#441: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Amateur

A is for

So here’s a new thing: I am going to use Tuesday posts (at indeterminate intervals) to talk about some (usually unconnected) ideas within Golden Age Detection (GAD) that can be grouped approximately by initial.  I’m calling it The Criminous Alphabet — rejected titles included The A to Z Murders, You Alpha-Bet Your Life, and GAD-Handing — and this month will see five posts based around the letter A, starting with the Amateur Detective.  Next time out will be B, the month after that C…you get the idea?  You get the idea.

I wanted to talk about the Amateur Detective because, for me, the Golden Age of detective fiction — loosely accepted as the years between the First and Second World Wars, though of  course many might stretch them wider or press them narrower —  and the Amateur Detective are two points on a recursion diagram, each inseparable from the other: the Golden Age gave birth to the Amateur Detective gave birth to the Golden Age gave birth to the Amateur detective…


Science jokes!

…and for a long time now I realise I’ve unconsciously held an opinion about this that I’ve never attempted to voice.  I claim no originality in this regard — hell, I’d be disappointed if I were the first person to suggest it — but I’ve equally not knowingly read it elsewhere and so while it might be complete nonsense I’d also appreciate you treating me kindly if I appear to be cadging the work of others and claiming their opinions as my own.

First, we need to define some terms:

In the strictest sense, “amateur” means “does not get paid”, but your Amateur Detective was also someone who had other demands on their time besides detection. Consequently anyone who undertook their detection as a result of their role in the Police Force — Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French, Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill, Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle, essentially anyone with a police rank prefix whenever their name is bandied about — might well have a life away from solving crimes (though you rarely saw it, doubtless the root of the “married-to-the-job” cliché detective that sprung semi-formed onto the page in the 1970s and beyond), but their involvement in said detection came about from a professional obligation and so we can wash them right out.

Equally, the professional ranks were swelled by more than policemen alone.  Sherlock Holmes was never formally trained in the manner of the Metropolitan Police Force he worked alongside, but crucially he doesn’t qualify as an Amateur Detective — oh, lor, am I going to tire of typing that over and over, let’s shorten it to AD — because, well, a) he was paid for the detection he did, and b) detection is what he did.  No-one was calling at 221B Baker Street to consult Mr. Sherlock Holmes on his highly-successful wedding planning services, only to let slip a hint of the mysterious society of red-headed men they’d recently joined and for Holmes to drop everything and neglect his actual, day-to-day job in order to investigate.  That’s very much the preserve of the modern “cozy” novel, and Noah has covered that with his usual exhaustive brilliance already.  No, Sherlock Holmes detected, people went to see him exclusively so that he could be exhorted into detection; he was and remains a full-time professional detective.

Miss Jane Marple, now, was an AD.  True, she had nothing on her plate work-wise, concentrating as she was on the business of being a twinkly old lady with a garden and tea parties, but it’s precisely that many would define her thus first and foremost — in-universe I mean — that marks her out as an almost archetypal AD.  Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham was also an AD, since he made his money writing books (and was deliberately a rather lousy detective anyway), Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen was a lecturer at Oxford University, Kelley Roos’ Jeff and Haila Troy were — respectively — a job-hopper and an actress who kept getting pulled into unusual events…these are the ADs we wish to consider.


Pictured: professional actor as professional detecive

Central to the notion of an AD, I’d argue, is the idea that detection is something in which it is possible to excel — Roger Sheringham being the obvious exclusion here, but deliberately so — despite lacking any formal training.  This in no way lessens or seeks to undermine the excellent work that could be and was done by many professional detectives from the same era, but the key concept of the AD as placed at the heart of Golden Age detective fiction was the possibility of succeeding in an unexpected and unsought sphere of operation.  And I suggest that the fictional AD was brought about coeval with GAD for precisely this reason.

When was the Golden Age of detective fiction?  Between the wars.  And what did the wars bring about?  Among may other things, the opportunities to work in sectors and spheres which would have ordinarily been barred to certain members of society, not least women, who suddenly found a great many employment options wide open to them: in munitions factories, as bus conductors, pilots, and more, and that vicarious thrill of “What if…?” was experienced on a grand scale.  While it’s true that trade unions and a general societal backwardness sought to reverse much of this once the war ended, the seeds were sown: if a housewife could fly a plane, if a vicar could be an ambulance driver, if those previously cast aside as too old and of no real purpose could be put to some societal function…what else was possible?

