept this particular form of control. Denyse and Simenon had three children: Johnny, born in 1949; Marie-Jo, born in 1953; and Pierre, born in 1959.
Although Simenon had not lived in Belgium since 1922, he always retained his Belgian citizenship and, in 1952 was made a member of the Academie Royale de Belgique.
Simenon and his family returned to Europe in 1955, first living in France and then in Switzerland. In 1964 Simenon and his second wife, Denyse, separated. Simenon had already started an affair with his new housekeeper, Teresa, who he had hired in 1961 and she remained as his companion until his death.
In 1966 Simenon was given the Mystery Writers of America's most prestigious honour, the award of Grand Master.
Simenon's later years were darkened by the suicide, in 1978, of his only daughter, Marie-Jo, when she was twenty-five. Marie-Jo was a deeply troubled young woman, obsessively devoted to her father; when she was a child she had begged him to buy her a gold 'wedding' ring, which she had enlarged as she grew older. One of the last things she spoke of was her father's 'crushing genius'. As a final, cruel irony, when she decided to shoot herself she discovered the whereabouts of a Parisian gunsmith by consulting one of Simenon's novels that was set in Paris.
In 1984 Simenon underwent surgery for a brain tumour. He recovered but his health deteriorated and he died in 1989.
When writing about Simenon's life I found it impossible to interweave his novels into the narrative because they were so numerous and seem to be the fabric of his life. He was one of the most prolific writers of the century, producing nearly 200 novels (including a number of 'psychological novels'), 150 novellas, a large number of articles and an immense number of 'pulp' novels written under at least two dozen pseudonyms. He also wrote several autobiographical works, especially in the last years of his life. Simenon would set himself the task of writing a novel in eleven days, eight for writing and three for editing. During that time he would live a monk-like existence, immersing himself in his work. He said, in interview, that if anything disrupted that eleven day writing process, (such as him being unwell and having to rest for a day) he would throw the book away because for him it was no longer a workable project. He also said that he started knowing the names, ages and appearances of his characters but did not plot, because that would destroy his interest in his book.
Rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Simenon was outraged that the novels and short stories that proved most popular were his Maigret novels, rather than his more serious works. Nevertheless the Maigret books are a significant and powerful body of work, a view confirmed by T.S. Eliot, a writer that Simenon greatly admired, when asked about the two most significant changes in his life in recent years: 'I now prefer Claret to Burgundy and I prefer Inspector Maigret to Arsene Lupin.'
Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Jules Maigret. The Maigret books have been translated into a large number of languages and have been televised in several countries. In Britain, Maigret was first played by Rupert Davies and later by Michael Gambon; a new Maigret series is due to be recorded in Britain starring Rowan Atkinson, an interesting challenge to see if he can persuade the audience to forget his previous creations, Blackadder and Mr Bean.
The Maigret books set in Paris seem to be woven out of the experiences Simenon had in the back streets of the city, the denizen of thieves, prostitutes, the destitute and violent criminals; but he also sets much of the action in his books in the homes of the outwardly respectable middle class, with a feeling of the decay and evil, twisted relationships that lurk behind their respectable doors and shuttered windows. However, Simenon also sets his Maigret books in the other countries that he visited. He was at the height of his creative powers when he was living in the United States and many of his books were set there, such as Trois chambres à Manhattan (1946) and Maigret à New York (1947.)
Maigret is a stocky, tall man, slightly overweight, who smokes a pipe and is very fond of alcohol although it is a matter of pride that he does not get intoxicated. He usually wears a heavy raincoat. His wife's name is Louise, although she is always known as Madame Maigret. They have no children, although they did have a baby that was still born. Maigret usually works with a small team of detectives, notably Lucan and Janvier, who respect him although they are wary of his bad temper when things are not going well. Maigret sometimes depends on police procedure but, more often, on intuition, which leads to long cat and mouse sessions in which he tried to wear down his suspects and intensive (and sometimes inhumane) interrogations that can go on for several hours and occasionally days.
Perhaps Simenon's work can best be explained by himself in an interview published in 1955: 'I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man.' (The Paris Review, Summer 1955, interview by Carvel Collins.)

