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Caroline: When you boil it down to the essentials, a detective barely needs to be a human being. The plot of a really great whodunnit demands only that the sleuthing entity observe, analyse, deduce and denounce. A thinking machine with a clear input and output that governs the story. Indeed, the most famous detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes, rejected aspects of existence commonly associated with a full or rounded life, including curiosity about the world, political engagement and romantic relationships.
The famous “rules” of golden age detective fiction from the 1920s took a firm line on this latter point. Love interests were frowned upon, and it was felt by some critics of the genre that incorporating romance into a plot weakened it. And yet some of the most popular authors from this time completely disregard this prohibition. All of the Queens of Crime — Christie, Allingham, Marsh and Sayers — and plenty others besides wove romantic storylines through their crime fiction, and I think it adds greatly to the depth and variety of what they produced.
Or to put it another way: can you imagine Peter Wimsey without Harriet Vane? I know I can’t.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Now, those of you who listen all the way to the end of these podcast episodes that I make will know that the very last thing I usually include is a little teaser for the topic of the next one. If you heard the last one, you’ll have noticed that what I said I’d be doing today and the title of this episode don’t match up. That’s for a good reason — I had been planning on releasing an episode today all about the kinds of prejudice that we encounter in golden age crime fiction, and the best way to think about instances of things like anti Semitism, racism and misogyny as modern day readers. And I still very much want to do that episode, because I think the topic is interesting and important. But all last week when I was trying to do the research and writing necessary to put it out today, I was also reading news stories and messages about the worsening coronavirus pandemic around the world. And I found it really hard to do justice to such a serious and potentially upsetting subject in that circumstance. Where I live in the UK we’re now working from home and making only essential trips out, and I know lots of you listening will be in similar situations or facing even more severe lockdown measures. I hope you’re all well and taking all sensible precautions. I know that when I’m struggling with a difficult situation and need to take my mind off things, detective fiction is one of the things that I use, and I suspect the same is true for lots of you — it’s not known as “convalescent literature” for nothing. So in that spirit, I wanted to talk about something cheering and uplifting today, hence the change of schedule. I have no plans to stop making episodes, by the way — if anything, now that other work I do is being postponed, I have more time to spend on it than usual so Shedunnit book club members should look out for some extra bonus episodes! I am, however, going to stop trailing the next subject for now, and just work on whatever feels best at the time. And with that in mind, let’s talk about crime and romance…
That directive about keeping romance out of detective fiction appears most clearly in “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, written by the American author SS Van Dine and published in 1928 in The American Magazine. Rule three says: “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.” His other commands are mostly to do with ensuring the author plays fair by the reader when it comes to clues and deductions, although he does also veto “long descriptive passages” and “literary dallying with side-issues”. The British detective writer Ronald Knox also wrote a set of rules around the same time that are often held up next to Van Dine’s, but he didn’t have anything to say about romantic love interests — perhaps because in addition to penning whodunnits and being an early member of the Detection Club he was also a Roman Catholic priest. I talked lots more about the rules and their legacy back in episode 9 of this podcast, so suffice it to say here that Van Dine’s anti-love sentiment was shared by lots of critics who preferred the pure puzzle of a classic whodunnit, and didn’t want their crime fiction sullied by contact with what some might call real human emotion.
Before I get into talking about some of the best uses of romance in detective fiction — because I am in favour of it, if that wasn’t already clear — let’s briefly touch upon the case against it. First, there’s the idea that the introduction of romantic feelings “ruins” the fundamental mechanisms of a whodunnit’s plot. The usual complaint about this crops up when the detective themselves or their recurring sidekick has a flirtation or a relationship with a character involved in the murder plot somehow, because you can place a fairly safe bet that their paramour won’t then turn out to be the murderer, or even an accomplice. Love bends the straight lines of a good plot, this point of view states. It messes with the careful concealment of the culprit until the final chapter.
