Being, as I am, a fan of English Literature from previous centuries, especially of Pride & Prejudice and golden age detective stories, something I couldn’t help but note is that if anyone was near London (or another big city), going to plays was a common form of entertainment. Something else I’ve learned, in doing research about early detective stories, is that a lot of detective stories and tropes seem to be from plays more than novels.
Putting these together, I’ve begun to wonder whether plays were not, speaking broadly, the television of yesteryear.
In my own experience of plays, these are either some of the cream of English writing, as in the case of Shakespeare, or else are at least fairly time-tested things that are quite expensive and one travels a long distance to see. But plays are not generally talked of that way in earlier British fiction; they were as often a spur-of-the-moment thing as planned, and if planned, just an alternative to something like having people over for dinner. What is, or at least was, talked of like this in my experience is television.
Further, there are parallels. People usually didn’t seem to expect the plays to be very good, and they really didn’t expect them to last. And, indeed, most plays did not. As far as I can tell, the typical play had a short run in a small theater, and then everyone local had seen it and they’d move on.
If this is the case, it makes sense that plays would be frequently formulaic, since they were written on tight schedules and without any expectation of being remembered, and so it would be possible for the theater critic in the story What, No Butler? to say that in all the plays he saw, the butler always did it. (I’ve got a bunch of posts about the trope that the butler did it, btw.) This would be a lot like saying that in Murder, She Wrote the businessman’s wife did it. (There is, by the way, a hilarious formula for a typical Murder, She Wrote episode that illustrates some of what I’m talking about.)
Obviously, there are differences between plays back in the day and television today, even apart from the technology. Television shows have long runs of consistent characters, and occasionally the episodes try to be consistent with each other. (After Babylon 5, it became common to have a “show arc” where there was a long-running story that would make up some and occasionally all of each episode. In a sense these are just a return to the days of the serials, though.)
That said, I think that this might be a useful interpretive key to understanding the attitudes characters would show toward plays in older literature. Even more importantly, I think, it suggests that when trying to work out the development of genres like mystery, it means that by not having access to many of the plays people were seeing, we’re lacking one of the major influences on writers of the novels and short stories that we do have access to. In some ways, it might be like, in the future, trying to understand the development of Science Fiction through the present time without having seen Star Trek or Babylon 5. People who, in the early 2000s, write science fiction novels certainly have seen these influential things and moreover expect that their audiences to have seen them, too. It would be interesting to get a hold of some of those short-lived detective plays from the 1900s.
The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.
The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.
His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.
He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.
The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.
Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.
Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.
Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.
Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.
It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.
The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.
Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.
They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.
I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.
There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”
What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.
Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.
“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”
Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.
“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”
Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.
And there the episode ends.
Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.
She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.
Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.
Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.
This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:
I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes. But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.
I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.
Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:
Clouds of Witness
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
The Five Red Herrings
Have His Carcase
Murder Must Advertise
The Nine Tailors
The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.
What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.
None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.
To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.
I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.
While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.
One of the things which I disliked about the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris, is that all of the principal characters were Materialists. (For those not familiar: materialism, in this sense, is the belief that the only thing which exists is matter and its interactions; it denies things like God, the soul, free will, etc.) While the characters were not religious in the first book, it was far more explicit here and the book was, in consequence, less enjoyable.
The main problem with Materialists as detectives is that their position is a false one with regard to the main activities of a detective. A detective detects, yes, but for a purpose. In a mystery, the world has become corrupted through the wrong use of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore the world to its proper order through the right use of reason. It is true that detective stories sometimes aimed to be pure puzzles, as if they were a long-form version of a logic problem where “The baker is sitting next to the red haired man, and across from Sally”. That is simply false, though. The moment that there are characters who are moving through time, they must have motives; they must have a theory of the world and be acting according to it or against it, and thinking well of themselves or being self-reproachful. In short, once you have characters not not mere chess-pieces, they must be human. They might be failed human beings, as in the classic creature of pure habit who goes to work, comes home, watches TV until it’s bedtime, and repeats the process every day merely because it is his habit, with no more thought than we can perceive a rabbit gives to munching grass. But the very fact of telling us what a man does during the day tells us what he doesn’t do, by exclusion. In short, the pure puzzle does not work.