In the same way that the tradition of parlour games has long been established with the puzzle-heart of GAD, I’ve always assumed that the challenging of social and professional norms was as responsible for the rise of the amateur detective at the exact same time as a form of story was emerging in which they could make themselves quite at home.  It would no longer seem odd that a titled member of the aristocracy should stoop to involve himself in the solving of crime, nor that your Oxford don should get caught up in murderous limericks.  Who was to say it couldn’t be done?  The country was fit to burst with people who had been afforded opportunities to stretch and challenge themselves in the most serious and awful of circumstances, and to extend that so that a teacher might spend their time tracking down criminals was no more fanciful than Eileen three doors down making munitions to stop international enemies in their tracks.

If the American tradition was slightly slower to catch on — lingering over the tough guy PI enshrined in lore by Philip Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart — it could easily be argued that the story form wasn’t there yet, and that the societal structures in which they existed were more rigidly formed and so less amenable to change: in America you went to a PI, not your old Aunt Jane or your local vicar.  Sure, examples of the AD from this era exist — Ellery Queen being perhaps the most visible — but the lodestar of GAD is found in British hearts and minds mainly because it fit so perfectly into the emerging puzzle tradition and was allowed by the limited availability of private investigators.


“Thank heavens, else my career would suffer…”

Anyway, look, I don’t need to go on.  I realised recently that I’d sort of come to this conclusion and never tested it out loud and so I thought I’d share.  The AD even gave detective fiction authors a new freedom from the small matter of detail and accuracy (remember, Agatha Christie was asked to rewrite the courtroom ending to The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) because her publisher didn’t feel it very realistic) and opened up the possibilities for an ever looser connection for the investigator to the crime by admitting a sort of ‘roving detective’ archetype — I’m thinking here of Gideon Fell especially — who didn’t even really need an excuse to be in the plot any more: they detected because they were the detective and vice versa.  And this in turn presented new opportunities to insert crime and detection into all manner of new and unusual settings: the theatre, a cruise ship, advertising agencies…  Freed of the constraints of some formal connection to crime-solving, suddenly anyone could do it, and 80+ years later we’re still able to enjoy it and discuss it in such depth.

So, go on: how wide of the mark am I…?

25 thoughts on “#441: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Amateur

    • I got into a whole side-point about how this was just an extension of the fair-play aspect — how not only is it possible to accept someone (like you!) being the detective, but it extended into the reader becoming the detective by declaration of the clues — but I didn’t have time to work it in and, well, everyone had figured that out already.

      But expect that point to come up (if I remember) when we get to F is for…Fair Play!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Of course one of the most famous early detectives is Poe’s Dupin, who… well, I’m not sure he does much of anything if I remember right.

    One of the benefits of the amateur is the focus on individual brilliance, rather than for example the rote work of checking every hotel register in the city or something…


    • Dupin is an interesting one, as is Father Brown, because both appeared in the AD idiom before the AD was even really recognised as a thing…which, I suppose, is why they are so heralded despite not being especially good. One of these days I hope to enjoy Chesterton’s writing more — his plotting could be excellent (cf ‘The Queer Feet’, which contains one of the very best moments of ratiocination in the genre) — but, ugh, just say what you want to say, man!

      I still love the focus on individual brilliance, and your point is an excellent one that helps indicate why the detective archetype remains so compelling — Gideon Fell waltzing round Charles Grimaud’s study in The Hollow Man and pulling all manner of deductions out from notes in books and paintings will always be glorious to me. And the good detection novels manage to balance the work of many men with the insight of an individual, which is one of the things I really enjoy about Crofts. But I agree, anyway, that the focus on the individual is a distinct advantage, always supposing the author is talented enough to make such deductions hold up…!


      • Dupin is an interesting one, as is Father Brown, because both appeared in the AD idiom before the AD was even really recognised as a thing…

        There’s also the Old Man in the Corner, who certainly predates Father Brown.


  2. this month will see five posts based around the letter A, starting with the Amateur Detective. Next time out will be B, the month after that C…you get the idea?
    How long do we have to work out this puzzle? We could separate into groups, one using deductive reasoning and one using inductive.

    Your post was an interesting read. It’s one of those things where it’s perfectly obvious as you read it, but I’d never really sat and thought about the topic as a whole.

    One common trait of amateur detectives is that they have the finances, and more importantly the time, to just casually investigate crimes. Perhaps that doesn’t apply as much to Jeff and Haila Troy, but every other amateur detective seems to live a life without any real commitments. I mean, does Gervase Fen actually teach?

    You could draw a bit of a parallel to the “point of view” characters in many novels, such as Carr’s. They tend to have a job mentioned in passing – a lawyer, a doctor, a writer – but they always seem to get away from any actual commitments so that they can while away watching a murder investigation for a week. A murder investigation they typically have no real reason to be around.