A detective in love is one who isn’t thinking clearly, and who might not always act absolutely in the interests of justice, too. John Dickson Carr worked with this last effect several times, perhaps most blatantly in his 1944 novel Till Death Do Us Part. It’s all there in the title: this is a story about love and trust and betrayal, which also happens to be an excellent locked room mystery. Carr’s sleuth Dr Gideon Fell finds himself sympathising with and even assisting a woman who he believes to be a murderess three times over, and the author seems to condone this impulse rather than sternly condemning it as a transgression of the detective’s code.
Those who find love to be the antithesis of deduction are essentially followers of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had his character put this very starkly in The Sign of Four: “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true, cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgement,” Holmes says. It’s black and white, this or that, he argues. You can be a great detective, or you can be in love. You can’t be both. In this book, this statement is actually a direct snub to his Watson, who ends the story engaged to their client, Mary Morstan. The sidekick can afford such luxuries as emotional connection, but the powerful mind of the sleuth must abstain.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I think this approach is a bit… limiting. I’ve never been a pure puzzle addict, partly because I don’t think such a thing really exists — murder mysteries are about people and people contain messy multitudes! But when I have encountered a story that is mainly written for the glory of clever mechanics and has little or no emphasis on emotional development, it usually comes across to me as a bit stale and sterile. I can admire the brilliance with which all the threads are woven together, but I will immediately forget all about it as soon as I’ve turned the page. Emotion, and romance in particular, allows authors to experiment with perspective and subjectivity, as that example I mentioned from John Dickson Carr demonstrates.
It also allows writers to round out their characters. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence are a good illustration of this. Even their most ardent fans would admit that the content of their mysteries isn’t always the most original, but the way she fleshed out their characters and relationship make their books and stories highly readable (with the possible exception of the late novel Postern of Fate, but we won’t go into that right now). Whereas many of her recurring sleuths never age or grow much — I think Poirot must be about 130 by the time of Curtain for instance — Tommy and Tuppence are at a different stage in their life and marriage every time we meet them. We see them as young tearaways in the post WWI novel The Secret Adversary, as middle aged parents in N or M?, and then as elderly retirees in By The Pricking of My Thumbs. That progression gives their story emotional heft far beyond the mysteries they solve, and made it into a series that has delighted millions down the years.
After the break: I will finally talk about Harriet Vane, I promise. I know that’s the only reason you pressed play on this episode.
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Like a lot of people I think, I don’t always analyse my own reading habits in great detail. Within the detective fiction genre I know that I gravitate towards particular authors and reread particular books, but I’m not always considering what it is that attracts me to some stories and not others. When I started putting together lists of books to talk about in this episode, though, I came to realise just how important emotional depth is to me in crime fiction. Almost all of the works that I return to over and over again contain elements of romance or friendship beyond what might be considered within the “rules”.
I’m obviously not alone here, as evidenced by the fact that all four of the Queens of Crime made substantial use of these tropes in their works. As four of the best known and most widely read authors who began publishing in the 1920s, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers can I think be reasonably considered a definitive authority on this topic. And every single one of them had a lot to say in her books about love or the lack of it.
Let’s dispense with Christie first, since despite her prolific output and huge reputation, she’s actually the least interesting writer in this way. Other than Tommy and Tuppence, she mostly used romance either as a motive for murder (such as all the times that unrequited love or adultery end in violent acts) or as a bit of light relief. Poirot’s sidekick Captain Hastings is always falling for pretty girls during their cases, which he is gently and loving mocked for by his friend. Poirot himself of course has his version of “the woman” in Vera Rossakoff, a mysterious Russian countess who appears in The Big Four from 1927 and then two subsequent short stories. Perhaps her most memorable turn is in “The Capture of Cerberus” from the 1947 short story collection The Labours of Hercules, and she is to him “a woman in a thousand, in a million”. This story is the last one in the collection, and after Poirot has cleaned up the canine crime there is a short scene between Point and his secretary Miss Lemon during which the latter deduces that her boss is once more thoroughly smitten with the Countess. Vera never appears in a Christie book again and her whole character is flamboyant to the point of stereotype, so I think we can safely conclude that Christie only ever intended her to be a lighthearted diversion for her sleuth. Still, I do find that this interlude makes Poirot a more appealing character — even the great egoist, with all of his pride in his little grey cells, can be conquered by his affections for a former jewel thief with extravagant taste in cosmetics.
