Caroline: How many busy places full of people are there, do you think, where the body of a murder victim could sit propped up in a chair for hours without being noticed? Where the penalty for disturbing the quiet atmosphere is so great that those nearby would rather a corpse sit among the living than risk breaching the peace?
I think we’d all like to think that there aren’t very many social spaces so steeped in rules and etiquette, but there is at least one such place that crops up rather a lot in golden age detective fiction. Where corpses and those who grumble about corpses rub shoulders, and no matter what happens, the members must not be upset.
Today, we’re going to the gentleman’s club.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
But before we sink into an old leather armchair with a whisky and soda at our elbow, I want to update you on the progress of the Shedunnit Pledge Drive. The goal was to add 100 new members of the podcast’s paid membership scheme, the Shedunnit Book Club, by the end of the year, and we’ve already smashed that — at the time of recording, we’re up to 115 and counting. Which is completely incredible, and I’m so grateful to the podcast’s listenership for stepping up help me cover costs for another year. This support means I can continue to pay all the software and hosting costs associated with the show, as well as paying the people who help me make it.
However, I don’t want to close the drive here. While I’m really happy and relieved that we’re going to be able to carry on in the same way for another year, I do have some ambitions for 2024 that we could achieve if we can make it to 150 new members before the end of the year. The main thing I want to do is add a new type of episode to the show — one where I and a series of guests read a succession of mystery novels in order, diving deeply into the plot and background of each one… I want it to be a surprise if we can do it, so I won’t say much more now, but having done some pre-production work on it already, I’m very excited about it, and I hope you will be too if we can launch it early next year. This kind of thing requires more work, though, from me and my production assistant Leandra, as well as from the guests, who we’ll be asking to read a whole book in preparation for their episode. So your contributions will be key to making it happen. You can see all the benefits of membership to the Shedunnit Book Club — the reading community, lots of bonus audio, the chance to gift a membership to a friend for free and more — at shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive, where you can also sign up.
If you have ever found yourself in the Piccadilly or St James area of London, to the west of the city centre, then you have walked through Clubland. The streets here are lined with neoclassical buildings that are at the same time impressive and discreet — all columns and enormous sash windows, but with just one door to the street, guarded by a porter and garlanded by a simple brass plaque engraved with the club’s name. The architecture sends a clear message: members only are welcome inside.
For most of us, then, it is in fiction that we get to walk through these doors and learn what it is like to be a member of such exclusive and eccentric institutions. And there are plenty of literary clubs to choose from, even within the confines of detective fiction. There are three novels from the interwar golden age period that I know of that are entirely set in and around members’ clubs, and we’ll talk in more detail about those a bit later in the episode. In addition to these club whodunnits, there are plenty of novels and short stories that contain passing references to clubs that add depth to a book’s world building and particularly its characters. Many a famous detective is known to be a member of this or that club, real or fictional, a detail that their creator shares as a way of gesturing towards aspects of their preferences, habits and social position. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft co-founded the Diogenes Club. Albert Campion belongs to at least two: the Junior Greys and Puffins. Lord Peter Wimsey has several, although the Bellona and the Egotists’ feature most prominently in his adventures. Bunny and Raffles are members of the Old Bohemian Club. And although not strictly detectives, I feel I must mention two of the most famous fictional clubs of all: the Drones, where Bertie Wooster can frequently be found, and the Junior Ganymede, where Jeeves hobnobs with other gentlemen’s gentlemen.
But before we get into why it is that clubs crop up in detective fiction, I think it might be a good idea to look a little more closely at what a quote “gentleman’s club” is and what reputation these institutions had at the time that novels like Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Miles Burton’s Death at the Club were published.
To do so, we need to go back to a period in British history generally known as the “interregnum” — the time from 1649 to 1660 when the country was under Republican government following the civil war and the execution of King Charles I. This was a time of great political turbulence, but also a moment when intellectual societies were beginning to form around disciplines like philosophy and science. The circle of scientists associated with Gresham College in the 1640s and 1650s met regularly, and after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, became the Royal Society. In the 1650s coffee houses were also booming in popularity, as coffee imported from elsewhere in the world became a fashionable beverage rather than the medicinal remedy it had initially been used as by the English. Coffee house culture was eclectic and egalitarian, where for a penny or two anyone could gain access to a space for newspapers and conversation. In the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson — a great attender of coffee houses and clubs — defined these places as “an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions”. Johnson was a big fan: “The great chair of a full and pleasant town club is, perhaps, the throne of human felicity,” he wrote.
