Classic Detective Stories

The Golden Age of the classic detective novel was the middle of the 20th century. Wilkie Collins is often cited as founder of the genre when he wrote The Moonstone in 1868 which was developed by Conan Doyle and his contemporaries but we treat today with the mid 20th century.

The most prolific provider, the Barbara Cartland of the genre if you will, was Agatha Christie. These days I can watch the film adaptations if I’m trapped on a ‘plane in an alcohol-induced coma. I cannot read the books. The characters have all the substance of cardboard cutouts and there is not a breath of humour. So let’s turn to the best exponents of the genre.

I’m sure there are others but here are my top three. First, Dorothy Sayers; a competent poet, playwright, essayist and translator now only known for her detective stories starring Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter. Secondly, Margery Allingham who created Albert Campion and his manservant Lugg. To digress, Leslie Charteris adopted a similar formula when he created Simon Templar (aka The Saint) and his side-kicks Orace and Hoppy Uniatz. Of course all of them may have been inspired by the Wooster/Jeeves team that PG Wodehouse created in 1915.

Thirdly, Bruce Montgomery, organ scholar and choirmaster at St John’s, Oxford. He composed vocal and choral music before becoming a prolific composer of music for British films in the 1950s. He wrote the music for the Doctor series, Carry On films and many more. I am reading Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs, published 1991, and he devotes a chapter to Bruce Montgomery; they became friends at Oxford.

Are you thoroughly irritated that I have omitted Edmund Crispin from my top three? No you aren’t because you have correctly guessed that it is the name Montgomery wrote his detective stories under. He created eccentric Oxford English professor, Gervase Fen. His stories are similar to Agatha’s only in the ingenuity, you could say implausibility, of plot. Edmund Crispin raised the genre to a new level; humour, literary allusions and farce jostle for space on his pages. My favourite is The Moving Toyshop, published in 1946. (If you haven’t read it you have probably seen part of it, as the fairground climax to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train comes from Moving Toyshop.) Here is an exchange from the book, something that Agatha, Dorothy and Margery would never countenance. It comes in a chase scene.

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

And what did Kingsley Amis, that Grand Old Man of English Letters, think of his friend’s novels?

… Gilded Fly is a rather bad novel, if not something worse … At two vital points, those involving the crime itself and the dénouement, the author introduces grotesque improbabilities. This would matter less if it were not for the constant flippancy and facetiousness of the style, an excessive striving after high spirits or their effect. There are good things, as reviewers say, in all his novels, of which the best is The Moving Toyshop, but I now find them unreadable.

Well thank you for that, Sir Kingsley, and doubtless your Memoirs will provide inspiration for future posts.

2 thoughts on “Classic Detective Stories”

  1. Inspector Bucket who appeared in Bleak House published 1852, can lay claim to be the first detective in an English novel.

    1. Basil, it is a pleasure to hear from a new reader with such an extensive command of 19th century English literature. However, I wonder if Basil Iske might be an assumed name?

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