The end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a nebulous concept. Was it 1939? Was it 1945? Do books written by authors who wrote in the Golden Age but after those dates count? And most importantly, does it really matter?
Probably not, but it’s the books written between these dates – 1939 to 1945 – that intrigue me. It’s often argued that the end of the obsession with detective fiction was due to the change in attitude following the Second World War – not something that I intend to go into here – but what I do want to take a look at is those books written during the War.
Let’s narrow it down a little further – 1941 to 1943. I don’t know how slow the writing and publishing process was back then but it’s a reasonable presumption that books from this period were written after the war had broken out but before the outcome was in any way certain. The detective fiction of the time falls into two camps – those that ignore the fact there is a war on and carry on as normal and those that allow the war to influence the events in the mysteries presented.
Take Agatha Christie. She had five titles published in this period, of which four – Evil Under The Sun, The Body In The Library, Five Little Pigs and The Moving Finger – there might be a mention that Jerry Burton’s accident was a military aircraft crash, but I don’t recall. No, it’s only N or M? where Tommy and Tuppence go undercover at a hotel to find a German spy.
It fascinates me that Christie just ignored for the most part what was happening in the world. Why was this? Was it a certainty that life would carry on as normal after the war? Were they being written to provide the readership with a brief distraction? The very fact that non-propaganda books were being printed at all during wartime fascinates me – I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t any anti-German propaganda in The Body I The Library – but whatever the reason she made that choice for, she was hardly alone. While the Sir Henry Merrivale books of the time deal with the current state of affairs – look at the possible panic in the just-pre-war The Reader Is Warned where the country becomes concerned that the “murder weapon” Teleforce could fall into German hands – Gideon Fell was never significantly (if at all?) inconvenienced by them. Ngaio Marsh wrote two wartime tales, but quite late in the conflict but cranked out, for example, Surfeit of Lampreys as well.
The blackout is used as a plot device by a number of authors, for example, Checkmate To Murder by E C R Lorac, but other authors embraced the setting of the war to a greater extent. And it’s these books that I’m going to take a look at over the next couple of months. Christopher Bush’s war trilogy – The Cases of the Murdered Major, the Kidnapped Colonel and the Fighting Soldier – is on the agenda – indeed, it’s the inspiration for this mini-project, and I’ll definitely be looking at some of the John Rhode/Miles Burton titles, specifically The Fourth Bomb, Night Exercise and Four-Ply Yarn. And if anyone wants to give me a hundred odd quid, then I’ll look at They Watched By Night and Death At The Helm as well. Gladys Mitchell’s Brazen Tongue has been mentioned, as has Nicholas Blake’s Smiler With A Knife, so they’re both on the agenda as well. Thanks to the folks at the Facebook GAD site for these.
Any suggestions of other titles to take a look at are gratefully received. Titles that I’ve already covered:
- Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham
- Murder M.D. by Miles Burton
- Dead On The Track by John Rhode (the war is very much in the background here)
- Men Die At Cyprus Lodge by John Rhode
- Nine and Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson
- The Reader Is Warned by Carter Dickson (using the build-up to the war)
- She Died A Lady by Carter Dickson (again, in the background)
- He Wouldn’t Kill Patience by Carter Dickson (again in the background but a crucial plot point)
- Checkmate To Murder by E C R Lorac
If anyone has any other suggestions – I’m looking for mysteries rather than thrillers and for books not just with a wartime setting but written when the outcome of the conflict was uncertain – then they would be gratefully appreciated. To keep the project focussed, I’m going to look initially at least as those set in the UK, so I’ll leave Chandler, Stout and Marsh for another day.
So, first on the agenda are the Home Guard shenanigans of John Rhode’s Night Exercise and murder in a British Prisoner of War camp (the camp is British, not the prisoners) in The Case Of The Murdered Major. Chocks away!