#345: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Amateur Detective

Amateur

Recently, scouting the periodicals of the British Library for stories lest I undertake a second Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums, I found a small pamphlet entitled ‘Everythynge I Know About Detectyve Fiction’ which appears to have been self-published in a single volume around 1925 in an act of vanity by the author Captain Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne Q.C. A.B.V. (certainly, on taking it to the desk, it didn’t appear to be on the library’s catalogue, so you may search for it online in vain…).

A brief consultation of its pages shows Boryng-Payne to be something of a self-styled expert on the emerging GAD field, and I wanted to share with you his perspectives on the writing of such novels, especially with regard to the creation of the amateur sleuth archetype that was beginning to emerge as central to the genre.  I’ll skip the opening eight-page tirade entitled ‘Why I Should Be Free To Hunt Foxes and Servants Wherever I Bally-Well Like’ (it doesn’t have any bearing on the remaining manuscript, and makes an unusual prologue) and start a the point — mid-sentence — where he suddenly seems to remember his chosen topic…

~

[T]he first thing you’ll need is a detective character, ideally to base about 20 books around, so don’t make him too complex or expect him to — heaven help us — “grow” (he is not a plant).  This is what you should do:

He must be…

1) …well, a man, obviously.  Women tend to have an attack of the vapours (or a fit of the panics — I, hurrum, I don’t really engage in Women’s Problems) around a corpse, and can be so unpredictable at times.  The last thing anyone needs is a woman getting hysterical and making everyone feel awkward.  Honestly, this one time, my Aunt Dolly… [editor’s note:  a paragraph has been expunged here].  Also, unless the crime involves flower-arranging or a schoolboy wearing his cap in church, well, it’s not really in a lady’s area of knowledge, is it?  Make the chap a chap.  Better for everyone that way.

2) …of independent means.  Nobody wants to read about someone filling out an expense form, or struggling to get petrol if there’s rationing.  None of that.  Keep reality out of it, it’s bad enough that Hitler imposes on our day-to-day lives, I don’t want the blighter in my books, too.  Instead, your detective must be wealthy, or the friend of someone who can get him to places where crimes happen.  So he could be friends with a detective, for instance.  However he must not be a detective.  Good heavens, no.  If possible, make him landed gentry, or descended from them.  You know, better than the normal people.  At a push he can be related to a detective, I suppose, but obviously make the business of solving crime seem a little beneath him.  Those parties aren’t going to attend themselves, you know.

3) …British.  English, preferably, for the obvious reason, but the Scots have a native cunning and the Irish are a dogged and determined people and so either would do in a pinch.  Never met a Welshman, don’t care to.  And if you must write some Johnny foreigner for god’s sake have him be a bit cracked, eh?  Have him dress funny or use funny words, we don’t want good old English policemen shown up by some supercilious foreigner coming over here and finding our murderers.  But don’t have him go on about home too much, what?  If he loves his own country so much, he can bally well move back there, I say.  Also, it cuts down on research.

4) …cultured.  Obviously if the man’s English this will happen naturally, but if you put some Yank in the middle of your plot — and, really, why would you, old bean? — make sure he knows how to address a lady and the appropriate thing to wear for dinner.  More than likely your crooks are going to be in the upper echelons of the honeycombed nightmare of British Society, so we don’t want him sticking out like a chicken in a police line-up.  How can he pick up on subtle clues in conversation if he’s worrying over which fork to eat his mousse with, eh?

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He must have…

5) …a pet detective, as mentioned in point 2 above, who will let him wander around crime scenes, interfere with evidence, ask insulting questions, and generally put everyone down like they deserve.  Someone grateful to have him around, a paternalistically-smiling figure of authority standing nearby probably being a bit exasperated but also grudgingly impressed.  Your sleuth will spend half the book in A&E otherwise from all the suspects (and probably policemen, what?) who will keep slapping him around on account of his insufferable attitude.

6) …an eye for the ladies.  Pretty things that they are, he’s got to know when a filly is innocent, and possibly get a bit caught up with one who might be guilty, eh?  After all, these books need a bit of romance to spice them up, what?  And if you will insist on your detective being married, for God’s sake don’t mention The Wife unless you have to, and preferably drop her altogether after a couple of books (I don’t mean anything coarse like divorce, old boy, just…sideline her; I’m sure she’s got better things to be doing; those flowers aren’t going to arrange themselves, after all).

7) …good moral fibre.  The law is all well and good for your policeman, but your amateur doesn’t need to, well, to walk in quite those same footsteps now, does he?  After all, the King’s not paying his wages, so who’s to say he has to answer to anyone, what?  He can reach an answer and not tell anyone, or decide to hide the truth…but, dammitall, he must have a good reason for doing it, y’see?  Not just a pretty pair of eyes — though, heh, heh, we a like a pretty pair of eyes — but, hurrum, where was I?  He can set a killer free if he wants, but it’s got to be for the right reason, y’hear?  And if he doesn’t set them free, it’s also for the right reason.  Yes, this can get a little tricky.