The Materialist cannot do anything other than a pure puzzle. To the Materialist, a human being is merely a clump of matter that happens to be more interesting than an equally sized clod of dirt for reasons of pure sentimentality. The mystery cannot actually be a problem, to the Materialist, because he has no theory of the world in which one organization of matter is superior to any other. He cannot be restoring the world to its proper order because it has no proper order. The Materialist, in truth, has no reason to do one thing instead of another; all he has are the tendencies he has inherited from men who did have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
This problem is exacerbated in The Eye of Osiris because the person whom Dr. Thorndyke is helping cannot pay Dr. Thorndyke’s fee. Some reason must be put forth for Dr. Thorndyke helping, and since charity is not a permissible reason, as Materialists may neither give nor receive charity for reasons a little too involved to go into here, Dr. Thorndyke is in the absurd position of insisting that he is not in the least helping the old man intentionally, but purely as a by-product of satisfying his own curiosity in the case. In fact, he goes so far as to reject the old man’s thanks.
This is reasonably true to life; Materialists cannot actually exist in society with other Materialists, because their mutual philosophy leaves no room for human beings. It is not, however, interesting. The wretched state of the Materialist is true, so in that sense the book does embody a truth about real life, but it is an unpleasant truth. Unpleasant truths are not what we look for in mystery novels. We look to mystery novels, not for the temporary truth that the world has fallen, but for the eternal truth that the world has been saved. It’s hard enough to remember in this world of sin and woe; we don’t need our reminders of it to make it harder to remember.
I am a big fan of Murder, She Wrote. I watched it very fondly as a kid, and I own the DVD box set of all 12 seasons. I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am a fan. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the thoughts I am going to relate.
One of the really weird things, that’s obvious to me now that I’m watching it as an adult, is that Jessica Fletcher is a weirdly libertine scold. She absolutely deplores violence, and also murder. She also has absolutely no patience for selling drugs. Other than that, she really doesn’t care what people do and will smile at just about anything.
This is odd for several reasons, not the least of which is how completely at odds this is with her background. Jessica is a retired school teacher from a small town in New England. This is a place where people are expected to pull their weight and screwing over friends and family for personal selfishness is frowned upon. The sort of selfishness involved in cheating on a spouse, prostitution, casual sex, leaving someone to move to a big city and follow ones dreams, and the like—these are the sorts of things which city-folk don’t care about, in part because half of them have done these things and the other half expect that they will in the not too-distant future. These aren’t part of the things small-town America approves of because they see the damage they cause.
Another odd thing about this is Jessica Fletcher’s age. She was a retired schoolteacher, which means that she had to have been in at least her late 50s in 1984 (the shows are contemporary). The latest she could have been born would have been around the year 1930. (Angela Lansbury was born in 1925, and was generally about the age of Jessica Fletcher.) A woman who grew up in small-town America in the 1930s and was a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been someone who instinctively approved of fornication, adultery, infidelity, and selfishness.
It may be objected that we normally see Jessica take in all of these acts unphased during an investigation, when, as a detective, she needs the confidence of the people she’s pumping for evidence. This might work if she weren’t willing to turn scold if one of the few things which offended her popped up. Moreover, she never scolds anyone about these things after the investigation, though she will scold them, then, for murder and violence.
This is most easily attributed, of course, to the loose morality of the people writing Murder, She Wrote. They, being in Hollywood, didn’t really disapprove of much of anything at all, though at times they were obliged to pretend to. That said, if we refrain from drawing back the curtain and only consider the work of fiction on its own terms, Jessica Fletcher is a very strange character.
Murder, She Wrote, for all that it’s fun, is often corny, though I admit it with great reluctance. That Jessica Fletcher was never given any actual principles, which is to say that she was never given any definite beliefs about the meaning of life and the attendant consequences of that, is I think what really kept the show from ever being great. She is, in a certain way, a direct descendant of the early detectives, who were often supposed to be mere calculating machines with legs. She had traits, but never really a personality.
I think that this is a great pity, though I doubt that it could have been otherwise in American television in the 1980s.
So, I’ve read the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris. I didn’t entirely expect to do that, but I was curious how Dr. Freeman introduced the inverted detective story (“howchatchem” as opposed to “whodunnit”). I didn’t find out, though, because it turns out that he didn’t do it in this novel, either. The villain was relatively obvious, but his identity was not revealed until the second to last chapter.
I doubt that there is a point to spoiler warnings on works so old that they were published before any reader of this blog post was born. Moreover, if one wants to read the story The Eye of Osiris in a state of total ignorance as to what the next page carries, it seems improbably in the extreme that one would read a blog post with that title, and whose first paragraph purports to be about that very book. That said, if such is your aim, dear reader, stop reading this post and go read the book.