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay is rather a mystery herself. The chief question being why did she write three detective stories in three years and then quit?
Remarkably little is known about Hay and I could find no pictures of her, which is strange when one considers that she was a contemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and received an education that, in some respects, ran parallel to that of Sayers.
Hay was born  in Potters Bar, Middlesex (North London) in 1894, into a middle-class family, who were clearly willing and able to encourage their daughter to achieve an education that was unusual for a woman at that time. Hay was a student at St Hilda's College, Oxford, from 1913 until 1916 and Sayers was at Somerville, Oxford, from 1912-1915. Neither Hay nor Sayers would have graduated with degrees, because women were not permitted to be members of the university until 1920, when they were at last allowed to claim the degrees thatthey had earned.
After her time at St Hilda's, Hay seems to have returned to her primary love, the study and practise of rural crafts and, in 1927, she and her co-author, Helen Fitzrandolph published a wide-ranging and authoritative work, Rural Industries of England and Wales.
Hay was part of the generation of women who had lived through the tragic losses of the First World War. Hay had lost one of her brothers at the Battle of Jutland, in 1916. These young women had also seen their hopes of marriages decimated by the loss of young men in the War, but, in 1929, when she was thirty-five, Hay married Helen Fitzrandolph's brother, Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph, a member of a wealthy and influential Canadian family.
It was during the years of her marriage to Archibald Fitzrandolph that Hay wrote and published three detective novels, Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935) and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936). Hay's detective novels seem to have been well received. Indeed Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an encouraging review of Murder Underground in the Sunday Times in 1934: 'This detective novel is much more than interesting. The numerous characters are well differentiated, and include one of the most feckless, exasperating and lifelike literary men that ever confused a trail.'
In 1939 the Second World War broke out and Hay again suffered grievous loss. In 1939 her youngest brother was killed when his Tiger Moth crashed in the Malayan jungle and in 1940 she lost another brother, who died after being captured by the Japanese. Hay's husband, Archibald, had joined the RAF and was killed in a flying accident in 1943.
In 1921, The Rural Industries Bureau (RIB) was established by the Ministry of Agriculture. The purpose of the RIB was to develop rural industries by providing technical advice and assistance to country workshops. As well as various booklets and reports, it published a quarterly magazine, Rural Industries. This was an ideal very close to Hay's heart and she took up a position as a researcher for the RIB. The rest of Hay's life was devoted to her first love, the promotion of rural crafts. Under her married name, Mavis Fitzrandolph, Hay wrote and published many books about rural crafts, including 30 Crafts, written for the Women's Institute. She wrote numerous books about her passion, quilting, and won great respect for her work in developing the Welsh quilting industry.
Hay made her home in Gloucestershire and died in 1979, at the age of eighty-five. Her last book, Quilting was published in 1972. She showed no obvious desire to return to writing detective fiction.
To all appearances, despite the terrible losses that Hay suffered in the two World Wars, she went on to have a long and fulfilled life doing work that she loved. However, I am intrigued by the question of why Hay wrote three detective novels in three years and then abandoned crime writing.
While none of her crime novels can claim to be profound or ground-breaking, all three of them are pleasant and enjoyable reads, especially to lovers of the Golden Age, who are used to the language and manners of the 1920s and 1930s.
Murder Underground (1934) opens with the inhabitants of the Frampton Private Hotel, (which is, in reality a very ordinary boarding house) departing about their daily business. Amongst them is Miss Euphemia Pongleton, who 'pottered fussily out, hugging an enormous handbag and looking perhaps rather shabbier and more-out-of-date than usual.' When Betty Watson, another resident at the hotel informs her that it was a 'nice morning' Miss Pongleton 'wrinkled her nose as if she didn't like the smell of it.' This beautiful piece of characterisation tells us a great deal about Miss Pongleton. Despite her shabby appearance and parsimonious ways, Miss Pongleton is an affluent woman; she is also a very unpleasant, interfering person, who is fond of exerting power over other people. When she is discovered on the stairs of Belsize Park Station strangled by the lead belonging to her dog, Tuppy, her fellow residents are shocked but not distressed. Indeed, even Tuppy seems indifferent to his mistress' death. Most of the residents enjoy speculating about the crime, especially Mrs Daymer the novelist, but Betty Watson has more reason to care than most, as she is in love with Miss Pongleton's nephew, and probable heir, Basil Pongleton.
The police have several suspects. Chief amongst them is a young railway worker whose girlfriend works at the Frampton Hotel. Miss Pongleton had found out about a foolish, illegal act this young man had committed, and it is not clear whether she intended to report him to the police. However, the police also have good reason to suspect those who might benefit financially from Miss Pongleton's death: her nephew Basil and his cousin, Beryl. Although Beryl was not in the vicinity when Miss Pongleton died, her fiancé, Gerry, admits to passing the old lady on the stairs, presumably minutes before her murder. Miss Pongleton was in the habit of altering her will whenever Basil annoyed her. As Basil is the 'feckless, exasperating' literary man referred to in Sayer's review,  this occurs with unfortunate regularity and leads to a confusing abundance of contradictory wills. Basil's foolish and inconsistent lies mean that he is soon suspected of his aunt's murder. His behaviour is very self-incriminating, especially when he convinces his cousin, Beryl, and his girlfriend, Betty, to cover for his indiscretions. This leads the unfortunate Inspector Caird to speculate that Miss Pongleton's murder was committed by a 'gang' of her relations and fellow residents.
For much of the book Inspector Caird has very little time on-stage. While he is conducting interviews in one room of the hotel, the reader is hearing about it second-hand, through the discussion and speculation of the other residents. Near the end of the book he emerges as a sensible, conscientious officer, who feels angry that the idiotic and selfish antics of Basil Pongleton have led a nice girl like Betty into trouble. However this is a book of amateur detectives and it is they who solve the crime.
