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  • Writer's pictureSharon Michalove

Queens of the Golden Age

An update on my Agatha Christie post. If you are interested in the opinions of other crime writers about Agatha Christie, check out this post from The Irish Times, "Agatha Christie: Genius or Hack?"

Five women. Five crowns. Five Queens of Mystery. While the best known were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, all of these writers deserve attention, even though Ngaio Marsh is frequently left off the list because she was a New Zealander. All of them wrote about murder, yes, but more importantly, they delineated British society, giving readers a picture of the period between the World Wars and into the post-war period.

While all five authors wrote about crime, their real interests shine through--music, theater, the world of books, the state of their world. So take the plunge. Explore with the Queens of Crime.

Sometimes we want to visit the past. Not our own past. The past of the Golden Age detective novels. And while there were undeniably great male writers in the genre, like Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery), Nicholas Blake (C.ecil Day Lewis), Michael Innes (J.I,M. Stewart), and, to move across the Atlantic, Ellery Queen (Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee), there are no better guides than the five ladies above.

Whether you are having tea with Miss Marple, checking out rare books with Lord Peter Wimsey, going to the theater with Inspector Alleyn, at a country house party with the mysterious Albert Campion, or investigating the reputation of Richard III with Inspector Alan Grant, you will be immersed in the world of England in the 1920s onward. Even Marsh, who was a New Zealander, they all set their crime novels in the midst of English society.

English Golden Age mystery is very different from American crime stories. An article in Crime Reads delineates this proposition.

[T]he English style of detective story is subtly different from the American. Like a comedy of manners or a French farce, its narrative model makes certain demands on style and structure. Staples such as the second murder, the misheard snippet of conversation, the whereabouts of key characters at the precise moment when the lights went out, and how a potential murderer might have concocted a deadly poison from common garden ingredients can at show as creaky plot mechanisms in unskilled hands. But in the hands of a master—or a Queen—they can integrate seamlessly into a work of exquisite precision, a story for which we are happy to suspend disbelief for a few happy hours while we hope that the nice lady who runs the local sweet shop will not after all turn out to be a vicious serial killer.

Agatha Christie

The best-selling author of all time after the Bible and Shakespeare, Christie began writing at a young age, but didn't turn to crime writing until her sister Madge bet that she couldn't write a successful crime novel. Always in competition with her older sibling who already had stories published and was to have several plays staged, Agatha took up the challenge. Although her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was originally not a success, the fact that she had signed a contract for five more books meant that she would continue as a crime writer. But her real interests were in family dynamics, broken relationships, and the underlying causes for crime.

Dorothy L Sayers

Sayers was an Oxford-educated scholar. Her aim had been poetry, not crime fiction. And her contemporaries teased her as being too-much in love with her hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, a brilliant detective who hides his intellect under a Bertie Wooster sort of façade. Her books are more about character and social mores, as well as highlighting her experience in the world of advertising and her love of bellringing. Academia comes in with my personal favorite, Gaudy Night. But don't look for neatly plotted books. Enjoy them for other pleasures. She was considered to be the worst plotter of the Golden Age authors.

Once she gave up writing novels, she published a translation of The Song of Roland, an eleventh -century poem about a warrior knight in the reign of Charlemagne. Then she devoted herself to Dante during her remaining years. She also wrote a great deal about religion.

Margery Allingham

Allingham is considered a much less conservative writer than Christie and Sayers, who were more snobbish and prone to stereotypical depictions and racial slurs—in Christie's case casually and in Sayer's case out of conviction. Both attitudes are reprehensible, but Allingham was altogether different, writing with sympathy about her characters. A review in The Guardian by Jane Stevenson in 2006 highlights this quality.

One aspect of the enduring appeal of her books is that she was truly interested in how a life which seems monumentally weird from outside can be one particular person's normality. What "ordinary" means for a dodgy undertaker, perhaps, or a retired chorus girl. It is this capacity for observation which has often made people think of her as "Dickensian".

Ngaio Marsh

Known to most as the author of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries, Marsh was educated as a painter and trained in theater. In fact, in her native New Zealand she is honored as a theater director, specializing in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and other classic playwrights. Many of of her mysteries have a theatrical component and several are set in New Zealand, although most have familiar English settings—London and country houses. As well as her prolific writing, she produced an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew.

Josephine Tey

Scottish writer Elizabeth Macintosh first came to public attention as Gordon Daviot when her play, Richard off Bordeaux was produced in London's West End in 1932 with John Gielgud. She was very private and kept her life compartmentalized. She was never part of the Detection Club, had few friends, and was more known to theater people than to crime writers. She disdained the rules of detective fiction. But she was committed to her craft. A September 2015 article in Vanity Fair written by Francis Wheen states

While writing a novel she could allow no distractions, and it shows. The prose is nimble, acute, witty. The texture of English interwar life is palpable. Tey’s fictional worlds come fully furnished: even minor characters are never mere ciphers. Her regular detective, Alan Grant, has none of the eye-catching props—deerstalker hat, waxed mustache, monocle—that other authors append to fictional sleuths in lieu of a third dimension. He is dogged, diligent, ready to admit error. “By the time coffee had arrived he was no nearer a solution,” Tey writes in A Shilling for Candles. “He wished he was one of these marvelous creatures of super-instinct and infallible judgment who adorned the pages of detective stories, and not just a hard-working, well-meaning, ordinarily intelligent Detective Inspector.”

Nicola Upson, who had begun researching Tey for a biography, later decided that her subject would be more suited to fiction and has so far written eleven Josephine Tey Mysteries with Tey as the detective.

For More Information

Although all of these writers began publishing before the Second World War, they continued during and after as well (although Tey died in 1952 and only produced six novels). If you enjoy podcasts, check out the website Shedunnit. There is a great six-part series called "Queens of Crime at War," that talks about the effects the coming of the war had on each of these authors.

Some recommendations if you'd like to start your own reading journey:

Agatha Christie

Dorothy L. Sayers

Josephine Tey (Elizabeth Macintosh)

Margery Allingham

Ngaio Marsh


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