Rather to my surprise, The Eye of Osiris is narrated, not by Dr. Jervis, but by another doctor whose name I forget. Whereas Jervis was unemployed and came into the employ of Dr. Thorndyke, this doctor—his name is Berkeley, I just looked it up—is filling in for another doctor, who owns a private practice, and who is now on vacation. Dr. Berkeley is young, and was taught in school by Thorndyke, which is how he knows him. Other than these variations, he fulfills much the same role that Dr. Jervis did in the first book. It is for Dr. Berkeley to become a friend of the household, to extract information about it from passing conversation, and to fall in love with the beautiful and intelligent young lady who lives in it. Dr. Jervis, presumably now married to the beautiful and intelligent young lady from the household of the previous case, has precious little to do in this story. This will sound more significant when the reader understands that about a third of each book is taken up with its respective doctor falling in love with its respective lady.
The mystery, itself, is interesting, though the chief of the mystery isn’t really who did it—there are only two plausible suspects, and one of them swears that the other didn’t know about the will which could be his only motive. To give the barest summary of the plot: a rich man, John Bellingham, called on his cousin, Mr. Hurst, after a month-long overseas trip, but when Hurst came home and checked in his study, Bellingham was not there despite the maid not seeing him leave. Hurst rushed over to Bellingham’s layer, Mr. Jellicoe, and together they went to Bellingham’s brother’s house, where Jellicoe found a scarab Bellingham always wore on his watch chain. Two years later, bones from an apparently dismembered body started showing up in pools and rivers in an area near to where the missing man’s house was. John Bellingham’s will left a few thousand pounds to Mr. Jellicoe, who shared Bellingham’s interest in egyptology, and left the bulk of his estate to his brother if he was burried within his family parish and to Mr. Hurst if he was not burried there. This bizarre will caused much confusion and trouble.
It’s fairly clear from the description—which also involved Mr. Jellicoe being the last person to see John Bellingham alive before his trip—that it was Mr. Jellicoe who committed the crime. Murderers really should be more careful than to find chance evidence themselves. (It was also clear that when “Mr Bellingham” called on his cousin after his trip, no one who would recognize him actually saw him.) What is unclear, though, is why the body was cut up into so many pieces, and why it was done with medical precision—it was severed in places an anatomist might sever it, and moreover it was done without any scratching on the bones. Why did the murderer take such care to dissect his victim?
Having some experience of butchering large vertebrates (deer), and hence being familiar with why one would cut the arm with the shoulder blade rather than at the ball joint, I partially guessed at the answer: the victim had done a good deal of rotting prior to his body being dissected. It turns out that the egyptology was more relevant to the plot than one might have suspected, and the body was not that of John Bellingham but instead a mummy which Bellingham had gifted to the British museum. John Bellingham’s corpse had been concealed within the cartonnage that concealed the mummy.
The grand reveal, here, was done with x-ray photography of the mummy, revealing various features of John Bellingham such as a tattoo of the eye of Osiris on his chest as well as silver wire in his kneecaps from when they were surgically repaired after being broken. I think that this was a much more exciting reveal in 1911, a mere 16 years after x-rays were discovered and while they were still very much in their infancy as a technology.
Overall, The Eye of Osiris is a somewhat strange book. It’s enjoyable to read, though I did find myself skimming some of the more melodramatic parts of the romantic plot. Dr. Jervis, who was the best developed character in the first book, barely appears. Even Dr. Thorndyke shows up less than he did in The Red Thumb Mark. The scientific evidence, which in this case essentially means the medical evidence—is emphasized to an enormous degree over all other kinds of evidence. I suppose that this makes a certain amount of sense with a doctor both as the actual writer and the fictional writer of the story, but medical evidence tends to be the least interesting sort of evidence there is, with the possible exception of accounting evidence. And then there is the very strange ending where the crime is revealed, not to be murder, but merely to be concealing the body of a man who died by accident, together with casting suspicion upon innocent people for the murder of the man who wasn’t murdered. This was a very strange decision, since the book goes to some lengths to show just how uncaring of his fellow creatures Mr. Jellicoe was, but then instead of the strange events being the plot of Jellicoe they are merely his best attempt to avoid being convicted of murder for the accidental death of his friend.
I should note, though, that The Eye of Osiris, like The Red Thumb Mark before it, has the occasional clever wordplay. In fact, it may have a bit more of it. For example, in a probate court in which an interested party is trying to get John Bellingham declared dead:
“…As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application [to presume death] is based on the circumstances of the disappearance which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness.”
Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that, “It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely.”
I doubt that I would recommend The Eye of Osiris to anyone, though neither would I counsel anyone to not read it. It is pleasant enough and is, at least, curious as an element of history.
I recently paid approximately $10 to get a copy of a chapter that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in the book Titles To Fame, which is an anthology book in which “Ten eminent novelists … give us the ‘biographies’ of their most successful books” (supposedly, according to the forward). I applied to and filled out a form with the Marion E. Wade Center to get the copy of that chapter. It was a most curious feeling, finding a document mostly forgotten that sheds insight into a subject which is not forgotten.
