The Art of the Mystery, Part Three: the Golden Age of British crime fiction

July 17, 2009 at 10:57 pm (Anglophilia, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, Travel, Uncategorized)

I wish we’d had more time last Thursday to talk about the Golden Age of crime writing in Great Britain.  This period is epitomized by the work of these five gifted women, sometimes referred to as “les Grandes Dames:”

Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey


Only Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie made it onto the “What Do You Know About Mysteries” quiz. Sayers is a long time favorite of mine. I’m especially partial to the three novels that tell the story of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane:

poison carcase

gaudyGaudy Night is a masterful achievement.  Lord Peter and Harriet Vane struggle to find a common ground where they can dwell in mutual love and respect; their drama plays out against the backdrop of postwar turmoil. Harriet is still coming to terms with the trauma of being tried, some years ago, for the murder of her lover. In Gaudy Night, she emerges from beneath that cloud for good – and forever.

It has been speculated that Dorothy Sayers created Harriet Vane as a stand-in for herself. Like Sayers, Harriet writes successful crime fiction. And like Sayers, she takes enormous pride in her Oxford degree:

“‘They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutem est quod Juniores Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant); a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.’

gaudy2 I recommend the film version of Gaudy Night. It provides a vivid picture of the women of Oxford University at the historic moment in which  they achieve parity with their male counterparts.

An equally good film was made of the equally brilliant novel, The Nine Tailors. Here’s what Michael Grost has to say about both:

“Sayers attempted to bring more ‘literary’ values to detective fiction, and this began to pay off in her later books, especially the impressive The Nine Tailors (1934). This novel does not have a fair play puzzle plot, strictly speaking, but it does have a plot, and a complex, well designed one at that, something that is all to the good. It also includes a well done ‘background’ look at an English country church and its vicar. It is an impressive literary achievement.

The Nine Tailors was made into a superb four hour film by the BBC in 1974. This is the best of all the BBC TV adaptations of Sayers’ work. The filmmakers have linearized Sayers’ chronology, telling the story in sequence, which is probably a requirement for dramatization. The two central hours, two and three, are probably the richest in the work. The film version rises to its climax at the end of the third hour, with the characters assembled in church and singing the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

tailors2 tailors

Here’s a link to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. I also recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on Sayers. It includes an evenhanded  discussion of Sayers’s alleged anti-Semitism; the story of her tangled love life and its ramifications is likewise intriguing.

Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers


Josephine Tey received mention twice at “The Art of the Mystery” program: once in Emma’s introduction and then later when, for illustrative purposes,  I brought up the character of Robert Blair in The Franchise Affair. Now Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

I also urge you to read Brat Farrar, a novel whose depiction of rural British life is timeless and filled with a nostalgic longing. The story centers on an audacious impersonation undertaken for purely mercenary reasons; along the way there are a multitude of surprising twists and turns. Ulitmately, the protagonist finds himself face to face with a harrowing moral quandary. This is the kind of first rate storytelling that we crime fiction aficionados continually long for but can’t always find.

franchise brat

Josephine Tey herself is something of a mystery. To begin with, she wrote crime fiction under a pseudonym; her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. In addition to writing mysteries, she was also a playwright. (For this aspect of her authorial career, she used the name Gordon Daviot.) Her play Richard of  Bordeaux, first performed in 1932, featured John Gielgud in the title role. The work, a huge success,  propelled Gielgud to a stardom that he enjoyed for the remainder of his long and productive life in the theater and later, in film.

In 1926, Tey’s mother died and she returned home to care for her father, who was an invalid. She never lived anywhere else. Josephine Tey died in 1952 at the age of 55.

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey


I came to Ngaio Marsh by way of audiobooks, specifically those narrated by James Saxon. I’ve enjoyed both reading and listening to several of Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels; my favorite among them is Death in a White Tie. Written in 1938, it is as much a novel of manners as a novel of crime. The glittering London “season” comes vividly to life in its pages. And Marsh does something in this book that I’m surprised more crime writers don’t do: she makes the murder victim extremely sympathetic. Because you’ve had a chance to know this person and thereby appreciate his worth, you grieve along with the book’s other characters when he meets a brutal end. And like them, you too yearn for justice.