Gradually, the casual nature of these coffee house gatherings evolved into something a little more formal, with particular places associated with certain professions and political positions. Merchants went to one place, liberal MPs to another, bankers to a third, and so on. Fanny Burney coined the word “unclubbable” in 1764 to describe an uncongenial individual who was unlikely to receive a positive reception at any club, and in 1791, Johnson biographer James Boswell described his subject as “a very clubbable man”. Already the association of clubs with identity and character was very strong.
It was in the eighteenth century that these coffee houses and professional associations began to morph into private members’ clubs. There had been some financial scandals occurring in these groups resulting from the fact that anyone was allowed to join and generate interest for a group investment, and so they began to move in the direction of curtailing their membership, introducing entry requirements and asking for subscriptions to cover the costs of premises and catering. The history of White’s, the oldest club in London, shows one way in which this progression occurred. It was founded in 1693 as a hot chocolate shop run by a Mrs White, and then in 1736 became a private club catering to extremely rich people who wanted to gamble without limits, and then in the late eighteenth it evolved into an institution that revolved more around networking, eating and politics.
The late nineteenth century saw rapid growth in the number of private members’ clubs, as more men — and they were mostly, if not entirely men, as I’ll come onto in a moment — reached the kind of wealth and social status required for membership. By 1900, there were around 200 clubs in London, and about half of them had been founded since 1870. This is really the high point of the gentleman’s club, when the demand for membership was high and there was a lot of money for facilities. The American novelist Henry James, who moved to London in the 1870s, was delighted by the clubs that his friends introduced him to and wrote an enthusiastic description of them for relatives back in New York. He recalled “all the great chairs and lounges and sofas filled with men having afternoon tea – lolling back with their laps filled with magazines, journals, and fresh Mudie books, while amiable flunkies in knee breeches present them the divinest salvers of tea and buttered toast!”. This is the image of the club that all depictions of them since have harked back to, I think — a luxurious male-only space that is some how homely but also better than home, because you don’t have to fetch your own magazine or tea.
In the years after the First World War, as the golden age of detective fiction was just getting started, London’s clubs were struggling. Many of those who would have been members had either died or had their economic circumstances irrevocably changed by the war. Most were owned by their members, who “clubbed” together with their subscriptions to support the institutions costs, so fewer members meant less resources. Shortages of goods and labour also affected these places — both the flunkies and the buttered toast were more costly than they had been just a few decades before. Something like ninety per cent of the clubs that existed at the start of the twentieth century would go bankrupt by the 1950s. Those that did survive through the 1920s and 1930s exhibited “empty rooms, ageing members, awful food, and an unfriendly, unsociable atmosphere of hostility”, as one club historian has put it. This is version of the club that novelists like Sayers and Burton inherited — a place in decline, trying and failing to regain the comforts that those still occupying it remember all too well.
If your average club in 1928 did indeed have the atmosphere of a morgue, as Sayers suggests in the opening line of The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club, why were so many men still keen to spend time there? The answer lies in the appeal that these clubs had going back to when they first became exclusive members-only spaces — they allowed a very narrow group of similar people to arrange a place of luxury to meet their own preferences absolutely. And while there were clubs that admitted women, either as full members or as guests, in the nineteenth and for most of the twentieth century, the vast majority did not. These were places for men, often de facto extension of the boarding schools they had attended in their teens. In the 1840s, the journalist and novelist Flora Tristran caused a great scandal when she infiltrated several men-only London clubs by wearing men’s clothing, exposing what really went on in these institutions in a series of articles for the press. She wrote that “What do these two or three hundred club members do? Do they sincerely strive to acquire an understanding of important social questions? Do they discuss business and politics, letters, theatre and fine arts? No. They go to their clubs to dine well, to drink good wine, to play cards and escape the boredom of married life.” Interestingly, a group of women did something similar in 2018 at White’s, entering the club in drag in protest at its continued men-only membership policy.