There was even a certain fitting aspect to this, in that the chapter is about the book Gaudy Night, which is about scholarship, and its plot even turns on a document which was found and stolen in a remote library. Further, Harriet’s cover story for her presence in Oxford is research into the life of the victorian era novelist Sheridan Le Fanu. (Le Fanu was an Irishman best known for ghost stories; I’ve only been able to find a little bit about his mystery stories, and I’m not sure, from the descriptions I’ve seen, that they’re really in the same sort of genre as what we commonly call mystery, i.e. where there is a detective and an explanation to which the reader comes to know. I suppose I will need to find some of his works and actually read them to find out for myself. That said, as an interesting tidbit, Le Fanu was writing primarily from the 1830s to the 1870s; Harriet investigating him in 1935 is actually rather like me researching Dorothy L. Sayers now, that is, in the year of our Lord 2020.)
I’m going to write at least one post and possibly several on the contents of the chapter. For the moment, I just wanted to mention the curious feeling that accompanies digging up things which have been mostly lost to time. It’s got a certain exhilaration to it which is often rendered accurately in golden age mysteries which feature Egyptologists and archaeologists more generally.
An extremely common feature of golden age detective mysteries is the presence of servants in a household. They acted as witnesses for the police, to place people at the scene of a crime as well as to provide alibis. They were also invaluable sources of information when discretely pumped. It is very difficult to come up with any modern equivalent, though, at least outside of exceedingly rich households.
In real life, servants occupied a curious niche in British culture during the early 1900s; with the rise of the middle class servants were relatively commonplace, since the middle class was comparatively wealthy and the transition from farms to a modern economy was still underway, supplying a large number of people who had few specialized skills but just as much need to earn a living as anyone else. This made servants affordable, and the middle class’s pretensions to be like the aristocracy, combined with a lack of the modern labor-saving devices, made servants indispensable of one could at all employ them.
From the detective writer’s perspective, they were enormously valuable, since they lived intimately with families to whom they rarely had any great allegiance. A brother might lie to protect a brother, or a mother her son, but there was no reason to suppose that a valet would lie to protect his master or a cook to protect her mistress. I can’t recall a single instance of anyone supposing that a charwoman would so much as j-walk for an employer.
In books, servants were not omniscient; it was possible to fool them or even to hide a body on the premises and dispose of it without their seeing. Neither were they disloyal. They would answer the questions of the police, so far as they were legally obliged to, but they did, in general, hold that repeating what they saw to strangers was no business of theirs. Discretion was important no less in maids than in doctors. However close to reality this was, it was plausible—if for no other reason than in keeping with other fiction from the timer period—and phenomenally useful to the detective writer.
The writers of mysteries has two opposing problems, and they arise out of the two principle characters of the mystery story. On the one hand, there must be sufficient evidence of the crime that the detective can detect it. On the other hand, there must be sufficiently little evidence of the crime that the murderer is willing to commit the crime at all. The near-ubiquity of servants, combined with their limitations, answer this need quite admirably, which goes a long way to explaining how frequently they showed up for the purpose.
Times have changed and servants no longer make any economic sense, outside of the homes of the unbelievably rich. The most significant factor here is that the transition in farming is mostly complete. In the United States, approximately 2% of the population are farmers; mechanization has taken its toll and the toll has been paid. Immigrants do supply a small stream of unspecialized labor, but even here the economy as a whole has developed enough jobs for people who can learn specialized skills that they do not concentrate in any particular industry. Even where they do show up in service jobs, these service jobs tend to be done on a contract basis. People no longer employ gardeners but lawn services. People rarely have maids though they may have a cleaning service. Much of the work a maid might do has been rendered doable in a short time by a washing machine, a dryer, or a vacuum cleaner. In short, live-in servants are no longer plausible. Are there any other professions which might fill the role?
I fear that, for the most part, there are not. Where people congregate they tend to pack in too closely, for the sake of efficiency, to make it easy for someone to slip something by the witnesses. Where people do not congregate, they tend to live only with people whose testimony is worthless for an alibi.
There are, of course, exceptions. Resorts will have people who work at them and at least temporarily live there, but who live in sufficiently low density that they will not observe everything which goes on. Museums, art galleries, libraries and the like also (sometimes) have approximately the right density of impartial witnesses, though they tend to be closed outside of business hours and over-packed with guests during business hours. That said, they will have slack times, of course. There are also some academic settings, such as a laboratory, that may work for the purpose, too.