Death on the Cherwell (1935) is set in Persephone College, Oxford. This fictional woman's college seems to be modelled on St Hilda's, where Hay was educated. The book opens with the death of the unpopular college bursar and follows the investigation into her death. It is presumably a coincidence that Death on the Cherwell was published in the same year as Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night. The two books have some things in common: both are set in fictional women's colleges and both address the still debated question of women's education and the necessity for women students to behave with impeccable propriety, very different from the standards required for young men. Another interesting common factor is that both Sayers and Hay object to the condescending term 'undergraduettes' which was favoured by newspaper reporters of the time. As Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College reflects, 'Respectable publicity was bad enough because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to break out into some idiocy about “undergraduettes” or “academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls.” But shameful publicity! A death mystery! This was terrible!'
In other ways Death on the Cherwell and Gaudy Night are very different. In Gaudy Night, although there is some interaction with undergraduates, the main action is set amongst the middle-aged dons. It is a novel from the viewpoint of adults. There are times when Death on the Cherwell strongly resembles a girls' adventure story. The action opens with a group of Persephone College first year undergraduates gathered together at the boat house to form a society to curse their unpopular bursar, Miss Denning. Imagine their horror when, a few minutes later, Miss Denning's canoe drifts up to the landing stage, with Miss Denning dead inside it, soaking wet, apparently drowned in her canoe. The girls decide to investigate. They are led by Sally Watson, sister of Betty Watson, who featured in Murder Underground. Betty and Basil also appear in this book, and it is a relief to see that Betty has become more assertive and Basil has grown up.
In this book the reader is allowed to follow the police investigation at first hand. On the first evening, the local inspector, Inspector Wythe, interviews the witnesses and is more impressed with Sally than she is with him: 'Trim and self-controlled she looked now, although her usual buoyant self-confidence had not quite returned. She had sleeked her brown hair and had donned – hastily, yet with a vague sense of fitting herself for a sombre occasion – a tailored, navy-blue frock. A nice sensible girl, thought the inspector, as he looked directly into her brown eyes.
Rather a stupid-looking man, thought Sally, after a brief inspection of his square, stolid face and reddish, toothbrush moustache.'
The local police are soon aided by Scotland Yard, in the person of Detective Inspector Braydon. Braydon proves to be an intelligent, hard-working and capable officer and it is not his fault that the rules of this style of detective fiction prevent him from being the one who solves the case. That honour, of course, is reserved for the amateur sleuths.
With Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell it seems that Hay had established her detective fiction style. This includes the murder of an unpleasant victim, which means that nobody really cares that she is dead and also means that there is a large number of potential killers to choose from. Those solving the crime include reasonably intelligent and hard-working police detectives who are always one step behind the motley band of enthusiastic amateurs. The story is set in a limited community, such as a private hotel or university college; it is told in the Third Person, Past Tense, and includes some lively, often flippant dialogue and well-observed, skilful descriptions.
In Hay's third book, The Santa Klaus Murder, the victim is Sir Osmond Melbury, a tyrannical patriarch who bullies his family into submission by threats of cutting them out of his will. Sir Osmond has purchased a Santa Claus suit and persuaded one of the guests to wear it and give out presents on Christmas Day. Sir Osmond's controlling manner extends even to the pronunciation of the character's name: 'I knew Sir Osmond was particular about us saying Santa Klaus; said we gave it up in the War, because it was German, but we oughtn't to mind now and Father Christmas was just silly.' As in Hay's previous books, the victim is unpleasant and many people wish him dead, and the setting is the closed community of a country house at Christmas. However the style of this book is very different from its predecessors. Approximately the first 20% of the book is occupied by First Person narrative accounts from five people who were in the house when the murder was committed and describe the days leading up to the murder. Much of the rest of the book is in the First Person narrative of Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, although there are two later chapters in other characters' viewpoints. One of these viewpoints is that of Kenneth Stour, an actor who has recently returned from a triumphant tour abroad, who is allowed to insert himself into the investigation. Colonel Halstock indicates that Stour is a talented amateur detective who has been of use to the police before in investigations. Again the amateur detectives solve the case just ahead of the official investigators.
In my opinion, the style of The Santa Klaus Murder does not work as well as Hay's earlier books. When Wilkie Collins used 'witness statement' narratives in The Moonstone (1868) the reader knew what was happening from the beginning and the different narrating voices were clearly differentiated. In The Santa Klaus Murder it is easy to get muddled between narrators and it is not clearly explained why these people are giving these accounts, although matters improve when Colonel Halstock takes the main part of the narrative.
Hay's books are always an ensemble act, with amateur detectives emerging all over the place. Perhaps one of the reasons she did not continue writing detective fiction was that she could not decide what sort of detective she wished to spend her mystery writing career with, although there are several options. Betty, Sally and Basil would have made an enterprising and amusing detective trio. Suave, experienced Kenneth Stour could have been developed into an excellent series detective. However, my vote would have gone to the eccentric and irritating novelist Mrs Daymer from Murder Underground. Towards the end of the book, two sets of amateurs hit upon the truth at the same moment but it is Mrs Daymer who has the wit to spot an insignificant clue that is too nebulous to take to the police, and also has the determination to follow it up and collect the evidence: 'The implication which she saw in this discoloured record of an unimportant case of thirty years ago was so horrible and so fantastic that she could not bring herself to name the man whom it seemed to point to.' It is possible, if Hay had wanted to develop her, Mrs Daymer might have made a detective to rival Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley.
Of course, all this is irrelevant, because Hay never created a series detective or a series of detective stories. One can only speculate on Hay's reasons for abandoning detective fiction after such a short career, although it seems clear that she had a fulfilling career in the field of crafts that had been her first love. Now a new generation of readers have the chance to enjoy her books thanks to the British Library's policy of republishing almost forgotten authors. This is very good news indeed and Hay's books are well worth reading, especially for lovers of Golden Age mysteries.