In the hands of Ngaio Marsh, the progress of the serious love interest for her recurring sleuth Roderick Alleyn is an interesting way of tracking her development as a writer. The Scotland Yard detective Alleyn is a bachelor in her first five novels, and although he’s fairly susceptible to pretty women he doesn’t form any lasting attachments. That changes in 1938’s Artists in Crime, when he meets the painter Agatha Troy on the boat on his return trip from New Zealand after the events of Vintage Murder. Once the ship docks Troy goes off to teach at an artists’ colony, and when a murder takes place there Alleyn happens to be staying nearby to investigate. So far, so predictable — and it’s a scenario that has often been criticised as a transparent imitation of the Wimsey-Vane romance. Not all runs smoothly for Alleyn and Troy, although they do eventually get engaged and married in a later book. The part that I think shows how Marsh went her own way and left Sayers’s influence behind comes in books like Final Curtain from 1947 and Clutch of Constables from 1968, when Troy becomes the main protagonist with Alleyn left in the background. Although I do really like many of Marsh’s books, I can’t deny that her sleuth is, well, boring and somewhat forgettable. Agatha, though, only gets more interesting as the books go on. Using a romance for her detective was a brilliant tactic by Marsh, since it simultaneously made Alleyn less two dimensional while also allowing her to introduce another recurring character for future books.
Since Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion started life as a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey, it’s not that surprising that his romances also have some Sayers-esque flourishes to them. In 1930’s Mystery Mile, there’s a very well handled one-side romance between Campion and his old friend Biddy Paget, although it doesn’t necessarily end very happily for him. Then, like Alleyn, he has a romantic arc that spans many books with Amanda Fitton, who first appears as a 17 year old in 1933’s Sweet Danger. She resurfaces in 1930’s The Fashion in Shrouds, now grown up and working as an aerospace engineer, and in the course of the case she and Campion pretend to be engaged as part of the investigation. As ever with Allingham’s work, there’s a good deal of the Wodehousian farce to it, and the will-they-won’t-they nature of Amanda and Campion’s romance over multiple books absolutely has that quality. But as her sleuth matured as a character and threw off some of his sillier mannerisms, Allingham was able to use the relationship to add depth and gravitas to her stories too. This is especially evident in the World War Two story Tiger in the Smoke, which is generally considered to be among Allingham’s best work and in which Amanda plays an important role.
Which leads me, finally, to arguably the greatest detective fiction romance: Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Wimsey had already appeared in four full length novels by himself by the time that Sayers introduced Vane in 1930’s Strong Poison. He was popular, but something of a Wodehousian aristocratic caricature with his monocle and his dropped g’s. In 1925 Sayers wrote to a friend that the process of constructing a Wimsey story was “rather like laying a mosaic — putting each piece apparently meaningless and detached — into its place, until suddenly one sees the thing as a consistent picture” and said that the whole thing was “most effective when done in the flat”. Later, she said that her novels showed signs of becoming “round”, meaning that she was leaving this two dimensional structure behind in favour of something more developed and less tied to the classical conventions of the whodunnit.
I think her genius in giving Lord Peter a love story, which plays out over four books published in the span of seven years, was to never allow the romance to have greater priority in the plot that the detective’s inquiry. It amplifies and enhances the mystery, rather than detracting from it. We see this perfectly in Strong Poison: Peter’s instant sympathy and affection for Harriet Vane upon seeing her in the dock being tried for murder is the impetus he needs to set out on the investigation that forms the spine and major subject of the book. The same goes for Have His Carcase, where their increasing emotional entanglement is still subordinate to the sleuthing they do together. Harriet finds a body while on a solo walking holiday, and she only summons Peter to help her with great reluctance and because despite everything else, she still has great respect for his abilities as a detective.