All of these substitutes will have their peculiarities that will, perforce, change the stories set with them. This is no disaster, but it will make some of the spirit of the golden age mysteries harder to recapture because part of that spirit was the ordinariness that the extraordinary events took place in. One cannot make an extraordinary setting feel ordinary. Even if an volcanic observation post has the same density of impartial witnesses that a Victorian home might, it will need to be filled with the sort of odd people who might live an work in a volcanic observation post. Nearly anyone might be forced into the circumstances which make a job as a cook the only job they can get, but few people are forced by the need to avoid starvation into being a librarian. Modern writers, if we try to recapture the atmosphere of golden age mysteries, are forced to turn the characters who in the original would have been comic relief into everymen. Circumstances having changed, we must work very hard to have both the circumstances and the humanity that golden age mysteries had.
For those who started reading in more recent years, back in 2016, I did a series of posts on the old trope, The Butler Did it. I put a bunch of time into researching it, and it turned out that the butler may have done it, but he didn’t do it very often. This series started with my post, The Butler Did It?
You can read the rest on the tag the butler did it. I went through the stories I could find by searching which actually had a butler as the villain, as well as one radio play.
The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.
Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.
Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.
It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.
The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.
I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:
“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.
“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.
Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.
“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.
“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”
He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.
“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”
By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.
“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”
“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”
“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”
There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.
“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.
“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”
He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.
As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)
Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.
There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.
I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).
I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.
Since there was a printing of it that only cost $4 on Amazon, I bought a copy of The Red Thumb Mark, which was originally published in 1907 and has since fallen out of copyright. It has, perhaps, the largest pages I’ve ever seen in a novel, being likely to be the largest size of paper that whichever print-on-demand printer was used could print upon. On these extremely large pages, the story ran only 100 pages, exactly, and it was interesting because it gave something of the feel of reading a magazine rather than a book. This might have made the experience more authentic, as many novels were first printed as serials in a magazine, except I cannot discover that The Red Thumb Mark was one of them. I was forced to settle for faux-authenticity, much as one may still gain from velour some hint of that richness of true velvet.
The Red Thumb Mark was the first novel by R. Austin Freeman containing his famous-in-the-golden-age detective, Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. I had expected, on the basis of what I read about the Dr. Thorndyke novels both in Wikipedia and Masters of Mystery, to find it very dry. It was, admittedly, a little long on the scientific evidence, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite enjoyable. Also, it turns out that Dr. Freeman (R. Austin Freeman was, himself, a medical doctor) invented the inverted detective story after The Red Thumb Mark, for The Red Thumb Mark is a conventional whodunnit, if one that places greater emphasis upon the evidence than the culprit, makes it fairly clear by about a third of the way into the book who actually committed the crime, and whose reveal of the real criminal was anticlimactic, with no actual reveal to any of the people principally concerned who did it.
The story is narrated by Dr. Christopher Jervis, an out-of-work doctor who, in a chance meeting, comes across an old schoolmate who he had not seen in a long time—Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. While Jervis had fallen upon evil times and was unemployed, Thorndyke had stumbled into a most unusual occupation, being an admixture of a private consulting detective and a scientific expert hired to give testimony in court cases. During the course of their dinner a client comes in and dumps upon Thorndyke the case of the red thumb mark, from which the story draws its title, and Thorndyke hires Jervis to do investigative work for him, and provides him with living space while he does this work. Thorndyke also has a manservant, Polton, who both cooks his meals and assists him in the lab.
We have, then, a setup much like that of Sherlock Holmes—we have the bachelor quarters, Thorndyke as Holmes, of course; in Polton a Mrs. Hudson; and in Dr. Jervis a Dr. Watson. The story is written by Dr. Jervis in a similar sort of first-person, retrospective perspective to the way that Dr. Watson wrote his memoirs of his great detective. Described in this manner it seems very derivative, and of course, it was. The first Sherlock Holmes story was A Study in Scarlet in 1887, but supposedly it was not until the first short stories were published in Strand Magazine in 1891 that Holmes became wildly popular. Curiously, it was only two years later, in December of 1893, that Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in The Final Problem. It took Conan Doyle until 1903 to write The Adventure of the Empty House and bring back Sherlock Holmes from the Reichenbach falls, a scant 4 years before The Red Thumb Mark was published. The stories which made up The Return of Sherlock Holmes were published in 1903-1904, and it would not be until 1908 that more Holmes stories were forthcoming.
In this context, with Holmes having become wildly popular 16 years before and killed off 13 years before (that is, three years after becoming popular), with a collection of new stories finally coming out four years before and with no promise of more on the horizon, detective stories which were highly derivative of Sherlock Holmes were probably quite welcome. What people really want is not originality, but good stories; this is why, as the saying goes, mediocrity borrows and genius steals. I think this might be very analogous to how, in the aftermath of Star Wars, there was a spate of science fiction movies and especially novels which fans eagerly devoured. If you can’t get more of the original, something very similar is much better than nothing.
In The Red Thumb Mark, I think this is much more a case of genius stealing than mediocrity borrowing; Dr. Freeman makes the characters he created individuals. They are clearly inspired by the characters from the Holmes stories, but they are not copies of them. Dr. Thorndyke is highly rational, but is not the cold, calculating machine that Holmes is. Dr. Jervis is clearly not as brilliant as Dr. Thorndyke, but he is both more competent and more of a character than is Dr. Thorndyke. Indeed, in The Red Thumb Mark, at least, Jervis has far more “screen time” than Thorndyke. He makes some worthwhile deductions, and even gets praised for his creative imagination. Polton is an active assistant in cases, as well as a cook.
There is, further, affection between the characters. Mrs. Hudson was, it is true, fond of Sherlock Holmes, but Polton is devoted to Thorndyke, in his professional life as well as to him personally. Thorndyke does really care about Jervis, and not merely in brief flashes. Moreover, Thorndyke engages in witty reparté. There is not only humor, but clever expression in The Red Thumb Mark.
I will consider the mystery as a mystery in another post, but I find this take on the setup of Sherlock Holmes to be quite curious, especially in its historical context.
(It is also interesting to view Polton as something of the predecessor of Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter. It is curious to trace possible influences, as ideas come to take the forms that last through intermediaries which are forgotten.)
Since murder—in a detective story—requires a motive, money is a very frequent one, as is revenge. Since confusion as to motive helps a detective story to be interesting, Comingling the possible motives of money and revenge can make for a story being very interesting.
In golden age mysteries, this often took the form of a relative who went off and made his fortune in Africa, or in Australia, or in America. To England in the early 1900s, there were a large number of far-off places in which it was possible to make a fortune and to make deadly enemies while one was doing it. This, rather usefully, made for a ready supply of fictional millionaires with dubious pasts in detective fiction. A story might go any way of it, with the millionaire being killed for his money, or for how he got his money, and this, in turn, made any detective story which featured a millionaire who made his fortune in foreign lands instantly inscrutable. There were many ways the story could go until sufficient facts were put into place to know which way it had gone.
I am not sure that this sort of plot is really open to contemporary stories any more. For one thing, there is noplace where popular imagination will accept that fortunes are easily made (if you don’t contract a deadly disease, etc). The closest I think one can come would be a tech startup of some kind. The problem is that tech startups happen within the bosom of civilization. Worse, they are started by the most harmless people that one can imagine: nerds. Popular imagination may accept someone making a fortune in a tech startup, but will not accept the nerd who made this fortune having murdered someone in order to keep it to himself.
It would actually be somewhat plausible to have a more daring person use the small amount of money he had from his parents to fund a startup with a nerd friend and then to get rich from it, so we need not be strictly limited to having a nerd as our rich man. The problem is that it would still be the nerd who would have to get revenge, and this would not be very plausible. At the outskirts, the nerd might somehow have acquired a wife and children—though I think this would tend to strain the credulity of the average reader (more because the nerd is conceived of like a sorcerer, and sorcerers must be virgins to be powerful)—and one of the children of the nerd might grow up to seek vengeance for his father. That said, I don’t think that anyone will really buy it.
I do think it could be made to work if you want to go the dark route, though. You can have the millionaire who cheated the nerd also have cuckolded him, so that the child who kills him is actually his own offspring, having inherited his daring and risk-taking from his biological father. It would make for one heck of a reveal at the end, but I don’t like to go the dark route, myself.
To some degree the problem is that the world has become over-technologized for there to be anyone to kill in order to keep a fortune to oneself. Precious metals, oil, etc.—all these are now located by experts using expensive machines, and cannot be extracted without the sort of precise data provided by these experts. The other thing is that technology is a magnifier. Where it does provide wealth, it provides it in such abundance that it is no great hardship to share. The diamond mines, or oil wells, or whatever the millionaire made his millions on in the early 1900s provided enough wealth for one man, but would have provided only prosperity for two. Diamond mines might very plausibly produce a few hundred diamonds; a gold mine might very plausibly produce only a few hundred pounds of gold. That would be wonderful in one year; it’s not actually that much to buy a mansion on and keep servants for another forty years.
The other problem is that the modern ways of making a fortune, though they take a lot of work, involve very little suffering. No one digs all day under a scorching sun to develop a cell phone app. No one gets an almost deadly fever, or is bitten by venomous insects, or is mauled by a jaguar, while creating a website that takes pictures of your cat and gives you wine suggestions. In short, modern fortunes are not made in a romantic way. Something as dramatic as a deadly vengeance simply doesn’t go with the utterly prosaic ways in which modern fortunes are made.
