Golden Age part of Modernist literary movement

When you think of Modernism in literature the names that come to mind might include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust, depending on your preferences and native language. The names Anthony Berkeley, Edmund Crispin, Freeman Wills Crofts and Michael Innes may not be at the forefront of your mind. Yet I have just finished books on the Bodies From The Library recommended reading list by each of these authors and think there is at least a case to answer.

The evidence I put forward for inclusion of these, and other authors of the Golden Age, in the modernist literature movement alongside the more academically and critically acclaimed authors listed above is that they display a characteristic trait of modernist novels – namely a conscious playing with form, an acknowledgement of the artifice in their art, and a willingness to break down what in the theatre is known as the fourth wall, the “window” through which the audience sees the action but is separated from it.

In Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny, the scene is a party given by a writer of detective stories and Berkeley’s series protagonist, Roger Sheringham, in a deliberate and playful inversion of the genre’s expected form, engages in wilful attempts to obstruct the police investigation and prevent them discovering the identity of the person whom he believes has committed a murder on the morally somewhat dubious grounds that they are a nice person whereas the victim was not.

Crispin goes further in The Moving Toyshop and has a character, who happens to be a poet currently suffering from writer’s block, cry out during a car chase:

“‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”

It could be argued that as far back as 1924, Freeman Wills Crofts invented the police procedural though his Inspector French’s Greatest Case at times reads like a travelogue of some of the finest holiday destinations in Europe (I can vouch for the accuracy of the description of Murren in Switzerland which appears to have changed little in the intervening 90 years). He too refers to the world within the novel as:

“In this world the ordinary, natural and obvious thing happened. A man who secretly visited the scene of the crime at about the hour at which it was known to have been committed,…such a man, in ordinary, prosaic, everyday life was the criminal.”

Furthermore, he refers to the fictional world of Conan Doyle when the detective’s wife says to him:

“‘…Why, a child could guess that, Watson!’ When Mrs French called her husband by the name of the companion of the great Holmes, it signified two things…” Notably that Freeman Wills Crofts expected the reader to cheerfully blur real world in which they as readers were themselves likely to have read Conan Doyle and the world inhabited by the characters of the novel where fictional characters have a fictional place in that fiction. I hope you’re still with me on this one.

And finally Michael Innes in Death At The President’s Lodgings has one of the suspects, an Oxford Professor, moonlight under a pseudonym as the author of detective fiction, of which he is slightly ashamed. The book conludes with the Inspector Appleby telling the professor:

“‘I have a parting present for you… A title for the book you may never be able to write: Seven Suspects.” Which, of course, is the alternate title under which the book was published (and Innes was the pseudonym of Professor John Innes Mackintosh Stewart of Christ Church College, Oxford).

Make of that what you will.

I should also point out that I got hold of these titles, not available through my local library service (cries of shame go up but, in fairness, they are pretty old and obscure even if classics of the genre), through the wonders of Amazon Marketplace. I am indebted to Karl Eynon Books, Tree Savers, World of Books and Brit Books whose online stores were where I found the books discussed this week and so give them a shameless plug here.


Recommended Reading – No Spoiler Alert Required

I am continuing to work my way through the Bodies From The Library conference speakers’ recommendations. Thanks to the continuing wonder of the library service, I am able to get hold of all but the more obscure titles (sorry Martin Edwards – that means several of your recommendations!)

Without going into the plots – so no spoiler alert required – the historian in me has been piqued by the possibilities for studying the society which produced the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: Britain (for the most part) between the wars. What evidence do these novels, products of popular culture, written with no real thought for posterity but simply as entertainment, offer about the people, society and culture of those times?

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy NightUnnatural Death, and Have His Carcase, Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding and G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown, I am struck by the concern to avoid scandal and the inherent deference in the culture. Both Sayers’ and Crispin’s plots feature academic institutions – an Oxford College and a private school – whose primary concern when faced with crimes on their premises is to avoid the embarrassment of publicity rather than catching the perpetrator. The distinctly proletarian police seem more than willing to go along with this prioritisation by these upper-middle class establishments.

Indeed the class deference is taken further with the working-class police even allowing the aristocratic amateur Lord Peter Wimsey and the intellectual-elite Professor Gervase Fen not only to take an active part in the criminal investigation but at times to lead it.

That such plot devices were accepted without comment by the contemporary readers is indicative of a vastly more class-hierarchical society than modern Britain. It might be argued that readers then were less sophisticated than the modern reader and were more ready to suspend dis-belief in the interests of allowing the author to further the plot in a way that a modern audience would not because the modern audience requires the author to maintain precise accuracy in their adherence to procedures to establish their verisimilitude.

However, I suspect that such a line does a dis-service to contemporary readers between the wars. There is no reason to suppose that they were less demanding than readers now and a more plausible explanation is that the contemporary reader would find nothing comment-worthy in the deference to the elite because it reflected their own expectations of the society in which they lived.

The same could be said of the casual racism and anti-Semitism that pervades many of the novels. That a plot could hinge on a person being blackmailed over mixed-race parentage in their family, or that the idea of a white woman being abducted is more horrific because the abductor is believed to be black, indicates a level of racism inherent in the society that would be intolerable today. Indeed, notoriously, Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Niggers is now bowdlerised as And Then There Were None to reflect changing sensitivity in the use of the word, which is now treated by society as deeply offensive.  Yet, the use of “nigger” occurs many times in books of this era, both in the speech of characters and, perhaps more tellingly, in the author’s own voice as narrator, without arousing comment at the time of publication.

The same can be said of the treatment of Jewish characters. Often they are portrayed stereotypically, as avaricious or money-grabbing. Characters are sometimes described as being a Jew without further elaboration, as if that suffices to portray them in the reader’s mind. This cannot be put down to lazy writing on the part of the authors. For them to use this form of shorthand, the readers must have had a common understanding and set of beliefs which to the modern audience appears disturbing.

It is not, I must stress, that the authors were themselves specifically racist or anti-Semitic.  It is rather that they reflect the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of their times in their writing.

I must, however, single out G.K. Chesterton for a specific prejudice which says more about him than about the society in which he lived. When reading his short stories about the Roman Catholic priest cum detective Father Brown, it soon becomes apparent that if a person is described as “atheist”, “Presbyterian” or “Calvinist” then you can safely assume that the character will be irrational, arrogant, stupid, or unhappy, and is likely to be involved in the crime as either the killer or his victim.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism is eminently predictable as a result,