Claudia Gunn at ‘Mysteriosa’, December 1908
Something a little different today: ahead of the UK publication of his superb biography of forgotten Australian authors, Ryan O’Neill has kindly agreed to share some information about one of the authors featured therein — the neglected detective fiction great Dame Claudia Gunn…
The Golden Age of detective fiction abounds with hugely popular writers, and the beloved detectives they brought to life in their bestselling books. Readers thrilled in their millions to the novels of Agatha Christie, featuring Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, as well as the works of Ngaio Marsh and her urbane protagonist Roderick Alleyn, Christianna Brand and her irascible Inspector Cockrill, Gladys Mitchell and her deranged Mrs Bradley, and last but not least, Dame Claudia Gunn and her “Eskimo detective” Makittiq Arnaaluk.
Born in Australia in 1885, Dame Claudia Gunn, at various times known as “the Antipodean Agatha” and “the first Sheila of crime” wrote 72 mystery novels (including sixteen that could be considered “locked room”) over the course of her long life. Indeed, by the 1960s Gunn frequently outsold Agatha Christie in Gunn’s home country. And yet, Claudia Gunn is utterly forgotten today; her books went out of print almost immediately after her death in 1975, and a Google search will bring up only a handful of articles on this once famous writer. And forget about getting hold of her novels; mentioning Gunn’s name in a bookshop will most likely result in a puzzled shrug.
I know this because I spent the past fourteen years trying to track down copies of Gunn’s novels as part of the research for writing her biography, which appears, along with the lives of fifteen other long forgotten Australian authors in Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, released in the UK at the end of this month. When my book appeared in Australia in 2016, I am proud to report that it ignited a renewed interest in the works of Gunn, an interest which has culminated in recently announced plans by Penguin to reprint her entire catalogue over the next three years. At long last, all Gunn’s novels will be widely available again, from her admittedly amateurish debut, The Death of Vincent Prowse (1924) to the posthumously published An Icicle for an Icicle (1976), which features a remarkable 23 possible solutions to the central murder (an Anglican bishop found bludgeoned to death with a frozen kipper in a hermetically sealed room).
Dame Claudia Gunn’s life contains enough intrigue for a mystery novel in and of itself, from her meeting and falling in love with the roguish Quincy Gunn, and their long residence in “Mysteriosa,” a Sydney mansion which reportedly contained the largest collection of crime novels in the southern hemisphere, to her decades long reign at the top of the Australian bestseller charts, to the disgrace and ignominy which followed swiftly upon her death. But it is not my intention to go into any details of Gunn’s rise and fall here. Curious readers can find her remarkable life chronicled in detail in Their Brilliant Careers. However, I would like to give a taste of the pleasures of a Gunn by introducing what I consider to be her finest novel, and the first to be reprinted by Penguin this September, The Coldness of Lady April Fuller (1965).
Despite the fact that most of the titles of Gunn’s novels reference winter, or cold, or ice, and that all of them feature the “world famous Esquimaux manhunter Makittiq Arnaaluk, whose people had one hundred different words for snow, but only one for murder!” the setting for Gunn’s books was, almost without exception, Australia. Arnaaluk, with his quaint proverbs and eternal harping on the subject of sardines as the “brain food” which will help him solve the case, at first appears a pale imitation of Hercule Poirot, and indeed, during the course of my research I discovered a letter to Gunn from Christie’s lawyers demanding that her 1942 novel, And Then There Were Nuns, a mystery set in a nunnery which bore a strong resemblance to Christie’s And Then There Were None, be pulped. But over the course of dozens of books, Arnaaluk comes into his own, perhaps not quite as learned as John Appleby, nor quite as intelligent as Poirot, and certainly not quite as annoying as Lord Peter Wimsey.
