One of the great delights of golden age detective fiction is the plethora of maps that appear.
As I read through the recommended list of books from our conference speakers, three of the books I have just completed, Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh, Look to The Lady by Margery Allingham and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers feature maps (and sometimes more than one such map) of the locations where the crimes take place. And one need look no further than Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles to complete your full house of all four Queens of Crime including a plan of the setting for the action. They are, of course, not alone in having this feature. Fully half of the books I have been reading in preparation for the conference, by almost any of the golden age authors, have something of the kind.
This fascination with pictorial representations of the scene in no way indicates shortcomings in the descriptive powers of the writers. This is far from the case. It appears more to be adherence to a convention and bowing, therefore, to their audiences expectations.
It does make for an interesting diversion from the main business of reading the story to check the maps to follow routes taken by characters – do they seem to be sensible ways to get from A to B in the time available? Will the alibis stand up?
But sometimes, the layout is not significant to the plot. In that case, is the presence of the map in itself a giant red herring, implying that character’s movements around the setting for the events is of greater importance to the solution of whodunnit than is in fact necessary?
Perhaps this is why two other books I have also read recently, X v Rex by Philip Macdonald (writing as Martin Porlock) and Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) do not use maps. Each is, in its way, consciously breaking with the traditions and conventions of the genre. Neither is a classic whodunnit puzzle to be solved. The former is arguably the first attempt to portray a serial killer and reveal something of the killer’s psychology that drives them to commit the crimes; the latter is an inverted tale where you know the identity of the killer and the question is whether or not he will get away with the murder or be caught (wherein lies the suspense).
I have now exhausted the resources of the South West Libraries (well, all bar one final book which is still on order). The Golden Age has been reasonably well-served with 11 of the 34 recommended titles (if we exclude the ones I have already on my own bookshelves) in stock – either on the shelves or stashed away in some vault somewhere to be retrieved on request.
The last three I have read – Traitor’s Purse and Hide My Eyes, both by Margery Allingham and The Water Room by Christopher Fowler are all published later than the traditionally accepted Golden Age of between the wars and all show developments from the classics of the genre.
Traitor’s Purse has the detective, Albert Campion, suffering from amnesia which places him in the same situation as the reader – not knowing what is going on and having to figure it out for himself as he goes along. An interesting twist to see him struggle rather than exhibit the more usual omniscient brilliance of the insightful detective.
If Traitor’s Purse has Campion cast in the role of central protagonist in an almost 39 Steps like nod to the heroes of the thriller genre, given it was a wartime publication, then in Hide My Eyes, he is almost relegated to the background as others carry the bulk of the action (arguably the book need not have been a Campion novel at all and could have been managed without his presence).
It is possible to read The Water Room as a critique of the police procedural which superseded the Golden Age style. The Peculiar Crimes Unit (the title says it all) which carries out the investigation is placed neatly outside the control of the Metropolitan Police and follows the accepted modern procedures or not, more or less as the author fancies. In this way it almost harks back to the earlier era.
Yet all three still adhere, more or less, to the rules expounded by Ronald Knox in his introduction to Best Detective Stories 1928-29, which I paraphrase below:
The criminal must be a person introduced near the start of the story and be someone whose full thoughts the reader has not been allowed to follow.
No supernatural solutions are allowed.
No more than one secret room/passage is allowed.
No hitherto unknown poisons are to be used (nor any complex scientific gadget requiring tedious explanations).
No stereotypical (my italicised insertion) Chinese person should feature (see previous article on implicit racism pervading the genre because it reflected contemporary society norms).
No accident must help the detective to solve the crime, nor may he reach the solution by unsupported intuitive (i.e. guessing it correctly) rather than deductive methods.
The detective must not commit the crime.
The detective must not rely on clues that are concealed from the reader.
The detective’s sidekick, if present, should be ever so slightly dimmer than the readership.
Identical twins shall not feature in the solution unless clearly flagged beforehand.
Of course all the great authors of the Golden Age felt free to break one or more of these rules when it suited them – we can all think of examples that are classics of the genre which do so – but when they did, it was very deliberately and for a good reason.
Encouraged by the suggested reading from our conference speakers, I have started to read (or in some cases, re-read) their recommendations in order to get the most out of their talks. I’m used to being the one in the room who knows least about the subject of Golden Age Detective Fiction but I want to have more than just a clue about what they are discussing.
So far I have read: Police At The Funeral by Margery Allingham, Green For Danger by Christianna Brand, The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr and An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson.
Without giving anything of the plots away (so no spoiler alert required), I have some questions I want to put to our experts at the conference about the means used in the first death of Police At The Funeral and why one of the characters does what they do in An Expert in Murder. It’s probably me missing something vital – not for the first time – but I do want to pick the brains that are cleverer than I am when I get the chance.
I did enjoy chapter 17 of The Hollow Man in which Carr’s detective Dr Fell delivers a lecture on the seven different types of “Locked Room Mystery” and how they may be distinguished. Needless to say, I shan’t be giving away into which category The Hollow Man actually falls.
I’m currently part way through Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. This has the advantage of featuring on both B.A. Pike’s list of recommended reading for his lecture on the works of Allingham and Sayers and on Richard Reynolds’ list for his lecture on The Oxbridge Murders. So it’s killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
For details of our speakers’ recommendations go to: