Notes on the ‘Golden Age’ English Detective Story, Part 1 “Cozy”- An Introduction

The first in an ongoing series of indefinite number

Life Traumas and Comfort Lit

There is a pattern I’ve noticed in my life. It’s one that for a long time I was not at all aware of, but now that I am, I follow that pattern quite consciously, if not self-consciously. It’s this: whenever I am going through some major trauma or life-change, I immediately gravitate to the security of detective fiction. Crime fiction as such won’t do: Elmore Leonard would be far too chaotic, Jim Thompson far too bleak. There has to be a detective bringing order to the chaos, and preferably one that is him- or herself not too deeply affected by that chaos; this rules out quite a lot of contemporary detective fiction. In the context of any chaotic moment in my life, any moment where I seem to be out of control, the effortless authority of the Master Detective is very attractive. The way they impose order on the upheaval resulting in, and from, the murder; the way they bring logic and reason to the emotional and physical violence of the act of murder, and to the scattered array of evidence they sift through: all this is profoundly, almost viscerally appealing to me when my life has been thrown upside down.

Consequently, then, in such times I am most attracted to ‘classic’ detective fiction, particularly those writers who emerged in pre-WWII England, and the American writers who copied them (not Hammett or Chandler, then, so much as Rex Stout). Part of why it makes such good comfort food is that I grew up on it: along with Ian Fleming, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving, Dorothy L. Sayers and Edmund Crispin were two of my favorite novelists when I was a child. That’s a bonus, but ultimately it’s the smooth surfaces, the elegant, clean writing, the limits put on emotional expression, and the emphasis on the cerebral, and specifically on problem-solving, that appeals to me, that is both satisfying and emotionally reassuring.

Now, you may notice that this blog has been inactive recently. There has been a lot going on here at Otago, first with the school year starting up, and then with PBRF. Then, at the end of March, I ended up in the hospital, with a condition that easily could have been fatal, and even more easily could have left me disabled in certain ways (but has and will not, I assure you). I had three separate surgeries, and ended up staying in the ward for just two days shy of three weeks. When I got home, I spent the next two weeks in bed before getting back to work full-time. Until a few days ago, I was receiving nursing care every day; now it’s every other day, and I expect to be seeing the nurses for another month at least. This is because I have an enormous open wound that is gradually healing shut, and that wound continues to make it difficult to work: this is the first time I have been able to get any writing done. Even this I am doing in bed because I am still unable to sit in a chair for long periods of time (so I’m trying to develop new working habits).

Me, writing this post.

When I was in the hospital, with a problem I expected to be sorted out in a day at the most but which was even then spiraling out of control, I had no TV in my room (and the one at the end of the hallway only got 2 channels); I had no laptop (and no wifi anyway); I had no iPod or iPad or iPhone or iAnything to distract me or amuse me or keep me in touch with the world. I even had to borrow a mobile phone from a friend so I could stay connected to anyone and anything at all. What I needed most of all were books: cheap (pointless to steal, easy to replace), easy to handle no matter how uncomfortable your position, easy to get, and endlessly and totally absorbing. Stuck in the hospital like that, escape was all that I cared about, and books do that for me maybe more even than film. I have no-one at home to bring me the books I had lined up by my bedside, and even if I did, those weren’t calling to me. What to do? What I ended up doing was asking my good friend the intrepid Sally Milner to go to the nearest used-book store to get me anything she could find by Conan Doyle and Christie. Despite reading Sayers, I had never read Christie, so anything Sally Milner, Book Gal could find would be good. The same, perhaps even more remarkably, goes for the Holmes stories, despite having read not one but two separate books both called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. (It’s my natural orneriness, I guess, that I went for the obscure or second-tier first.) In the end, Sally brought me two Conan Doyle books, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, one Christie, Dead Man’s Folly, and a Ngaio Marsh, Dead Water. Maybe it was the trauma, maybe it was the desperation of being in the hospital, maybe it was that I only had these two things to read, but she got me hooked all over again. Reading those books, and then chatting with her and my good friend Dorinda Hartmann (like Sally, a very perceptive reader, and even better-versed in the sub-genre) about them, and about English mysteries of the ‘Golden Age’ in general, brought up some things that had been on my mind for a while.