Published by the British Library:
Murder Underground, ISBN: 978-0-7123-5726-5
Death on the Cherwell: ISBN: 978-0-7123-5712-8
The Santa Klaus Murder: ISBN: 978-0-7123-5712-8

Monday, 13 July 2015

Rule Makers and Rule Breakers of the Golden Age

A.A. Milne
S.S. Van Dine
Ronald Knox
Agatha Christie
Dorothy L. Sayers
This article is written from research done for the paper I delivered at Bath Spa University Crime Writing Conference. Captivating Crime 2: Traditions and Transgressions.
WARNING: This article contains some spoilers.

When we speak of the Golden Age of crime fiction the first names that come to mind are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, closely followed by Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey. In the late 1920s Christie and Sayers were both well into their detective fiction careers, but they were not the writers who decided to set down a list of rules for the genre. Of course, the position of women was very different  then it wasn't until 1928 that all women in Britain were allowed to vote, and in 1918, when the first law was passed to enfranchise some women, neither Christie nor Sayers were old enough to vote. My instinct is that neither woman would let the expectations of society prevent them from doing what they wanted, certainly not Sayers, with her strong Feminist principles. Perhaps it was simply that they were too busy writing and stretching the boundaries of the genre to bother about formulating rules.
So who were the men who felt themselves uniquely fitted to the challenge of creating a set of rules for writing crime fiction? Who else could it be but a Roman Catholic priest and an American art critic?
However, they were not the first. In 1922 AA Milne had published his only detective story, The Red House Mystery, and, in the 1926 edition he included a foreword that laid out, with his characteristic humour, the things he felt essential for a detective story.
1. The use of straightforward language.
2. Clues to be revealed throughout the book not kept to the last chapter.
3. To do this he advocated the use of a Watson figure, so that clues should be presented in accessible dialogue form.
4. Milne also preferred no love interest in detection books, because he felt romance detracted from the business in hand.

