#348: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Setting

Country House

Following on from last week’s unveiling of the previously-unknown ‘Everythyne I Know About Detectyve Fiction’ (1925) by Captain Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne Q.C. A.B.V. and his perspectives on the writing of an amateur sleuth, I thought I’d share the second section of this pamphlet on the perks and perils of the setting of a typical GAD novel of detection.

Approached in his signature take-no-prisoners idiom, here is what Boryng-Payne has to offer to students of the GAD school…


The best place to set a murder mystery is in a country house.  You own one — well, your family was given one by some bastard son of a King’s mistress long enough ago that you might as well own it, what? — you know what they look like, you know what’s found in ’em, and that’s the sort of thing the Public wants: show ’em what they can’t have, that’s why people read this sort of drivel.  Gotta be careful, though, gotta be dam’ careful; make it sound too appealing and you’ll get the blighters turning up on your doorstep (these people always will turn up without first making an appointment) asking for a hand-out, or maybe just about ready to cosh you and take whatever they want, what?

So maybe you want to set your murder plot somewhere else, eh?  Send the peasants somewhere else, or at least keep them from looking too closely at your mansion and thinking their violent thoughts — my advice, go on a fox hunt and accidentally shoot one or two, what?  That’ll keep ’em away.  Anyway, here’s some other settings; you can send me 3s 2d if you use any of ’em.

1. A Mode of Transport

Advantages: Long-distance aeroplanes and trains are too dashed expensive for most people to afford, so you’ve got that glamour angle.  Honestly, most of the time your plot wouldn’t even have to be that good, everyone’ll be too busy “ooo”-ing and “aah”-ing at the scenery.  You can just throw in some random little bits that wouldn’t be a plot on their own — a kleptomaniac, a spy, someone who drinks, you know the drill — and put them somewhere that sounds exotic (like a river in Africa, see #3) and the book writes itself.  Doesn’t even matter if you don’t tie it together convincingly, people will still think it’s good because you mention a mountain they only heard of on the wireless.  The book writes itself.

Disadvantages: Well, it can be dashed difficult giving everyone something to do.  You don’t want the entire middle section of your book to be each person interviewed one-by-one — dare I say it, hurrum, that would stop everything in its tracks.  I s’pose you could have day trips and the like, that might work — just don’t strand them in snow, or trap them somewhere ridiculous like a ‘plane, that would never work.  You can’t go on a day trip from a plane, though the commoners probably think they’re held up by fairy dust so you could probably write whatever you likePlus, that dam’ impertinence of having to arrive at the airport 20 minutes before your flight means a lot of dead time in your narrative.

You Must: Have a suspicious butler or flight attendant; probably a foreigner, or with some sort of weird name.

You Must Not: Kill the servants; the plot only works if we’re interested in the victim.


2. A Village

Advantages: If you look out the window now you can probably see the village your family owns all the land around — hopefully it’s some way off in the distance.  Use that one.  Maybe change a few details to confuse the locals — say the post-mistress is attractive, that always foxes ’em — but there’s plenty of material sitting right there, ready to pluck.  A few tips: some people don’t have their own staff, and anyone less than middle class raises their own children.  Right, off you go.

Disadvantages: If you’ve never been to your village, and you probably haven’t — there’s a reason you have the big house outside the village, after all — you may need to get your driver to take you in so you can see Real People and get a sense of the place.  And, of course, then there’s the risk some candidate for alienism might not tug their forelock as you drive past, and then you’ve got to get out and horsewhip the fella, and that’s your day ruined.  Also, how many books can you really set in a village?  After someone gets murdered for five books in a row all the locals would start talking about ghosts or witches or curses or such rot.  And what’s that going to do to the price of your land, eh?

You Must: Give it a nice bucolic name — Wiffingham-Under-Marshes, or Cumberbatch, or Sodding-Townies, something to make the English heart swell.

You Must Not: Make the vicar the killer; if an Englishman can’t trust a man of God, the Bolsheviks have won.