Snobbery: in the books & on the books

My experience of these books as mental comfort food jibes with their literary nickname, the ‘Cozy’, well enough. I cannot deny that a lot of their appeal is that on some level they are very reassuring books. But to too many commentators, the signified of ‘cozy’ here is a pervasive and nauseating twee-ness. Male writers of mysteries, like Raymond Chandler, and commentators on them, from Edmund Wilson to Julian Symons, adopt a stance to them that is patronizing at best and outright insulting at worst. Theirs is, essentially, the same attitude that a music fan might encounter perusing rock critics talking about pop, and for the same reasons. Not only are these books disposable, lightweight, substance-free, unchallenging, escapist, not only do they present a sanitized vision of life, but of course they do, because they are written by and for women. The readers of these books, and sometimes even the writers of them, are broadly painted as Jean Teasdales, a Miss Marple in their soft moist hands as they sip sweet milky tea while curled up on the couch surrounded by their cats. Just as rock is serious, artful, and masculine, as opposed to pop which is disposable, empty-headed, and feminine, so Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Cain and Macdonald are granted artistic legitimacy in a way that is denied to Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey. The likes of Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, and Edmund Crispin, important male writers of mid-century British detective fiction, aren’t enough to offset the feminization of the British mystery so railed at by the likes of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) in the introduction to his Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. For one thing, Innes and Crispin are self-consciously comic and playful, overtly not-to-be-taken-seriously; Symons labeled them ‘farceurs’. Too, unlike the women, all three men wrote mysteries under pseudonyms so they could keep their reputations at mystery writers at one remove from their more ‘serious’ endeavors (Innes was actually J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford don; Crispin was Bruce Montgomery, Oxford graduate, composer, and music teacher; Blake was Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel, and Poet Laureate). This suggests they internalized some version of the prevailing prejudices against detective novels in general, and perhaps their chosen form of it in particular. In this, they are much like the American critic Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote mysteries as S.S. Van Dine, and was for a time the foremost American equivalent to the British writers; and Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote as Ellery Queen. John Dickson Carr, another American-born proponent of this school of mystery, was never taken very seriously, partly because he was ludicrously prolific. As for the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, roughly a contemporary of Christie et. al., well, his books were about a policeman, and anyway were far more rooted in procedure (and manly things, like trains!), so he simply could be excepted.

Leaving to one side this decidedly patriarchal discourse, there are other prejudices underlying the aspersions case at the ‘Golden Age’ British mystery which are harder to dismiss. For one, the books do show a pervasive xenophobia; the killer may not always be Johnny Foreigner, but J.F. is always suspected, and voicing such suspicions always seems to be perfectly socially acceptable. Most damagingly, however, there is the matter of class. There’s no getting around the fact that these writers, to a woman, characteristically wrote about the aristocracy, and about the middle class though this is not so widely recognized. If the working class made an appearance they tended either to be criminals or otherwise disreputable in some way (not the killer, though, perhaps because that would require too much ingenuity on their part, or even point up a degree of class conflict not to be admitted here); or loyal but dull-witted servants, complete with exaggerated renderings of accents (whereas everyone else, upper class and middle, speak ‘normally’), as in “I told milady as ‘ow that bounder shouldn’t of been ‘ired. ‘E’s not a proper Englishman, you know! I never trusts them foreigners!” Against this, the American innovation of broadening the scope of the class backgrounds and social worlds rendered in the crime story really does seem salutary. Given the political orientation of the academy and arts journalism, the notion that the British novels are hopelessly conservative has become a widespread source of discredit.

Of course, the authors themselves- Christie and Sayers certainly- tended to be politically and socially conservative, but whether that applies to the books is debatable (for instance, Christopher Hitchens reported Christie’s anti-Semitism, but her killers were never Jewish). The books certainly don’t explore class, and most of the detectives seem comfortable at least if they’re not aristos themselves (not all: Miss Marple was always on a fixed income, and the reader is kept aware of her restricted circumstances).

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey

Peter Davison as Albert Campion

But I’m not convinced this makes them univocally conservative (frankly, if there’s one canard of leftist criticism that drives me insane, its that to not talk about a given ‘problem’ in your book is to suggest it doesn’t exist). This is because the books most certainly are nowhere near as fluffy or as divorced from reality as is usually suggested.

Darkness visible

I can’t speak to all of them yet, but I can say that both Allingham as an author, and Campion as a character, reputedly grew progressively more serious across their careers. Marsh’s Dead Water, about the mixed motives at play in a town that has embraced a newly-acquired reputation for the healing properties of its spring, has an almost shockingly cynical, desolate undertow (regarding some characters at least). Sayers’ novels show a keen if sometimes oblique awareness of emotional pain and psychological damage, through the wartime past of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. So far in my reading, Christie has proved the darkest of the bunch, possessed of a bleak view of human nature and motives famously attributed to her 1926 discovery of her first husband’s infidelity, and their 1928 divorce. In the Marple novels, this comes out in Miss Jane’s awareness of the skeletons in every closet anywhere in the vicinity of her tiny, seemingly-idyllic village. Poirot himself may be a bit more of a continental romantic than Miss Marple, but the crimes he investigates betray no less vividly Christie’s sense of unease, the ugliness she finds in the plushest, most glamorous settings and the most superficially respectable people.

