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…
…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.