    • More to the point, would you want Gervase Fen in a lecture theatre?!

      I wonder to what extent the point of view archetype was cast by John Watson: professional, trustworthy (in a “not an unreliable narrator” way), always available to go on an adventure and be the layman in the room. Hell, Watson even met his wife during one case, so perhaps we can also lay the romance subplot at Doyle’s door…


  3. You do a disservice to American mystery fiction by discounting the apparent dearth of amateur detectives as opposed to the prominence of the private eye. American amateur detectives are rife in the genre. You make a huge generalization in that paragraph towards the end of your essay and discount so many ADs (many of whom appear well before the so-called Golden Age) probably because you’ve never read or heard of them. They’e been around longer than the private eyes and grew out of the slick magazines of the early 1900s and exploded into the forefront in the late 1920s almost exactly at the same time as the rise of the private eye in American pulp magazines. Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner, for example, had his first appearance in 1918. Also well before the 1930s was Mary Roberts Rinehart. Her books have a slew of amateurs, male and female. Then there’s the “grandmother of detective fiction” Anna Katharine Green and her spinster detective Amelia Butterworth who appeared decades before Marple and her imitators showed up on the scene. And what about Philo Vance? One of the most influential and most popular he was the first bestselling amateur detective in English language commercial fiction. We all have to credit Vance as the quintessential American amateur detective who served as the paragon for dozens of writers (including Ellery Queen) in the late 1920s and 1930s. As soon as Vance appeared American detective fiction was littered with devil-may-care playboys (erudite or not) who found detective work to be an activity stimulating and exciting enough to prevent boredom in their unemployed wealthy lives. I think that the American mystery writers practically invented the idea of the husband/wife amateur detectives. I can come up with fifteen such couples who appear in long running series while from the British counterparts I can only think of Wimsey and Harriet (a couple in three books, married only in one) and Tommy and Tuppence. Plus the Americans pretty much had the market saturated with boy and girl detectives.


    • Oh, completely — it’s pure ignorance on my part, and I appreciate that on my haste to write this (I really did leave it very late) it comes across more as a sweeping dismissal than it was supposed to. If anything, my American reading dates from slightly late — Travis McGee and his cohorts — and I was if anything a little curious as to what American ADs were likely to exist from this earlier time. I shall be more careful in future, John, so thanks for keeping me honest 🙂


  4. As much as I like the idea of an alphabet – especially knowing that “B is for Brad,” I’m with John on this. I’ll bet there are more feminine ADs in American fiction than in British, from schoolmarms like Hildegard Withers to adorable nurses like Sarah Keate. When you get to “P,” you can discuss the lack of British private eyes compared to American ones. But given the propensity of American fiction to highlight U.S. know how and ingenuity, it makes sense that there are plenty of USADs to read and discuss.

    Next week, A can stand for “America Rules” or “Apology.”


    • Ah, dammit, you’ve foreseen that this is simply a wafer-thin excuse for B is for…Brad Doesn’t Like Paul Halter And Here Are 15 Reasons He’s Wrong.

      Oh, well, back to the drawing board.


  5. Very engaging post. The idea of exploring different themes of detective fiction alphabetically is fantastic and will likely bring much interesting conversation ( Can’t wait for the scathing Imitators post during the month of I)
    It may just be me, but I feel like the image of a old busybody investigating murder’s in a small town is the stereotypical idea of a AD, ingrained into our minds by year’s of tv film’s and “cozy” mysteries but in reality, there are so many other version’s of the character.
    Nothing else to add as I’m quite late to this, damn you other important part’s of life!


    • Yeah, it’s true that the impact of television is felt much more roundly on account of how accessible it is — Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis: Murder and their ilk will give one very distinct side to the character of the AD, and actually had it fown pretty accurately: the stakes were usually well-contained, the issues resolved at the end of the episode, rarely does a plot-point carry over from one show to the next to have consequences (please note: rarely). And in a way, this may be aprt of the difficulty in the perception of the AD — as clearly these shows were very much not in keeping with the social milieu of the time, and therefore came off as a little stilted and false. And so the notion of an AD was seen as false and hokey by people who had perhaps only encoutnered these deliberate throwback versions, and thus the earlier work it was based on (the result of an entirely different social milieu) was equally disregarded. Unfairly, I feel, but then that’s part of the idea behind the foregoing.

      And, late? Nonsense. You’re within six months of this going up, that’s far from late…!