I have faith that the basic outline of the plot can be made to work, but I think it will take a great deal of work, indeed, to come up with the way to do it.
I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty. Other than a little bit of redistribution of lines to balance things out among the people on screen, it’s a remarkably faithful version of the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s a fun puzzle in its own right, but it contains one of my favorite sections from a Holmes story. Just for fun, I will quote it again:
“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”
He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
There is something of an irony in the story in that this magnificent reflection of Holmes is met with disappointment by the people who hear it. To be fair, one of them is facing complete social ruin and the other intends to marry him, so their minds are elsewhere when they hear it.
NOTE: what follows containers spoilers. As the oldest person living, at the time of this writing, was ten years away from being born when The Adventure of the Naval Treaty was published, I can safely say, dear reader, that you have had your entire life to read this story, or at least that fraction of it since you learned to read, and if you really have not yet read it, you have, at least, been given ample time.
Anyway, considered as a mystery, it is definitely an interesting one. It has a long setup, full of facts, with what seems a nearly impossible crime. The criminal had a very short time to act, and—to all appearances—no way to have known that there was anything worth stealing. And then there is the very curious fact that the criminal made life much harder on himself by ringing the bell.
It is an extremely well executed setup, especially for its time (1893). I say, “for its time,” because, prior to the explosion of detective stories, readers were not so much in the habit of analyzing the story as a story. As G. K. Chesterton put it in 1925:
Generally speaking, the agent should be a familiar figure in an unfamiliar function. The thing that we realize must be a thing that we recognize; that is it must be something previously known, and it ought to be something prominently displayed. Otherwise there is no surprise in mere novelty. It is useless for a thing to be unexpected if it was not worth expecting. But it should be prominent for one reason and responsible for another. A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious. For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.
What the writer has to remember, in this sort of game, is that the reader will not say, as he sometimes might of a serious or realistic study: “Why did the surveyor in green spectacles climb the tree to look into the lady doctor’s back garden?” He will insensibly and inevitably say, “Why did the author make the surveyor climb a tree, or introduce any surveyor at all?” The reader may admit that the town would in any case need a surveyor, without admitting that the tale would in any case need one. It is necessary to explain his presence in the tale (and the tree) not only by suggesting why the town council put him there, but why the author put him there.
If one thinks about the story as a story, in which the rules of detection fiction state that the criminal has to actually be introduced in the story before he is unmasked as the criminal, that Percy’s future brother-in-law is the criminal is quite obvious. It would be preposterous that Lord Oakapple would commit so sprightly a crime—for it certainly involved running. The commisar could not have committed the crime, for Percy was himself the man’s witness. About the only character in the story who had opportunity was the future brother-in-law; everyone else in the story was a train ride away, and with witnesses. However, in 1893 this was not a given. People did not read stories in this sort of meta way. Conan Doyle does an admiral job of keeping suspicion on some unknown person while Holmes fixes the evidence on the real culprit.
It is also interesting that Holmes delivers the treaty to Percy in a breakfast dish. He apologizes to Percy for this theatrical surprise, saying, “Watson here will tell you that I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” It’s an interesting aspect of Holmes’s character.
The story also has a great ending. (If you haven’t read the story, it will help to know that Holmes arrived to the breakfast at which he delivered the naval treaty with a bandage on one hand, where Mr. Joseph Harrison, Mr. Percy Phelps’ intended brother-in-law, had attacked Holmes with his knife. Also that the day before, a figure, who turned out to be Harrison, had come to the window of the bedroom in which Mr. Percy Phelps was staying, carrying a knife.)
“You do not think,” asked Phelps, “that he had any murderous intention? The knife was only meant as a tool.”
“It may be so,” answered Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “I can only say for certain that Mr. Joseph Harrison is a gentleman to whose mercy I should be extremely unwilling to trust.”
It’s interesting that here in the United States, 2020 is a troubled time, in a somewhat similar way to how the 1920s in America were a troubled time. So far, at least, they are troubled for different reasons, though of course one should never count on the future as certain. I don’t think that the specifics of the troubles matter very much, though, to the subject I want to talk about.
As you may remember from previous posts, I’m very much in the camp that approximately the first thirty five years of the twentieth century (in England) were the golden age of detective fiction. That is not to say that there hasn’t been good detective fiction since, of course. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are some of my favorite mysteries and they were written between 1977 and 1994. The period from 1900-1935 was, however, one of astonishing growth and development of the genre that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in the 1887. (In a sense Poe created it with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and A Study in Scarlet even references Dupin, but there seems to be very little between the two, and an explosion in the style only after Sherlock Holmes was born.)