I’m not claiming this is a class critique in disguise, but it does present at least as dark and penetrating a picture of human vice and venality as anything in Hammett or Chandler; indeed, I’m prepared to argue more so. When those writers take us into the underworld, we find exactly what we expect, but Christie reveals to us that same ugliness in the most outwardly-safe and insulated worlds. Such ugliness comes not from external pressures, or outsiders penetrating the inner sancta, but from inside the hearts and minds of those who reside in that world, from the flaws built into the human character. It is often pointed out that in each book, the evil of the killer is seen as aberrant, whereas in Hammett and Chandler it is an inevitable cost of the criminal’s pursuit of wealth; but when you add up book after book, the outwardly-respectable/inwardly-murderous population of Christie’s world grows to such a proportion that the darkness undergirding that world becomes increasingly vivid, unmistakable in fact. I would suggest that there are points of comparison here between Christie et. al. and Alfred Hitchcock. In his entry on Hitchcock in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris writes this:

“Hitchcock understands, as his detractors do not, the crucial function of counterpoint in the cinema. You cannot commit a murder in a haunted house or dark alley, and make a meaningful statement to the audience. The spectators simply withdraw from those bizarre settings, and let the décor dictate the action. It is not Us up there on the screen but some play actors trying to be sinister. However, when murder is committed in a gleamingly sanitary model bathroom during a cleansing shower, the incursion of evil into our well-laundered existence becomes intolerable. We may laugh nervously or snort disgustedly, but we shall never be quite so complacent again. Hitchcock’s repeated invasions of everyday life with the most outrageous melodramatic devices have shaken the foundations of the facile humanism that insists that people are good, and only systems evil, as if the systems themselves were not functions of human experience.”

Indeed. And so, arguably, it is also with Christie. Is it so with the other great figures of the Golden Age British detective novel as well? What are those writers trying to do besides entertain? Given that entertainment is itself frequently discounted by critics despite the considerable artfulness often employed to that end, there is much to say about why and how these mysteries are still able to provide so much pleasure to so many readers. There is also much more to say about how this fiction is represented, not only in studies of the form, but also in film and television. Adaptations present their own particular take on these narratives, but the authoring of the work has itself been narrativized in the likes of Agatha and the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp”.

My interest in this right now has a few tributaries: an ongoing desire for comfort lit due not only to my recent traumas but also to the fact that this is in general a bit of a transitional period for me in my life (long story); my resentment of the prejudices underpinning the standard critical accounts of the ‘Cozy’, a resentment of a sort that seems to spark quite a lot of my writing, come to think of it; and just by the fact that this seems like a fun thing to think and write about, as an intellectual project quite different from my current work projects. So this is the first of a series of blogs on this subject. It won’t be my exclusive topic- for one thing, most of the time I’ll be posting after I’ve read not one but a group of books and am ready to offer observations on them, or just in general when I have new things to say- but it will be an ongoing one for the next while. Reader, I hope you enjoy this series of posts, and that they get some good conversations going both online and off.

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Comments

  • Sally  On May 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Comfort and recovery! In this is your own recovery and at the same time the recuperation of these novelists’ works. I understand the appeal of the genre, at the book’s end, there is the cozy comfort of narrative closure. And yet, as in Hitchcock’s work, before that is reached there have been sneaky glimpses of something ‘nasty in the woodshed.’ I ‘m looking forward to returning to Christie too. For now our discussions have reminded me of Barbara Pym’s novels that are not detective in genre, but under a comfortable surface they have a relentless probing of the nastiness in genteel surroundings. Not your genre but worth a look. I look forward to more book chats. Book gal.

  • Skywatcher  On May 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    A lot of Chandler’s hatred of the cozy may have come from his early life. His mother moved back to England when he was 12 years old, and he didn’t go back to the USA until he was in the early twenties. I’ve heard that he felt like the ‘poor relation’, which might explain his dislike of the sort of middle-class setting of a lot of traditional detective narratives. Chandler has always seemed to me as much an inverted snob as some of his contemporaries were conventional snobs.

    Christie and Allingham didn’t really write characteristically about the aristocracy. They certainly wrote about the well-heeled middle classes a lot, but that’s not quite the same thing. Christie was quite perceptive about the changes in society (look at something like MRS MCGINTY’S DEAD, with the post-WWII middle classes finding themselves adrift in a worlds where they cannot rely on the help of servants). In Allingham, Campion’s manservant Lugg is not so much working class as criminal class, and his blunt, H-dropping speech style is used to comment on the more refined manners of the rest of the characters. He’s a fully rounded character. Same goes for Charlie Luke, Campion’s detective friend. The attitude towards him his that of admiration rather than condescension. He’s a self-made man and proud of it. Sayers retired from writing Wimsey before the big changes in society that came with WWII, but her other detective, Montague Egg, is very lower middle class. As a salesman for a wine firm, he can only get into an aristocratic mansion because he’s selling something. The perspective is quite different from the Wimsey stories. Only Ngaio Marsh continued to use the aristocratic-mansion-full-of-servants setting after the war, and that was only because she was writing about something that she didn’t really experience first hand. She was from New Zealand, spending a few months every year in England. The later novels seemed to be taking place in a sort of time warp, whereas both Christie and Allingham made a real effort to remain up to date.

  • Ronald Smyth  On May 27, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    One trouble is that too many critics think the Crime Queens consitute the entirety of crime fiction of the Golden Age. Allow me to suggest that you read some Gladys Mitchell or Henry Wade.

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