3. Overseas

Advantages: Good heavens, how many people have ever been overseas?  And, no, the paddle-steamer to the Isle of Wight doesn’t count.  You can write whatever you want, man, and no-one will be any the wiser — teams of killer monkeys, poisons no civilised scientist would have reason to suspect, wide-eyed locals going loopy over nonsense superstitions that your Englishman with his God-given common sense and natural superiority can dispel with a — hurrum — a torch or something.  Additionally, there’s plenty of scope to have more suspicious foreigners probably out to steal our women or impugn the King’s name or something.  But be sure to include one good foreign Johnny, what?  I know it runs contrary to all reason, but it will help with negotiating overseas publication rights.

Disadvantages: There’s a chance one of the Cabinet might read it and use it to inform foreign policy, but apart from that there are no drawbacks whatsoever.

You Must: Include at least one character whose speech is all written like how they sound; it will be exactly like meeting an actual foreigner, and helps everyone remember that they’re foreign.

You Must Not: Imply that the food is nice; some imaginative writing can go too far.


4. The Theatre

Advantages: Plenty of opportunity for disguise, maybe someone dresses as someone else, or two women have the same blouse…you get the idea.  Lots of moving parts, things happening backstage, put in a roguish Cockney or two to make it seem like you know how they talk or what they do.  Could shoot someone during a play — Lord alone knows I’ve felt like doing that myself enough times — or drop ’em through a trap door.  Sleuth could be in the audience — provided he’s not expecting a bawdy show, mind, leave that sort of thing to the Hun — or visiting a friend.  Can have foreigners in the crew, too, give the reader someone to squint at.

Disadvantages: Have you ever tried to talk to Creative types?  Simple, most of ’em.  Can’t even remember a chap’s name, call everyone “dahling”.  Horrible people.  A novel full of ’em would drive the reader potty, so trying to write it would probably send you right to Bedlam.  Only way around it is to kill lots of ’em so the reader has something to look forward to, but then you’ve got short odds on it being a surprise come the end.

You Must: Include dancing girls, especially descriptions of their legs.

You Must Not: Say you’ve looked everywhere when you’ve actually disregarded the most obvious place to look, and only admit this after 340 pages.


5. London

Advantages: The cradle of civilisation, good and true, and likely to stir the blood of even the most Northern of Englishmen.  Mention the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column, red phone boxes, Dickens, Buckingham Palace, and how brown the Thames is and you’ve got half a book of travelogue alone.  Plenty of urchins willing to follow a man for a tin of peas, and lots of fog to describe.  Lots of ruffians who will immediately fall in line once they see the genetic superiority of your sleuth, or when he remembers an uncle of theirs who’s in ‘chokey’ somewhere and offers to put in a good word with the warden when next they play bowls.  Plenty of alleyways to chase a suspect down, lots of street lamps to describe.  The book writes itself, I tell you.

Disadvantages: The Cockney in the theatre — surrounded by his betters — is as nervous and compliant as a babe in arms.  In his natural habitat he can be as untrustworthy as a Dutchman, as quick to anger as a Scotsman, and as difficult to understand as a Welshman.  Do not research this in London.  Go to your club and ask around there, some chap might have a gardener who used some rough language in front of him once, and you can put this in for atmosphere.  And do not go to the docks.  just imagine it’s like your stables at home, but with ships instead of horses.

You Must: Mention the fog.  And smog.  And horse-drawn cabs.

You Must Not: Change your mind about the setting and decide to make it Manchester, Birmingham, or somewhere Scotch.  Who would want to read about that, eh?


So, there you have it.  The third section of this increasingly-vast pamphlet contains Boryng-Payne’s views on plotting and the utilisation of clues.  If there’s sufficient interest in reading his somewhat outmoded opinions — and some forward-thinking stuff in there, too, I must admit — I’ll type it up for next Tuesday.

13 thoughts on “#348: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Setting

  1. A fine London hotel will do as well. You know, the sort where you rent out an entire floor for months at a time.

    If travel is a must, an Atlantic crossing will suffice (heading to England, of course). Just keep the proceedings contained to the proper decks please.


  2. ” Lots of ruffians who will immediately fall in line once they see the genetic superiority of your sleuth, or when he remembers an uncle of theirs who’s in ‘chokey’ somewhere and offers to put in a good word with the warden when next they play bowls”
    Captain Sir Hugh is on sparkling form in part two. I look forward to his further thoughts (which I am mentally hearing filtered through a moustache thick with splutter, bile and the better part of the soup course).


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