While there was a great deal of development in the early part of the 1900s, the 1920s are sort-of smack-dab in the middle of the golden age and were the origin of some of its most celebrated sleuths. Coming shortly after the first world war shattered the optimism which had, to some degree, dominated the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, the 1920s involved a great deal of exhaustion, both religious and moral. America, though across an ocean, was deep into the rise in organized crime which Prohibition had caused and exported many sensational stories about organized crime to England. Divorce was ceasing to be scandalous. Contraceptives were becoming more popular and sex outside of wedlock was becoming far more accepted. It was a troubled time.
In spite of that, it was an artistically creative time. Detective stories, which are almost always rigorously moral stories, were wildly popular, and writing them was also popular. We tend to forget the troubles of the past because we don’t live them; even when we’re aware of them it’s hard to feel their concerns because ours are different. Moreover, we know how things turned out for previous ages and so the many worries that people at the time had seem unreal to us because we know which worries never came to pass. Given that we, in 2020, know that the 1920s was a troubled time, that should give us some idea of how troubled must it have been to live in it!
Despite their troubles, the authors of the 1920s were able to write, and often to write a lot. Granted, many of them made money at it, but not always a lot, at least not at first. For example, it was not until after she published her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey story that Dorothy L. Sayers was able to quit her day job to write full-time. And even if they did it for money, creativity is not something can simply turn on, like a spigot, regardless of the conditions.
One possibility is that writing was itself a refuge for the writer. Many of us like to read detective stories in part because we seek refuge from the troubles of our own lives, and want to take a holiday in a place where intelligence is used well and wrongs are set right. It is possible that for some writers, writing allows them that escape while they are writing. I don’t find that so much for myself, but others might.
The other possibility that comes to mind is that the writers who were successful in the 1920s were those who were good at pushing the stresses of the day aside and focusing on the task at hand. It’s a very useful skill, and one that probably needs no argument for trying to get better at.
Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.
What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)
The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.
Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.
I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.
I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.
The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)
I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.
Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.
Thinking over the settings for the golden age of detection fiction, it was relatively common for a detective to run into a mystery while on vacation. I think that this served two primary purposes, which I’d like to consider in turn.
The first function of encountering mysteries while on vacation is to spread the murders out, geographically. You can see the reverse of this problem in Murder, She Wrote when Sheriff Metzger asked, after the third or fourth murder since he moved from New York City to get away from the constant violence, whether Cabot Cove was the death capital of Maine. Unless you put your detective in a huge city, as Sherlock Holmes was in London, it is rather limiting to have to set all of his cases locally.
That said, a consulting detective can be called in by someone who does not live near him, just as Sherlock Holmes often was. Vacations, then, serve another purpose, too. Vacations give us interesting places as settings.
This is related, I think, to Lord Peter being very rich. It’s worth looking at the quote from Dorothy L. Sayers on why she did this; the detective’s vacation fulfills a similar function:
Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
There’s an element of this which I think applies to all writers, or at least almost all writers. We are not a bunch known for actually going on many vacations. Fictional writers do, of course. They travel to book signings the world over to meet legions of adoring fans who wait in long lines to see them for a few seconds. (To be fair, book tours were a thing, once, though like the Wild West they may have lasted longer in fiction than in reality.) Be that as it may, since giving up their personal secretaries and learning to type for themselves, real writers spend a lot of time alone. That’s how the books actually get written.
Sending one’s detective on a vacation can be a good substitute. It also does away with many of the disadvantages of traveling. Plane rides are something to be endured, not enjoyed. The Caribbean may be beautiful, but it is hot in the sun, and for some of us, at least, sunburn is not a highlight of one’s day. No one enjoys donating blood to biting insects. All these inconveniences, and more, can be placed onto the shoulders of our long-suffering detective, while we, in our imaginations, can enjoy only the highlights of the vacation.
What is true of the writer is also true of the reader; it is a pleasure to read about places that incur inconvenience to actually go to.
This question of setting is one that I think mystery writers (though not the great ones) sometimes neglect. That probably sounds like a more sweeping generalization that I mean it; to stand on firmer ground: I, at least, am prone to neglecting it. I tend to be very plot-focused, and as a result think of the setting primarily as it impacts the plot. Obviously, a setting does need to work with the plot and not against it, but I suspect that a good starting point for a mystery is an excellent setting, and then one can consider what sorts of plots would work well in it. At that point selecting characters becomes easier because one has the guidance of the question: who would do such a thing, at such a place? Then just add in some eccentric acquaintances, a romantic sub-plot, and you’re good to go!