Advice From The Duchess of Death

Great Britain, Reading & Writing

Another republished portmanteau novel by the Detective Club has fallen into my possession after ‘The Floating Admiral’. This one features Dorothy L Sayers and the wonderful Gladys Mitchell, but a particular point of interest has been the essay in the foreword by Agatha Christie, from which I quote here;

‘What kind of people read detective stories and why? Invariably, I think, the busy people, the workers of the world. Highly placed men in the scientific world, even if they read nothing else, seem to have time for a detective story; perhaps because a detective story is complete relaxation, an escape from the realism of everyday life. It has, too, the tonic value of a puzzle – a challenge to the ingenuity. It sharpens your wits – makes you mentally alert. To follow a detective story closely you need concentration. To spot the criminal needs acumen and good reasoning powers. It has also a sporting interest and is much less expensive than betting on horses or gambling at cards. Its ethical background is usually sound. Very, very rarely is the criminal the hero of the book. Society unites to hunt him down, and the reader can have all the fun of the chase without moving from a comfortable armchair.

The essence of a detective story is that it shall be “natural” in its setting and characters. My own Hercule Poirot is often somewhat of an embarrassment to me – not in himself, but in the calling of his life. Would anyone go and “consult” him? One feels not. So, more and more, his entry into a murder drama has to be fortuitous. My Miss Marple is more happily placed – an elderly, gossipy lady in a small village, who pokes her nose into all that does or does not concern her, and draws deductions based on years of experience of human nature.

At the present day, I should call Margery Allingham one of the foremost writers of detective fiction. Not only does she write excellent English, but her drawing of character is masterly and she has wonderful power in creating atmosphere. You can feel the sinister influences behind the scenes, and her characters live on in your memory long after you have put the book away; the grim autocrat Mrs Faraday of Police at the Funeral. The kindly and lovable “belle” in Death of a Ghost. Jimmy Sutane, the sad-faced dancer with the twinkling feet. They are unusual but real personalities, vividly interesting. And through the books moves “Mr Campion”, apparently vacuous, actually keenly acute, and with him the faithful Lugg (in whom, alas, I never can quite believe). The pleasant negative inconsequence of Campion makes a dramatic contrast with the undercurrent of suspicion and fear that grows to a climax – particularly in Flowers for the Judge. Sometimes, one feels, Allingham is inclined to subordinate plot to characters. She is so interested in them that the dénouement of the crime sometimes comes rather flatly as inevitable, rather than as a surprising bombshell.

Dorothy Sayers, alas, has wearied of the detective story and has turned her attention elsewhere. We all regret it, for she was such an exceptionally good detective story writer and a delightfully witty one. Her earlier books Whose Body?, Unnatural Death, Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are decidedly her best, having greater simplicity and more “punch” to them. Also her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, whose face was originally piquantly described as “emerging from his top hat like a maggot emerging from a gorgonzola cheese”, became through the course of years merely a “handsome hero”, and admirers of his early prowess can hardly forgive his attachment to, and lengthy courtship of, a tiresome young woman called Harriet. One had hoped that, once married to her, he would resume his old form, but alas, Lord Peter remains an example of a good man spoilt.

Dickson Carr (or Carter Dickson, for they are one and the same) is a master magician. I believe that only those who write detective stories themselves can really appreciate his marvellous sleight of hand. For that is what it is – he is the supreme conjurer, the king of the art of misdirection. Each of his books is a brilliant, fantastic, quite impossible conjuring trick: “You watch my hands, ladies and gentlemen, you watch my sleeves, the hat is empty, nothing anywhere – Hey presto! A rabbit!”

He has, too, the gift of storytelling; once you begin a book of his, you simply cannot put it down. As each chapter draws to a close, you see ahead a reasonable explanation, then, like Alice through the Looking Glass’s path, it seems to shake itself, and off it goes in a twist of fresh bewilderment. His characterisation is not particularly good, his people talk in a way quite unlike life, his events are fantastic. It is all stagey – set behind footlights – but what a performance!

Carr’s penchant is for the impossible situation. He starts with that – either with the familiar “closed room” or “closed circle” or with, as in the “Arabian Nights Mystery”, a setting of pure fantasy, with a set of people behaving apparently like lunatics. Then a shake of the kaleidoscope, and you get the reason of it, the thing is after all quite normal – and then fresh impossibilities, fresh rationalisations. For some people, the twists of the plot may be too complicated. He can certainly be accused of occasionally loading the dice, but that crime can be forgiven for the brilliance with which it is done. The clues to the truth are so slight as to be almost unfair. One little sentence slipped into the middle of a tense situation. A mention of a car radiator on page 30 that does not agree with the same car’s radiator on page 180. Do you notice it? Of course not! Your eyes are riveted on a suspicious circumstance which you think only you have spotted. Misdirection again.