In 1928 a group of mystery writers came together and formed what, a couple of years later, became known as the Detection Club. One of the members, Ronald Knox, created ten rules of detective fiction, which he ironically called the Ten Commandments. Knox was a brilliant scholar who converted to Roman Catholicism and became a priest. As well as being an eminent theologian, he wrote essays, pastiches, and broadcast on numerous radio programmes.
Knox had a dry, sense of humour and an unfortunate lack of appreciation of the fact that other people didn't always realise when he was joking. In 1926 he made a radio broadcast entitled Broadcasting From the Barricades, which described a scene in which London was being destroyed by a rampaging mob and a Government Minister was hanged from a lamp-post. It should have been clear that this was a spoof: it was announced at the beginning, the names were absurd and so were the government departments, but many people tuning in slightly early for the following programme were alarmed. After all, the BBC was not expected to make jokes and it was earlier in the year of civil unrest that led to the General Strike. And it was only a few years after the First World War, and many people were attuned to expecting loss. Knox's recording career was tarnished by this practical joke.
Knox was also hoist by his own petard when in 1911, he delivered a satiric lecture, followed by an essay: Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes which claimed that Holmes had really died at the Reichenbach Falls and the later stories were the fabrications of an alcoholic and delusional Watson. From that time Knox was regarded as an expert on Holmes and continually appealed to for essays and talks. In The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959) Evelyn Waugh reports Knox's response to one such request: 'I can't BEAR books about Sherlock Holmes. It is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.'
In 1925, Knox started writing detective novels in an attempt to increase his income. In 1927 he introduced his series character, Miles Bredon, an investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company.
It is generally accepted that Knox had no intention of his Ten Commandments being carved in stone. They show the humour and intelligence typical of Knox, mocking many of the crime writing clichés of the time, such as an over-abundance of secret passages, identical twins, supernatural agencies and unknown poisons.
Despite his rejection of Holmes and Watson, he agrees with Milne about the value of a Watson-like figure.
His rejection of the use of Chinamen is especially interesting. The Yellow Peril was over-used in crime fiction at this time but he is also making a serious social point. As the historian Julia Lovell wrote in 2014: 'In the early decades of the 20th century, Britain buzzed with Sinophobia. Respectable middle-class magazines, tabloids and comics alike spread stories of ruthless Chinese ambitions to destroy the west.'
Knox does keep his own commandments, although I think he may fall into Temptation when it comes to number ten, banning twins and doubles, when the whole basis of one of his plots depends on fraudulent identity and passport photos where one person closely resembles another.
A year later, the American crime writer, S. S. Van Dine made his comprehensive list of Twenty Rules for mystery writing. Under his real name, Willard Huntington Wright, he was a literary critic and journalist and an art critic. Initially quite successful, his career had plummeted, due to his aggressive personality and his support for Germany in World War I.  In 1923 his health broke down; according to his biographer, John Loughery (Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992), his collapse was due to his secret addiction to cocaine. Confined to bed, he read hundreds of the books he had always claimed to despise, detective stories. As a result he planned his first three detective novels and wrote an essay which explored his opinions of the history, traditions and conventions of detective fiction.
In 1927 he published the essay, The Great Detective Stories, under his own name of Wright. In it he treated the work of Agatha Christie to harsh criticism. Although Christie had, at this time, published six detective novels, only the Poirot novels and short stories are selected for mention in Wright's essay. In it he refers to Poirot as a 'pompous little Belgian sleuth' and claims that, 'Poirot is more fantastic and far less credible than his brother criminologists.... and the stories in which he figures are often so artificial, and their problems so far fetched, that all sense of reality is lost, and consequently the interest in the solution is vitiated.' Wright becomes positively outraged when referring to the solution of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which he describes as a 'trick' and not a 'legitimate device of the detective-story writer.' Compared to the rest of the essay, the references to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ferment with wounded vanity and it seems probable that Christie's device had fooled Wright and he was not going to forgive her 'trickery'.
Now consider this description of a fictional detective: wealthy, cultured, well-born, prone to quotation, educated at Oxford University and liable to use affected mannerisms in his speech, wears a monocle, a bachelor, living in comfort and affluence, waited upon by a devoted English servant, a connoisseur of good food and drink, served with distinction in the First World War. He is fond of interesting himself in police investigations and is allowed an extraordinary amount of access and influence by the official investigators. That sounds like Lord Peter Wimsey, but it also applies to Van Dine's fictional hero, Philo Vance.
Dorothy L. Sayers' first Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body? had been published in 1923, but in The Great Detective Stories, both the author and her creation, are skimmed over in one sentence, 'Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonair and deceptive amateur of Dorothy L. Sayers's Whose Body?'
Of course, I cannot prove that Van Dine based Vance on Wimsey, but I do feel that the points of similarity are too numerous to be a simple coincidence.
Of course,Vance was different to Wimsey in many ways, not least his all-consuming snobbery: 'An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste.' (The Benson Murder Case, 1926.)
Contrast this with Wimsey in The Haunted Policeman (1939), the penultimate short story that Sayers wrote featuring him. Wimsey has been happily married to Harriet for just over a year and she has just given birth to their first son. All the household has retired to bed and Wimsey has invited a chance-met, off-duty police constable to join him to celebrate. '”Quite right,” said Peter, and filled the glasses again. He found the policeman soothing. True to his class and training, he turned naturally in moments of emotion to the company of the common man. Indeed, when the recent domestic crisis had threatened to destroy his nerve, he headed for the butler's pantry with the swift instinct of the homing pigeon. There, they had treated him with great humanity, and allowed him to clean the silver.'
Van Dine may have intended to be witty but many of the Twenty Rules sound elaborate and pompous, and, in fact there are really twenty-nine rules, as he fits in several extra rules under the heading Rule 20.
Van Dine and Knox agree regarding fair play in giving the readers all the clues, forbidding supernatural agencies, and Van Dine's bête noir, the detective must not commit the crime. However, Van Dine goes much further and decrees that murder is the only crime worthy of a detective novel and it should never prove to be an accident or suicide. He bans secret societies, camorras, mafias and professional criminals from committing the murder. Also he declares that the murderer must be a decidedly worth-while person and no servant or lower-class person need apply.
Knox certainly contravened Van Dine's rule regarding murder: in one of his books the person believed murdered was not dead at all. But did Van Dine keep his own rules? In my opinion, he did not. Rule 16 states that the detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues etc. Van Dine spends pages describing the glories of Philo Vance and his possessions and as long again with Vance showing off with literary quotations of  dubious relevance. Even worse, Rule 5: The culprit must be determined by logical deductions – not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. In The Canary Murder Case (1929) Vance and his companions revisit the scene of a locked room mystery and, wishing to relax, Vance selects a record labelled as classical music to play on the phonograph. The record, by chance proves not to be music but a recording of the victim's last words,which were spoken from behind a locked door. This destroys the main suspect's air-tight alibi. It also damages Van Dine's credibility.
The Rule most frequently broken by other Golden Age writers was the prohibition of a love interest in detective novels. Of the rule makers, only the celibate priest, Ronald Knox did not disapprove of romance. Both Milne and Van Dine felt that love proved a distraction from the main business in hand, although they phrased this objection very differently:
Van Dine: 'There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.'
Milne: 'A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face-powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela's hand 'a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.' Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; footprints made or discovered; cigarette-ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means let Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in the detective story he must attend strictly to business.'
So many Golden Age writers broke the romance rule that it is impossible to list them: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Tey and Heyer all had romances in many of their books. Sayers, Marsh and Allingham had their sleuths fall in love, eventually marry, and continue detecting. Patricia Wentworth divides the action between her elderly female sleuth and a variety of young lovers who come to her for aid. So did Christie with her lesser known series detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. And it was not just women writers: Michael Innes had Appleby fall in love and marry, and the love John Creasey's heroes had for their wives dominates his books. Of course, Leslie Charteris turned the matter around: the Saint books started with him meeting and falling in love with Patricia Holm, sharing several adventures with her, then fading her out, so that Simon Templar can enjoy encounters with other women.
In her full-length novels Christie sticks to murder, although several of her short stories feature lesser crimes or no crimes at all. However, Josephine Tey clearly did not feel that a good mystery had to have a corpse and wrote several books, such as Miss Pym Disposes (1946), The Franchise Affair (1948), and To Love and Be Wise (1950), in which either the death was unintentional or no death occurred. As the perpetrator in To Love and Be Wise remarks, 'It's a bit of an anti-climax, isn't it? To set out to kill someone and end with a breach of the peace.'
If, as I suspect, Van Dine did model Philo Vance on the early Peter Wimsey, I would have enjoyed seeing his reaction to the penultimate Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night (1935.) In it Sayers broke: Rule 3, a love story; Rule 7, no corpse; Rule 9, two detectives; Rule 11, a servant did it; Rule 16, exploring side-issues.
Sayers proved to be an equal opportunity author in her final Wimsey novel, Busman's Honeymoon (1937), when again a servant committed the crime. And in Five Red Herrings (1931), the death was tried as manslaughter rather than murder.
Also she bent Rule 20j in Have His Carcase (1932), when Wimsey and Harriet Vane decode a letter which has an important bearing on the plot.
Both Sayers and Christie use the identical twin motif in short stories.
In the 1920s and 1930s spiritualism and seances were popular both as a serious attempt by the bereaved to contact loved ones and as an entertainment. As well as short stories based on spiritualism, Christie uses seances and the ouija board to either set the scene for a murder, as in The Sittaford Mystery (1931) and Dumb Witness (1937); to obscure the truth: The Pale Horse (1961); or to startle a killer into confessing, as in Peril at End House (1932), which definitely breaks Van Dine's Rule 20b. Sayers also uses a phoney séance in Strong Poison (1930), although not to gain a  confession.
As for the Commandment/Rule that Knox and Van Dine agree about: that the detective or official investigator or character whose thoughts we have been in should not commit the crime. Both Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer had a police officer committing the crime: Christie in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Heyer in A Blunt Instrument (1938), but when it comes to breaking the record for contravening this Commandment and Rule, the prize must go to Agatha Christie. At the beginning of her career, with the narrating character in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); also with the narrating character of her dark, stand-alone novel, Endless Night (1967); and in Curtain (1975), the last Poirot novel, written at the height of her career and stored in a safe until near the end of her life.
I do not believe that any of the Golden Age greats deliberately went out of their way to break the rules, they just had fun playing with the permutations of the genre. Christie was particularly inventive, which meant that she broke the rules with exceptional panache. As Anthony Horowitz said of Christie, 'It is as if she was given five or six basic stitches and somehow used them to create the Bayeux Tapestry.' (Introduction to the Hercule Poirot Novels Collection published by the Folio Society.)
In the end keeping the rules or breaking them does not matter, it's the resulting book that counts. As AA Milne said in his 1926 prologue: 'The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I wanted to write it.'