The fact that these clubs were widely known to be a male-only space mattered because in Victorian art and literature, the home was envisioned as a feminine space, presided over by an “angel” as per Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House“. John Ruskin enlarged on this vision of domesticity, envisioning the wife as “the centre of order, the balm of distress, and the mirror of beauty”, while the husband was “the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender”. Everywhere else in the world, the man was the proactive, forceful figure. But at home, he was ruled by his wife. As the protagonist in E. M. Forster’s Maurice put it: “Home emasculated everything”. The club, then, was a space with many of the comforts you might expect at home, but that was arranged by and for men. There were staff who provided everything without the need for supervision or consultation. They could dine there at any time they fancied, without having to negotiate with or consider the requirements of spouse or children. Reading the newspaper uninterrupted, playing billiards, or talking about shared hobbies with friends were default activities, rather than indulgences to be snatched between less enjoyable chores. We have all enjoyed the holiday from household routines that even the shortest time away from home provides — imagine being able to have that, any time you wanted, in the knowledge that you would have to catch up on the laundry later. That is what the gentleman’s club provided to its members.
Indeed, the stereotype of the married man who preferred his club to his own home was so entrenched that in the introduction to her famous 1861 Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton suggested that the information within would be helpful to the wife trying to compete with “the attractions of clubs, well-ordered taverns and dining-houses that serve men so well”. I also came across this snippet from a Victorian woman’s diary, which I feel is rather indicative of this situation. She wrote: “We have now been married exactly a year, in which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr Brooks’s Club.”
The attractions and conveniences of the club for those lucky enough to be members, then, are self-evident. I think it is also clear why the collective memory of those halcyon, late Victorian days of flunkies and buttered toast would linger, even after the post 1918 decline had begun. And it is in that tension — of good days past, and grim times in the present — that the club detective novel operates.
As a setting for a detective novel, the gentleman’s club has a number of advantages, which it shares with other popular locations like trains, country houses and educational establishments. A club is a place of routine, where the actions of both members and staff are bound by decades of accumulated procedure and habit. It is extremely susceptible to prediction by somebody seeking to do something devious unnoticed — they can be fairly certain who will be where when, doing what. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers’ club-based novel from 1928, uses this reliance on structure as a key mechanism in its crime. We learn from the outset that, in accordance with the idea of the club as the ideal home away from home, some members are in the habit of spending all day there. They always arrive at the same time, sit in the same chair, speak to the same waiters, and so on. This both makes it possible for a murderer to evade detection, and for the investigator to have patterns in which he can look for anomalies. It makes for a very pleasing plot, I think.
It is also a function of this obsessive observance of routine that in not one but two club-based mysteries, we see the dead body of a member go undisturbed in plain sight in a club for a long period of time. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club opens with the complaint that the place is as lively as a morgue, and then shortly afterwards it is discovered that an elderly member has seemingly sat, dead, in an armchair by the fire all day without being discovered. Similarly, in Margery Allingham’s short story “The Case of the Old Man in the Window”, a venerable old actor who is accustomed to spending 11am to 6.30pm every day sitting in the window of The Junior Grays club dies there, unnoticed until much later. In this and other stories, the club functions as a kind of stage upon which members act out the persona they would like the world to see — that of the perfect gentleman of leisure. The suggestion is that being dead is barely a disturbance to a member’s normal routine. It creates an image of the club as a waiting room for the next life, full of almost-dead bodies. Sayers has a character with shell shock react badly to the discovery, and in his raving he sums this up: “He’s been dead two days! So are you! So am I! We’re all dead and we never noticed it!,” he shouts.
Like all social institutions, private members clubs are sustained by traditions and in-jokes created by those who belong to them. There is even a miniature literary sub-genre that operates on this basis — that of the “club tale”, in which a loquacious storyteller entertains other members in the club with narratives that stretch the bounds of credulity. P.G. Wodehouse’s short stories about the “oldest member” at a golf club are very much of this type, as are his Mr Mulliner stories. Lord Dunsany also wrote a series of tales in this mould centring around an adventurous traveller named Jorkens, who storytelling is the principle attraction of his rather less than salubrious club. As an example of one of those in jokes, the club in these stories is called “The Billiards Club”, even though it doesn’t have a billiards table and nobody plays billiards there.
These little traditions are everywhere. In the Minerva Club stories of Victor Canning, the members — who are all criminals — have enjoyed setting up rules that parody those of the posh Mayfair clubs. In order to belong to the Minerva, a man must have served at least two years at His Majesty’s Pleasure and be able to pay an annual club subscription of £50. There are also little traditions that carry across multiple novels, suggesting that they had at least some basis in reality. In both The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Keep It Quiet by Richard Hull, it is instrumental to the plot that although both clubs have large and well-stocked libraries, members very rarely go into these rooms intended for study and contemplation — preferring the classic club armchair and newspaper by the fire. In Sayers’ novel especially, the emptiness of the library is used to demonstrate the un-intellectual nature of the club’s membership. Every club has its own peculiar associations and clientele, and the Bellona is the home of military gentlemen with little time for “book learning” — Bellona, after all, is another name for Duellona, the Roman goddess of war. Sayers’ detective Peter Wimsey, who is rather fond of rare books and literary quotation, is explained to have inherited his membership of the club rather than have sought it out himself. Indeed, at one point in the investigation he can bear the morgue-like atmosphere of the Bellona no more and heads off to one of his other clubs (perhaps the Marlborough or the Egotists’) to give himself a break.