A crowd of people are assembled round a dinner table in The Red Widow Murders. There is a sinister room in the house, nailed up for many years. Anyone who stays in it alone is found dead. A man goes in, locks himself in while the others wait outside. Every quarter of an hour they call to him and he replies – but when the door is opened the man is dead, in a room with locked shutters and no secret ways in or out, and, what is more, that man has been dead for over an hour. The impossible has happened. You never noticed a little descriptive phrase about the man at dinner; pale, nervous, eating nothing but soup … your clue was there, in those four words.

Dickson Carr’s detective is the beer drinking Dr Fell, Carter Dickson’s sleuth is Sir Henry Merrivale, the “old man”, a former chief of military intelligence. I much prefer him of the two – but it is the actual unfolding of the story that is the real strength of Carr’s genius. He is a male Scheherazade – and certainly no cruel empress could order his execution until she had heard the next instalment.

Ngaio Marsh is another deservedly popular detective writer. Her style is amusing and her characterisations excellent. Surfeit of Lampreys was a delightful book, though perhaps one so enjoyed the Lamprey family that one rather forgot about the murder. Death in Ecstasy is a very clever picture of a little coterie of worshippers in a “New Religion” adroitly put over by the infamous Father Garnett. Artists in Crime is a good story of murder among a collection of painters. Both the atmosphere and the people are first rate.

There are many other good detective writers – space forbids the mention of all of them. There is Michael Innes, a brilliant and witty writer. There is Gladys Mitchell with her fascinating Mrs Bradley, ugly as a toad and armed with the latest up-to-date theories of psychology. R Austin Freeman’s books remain interesting examples of scientific methods of crime deduction.

I have chosen for fullest description those writers whom I myself admire most and consider at the top of their profession. And now I may say, perhaps, a few words about myself. Since I have been writing detective stories for a quarter of a century and have some 40-odd novels to my credit, I may lay claim at least to being an industrious craftsman. A more aristocratic title was given to me by an American paper, which dubbed me “the Duchess of Death”.

I have enjoyed writing detective stories, and I think the austerity and stern discipline that goes to making a “tight” detective plot is good for one’s thought processes. It is the kind of writing that does not permit loose or slipshod thinking. It all has to dovetail, to fit in as part of a carefully constructed whole. You must have your blueprint first and it needs really constructive thinking to make a workmanlike job of it.

Naturally one’s methods alter. I have become more interested as the years go on in the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence. I have written light-hearted murder stories, and serious crime stories, and technical extravaganzas like Ten Little Niggers. I have laid a crime story in ancient Egypt, and a murder play on a modern Nile steamer. I have had the conventional body in the library, and bodies in aeroplanes, and on boats and in trans-European Trains. Hercule Poirot has made quite a place for himself in the world and is regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator. I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers: be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!’

In the essay she is also generous about Conan Doyle, Anthony Berkeley and Freeman Wills Crofts. It strikes me that although Mitchell was a far wilder writer, R Austin Freeman more imaginative, Carr more ingenious, Christie brought just enough of each element together in her books in the perfect balance to make them so popular.

4 comments on “Advice From The Duchess of Death”

  1. DavidF says:

    Christie had a somewhat purist approach to detective fiction – although if anyone is entitled to, it is she. If detective fiction were primarily about the puzzle, I wouldn’t read it!

    Having recently re-read all of the Sayers novels and shorts, I’ve come to the conclusion that what Christie found unfortunate is actually what made DLS’s works something one can go back to again and again. Sayers wanted the reader to spend time in the company of the marvellously rich (in all senses) characters and their lives, which were made more entertaining by involving murders and mysteries – Wimsey grew up, grew old, and recovered from shell-shock, thus making him far more real. She was also exploring (and criticising) the culture and mores of the time through the vehicle of crime fiction, with a far more modern sensibility than her peers.

  2. Certainly not going to disagree with her comments about the great John Dickson Carr, my favourite of all GAD authors. Looks like this essay was originally published quite a while ago in CADS magazine after being unearthed by Tony Medawar though no mention seems to have been made of this. Either way, great to have it widely available again. Seems that she allowed herself to be a tad more direct than she might have been given that it was originally only intended for publication overseas (apparently it only appeared in 1947 in the USSR …)

  3. Alan G says:

    I got into Margery Allingham through the BBC series “Campion”. I loved the books and bought every one I could get my paws on. Then I lent the lot to an immigrant Indian friend who wanted to improve his English and to get a better idea of the make-up of his new homeland. Maybe not the best examples – but they were light, engaging and fun to read. And complex, if one wanted to make the effort to read further.

    He was refused citizenship and (with my permission) took the books away with him back to India. Last I heard they had been distributed as teaching aids. A good life story for any book.

  4. Gary says:

    I love the idea that there is some small portion of India where the young get their first impression of what England might be like by reading Allingham

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