  6. Very interesting idea! I can sense A is for Alibi, C is for Coincidence, D is for Disguise and L is for Luck coming.
    Nothing much to add to this post, except that I fully agree with AD being an by-product of GAD.

    By the way, why are my comments always moderated??


    • I’ll be honest, Neil, I have no idea how WordPress decides who gets moderated and who doesn’t. TomCat has been commenting here for years and I’ve still needed to “allow” all those comment, and it’s not just you two. Nothing personal, I promise! I’ll look into it in the coming week and see if i can spot anything…


  7. I do like the amateur detective, not that I have anything against the professional version mind. I think crime/mystery/detective fiction ought to be big enough and wide-ranging enough to accommodate both.
    Sure the amateur has fallen out of fashion, mainly due to the joy crushing insistence on making everything as realistic as possible and the consequent denigration of the more airy flights of fancy.

    I agree that the tradition allowed for and encouraged a more open and inclusive type of fiction, whereas the current trend favors an ever narrowing style, where you almost feel like an interloper yourself just reading this dry material.


    • I read very little modern crime fiction, mainly because I found it increasingly thrillerish and therefore not the sort of thing I’m after, but it struck me that the intent of it was not so much realism as relatability: it’s all overworked this, suburban that, so-and-so seeing something out the window of a train on their commute…hey, just like your life could be!! Wow, the reader really could be one instance away from having such an adventure…!

      It’s really a cheap vicarious thrill — cheap in how shonky a lot of the plots apparently turn out to be — hidden behind the thinnest of disguises. Whereas the AD, and GAD in general, didn’t seem concerned with that: it was more about what was believeable than how it related to you, the reader. Peter Wimsey has untold money and a manservant? Fine, give me a puzzle. A Catholic priest goes around solving crimes based on an understandong of sin? Yeah, why not. The notion of a set role shifted so much as a result of the First World War and this type of fiction was able to benefit and grow, using the context, yes, but also entirely free of it.

      There are three Big Deal hardback novels out in the next month, all of which are about scurrilous politicians and general civil malaise…hey, just like life at the moment! Wow, I sure hope that’s used as an easy access point to give some sort of state-of-the-nation overview while also tacking on some simplistic murder case as well so their authors can talk about the versatility of crime fiction in interviews…


        • Oh, dude, don’t see it as a criticism of your terminology — I was merely taking your point and expanding on it. The two aren’t exactly separate, something is relatable because people consider it realistic, and I was indulging in some of my oft-criticised wordplay and seeing where I ended up…


          • No, I wasn’t looking at it as any kind of criticism, just acknowledging that the term, at least in isolation, may not have been the right one.
            I think modern crime writing, which I sample on occasion to see if there’s anything there for the likes of me, does focus on the realism via the use of professional investigators or professionals attached to the law in some way, but then there is the need to find something an average reader can relate to. Therefore we wind up with those elements I think of as soapy – family/personal difficulty/relationship/ stuff – to compensate. I find a lot of it more than a wee bit tedious.


  8. Actually, I had another thought about what you say here: “The AD even gave detective fiction authors a new freedom from the small matter of detail and accuracy”.
    I would say that, instead of the freedom following from the detective, maybe it’s the other way round. The use of an amateur detective works more like a signal, which lets the reader know that they probably won’t find strict realism here. Though, I guess it works out to the same thing really, since the reader will accept unreality more easily if they are prepared for it. I wonder which comes first for writers, the crime or the detective?


    • To a certain extent, too, I wonder how the AD was a way to get around expectations on evidece: we’ve all seen authors pull undeclared evidence out at the last minute, and I wonder how mcuh there was a conscious desire not to misrepresent the actions of the police or somesuch in how evidence is accrued and used in the commission of the detective’s duties.

      Just spitballin’ here…


  9. I’ve sometimes thought, especially in the early years of GAD that the AD was more the presumed readers sort of person i.e reasonably well -educated upper middle class type who the reader could identify with rather than the policeman who came from the ‘lower orders’. There are so many exceptions to this rule it’s perhaps hardly worth mentioning but I think there’s a point somewhere.


    • Undoubtedly, yes — you’ve made a good point there. For the above thesis to have any merit, the AD would have to be someone the reader can connect with or associate with, so that the notion of someone taking on an uncommon role didn’t seem that unlikely. That aspect of being likeable, too, and of not representing anything more than just themselves — I’m sure there are GAD novels in which the policeman lets the killer go, but I’m giessing there are more where the AD does — and therefore being ‘smaller’ and more human would also be a significant benefit.


  10. Pingback: SCRATCHING A NICHE: On Whodunits and Hitchcockian Hooey | ahsweetmysteryblog

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