In addition to this more intangible type of tradition, there are also certain roles that crop up again and again in club mysteries. There is always a harassed club secretary, the poor man who has organise all of those effortless luxuries members enjoy and field complaints about everything from drafts to wayward corpses. His good work is never praised but his mistakes are punished ruthlessly with endless committee deputations and procedures. In Keep It Quiet, Richard Hull says that “to be a secretary of any club, you need a hide imperious to complaints, and an ability to oppose an interminable defence of passive resistance to all those suggestions which are daily offered to you, which sounds so logical and right, and which are, in fact, so hopelessly impractical.” The secretary at the centre of Hull’s novel, the well meaning but spineless Ford, doesn’t stand a chance.
Apart from a secretary, every club needs a club grumbler — the member who devotes so much time and energy to complaining about trivial inconveniences to the club’s administration that he becomes a quasi-official of the institution. He is helpful to the mystery writer, though, since the grumbler is naturally inquisitive and persistent, and gives voice to anomalies that other characters might just let go. Like many of the eccentric traditions of the place, the grumbler even comes to be looked upon with something like affection. By the end of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Wimsey has grown quite fond of that club’s grumbler, Wetheridge. “This Club isn’t half what it used to be. In fact, Wimsey, I’m thinking of resigning.,’ Petheridge says. ‘Oh, don’t do that, Wetheridge. It wouldn’t be the same place without you,’ Wimsey replies.
If The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is largely concerned with how murder can exist among the traditions and routines of a gentleman’s club, then Keep it Quiet is focused on how ideas of reputation and status play in this setting. The very title of this book is about the obsessive need to “keep it quiet” — that is, keep the news of a death in the club a secret so that there can be no whisper of a scandal. This book begins with the possibility of accidental death, when the cook at the Whitehall Club thinks he may have put some of his carbuncle medicine in a soufflé instead of vanilla extract. When a member does actually die after eating dinner, the club secretary is entirely motivated by the desire to hush everything up so that no possible disgrace can be attached to the club. Luckily, the dead man’s doctor is also a member of the club, and can be persuaded to give a death certificate discretely, but when a blackmail plot unfolds afterwards, it becomes harder and harder to, as the title states, keep it quiet. It’s not the best mystery novel I’ve ever read, but it is fascinating because the narrative tension comes not so much from the desire to know who the murderer is, but whether the scandal is going to get out or not. It can be quite amusing to see the trauma and tragedy of murder refracted through this lens of respectability — in Sayers’ novel, upon being told that another character has been shot in the library, the main response is not horror but the injunction that “people ought to have more consideration for the members”. Wimsey risks being asked to resign from the Bellona Club because he does something as unseemly as try to discover who murdered one its members. Seeking justice is unbecoming; if it causes less publicity, he should be willing to just let murder go. Interestingly, all of this concern is predicated on the assumption that members will gossip madly about any whisper of impropriety. Gossip is generally assumed to be a female pastime, but club literature suggests that the male members of these places were just as likely to indulge in it as the wives and sisters and daughters that they had left behind at home. According to Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens, there’s a lot of “loose talk” that goes on in gentleman’s clubs.
The default throughout all club mystery fiction is that a private members clubs is supposed to be a place of undisturbed peace and tranquility. That ideal Victorian home away from home. At Albert Campion’s club The Junior Grays, for instance, members are still reeling from what is just called “the suffragette outrage”, which was presumably a women’s rights protest. Calm digestion is considered sacred, and at all of these places, silence and peace is policed aggressively.
Private members’ clubs of the kind that we read about in detective fiction do still exist today, of course — albeit in a much glossier and less murdery way than on the page. Perhaps if you do ever find yourself walking through Mayfair and catch a glimpse inside one of those hallowed doors, you will feel a little less sore now that you don’t get to go in. I’m pretty sure that we have a lot more fun with the fictional version in our mystery novels that we would with the real thing.
This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/deathattheclub. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
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Shedunnit is written and produced by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.