With the creation of Roderick Alleyn, Marsh almost singlehandedly invented the police procedural. Alleyn was her sole protagonist; she began with him in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead and stayed with him through thirty-two successive entries in the series. The last, Light Thickens, came out in 1982, the year of her death. (I haven’t read Dame Ngaio’s final work, but I love that title. It comes from MacBeth: “Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood…”)

Like Peter Wimsey, Alleyn has an older brother who has an inherited title. He must therefore decide what to do with his life, and his decision is to enter the field of law enforcement. Alleyn shares something else with Lord Peter: he is in love with a woman, a portrait painter named Agatha Troy, who may prove unattainable. This matter is resolved in Death in a White Tie.

Although the majority of her novels are set in England,  Ngaio Marsh was actually from New Zealand. With the exception of her travels, which frequently took her to Great Britain, she was a life long resident of  the island nation where she was born. Her home in Christchurch is now open to the public.

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh


Of these five writers, Margery Allingham is the one I know least. I’ve listened to several of her novels, admirably read by Francis Matthews. My favorite is Dancers in Mourning, which paints a delightful picture of theater life in Britian between the wars and features a poignant love story as well. It has been re-issued by the wonderful folks at Felony and Mayhem Press.


Somehow Albert Campion, Allingham’s protagonist, never  became a compelling presence for me. I have tended to view him as a rather pale imitation of Lord Peter Wimsey. (Okay,  Allingham / Campion fans: feel free to jump in here!)

Here’s a link to the Margery Allingham Society.

Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham


Finally we come to Agatha Christie. Much as been written about Christie’s astounding and durable success. Her name has become, in Barry Forshaw‘s memorable locution, “a copper-bottomed franchise.” I have no expertise in the area of Christie studies; in fact, as a reader I came late to her oeuvre and still have a lot of catching up to do. But I did have a marvelous travel adventure three years ago that was very much linked to this writer. My husband and I took a Smithsonian tour entitled  “Classic Mystery Lover’s England.” Our first port of call was Torquay, Christie’s birthplace. Torquay, on Devon’s South Coast, does not often make it onto the itinerary of  UK yours. IMHO, it should. It is a lovely town, with a harbor whose graceful inland curve provides an effective shield from the elements.

Yes - palm trees in England!

Yes – palm trees in England!

At a church in nearby Torbay, where the young Agatha and her family were often in attendance, we encountered a man who told us that he had been a gardener at Greenway House, former home of Agatha Christie.  He is pictured here with our Blue Badge Guide Ros Hutchinson, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all things English was leavened with large helpings of inimitable British wit.


This man spoke with a pronounced West Country accent, so much so that we had some trouble understanding him. It was as if a piece of the past had walked right into the present moment, one of those travel experiences that can never be scripted in advance but just happen, if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.


Our assigned reading for this first portion of the tour was body. I loved it from the first gently whimsical paragraph:

“Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams, this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life.

Carol Kent

Carol Kent

The title of Carol Kent’s talk on Christie was entitled Just How Cozy is that Body in the Library? I wish I could hear Kent’s marvelous lectures again! They were  brimful of fascinating insights and witty asides.

On the third day of the tour, we traveled via steam train from Paignton to the beautiful town of Dartmouth. We then embarked on a criuse on the River Dart. Our passage afforded us a glimpse of Greenway House. The house is situated on a bluff overlooking the river. In 2006, house and garden were in the process of being renovated. That work has since been completed, and the house and grounds are now open to the public.

No here’s a late breaking bulletin: Classic Mystery Lover’s England has been off the Smithsonian Journeys list of upcoming tours for several years. I’ve been checking periodically to see if it has been reinstated, and when I checked yesterday, lo! It was back, scheduled to run next year.  I’ve been there, and I can assure you: this is a terrific trip.

I highly recommend the Miss Marple stories in the collection The Thirteen Problems thirteen Here, Christie uses the time-honored conceit of a group of friends who propose to entertain one another by telling tales. The group consists of Joyce Lempriere, an artist; Sir Henry Clithering, retired Comissioner of Scotland Yard; Dr. Pender, an elderly clergyman; Mr Petherick, a solicitor; Raymond West, a writer and nephew to Miss Marple; and of course, Miss Marple herself. Group members have agreed among themselves to relate true mysteries of recent vintage which have proved difficult, if not impossible, to solve.

These stories serve to demonstrate Christie’s narrative skills in a distilled, compressed form. In particular, I was struck by her craft in evoking  an atmosphere of strangeness, bordering almost on the supernatural. Read “The Idol House of Astarte” and you’ll see what I mean.

