In 2006 P.D. James wrote in The Wall Street Journal about her favourite detective novels. Four were Golden Age novels and I shall focus on them. For the record, her fifth choice was Dissolution by C.J. Sansom published in 2003.
Her choices were: Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare, The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin and Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers.
James selected Tragedy at Law because it “provides a fascinating portrayal of the judge in court and of the coterie of people, including barristers, who travel with him… [and is]… Written with elegance and wit.” I have to agree with her on all points. As I knew nothing of the itinerant lifestyle of a circuit judge I found the whole unfolding cycle of travel from place to place with an entourage of lawyers acting for both defence and prosecution a revelation. I suppose if I had stopped to think about it, the world Hare describes so vividly -in all its ups and downs, vicissitudes and petty one upmanship, focussing on pecking order and who shall have the worst room in the inn – is what is to be expected and follows an ancient custom. Nevertheless, Hare brings it to life with the insider knowledge of one who has endured it.
She says that The Franchise Affair “is an unusual detective story in that it contains no murder. It is, however, enthralling from beginning to end…The setting and the people come brilliantly alive and, despite the absence of egregious violence, the tension never slackens.” What is also important to me is that once again Tey stands conventions of the genre on their heads and pulls it off. The purpose of the protagonist is to prove the innocence of the accused of the crime of which they are accused – not so unusual on that score I know (she even tried this with The Man In The Queue) – but what is unusual is that instead he is seeking to do so by proving the guilt of the supposed victim. He is not looking for the alternative perpetrator but for evidence of the victim’s having lied. In short, to prove that no crime took place at all. A novel twist for a detective fiction story.
I find it intriguing that both the above books are one-offs rather than series books and feature moderately successful legal professionals as the detective. I wonder if there was scope for either to have become a series detective with a legal background- think Perry Mason. But perhaps in each case there was a unique reason which impelled the also ran lawyer to become an insightful detective and in the absence of this impetus they would not have the perseverance to follow through in the detecting line.
James observes that the author of The Moving Toyshop, Edmund Crispin, “is one of the few mystery writers able to combine situation comedy and high spirits with detection. Readers are advised that “Suspension of disbelief is occasionally needed, but this spirited frolic of a detective story retains its place as one of the most engaging and ingenious mysteries of its age.” The premise with which the novel is set up in its opening chapter is startling and original. So startling that almost any solution is bound to be accompanied with a sense of deflation. To finally understand how the crime was pulled off in this case is rather akin to standing in the wings and watching the magician palm the card to confuse the audience. A little of the magic is lost. And it must be said that this is one of the examples of the type of detective fiction in which the perpetrators of the crime eschewed easier and more obvious means to achieve their end in favour of the complex and risky approach that was likely to be no more effective. A clear case for accepting the possible while ignoring the probable when coming to the correct solution.
She regards Murder Must Advertise as “One of [Dorothy L. Sayers’s] most enjoyable novels, and the most credible judged as a mystery… The novel shows Sayers’s virtues of originality, energy and wit. Anyone interested in what it was like to work in an advertising agency in the 1930s has only to read “Murder Must Advertise.” Copywriters today may feel that little has changed.” Once again we are transported into an unfamiliar world and fwwl throughout the author’s intimate knowledge of its inner workings which is based on personal experience rather than any amount of research and this shines through. For that alone I would love this novel even though Wimsey is beginning his metamorphosis from upper class amateur to infallible Greek god as Sayers falls in love with her creation. He turns out to have been a cricketing blue on top of all his other accomplishments. And the murder is pulled off by one of Sayers’s ingenious but improbable methods requiring a supreme level of skill on the part of the murderer for a very uncertain result.
Would any of these four make my top five detective novels? Possibly. Tragedy at Law is for me the one that succeeds both as a book, evoking a specific time and place and populating it with believable characters, and as a detective story with a solution which manages to surprise and yet be inevitable once explained. The Franchise Affair comes close though it depends on its time – modern police questioning methods and protocols would remove several of the plot’s features leaving the case against the accused women significantly weaker. But for tension it is definitely up there. The Moving Toyshop falls short for me after a brilliant start, for the reason outlined above. And Murder Must Advertise is another example for me of why I both love her novels (superb description of the situation that is totally believable and engrossing) but am exasperated that her solutions are less watertight than she would have us believe.