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Right Voice for the Job: The First Person

When people talk about Narrative modes and Narrative Point of view it all sounds very complicated. Often it's instinctive. It's the choices of whether the story is told as 'I' or 'you' and whether it's in the Past Tense ('I said') or the Present Tense ('I say.')
Narrative modes in fiction are the methods that writers use to tell their stories. In other words, everything that encompasses basic storytelling elements.

Narrative Tense
Narrative Tense is when the story happens. Stories may be told in the Present Tense or in the Past Tense. The Past Tense is still the conventional tense for telling a story and many writers find it the easiest to handle. The Present Tense is more immediate, taking the reader into the heart of the protagonists' lives, combined with First Person point of view it can be incredibly powerful.

Narrative Point of View
The narrative point of view (POV) is the way of linking the narrator to the story.
If the reader doesn't feel interest, liking or empathy for the main characters (the narrating characters) they are unlikely to carry on reading.

In the First Person:
1.) The narrator refers to him or herself as I.
2.) Usually the I character is the protagonist, but that’s not essential.
3.) A story can feature multiple first-person narrators.
4.) The narrator is virtually always a character in the story (apart from stories told by a narrator who says that another person first told the story to him).

There are disadvantages with the First Person POV:
1.) It is hard to describe the narrating character without resorting to artificial strategies.
2.) The voice has to be right and the viewpoints expressed sympathetic. If not the First Person POV can irritate or alienate the reader.

There are many examples of First Person narratives, often a character telling a story where they are not the leading protagonist, such as Watson narrating the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Hastings describing Hercule Poirot's investigations.

The Fragility of Poppies is due to be published this summer (2015.) It is a crime novel but it has a large amount of relationship/romance in it too. The action is divided between Annie Evans' life as an artist and art tutor, and her husband, Rick Evans' life and work as a detective inspector. At times their lives run parallel, at times together and sometimes they collide.
When I started to write The Fragility of Poppies, I instinctively wrote in the First Person, Present Tense. At first I intended the whole book to be in Annie's voice but then I realised I needed Rick's First Person narration too.
The use of two First Person narrators, both speaking in the Present Tense, made an interesting challenge. The hardest thing was to make sure that the two voices were easily identifiable. It was also challenging to make the time-lines of the two narrating characters run concurrently.

These are two starts of chapters, about a third of the way into the book, after the reader has already met the narrating characters and their work. They are both set in the morning, at the start of a working day.

1.) Annie Evans: a teacher at a F.E. Art College.
I wake up too late to go home before work and I feel glad I’ve brought a suitable change of clothes, but when I walk into the departmental office I wish I'd skived off for the day. The atmosphere's distinctly nasty. Lucy is listing all the changes Maris has made and scowling at Neil, who has lost his usual indifference to her attitude. He's in a foul mood and holding his head at a funny angle, which actually isn't funny because he's obviously in pain.
"Where's Sara?" I ask.
"Off sick," says Neil. "She went home in tears because someone upset her."
I follow the direction of his glare. "Lucy, what did you say to her?"
"I merely commented on the state of her desk. That girl has no idea of order."
"She manages if she's left to work in her own way." For the money the College pays we can't expect better than Sara and, in the past, we've had a great deal worse. "Lucy we're grateful to you for stepping into the breach but I asked you to keep things running, not to close the departmental office. Sara isn't your responsibility."
I half expect her to walk out on us and, from the blistering look he's giving me, Neil thinks the same. Instead she gives me a grim smile and says, "So keep my nose out? Fair enough, I'll try."

2.) Rick Evans, Detective Inspector at Galmouth Police Station in the south of England
I wake up when they're well into the post-mortem. They've got to the bit that requires drilling through the centre of my head. The pain helps me suss out I'm not dead and whoever's doing the drilling is doing it from inside. I make it to my feet, do an urgent pit-stop at the cloakroom, then out to the kitchen. I drink half a gallon of water followed by black, sweet, instant coffee and manage to choke down paracetamol.

When I get to the Incident Room, Roebuck sends for me. He looks down his nose like he's trying to decide what stone I was under before I crawled into his office.
"You're late."
"Sorry, sir.”
He glares at me and I think he's going to take me off the case. I don’t want that, not until we know about the kid and whether the link to Elmwash is for real. To my surprise he says, "I've got two important jobs for you. The Family Support Officer has had to take some leave. Can you liaise with the Frewers until she gets back?"
"Yes sir." That's shoving me right into the heart of the case.
"And there's something else. You know the Elmwash investigation inside out. I want you to interview the witnesses in this case and review the evidence to see if you can spot anything significant."
"Significant, sir?"
"Anything that ties this in with the Elmwash case."
"The Elmwash killer's dead."
"No, Ernest Clift is dead. I trust you'll approach this with an open mind. Take Detective Constable Kelly with you, it's best to have a woman on the job."
What would he know about having a woman on the job? “Yes sir.”

Monday, 1 June 2015

Ronald Knox (1888-1957)