8) …a sense of drama.  None of this quietly sidling up to the blighter who killed his uncle on account of the terms of his entail and quietly saying “Right, young man, I think you’ll be coming with me and be a good sport about it, what?”.  Heavens, that would never do.  He’s got to get everyone together and really go on and on at length about everything that’s happened in the case up to the solution before pointing out who the killer is in front of everyone so that they can all gasp and ruffle their skirts and be morally outraged and the like.  A showman, that’s what he needs to be, which is the only way a foreigner would really be suitable.  We Brits are too busy being noble and reserved to put on a good show.  Honestly, I went to the circus last week… [three paragraphs expunged]

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He must never…

9) …fail.  Englishmen do not fail.  Why, the Empire… [4 paragraphs expunged].  We do not read the detective story for a treatise on the frailty of existence, what?  Leave that to the Romantic Poets.  A crime is committed, our gentleman looks at the clues, and reaches his correct solution.  If you’re not convinced you’ve sewn it up tightly enough, your degenerate criminal must obviously confess or try to kill the detective as a way of sealing his own fate.  But your man must be successful, detectives always are.  Who’s that, you say?  Sheringham?  Never heard of him.  Sounds like a right cad.

10) …doubt.  A clue is a clue, and it points where he says it points.  If you want to suggest it might have some other meaning to throw dust in your readers’ eyes, have a commoner follow him around and blurt out something uninformed — so many people of that social group do that already, no-one will notice anything amiss.  Your detective catches the killer, sends them to the gallows, doesn’t need to give it another thought, what?  Break the law, get punished — it’s the natural order of things.  Keeps the rabble in line.  Wimsey, you say?  Never heard of him.  Sounds like a Fifth Columnist.

11) …fight, brawl, and otherwise threaten or dispense violence, nor be seen to condone the use of such in the commission of his investigation.  A gentleman does not.  Even some Scots would baulk at this, I believe.  His wrestling is mental, the violence present only that of pure ideas and rigour clashing,  The most strenuous physical activity in which he partakes is the polite refusal of yet more tea forced upon him by an overly-attentive hostess, or the physical outward display of the agony caused by his own fervid cogitation.  Equally, physically re-enacting the process of a crime — climbing fences and whatnot — to ‘get into the mind of the criminal’ is the work of the police.  If they want to scrape around in the dirt for their money, let ’em.

12) …engage in any criminous behaviour.  Crime is for the criminal classes, and a gentleman must never be found among them.  We make-believe that, hurrum, that criminals can be found among the better classes purely to give the great unwashed something to cling to — it has become wearyingly necessary to appear “like a normal person” and so fiction must pander to this delusion.  Your English gentleman is not a criminal, and so the detective must be a paradigm of virtue in his conduct and opinions.  He may, shall we say, “rub shoulders” with the criminal classes, but he mut always disapprove of them, being as they are bad for the Empire [2 paragraphs expunged], bad for the country, bad for the King, and only a twitch of their venomous brain away from having your sleuth pursuing them in the defence of all that is good, right, proper and true [English national anthem expunged].

~

So, there you have it; a man ahead of his time in many ways even if not all his opinions have aged well.  As yet my researches haven’t brought much information about Boryng-Payne to light, but I shall keep you updated if I uncover any more in the months and years ahead.

13 thoughts on “#345: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Amateur Detective

  1. haha great “find” JJ! Not sure how Captain Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne would have coped with the changes the 1930s made upon mystery fiction – got to admit still chuckling about this bit: ‘so don’t make him too complex or expect him to — heaven help us — “grow” (he is not a plant)’

  2. Though the original manuscript is indeed hard to track down, there are a few contemporary reviews of this:

    “Jolly sound on hunting and servants (the harder you beat ’em, the more they respect you, that’s what I say). Don’t approve of detectives though. Sniffing about the place, digging up the flowerbeds, looking sideways at a chap just because his aunt, uncle, second cousin and nosy swine of a butler have all been rather unlucky with their salmon mousse supplier, within a fortnight. Just read the first bit, that’s what I say and use the rest to swat the maids.”
    Sir Lee Grayte-Broot, Bart. (Parkhurst Literary Quarterly)

    “Captain Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne’s wonderful treatise changed my life and cured my eczema. Highly recommended. In fact, buy three, in case of fire.”
    Captain Sir Completely-Anonymous-Chap (letters to the Times, the Spectator, Vanity Fair etc)

    “While there is much to admire in the Captain’s little pamphlet, especially as regards women (god bless ’em) and as regards infallibility (I myself have refused to be wrong ever since 1892 – if the evidence contradicts you, find more agreeable evidence, that’s what I say ) I do have to take exception to one small point (it’s contractual). I myself have presided over three separate police line-ups with inadvertent chickens and believe me, it’s ruddy hard to spot ’em. Vicious beaks, you know and beady little eyes.”
    Lord U. Reilly Juan Twopunch-M’lightsout (literary critic for The Wafflers Club and gentleman sleuth: twenty three cases solved, two without lawsuits pending)

    I really hope you dig up some more on this distressingly overlooked authority.

  3. Wow – this is such an impressive find JJ! In fact, it’s so intriguing that I am undertaking great personal expense to travel to England so I can read the original copy that you cite. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    This list does remind me of a recent feeling that came over me. Having read several Queen novels (taking place in New York), a Helen McCloy (again, New York), JDC’s Poison in Jest (Pennsylvania), and several Paul Halter novels (taking place in a fairy tale vision of England), I had a pressing desire. I wanted a British country house mystery and nothing else would do.
    1. It must be set in England.
    2. It must take place on a massive estate.
    3. Related to #2, it must be populated with the upper crust. Servants may naturally grace the pages, but they’d better not get too involved with the actual plot.
    4. Related to #1, it would be preferable if there is a fair amount of fog or rain.

    • Well, Ben, since you ask so nicely I’ll let you in on a secret — the second chapter of this pamphlet deals with the settngs of GAD novels, and I was considering transcribing that for next week’s post.

      Also, on account of this not actually being on the BL’s catalogue, I may have — hurrum, entirely accidentally, you understand — sort of walked out with it.

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