A Trip Down Mystery Lane: The Golden Age

Dorothy L. Sayers was a pretty big fan of Sherlock Holmes.  In fact, she even wrote a little bit of “fanfiction”! In April of 1934, she was one of the founding members of the Sherlock Holmes Society and she wrote several essays on aspects relating to the Holmes’ canon.  Although her enthusiasm on the subject waned somewhat after WWII (she wrote “that it was possible to overdo Holmes Worship”), in the 1950’s she made at least two more excursions into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  She wrote a script for part of BBC’s “Tribute to Sherlock Holmes on the Occasion of his 100th Birthday” broadcast that aired on January 8, 1954, and in October of 1955, she took part in John Dickson Carr’s skit at the annual meeting of the Detection Club.  The skit, called “The Case of the French Ambassador’s Trousers”, featured Cyril Hare as Holmes, John Rhode as Watson, Carr as the French ambassador and Sayers as Mrs. Hudson.

Back to the script for the BBC broadcast…  for her part of the tribute Sayers decided to write about Lord Peter Wimsey meeting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  It’s not just any meeting though; a distraught Wimsey goes to Holmes for help solving a difficult case.  Of course, he is rather young at the time and the case he needs help with is that of a missing kitten named Seneca.  The chief suspect was the maid, who was known to dislike cats.  Holmes listened to Wimsey’s story and very quickly provided him with the solution.  As the script comes to a close, Dr. Watson escorts Wimsey back home and they find the kitten exactly where Holmes said it would be.  (This short script was the last story Sayers wrote about Wimsey.)

sayers

In the 1920’s, a real-life mystery caught the attention of both of Holmes and Wimsey’s creators.  In December of 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared.  In the evening of December 3rd, she drove away from her home in Berkshire and was not seen again for eleven days.  During those eleven days her car was found abandoned and there was plenty of speculation about what happened to the famous author. The home secretary at the time pressured the police to wrap the case up quickly and Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers both tried to lend a helping hand.  Doyle took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium and Sayers visited the spot where Christie disappeared.  Apparently neither of them had much luck.  (Sayers did get something out of the case though… she used the location where Christie disappeared in her book Unnatural Death).  Agatha Christie was eventually found at a hotel in Harrogate, registered under an assumed name.  Obviously there were still plenty of unanswered questions, questions that Christie couldn’t seem to answer, so the speculation continued.

Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie were two of the great writers during the Golden Age of detective fiction, but they certainly weren’t the only ones.  So who were the greatest writers?  Ellery Queen (the authors not the detective) tried to answer that question to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  This was no easy task so they decided to recruit some help. Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the cousins who were Ellery Queen… the author) asked more than 100 authors, publishes, critics, etc. to submit their own picks for the top ten best active mystery writers.  They would use these lists to compile their final list of the top ten.  Agatha Christie’s list did not include herself but did include Ellery Queen.  P.G. Wodehouse started his list with Agatha Christie.  Raymond Chandler declined to participate.  In a letter to Dannay he wrote, “No, I would not care to nominate the ten best living detective-story writers.  I don’t mind sticking my neck out, but the point is, one has to agree on a few fundamentals before one starts picking lists of ten bests… I think you are up against a difficult problem, because I think we may take it as granted that a mystery fan would rather read a bad mystery than none at all.”

Despite Chandler’s reservations, a final list was compiled but they ended up including twelve authors instead of ten: Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

I wonder how Chandler felt about being included in the list?  He may have had something to say about it because he didn’t like being associated with certain types of authors. In a letter to Hardwick Moseley, a sales manager at Houghton Mifflin, he wrote, “Just let me percolate.  I’ll find my public with almost no assistance from advertising.  But do as little as possible to lump me in the public mind with the smooth and shallow operators like Marsh and Stout and Christie.  Very likely they write better mysteries than I do, but their words don’t get up and walk.  Mine do, although it is embarrassing to have to announce it.”