As The Coldness of Lady April Fuller opens, Makittiq Arnaaluk is preparing to return to Greenland, as he had been doing at the start of every Gunn novel since his first appearance three decades previously (Gunn never allowed Arnaaluk to go home because she knew nothing of Greenland, and was too lazy to do any research; evidence is this can be seen on her insistence to referring to Arnaaluk as “Eskimo” despite the offensiveness of the term being pointed out to her many times). Arnaaluk’s departure is delayed by a visit from his friend Chief Inspector Phineas Blountley-Thicke, a policeman who is frequently, and perhaps justifiably, perplexed by the sheer volume of crimes he encounters in Sydney which feature ice, snow, or frost as a murder weapon, and which therefore require Arnaaluk’s expertise. Ellery Queen once described Blountley-Thicke in a review of Cops and Cobbers (1952) as “putting the ‘ass’ into ‘assistant’”, but the Inspector at least has an original backstory as a former bobby in the London Metropolitan Police, as signalled by the dropped aitches in his dialogue.
Blountley-Thicke’s visit to Arnaaluk is to request his help in solving a particularly baffling case. Lady April Fuller, a visiting English noblewoman who had gone missing from her hotel in Alice Springs a week previously, has been found dead in the outback, 150 kilometres north of the town. While it is not unheard of for those lost in the desert to swiftly perish from dehydration and heatstroke, Lady April’s fate is far from ordinary. She was discovered by a police search party, in the blazing noonday sun, frozen in a huge block of ice, with only one set of footprints leading away from the crime scene. To complicate matters further, each footprint apparently had six toes (Lady April having the normal compliment of ten), and the tracks disappeared into a billabong not far from the body. Every inch of the waterhole was searched, and no further trace of the murderer was found.
No less a writer than Julian Symons, a self-confessed Gunn addict, described the setup for the novel as “the most thrilling, perplexing, and incredible ever devised.” And indeed the first half of The Coldness of Lady April Fuller is masterly, as Arnaaluk and Blountley-Thicke travel to Alice Springs to interview the dead woman’s family and friends, all of whom (of course) had reason to kill her. While Gunn has been criticised for her thin characterisation (a review of The Bloody Hoar Frost (1972) claimed she had overturned Einstein’s quantum theory by creating a “no-dimensional character”), several memorable figures emerge in the huge cast of suspects, which requires a list that takes up the first eleven pages of the book. Sharp-eyed readers might detect a parody of Ariadne Oliver, herself a self-parody of Agatha Christie, in the mystery writer Olivia Arden, sister-in-law to the murdered man, while Allen Roddy, the destitute stepson, is a more obvious homage to Ngaio Marsh.
The movements of the forty-six suspects are then reconstructed in painstaking (some might say, excruciating) detail, with chapters seventeen to twenty-nine taken up with bus and train timetables, detailed maps of Alice Springs and a six-story hotel, and a Dr Thorndyke-esque nine page digression on the properties of ice as it reacts to various degrees of heat. Events come to a head in a breathtaking chase scene through an icehouse on the outskirts of the town, after which comes the first of the novel’s many plot twists, which is either a mark of genius, or a derivative letdown, depending on your point of view. Certainly the second half of The Coldness of Lady April Fuller cannot hope to match the menacing atmosphere of the first, but suffice to say the solution to Lady April’s murder, which I will not of course reveal here, was almost as controversial in its time as the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (John Sladek was reportedly so enraged after reading Gunn’s novel in the mid-1970s that he later claimed, only half in jest, that it had put him off writing mystery novels for good).
Whatever the merits of the ending of The Coldness of Lady April Fuller (and I happen to believe that it is a solution more cunning and shocking than any constructed by John Dickson Carr), and whatever criticisms can be levelled at Gunn herself (“derivative” “dull” “plodding” “barely literate”), it can only be a reason for celebration that her books will once again find the readership they deserve.
As the advertisements in bookshops throughout Australia proclaimed in the Antipodean Agatha’s heyday, “Start the weekend with a BANG! Start the weekend with a GUNN!”
Ryan O’Neill is the author of The Weight of a Human Heart and Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers. He was born in Glasgow in 1975 and lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in NSW, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.
Their Brilliant Careers was published in Australia in 2016, where it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Christina Stead Prize, and won the Prime Minister’s Award and the Pennington Prize for Nonfiction. It is forthcoming in the UK from Eye Books at the end of April 2018.