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.
Yeah, the resolution of The Moving Toyshop is a little disappointing given the creativity and sheer joy of its setup, but then I feel the same is also true of The Franchise Affair – the explanations offered in that final chapter didn’t quite move me to full conviction at the time (it is astoundingly convenient in one key regard). Nevertheless, with time to look back on them I have come to regard both of these as absolute clasics of the form, partly because they strike me as “solution backwards” plots – that is, the end point decided in advance and then the setup worked out afterwards – and you have to commend the efforts that spun such entertaining missives from such fairly standard ends.
Are they in my top five? Probably, but then there are about 30 novels in my top five at present.
Not read the Hare, really probably should. Shall shovel it onto the pile of books I’m eventally going to get round to, and readjust my “money accrued vs. time off for reading” threshold algorithm to factor in my new reitrement date. Sayers, I’m afraid, leaves me cold, MMA in particular. Shall leave her to those of you who want to be condescended to while trying to enjoy yourselves.
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The prose style didn’t really work for me in Tragedy at Law, although the motivation behind the death is a clever one. I did enjoy Murder Must Advertise but that is probably because I don’t find myself condescended to. The Moving Toyshop is also a good one and definitely one I should re-read, as I can’t remember much about the Crispin books as I read them quite a while ago.
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It’s odd. Sayers is a real marmite author. I used to find her problematic but have warmed to her lately whereas Crispin’s Gervase Fen seriously irritates me still.
Yes, the reverse engineering is quite brilliant but, because there is a prosaic explanation, you end up with just a hint of a let down that it wasn’t more outlandish. But then I invariably baulk at some of the fiendishly complicated for complications sake solutions. Why would a murderer go about his business in a high risk way with uncertain outcome when a simler more certain and less risky approach was available. I guess we want to have our cake and eat it.
Only 30 in your top 5! You’re not trying hard enough LOL.
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You are mistaken when you say that Tragedy At Law is a one off. There are in fact four other books in which Francis Pettigrew is the (or at least a) detective. He appears along with Inspector Mallet in He Should Have Died Hereafter and he appears alone in With A Bare Bodkin, When The Wind Blows, and The Yew Tree’s Shade. There are also three earlier books in which Inspector Mallet appears without Pettigrew.
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Thanks Ronald. I wonder why I had the impression that this was a one off? I’m delighted it’s not and will definitely look out for the titles you mention. I think what threw me was the way Pettigrew seemed to be an integral part of the circuit rather than The Detective called in from outside the closed circle to investigate. From what you say, I am inferring that this is his first appearance, though not Mallet’s. Maybe that had something to do with it. Do the subsequent novels have different settings and, if so, how is Pettigrew brought in?
Tragedy At Law (1942) is indeed Pettigrew’s first appearance. The setting for With A Bare Bodkin (1946) is a government Ministry forced from London by The Blitz and Pettigrew is one of the civil servants dealing with the temporary accommodations. When The Wind Blows (1949) finds him the honorary treasurer to the Markshire Orchestral Society when solo violinist Lucy Carless is strangled. That Yew Tree’s Shade (1954) finds him in retirement when a body is found in the local woods and in his final appearance, He Should Have Died Hereafter (1958) it is in fact Pettigrew who finds the body. Note that there are alternate titles for most of these.
Ronald – thank you so much for the information and insights. I shall look out for these titles (and check for alternates) when I check out the detective fiction section of my local book warehouse.