He elaborated further on Christie in a letter to Robert Campigny, a French literary critic, “I find your praise of Agatha Christie a little hard to swallow.  Without serious consideration, it is in bad taste to denigrate her books simply because I find them without interest, but the idea that Mrs. Christie baffles her readers without trickery seems almost impossible for me to believe.  Isn’t it true that she creates her surprises by destroying the portrait of a character or of a person in a novel whom she has up to this point depicted in colors completely opposed to the finished portrait?”

Chandler had some thoughts on Sayers too. He said in a letter to Bernice Baumgarten, an editor at Brandt and Brandt, that “Dorothy Sayers tried to make the jump from the mystery to the novel of manners and take the mystery along with her.  She tried to move over, with all her baggage, from the people who can plot but who can’t write to the people who can write and, all too often, can’t plot.  She didn’t really make it, because the novel of manners she aimed at was in itself too slight a thing to be important.”

So, you’re asking, what did Chandler have to say about Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.  Well, the answer lies in a letter to James Keddie Jr., a member of the “Baker Street Irregulars”.  Chandler wrote, “As for the enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes, it appears to me at this date to rely partly on nostalgia and tradition and partly on qualities which did not originally make the principal interest of the Holmes stories.  Doyle understood the uses of eccentricity, but to a person with any knowledge of the police and how they operate his policemen are utterly absurd.  His scientific premises are very unreliable, and the element of mystery to a sophisticated mind frequently does not exist.  Example: The Red-Headed League.  Of course we do not have the privilege of reading Holmes fresh from the press.”

Dorothy L. Sayers begs to differ: “In 1887 A Study in Scarlet was flung like a bombshell into the field of detective fiction, to be followed within a few short and brilliant years by the marvellous series of Sherlock Holmes short stories.  The effect was electric. Conan Doyle took up the Poe formula and galvanized it into life and popularity.  He cut out the elaborate psychological introductions or restated them in crisp dialogue.  He brought into prominence what Poe had only lightly touched upon – the deduction of staggering conclusions from trifling indications in the Dumas-Cooper-Gaboriau manner.  He was sparkling, surprising, and short.  It was the triumph of the epigram.”

Pit Stops

– Sayers is said to have made Lord Peter Wimsey’s home address, 110A Piccadilly, to be half of Holmes’ address:  221B Baker Street.

– Ellery Queen may have had an identity crisis.  The authors’ real names were Daniel Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky.  Professionally they were known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee.  Together, they were the author Ellery Queen (although they occasionally allowed other writers to publish as Ellery Queen as well).  Ellery Queen the author, wrote about Ellery Queen the amateur detective… who is also a mystery writer.  Dannay and Lee also wrote together under the name Barnaby Ross.

– Would Raymond Chandler think that Lord Peter Wimsey was the right kind of person to become a detective?  I think you know the answer to that.  In a letter to James Sandoe, a librarian at the University of Colorado, he wrote, “I don’t deny the mystery writer the privilege of making his detective any sort of person he wants to make him – a poet, philosopher, student of ceramics or Egyptology, or a master of all the sciences like Dr. Thorndike.  What I don’t seem to cotton to is the affectation of gentility which does not belong to the job and which is in effect a subconscious expression of snobbery, the kind of thing that reached its high-water mark in Dorothy Sayers.”

Sources

Sayers On Holmes: Essays and Fiction on Sherlock Holmes – Introduction by Alzina Stone Dale
Paperback published by the Mythopoeic Press in 2002

“Christies Most Famous Mystery Solved at Last” by Vanessa Thorpe
Article appeared in The Guardian on October 14, 2006
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

“Ellery Queen’s ‘Double Lives’” by Herbert Mitgang
Article appeared in The New York Times on March 5, 1988
http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/05/books/ellery-queen-s-double-lives.html

Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler – Edited by Frank MacShane
Paperback published by Delta in 1987

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