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?
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]