Monday, July 13, 2015

Invitation to Murder

Behind the high, ivy-covered walls of the Burchfield Estate in Oakland, California, the Lord and Lady of the Manor spend many an evening huddled before a warm TV, watching British mystery series, mostly on PBS, some on BBCA. (They’re also available for streaming on Roku, through Acorn, but we haven’t snipped the cable yet, mostly because the servants object. And with good help so hard to find these days, well . . . .)

Among our favorites—and there are a fair number--is Midsomer Murders.  Based on a series of novels by Caroline Graham, it’s not the crème de la pinnacle of its genre (an honor I bestow upon Prime Suspect, Foyle’s War, Sherlock! and Poirot et al). But it rates high as a most companionable and genial program, with John Nettles (Ret.) playing a droll Sheriff Andy to a bizarre population of kinky eccentrics and village nutcases. It’s perverse waltz theme, featuring the Theremin, makes a fine ear worm.

We like Midsomer for choosing sharp, polished fun over tortured profundity, making it a relative rarity in 21st Century cable TV’s savage, despairing environment. (I can watch Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs--also set in rural England--again anytime I want to despair over the human condition.)

Though ostensibly contemporary (cell phones abound), Midsomer cheerily wanders a never-never land of rural English villages, woodlands and fields, all nested in the titular bucolic county.

Peaceful as it appears though, Midsomer County has what seems the highest homicide rate per population on Earth. Underneath all that chipper bourgeois Winnnie-the-Pooh gentility bubbles a bloody cauldron of homicidal mania. The English can’t stop killing! Any good-hearted, innocent wide-eyed American who dares to tread its green sward is bound to return in a pine box (as I might as I am in the planning stages of journey there in a couple of years. I am so glad I have cable!)

The blame for England’s descent into genteel slaughter though, lies not with Midsomer Murders itself, but with its ancestral inspiration: the stories and novels of Agatha Christie, still the best-selling author in the world nearly forty years after her passing, and the Queen of the so-called Golden Age of Mystery.

This ancestry is most ably and enjoyably explored in The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards, the latest in several books about how mystery fiction grew to so dominate western literature.

While paying due tribute to the founders of detective fiction, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton, The Golden Age story begins in the 1920s. That was when the painfully shy Ms. Christie, then an upper-middle-class housewife, published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced one of literature’s most endearing oddballs, Hercule Poirot.

Mystery fiction already had monuments left by Doyle and Chesterton, but thanks to Christie’s deft plotting and the imaginative characterization of her heroes (especially Poirot), the genre’s popularity ballooned to phenomenon. Her success inspired near-countless other writers to try their hand, among them Dorothy L. Sayers.

Eventually, in 1930, a group of them living in London, co-led by Sayers, united to form The Detection Club, electing G.K. Chesterton as their first president. This happened, in part, to help promote the work of members; form a united front against greedy scheming publishers; but, mostly to provide an excuse to socialize. They held their own cheeky, flamboyant bizarre initiation ritual, complete with robes, candles, murder weapons, and a skull grinning from a velvet cushion, all topped with a grandly solemn oath. They often collaborated on novels, stories, and radio scripts in round-robin fashion.

They were truly like characters out of their own books, as odd and fascinating as the tales they imagined. Their private lives concealed their own mysteries and scandals.

Sayers had a child out of wedlock whose existence she never fully acknowledged (in keeping with the strict mores of the day). And Christie pulled a sensational vanishing act in 1926, for reasons that remain foggy. Other writers wove their secret fantasies of murder and adulterous misbehavior into their stories, engaging in a level of meta-gamesmanship, perhaps equal to Vladimir Nabokov in daring and cleverness, if not in style and vision. (Nabokov, sad to say, was too much a snob, for he could have well thumped these writers at their own game playing. What a book that would have been!)

They all thought nothing of cheerfully peeling their plotlines right out of the day’s headlines, imagining solutions to many a famous and unsolved murder. But they were not a callous bunch. Some critics theorize that many of them were subconsciously dealing with the trauma of World War I, in which many served.

Christie and Sayers are among the few Detection Club members who are read widely today. Some of the other noted names were A.A. Milne and, later, Eric Ambler.

Others are now forgotten, some undeservedly. Among those, John Dickson Carr, an American, was master of the “locked room” mystery (and author of a sinfully enjoyable non-mystery, the time-travel historical romp, The Devil in Velvet).

Then there is Michael Innes, who helped develop the “Oxford Don” mystery. Innes wrote fine prose with a razor wit and a flair for wild n’ wooly action climaxes. His influence can be gleaned in the series featuring Inspectors Morse and Lewis.

Despite their reputation for upper-class twittery, Golden Age writers often adeptly captured their era, the years between the wars. Nor were they all reactionary Tories. Their viewpoints ran from left to right and up and down the class system. Some even sounded early alarms about Nazism while inveighing against both Communism and Capitalism. The Detection Club drew members from near and far, among them New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh and the American Carr.

The Detection Club is still active, with author Edwards as a member and first club archivist. His research has borne good fruit here. But if you want to join the club yourself, good luck on even finding a web page. It’s invitation only. Some things really should remain a mystery, hidden in locked rooms for good.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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