Agatha Christie


dubose In Women of Mystery: The Life and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey Dubose  devotes a section entitled “A Golden Era: The Genteel Puzzlers” to the five above mentioned authors. And if you have an interest in the history of crime fiction, I urge you to have a look at Michael Grost’s superb site, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection.


Up until recently, Torquay has not capitalized on its association with Agatha Christie. That has begun to change.

agatha bust agatha plaque

In 1990, on the one hundredth anniversary of Christie’s birth, someone had the bright idea of staging, in Torquay, a meeting between David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Until that time, the two had never met. In 1984, at the age of 78, Joan Hickson made her first appearance as Miss Marple in The Body in the Library. She went on to make eleven more Miss Marple films, culminating with The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in 1992. Joan Hickson died in 1998 at the age of 92. By that time, she had achieved a lasting fame through her subtly understated, perceptive portrayal of Agatha Christie’s world renowned spinster sleuth.


  1. Martin Edwards said,

    Fascinating post about some of my favourite writers. I am especially keen on Christie, Sayers and Tey, in that order. I haven’t read the Dubose book – is it good?

  2. BooksPlease said,

    I agree with Martin – some of my favourite writers too. I’ve recently read The Thirteen Problems – very good. I’m mortified that when we stayed in Torquay Greenway House wasn’t open. We were there in March 2006 – the same year you as you.

    Have you read Tey’s The Daughter of Time? – that’s one of my favourite books.

  3. Lourdes said,

    I’ve been enjoying your “Art of the Mystery” posts — very informative. You know, I’ve never read Tey, though have heard much about her, of course. I will have to read her soon!

  4. Tina said,

    Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.

    I myself have been trying to solve the mystery of this legend for a while now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

  5. Christine said,

    I enjoy all five of the authors you discuss but actually love Margery Allingham–she may be my favorite. She has an knack of creating absolutely indelible supporting characters, which is only emphasized by the fact that her hero is so unassuming. Campion can play the hero in a thriller. He does in many of the early books. But he becomes a mature detective who understands moral quandries, finds a love for his country and way of life he didn’t know he has and even comes to appreciate his family. He is extremely human and, for me, ultimately more believable than Peter Wimsey or any of Agatha Christie’s super sleuths. She also has a wicked sense of humor. In some ways she rivals Jane Austin.

    One more thing about Margery Allingham: she wrote her Campion novels (and her husband continued the series after her death) from the late 1920s into the 1960s. If you read her novels in chronological order you get a social history of Great Britain. Tey, Marsh and Christie didn’t really bother quite so much with the world their characters inhabited. But if you read Allingham, you will find a sharp view of a changing society. Her protagonist ages as he moves through time and sees the world with the eyes of someone who came of age between the wars and survived to see what came after, much like his creator.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I really appreciate this thoughtful comment. Obviously, it’s time for me to give the Campion novels a second chance. Thanks so much for giving me reason to do so!

  6. From Christie to Shakespeare, in one easy leap « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] down to the  bottom of this post, and you’ll see video of Joan Hickson being interviewed at a celebration of Agatha […]

  7. tiger said,

    Some people born in the Year of the Tiger are gentle and full of sympathy. They are kind, love babies and anything that arouses their imagination. Others can be stubborn and selfish. Generally speaking, people born in the Year of the Tiger are fond of playing, and full of enthusiasm and sentiment. Some are mercurial. They can laugh happily one moment, and cry the next. They will be optimistic, but at the next they will lose their heart totally.

  8. alaxandra said,

    i think that she is the best actor and the best one writing some bookkkkk………………xoxoxoxoxo

  9. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King: a book discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to her more readily. Even so, in my mind’s eye, Russell bears a physical resemblance to Sayers… Dorothy L […]

  10. The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival (and other Agatha-related items) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] This post on the Golden Age Crime Writers might also be of interest. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Art of the Mystery, Part Three: the Golden Age of British crime fictionAll Things AgathaMiss Marple, all in one.Agatha Christie […]

  11. KP Tinsley said,

    Enjoyed reading this, and thanks for the heads up about the Smithsonian tours. You have probably seen that Jill Paton Walsh has completed an unfinished DLS manuscript (Thrones, Dominations) and I found out today that she has written two further Peter Wimsey novels (The Attenbury Emeralds and another whose title I forget. It’s in her Wikip. entry.)

    Very best wishes

  12. Stephane said,

    Where’s Patricia Wentworth?

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