The Mysterious Affair at Styles


I have just re-read The Mysterious Affair at Styles in the light of comments made by Martin Edwards at The Bodies From The Library Conference last week. Martin reminded delegates that as we look back at them now the Golden Age authors we think of as relatively elderly figures were, at the time they were writing in that period, just starting out on their writing careers. They were the bold young Turks carving out a niche for themselves and defining a new genre. They were constantly innovating and what we, with the benefit of 80 or 90 years of hindsight, may think of as hackneyed cliches that have dulled with of over-use by subsequent lesser talents were actually brilliant innovations that genuinely took their readership by surprise. 

I have read Agatha’s debut novel in the  Folio Society edition which is stylishly illustrated by Andrew Davidson with 7 plates including the above final scene where Hastings is finally enlightened by Poirot how the Affair was solved. 

Big thank you to our partners: the British Library and Harper Collins

Every delegate at the conference received a goody bag which contained the British Library Crime Classics edition of Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg ( a name that sounds like it was a pseudonym of the type favoured by many Golden Age authors but it isn’t).

The British Library also gave delegates exclusive opportunity to buy the new British Library Crime Classics book Quick Curtain by Alan Nelville at their pop up bookstore at the conference before it goes on general sale on 1st July.

Harper Collins very generously included in the goody bags one of three new Collins Crime Club editions of classic Edmund Crispin mysteries featuring his Oxford don detective Gervase Fen.

Harper Collins also provided in each goody bag one of three historic Golden Age novels in new hardback Detective Story Club/Collins Crime Club editions with introductions by our own Dr John Curran, Martin Edwards and David Brawn.

We hope delegates enjoy reading whichever of the books they got in their own goody bag.

Golden Age at CrimeFest 2015

CrimeFest Golden Age Panel

One of the best attended sessions at CrimeFest 2015 was the panel “Forgotten Authors: The Golden Age of Murder”. Five leading authors and experts on the Golden Age took turns to urge readers to rediscover their favourite authors whose books are unjustly neglected.

Dolores Gordon Smith advocated Freeman Wills Crofts and G K Chesterton.

Martin Edwards spoke up on behalf of G D H and Margaret Cole; and Milward Kennedy.

Aline Templeton recommended Margery Allingham and Ronald Knox.

John Curran put forward J J Connington and Henry Wade.

Catherine Aird proposed Josephine Tey.

Three of the panel, Dolores, Martin and John will be speaking in more detail about Golden Age Detective Fiction at The Bodies From The Library conference.  Dolores will be talking in more detail about Freeman Wills Crofts, while Martin will be expanding on the theme of Forgotten Golden Age authors and John will be speaking on Agatha Christie.

Martin’s new book The Golden Age of Murder about the authors of that era is out now and provides the most comprehensive review of the genre yet to appear. It is a must read for anyone who wants to get to grips with the sheer volume and variety of crime fiction from the golden age. For more information and to buy a copy follow the link below:

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,