In the early 1970s I was studying at Bristol University and my degree was in theology. I enjoyed reading Christie and Sayers and the other well known authors of the Golden Age, but it seems strange to me that I was aware of Knox as a theologian decades before I realised he wrote detective stories. As part of my preparation for the Bath Spa Crime Fiction Conference, I wrote this article about Knox, first published in Mystery People.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was born in Leicestershire into a high church Anglican family. His father Edmund Arbuthnott Knox became Bishop of Manchester. Knox was the youngest of four academically clever sons, and it can be argued that he was the most brilliant of them all. Knox was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won the first classics scholarship as well as graduating with First Class Honours. It is interesting to note that Dorothy L. Sayers' fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was educated at Eton and Balliol, where he graduated with a First in history. The birth date attributed to Wimsey is 1890, which would make him a slightly younger contemporary of Knox.
Knox was a brilliant classicist and won numerous prizes and scholarships. In 1910 he became a fellow of Trinity College, but could not begin tutorials until 1911, and so accepted a position as classics tutor to the young Harold Macmillan. Although Knox was later dismissed by Macmillan's mother, who disliked his high-church convictions, Knox and Macmillan remained good friends for the rest of Knox's life.
In 1912 Knox was ordained as an Anglican priest and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College. In 1917 he had to leave this position when he left the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic. This must have been an immensely hard decision, involving both his spiritual journey and the severe disruption and distress it caused to his family; Knox's father and one of his brothers were Anglican priests. In response to his conversion, Knox's father disinherited him, cutting him out of his will. Knox joined the teaching staff of Shrewsbury School, where the staff was severely depleted by teachers serving in the First World War. During the War, Knox also served in Army intelligence, (another point in common with Lord Peter Wimsey.)
In 1918 Knox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and joined the staff of St Edmund's College in Hertfordshire, where he remained until 1926. From 1926-1939 he served as Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford. In 1936 he was honoured by the Pope with the title of Monsignor, which gave him the status of being a member of the Papal household.
Throughout his adult life, Knox wrote, lectured  and broadcast on Christianity and many other subjects. He became one of the most respected and influential theologians of the first half of the 20th Century. He was also a very successful satirist. In his 1911 lecture Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, Knox set out to parody the German School's influential Biblical analysis by applying its methods to the stories of Sherlock Holmes. The German School picked apart the text of the Bible in obsessive detail, fretting over minor inconsistencies. Knox used these same methods to parody a critical study of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, claiming that, after the death of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, Watson became prey to drink and delusion and, unable to make a living as a doctor, 'made up' the later Holmes' stories. Knox intended to mock the German School's method and the obsession of the fans of Sherlock Holmes, but many Holmes fans simply took the lecture at face value, using it as the foundation for their own intense study of the stories. Conan Doyle also missed the joke. After the lecture was published, he wrote Knox a four page letter discussing the points he had made and refuting his criticism. In the end it seems that the joke was on Knox, because, for the next thirty years, Knox was assumed to be an authority on Holmes, and was regularly approached by editors hoping he'd agree to review the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure. In his biography The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959) Evelyn Waugh reports Knox's response to one such request: 'I can't BEAR books about Sherlock Holmes. It is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.'
Knox's reaction to pretension was always to satirise it. When he was irritated by the various 'conspiracy theories' that claimed that Shakespeare had not written his plays he included in his Essays on Satire (1928) an essay called The Authorship of In Memoriam,'which pretends to believe that Tennyson's great poem was written by Queen Victoria.
On 16th January 1926, Knox's mischievous humour spread into his broadcasting career, when he enlivened one of his regular BBC Radio programmes with a simulated live report of revolution sweeping across London. The broadcast was called Broadcasting from the Barricades and had fake reports of a Government minister being lynched and the Savoy Hotel, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben being destroyed. Knox's broadcast coincided with a snowy weekend, preventing many national newspapers being delivered, and it caused panic throughout the country. The broadcast had been prefaced by a statement that this was a work of humour and imagination and contains numerous ridiculous references that should have made it clear that this was a joke. However, not all listeners tuned in at the beginning of the broadcast, indeed many were turning on for the programme after Knox's and only caught alarming and authentic sounding snatches of the report. It is clear that Knox did not intend to deceive: he gives his characters ridiculous names and ludicrous jobs. The rioters' ringleader, Mr Popplebury, is described as 'Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.' The unfortunate Mr Wotherspoon, the minister lynched and left dangling from a lamp-post is described as 'Minister of Traffic', a post which did not exist. Knox and Lord Reith (the head of the BBC) both believed that he had delivered sufficient clues that this was a spoof, but this was a rather naïve assumption, not improved by the excuse offered by Knox's brother talking to the Daily Sketch, 'I am inclined to think my brother over-estimated the people's sense of humour.' The First World War had ended only eight years previously and many people were still suffering from the distress and damage it had caused. This was a period of political and civil unrest, when both Government and people were afraid of the perceived threat of Communism and Socialism. Four months later the country would be disrupted by workers claiming their right to fair pay and decent working conditions by holding the General Strike. Added to this, people were not accustomed to 'special effects' as they have been in more recent generations. Above all, people believed the report because it was a broadcast by the highly respected and trusted BBC and the broadcaster was a highly respected academic and priest. There is some evidence that Knox's Behind the Barricades was the inspiration for an even greater radio deception, Orson Welles' radio broadcast The War of the Worlds (1938.)
In 1925 Knox published his first book of detective fiction, The Viaduct Murder. It tells the story of four golfing friends who discover the body of another member of their golf club under a railway viaduct and decide to investigate because, as one explains, 'I've got the greatest respect for the police as a body, but I don't think they're very good at following up clues.' The Viaduct Murder is a long and somewhat tedious book, with no real engagement with the characters involved.
The Three Taps (1927) is the first of Knox's books to feature Miles Bredon, who became his sleuth for the rest of his detective writing career. Like Knox, Bredon was an Intelligence Officer in the war; he is now an investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company (Knox used his sharpest satire against such institutions.) In The Three Taps his task is to investigate whether a death is suicide, accident or foul play. He is accompanied in his investigations by his old wartime friend, Police Inspector Leyland, (other members of the police force are conspicuous by their absence) and by Bredon's long-suffering wife, Angela.
In Evelyn Waugh's biography of Knox, he explains that he regarded his detective books, 'as intellectual exercises; a game between reader and writer in which a problem was precisely stated and elaborately disguised. He was not seeking to write novels. He had no concern with the passions of the murderer, the terror of the victim, or the moral enormity of the crime.' This lack of passion does come through the writing and the interest in reading Knox's detective stories lies in who committed the crime and how it was done, not in a deep involvement with the characters. That said, the plots are ingenious and intriguing, and worth reading for the relationship between Miles Bredon and Angela, which is charming and full of banter. Aside from paid detection, Miles Bredon's main interests are golf and playing long and complicated games of Patience. He is very preoccupied with the concern that his employment as a private investigator has damaged his status as a 'gentleman.' In his relationship with Leyland, the police detective is very much the junior and subservient. When Bredon declares that he will not share all the information he has gathered on a case that he is not employed to investigate because he is staying as a guest in a house with several of the suspects, Leyland assures him that he understands and asks humbly if he will pass on what he can. When Wimsey raises similar reservations, Detective Inspector Parker is far less sympathetic about his friend's sensibilities. On the whole, Angela Bredon is more forthright with her husband than his other friends and associates tend to be, but then, as Knox records, the strength of this relationship depends on the fact that Bredon 'did not realize that his wife was a tiny bit cleverer than he was, and was always conspiring for his happiness behind his back.' (The Three Taps, 1927.) Certainly Angela Bredon is an attractive and strong character, and the witty exchanges between Angela and Miles light up the books.
Knox was a man of great humour and wit, which he brought to his work as a broadcaster, writer and teacher. His acerbic wit is a quality that he gave to his fictional creation, Miles Bredon. It is easy to imagine Bredon describing a baby as 'a loud noise at one end, and no sense of responsibility at another.' And, if Bredon had cause to ponder on the length of a good sermon, he would certainly agree with Knox that 'a good sermon should be like a woman's skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.'
One of Knox's great qualities as a writer was his exquisite descriptive prose. His skill at setting the scene is incomparable, whether it is an exciting night journey or an early morning awakening to the news of a tragic death. In The Body in the Silo (1933), Knox uses his descriptive powers to change the feeling of the book from playful excitement to ominous dread. 'There was no doubt about the thrill of this midnight chase, though it was all 'pretend' and Bredon's car had before now taken the road at this pace on sterner errands. Shadows of haystacks, of cattle in hedges, loomed enormous; startled rabbits made the pace for a few yards, and disappeared at the last moment into the long grass; late-retiring householders looked out in angry décolleté, from their windows; straggling villages seemed interminable in the dark.' … 'It was none of your bright mornings, full of sunshine and cockcrow and fresh smells of earth. The heat had brought up a heavy dew, which wreathed the garden in fantastic shapes of mist; the opposite bank of the river showed faint and unsubstantial, the air was breathless, still charged with heat, but unpropitious to clean thoughts and the melody of birds. They went out as if into an evil fairyland.'
From 1928 onwards, a group of prominent detective novelists agreed to meet and discuss their craft.
Also in 1928 Knox wrote the Ten Commandments of detective fiction. As with so much of Knox's work and life, the Ten Commandments are a mixture of dry humour and serious directions. The tongue-in-cheek title shows that he was approaching them with a fair proportion of satire. Most of the Commandments are irrelevant to 21st Century crime fiction and many of them were broken by Knox's own contemporaries in The Detective Club. It could be argued that Knox himself did not always stick strictly to the spirit of the Commandments but they are interesting to consider as part of the history of detective fiction.
Knox's Ten Commandments:
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
In 1930 the gathering of like-minded writers became formally known as The Detective Club. G.K. Chesterton was the first president and Knox was one of the founder members. Chesterton and Knox were close friends for many years and both had been converts to the Roman Catholic faith. When Chesterton died in 1836, the sermon at his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral was delivered by Knox. It is ironic that Chesterton's iconic detective, Father Brown, was a Roman Catholic priest but was unlike Knox in so many ways. Father Brown was a parish priest, humble and unassuming in manner until issues of justice or spiritual well-being required him to act; he was short, shabby and unimposing. Knox never served a parish; he was a man of imposing appearance, swift wit and academic distinction, a friend of high-born and powerful people. In fact, on his last visit to London, Knox stayed with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at 10 Downing Street. It is an even greater irony that Father Brown is remembered by crime readers everywhere, while Knox is remembered chiefly as a Roman Catholic theologian.
Between 1925 and 1937, Knox wrote six detective novels, all but the first of these featured Miles Bredon. He also wrote three books of short stories and three collaborative works with other members of the Detection Club.
Knox was concerned that the Church authorities disapproved of his detective fiction, and when his close friend and patron Lady Acton also showed her disapproval he gave up writing crime fiction. The popular story is that Lady Acton demonstrated her disapproval by throwing a copy of his last book, Double Cross Purposes (1937) overboard into the Mediterranean. Knox also gave up his chaplaincy at Oxford University and became Lady Acton's chaplain at her family seat in Shropshire. Here he concentrated on his greatest work of theology, his translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate. This was the work he truly cared about and which mattered far more to him than his detective stories.
Knox died of cancer in 1957. After a requiem mass in Westminster Cathedral, he was buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells.

The Body in the Silo
by Ronald Knox
The book opens with a lively exchange of views between Miles Bredon and his wife, Angela, regarding whether they should go and visit some acquaintances on the Welsh border.
'”It's no use,” said Miles Bredon. “The man's a bore and the woman's a pest, and if I did ever say I'd go there I must have been drunk at the time. Let us leave it at that.”... “You were, rather, as far as I can remember,” admitted Angela. “I can't always wait until you come round. The pity is that I didn't give you an extra glass to lay you out, put you straight in the car, and decant you at the Hallifords' there and then. A sensible wife would always cart her husband about the country in a sack.”'
Angela has her way and they go off on their visit. Lost in country lanes they are advised by villagers to look for the silo, a formidable landmark, '”Like as it might be a church tower.”' Following this advice they come upon 'a large building made like a lighthouse, forty feet high, with no windows, except a skylight in its conical top, no door, and indeed no opening at all except on one side, where a series of square hatches, one above another, led right up to the roof.' Their host, Mr Halliford, is playing at being a farmer and the silo is his favourite toy. The vast building is filled with grass and hay, which ferments and provides food for the cattle in winter. It can be a dangerous place, as the fermenting grass gives off carbon gases, and being trapped inside the silo can be fatal.
The entertainment is as dire as Bredon fears. Previously having made herself and her guests loathed throughout the countryside with scavenger hunts, Mrs Halliford is determined to hold an eloping hunt, where an 'eloping' couple are pursued in cars through the countryside and towns. In order to maintain authenticity, she insists that this has to be at night. This programme is put into action and, in an atmosphere of artificially created excitement, the hunt takes place. The pursuers travel either as married couples or singly, and one non-driver elects to stay at home. This means that nobody has an independent alibi when, the next morning, a body is discovered in the silo, having died of carbon gas poisoning.
The Coroner brings in a verdict of Accidental Death but Bredon has grave doubts about its validity. These are strengthened when his friend, Inspector Leyland of Scotland Yard turns up and is keeping covert surveillance on the Halliford household. Despite his objection to investigating a family with whom he is staying as a guest, Bredon cannot resist a mystery and is soon on the trail of clues, many of which were laid deliberately to mislead.
The Body in the Silo is a whodunnit, with few clues in the characters of the suspects but all the physical clues are meticulously offered to the reader so that they can try to solve the puzzle for themselves. The problem in intriguing and the interaction between Miles and Angela Bredon is warm and amusing. It is an interesting read for lovers of classic Golden Age crime fiction.

Kindle: ASIN: B0094IXYJI
The Body in the Silo is back in print but it is expensive for a paperback.
Publisher: The Murder Room (31 Jan. 2013)
ISBN: 978-1471900457