From the end of Strong Poison through to the end of Gaudy Night, Harriet and Peter struggle with their relationship. Harriet finds it difficult to reconcile her gratitude to him with any romantic relationship they might have — she can’t work out where her feelings stem from. They also come from very different backgrounds, with Harriet an impoverished middle class doctor’s daughter who supports herself through her writing, and Peter the younger brother of a Duke and rolling in cash. To accept Peter’s constant marriage proposals would be to accept a certain position in society, and the stuffy rituals that go with that are something that Harriet is loathe to adopt. It also could mean giving up her hard fought for independence, and if you remember the episode I made about the Mutual Admiration Society and how Sayers and her friends struggled to establish their careers, it’s not hard to understand why a woman writer in the 1920s might be wary of anything that polluted her room of one’s own. Neither of them are in the first flush of youth, either, and both have had troubled relationships in the past. They’re awkward and short tempered with each other, both scared of revealing their true feelings or offering a commitment the other might refuse. This makes them much more readable — their romance is no saccharine fairy tale, but rather a story of two prickly, intelligent people working out if they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and if so, how to do it.
In Gaudy Night, Sayers makes the unconventional decision to make Harriet, not Peter, the central figure of the book. She returns to the women’s college in Oxford where she got her degree to help the staff there solve a poison pen mystery, and is plunged into all kinds of questions about women’s work, structural misogyny and whether there is such a thing as an equal marriage. Once again, the aspects of this that relate to her connection with Peter are all there because they are relevant to the mystery plot first and foremost, meaning that there’s no sense that one thing detracts or distracts from the other. Like when Agatha Troy takes centre stage in Marsh’s Final Curtain, in Gaudy Night we get to see Harriet not so much as Peter Wimsey’s love interest but as a real person with an interior life of her own. It benefits the novel greatly to diversify the perspective like this, and for readers of the whole Wimsey series it’s just really interesting to see the central sleuth from other books through someone else’s eyes.
Over the course of their romance, Harriet and Peter evolve their own way of speaking to each other. They like to trade quotations, make puns, reference literature they both enjoy, and they do this more and more as they grow more comfortable and intimate with each other. In my experience, this is the most controversial aspect of the way Sayers wrote their dynamic, since some readers don’t love having to look up medieval devotional texts and Latin verse to understand what’s going on. Personally, I enjoy the searching it requires and find that understanding their references enhances my understanding of the characters, but I get that footnotes in a whodunnit are not everybody’s cup of tea.
The subtitle of the final full length Harriet and Peter book, Busman’s Honeymoon, tells you just how expert Sayers had become at the balancing act between crime and romance. “A Love Story with Detective Interruptions” is how she described it. It’s a bit of a formal jumble, with an epistolary section to start with describing their engagement and wedding followed by a series of flashbacks mostly in Harriet’s voice before the present tense section dealing with the case begins. The book started life as a play that Sayers co wrote with her friend Muriel St Clare Byrne, so it’s not that surprising that the novelised version is a little clunky and relies on visual set pieces. From a romantic narrative perspective, though, it’s extraordinary. I think we would usually have expected to see leave Harriet and Peter at the end of Gaudy Night, with the rest of their lives to exist only in the imagination of the keen reader. But Sayers actually tried to write out what a “happily ever after” might look like when the character are set on a partnership of equals. In the dedication, Sayers wrote that “It has been said by myself and others that a love interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love story”. This was her answer to that dilemma, and although it’s not as strong a work as Gaudy Night, say, it’s still a pretty good yarn.
Sayers approach to romance in detective fiction has been very influential on the genre. As well as her contemporaries like Marsh and Allingham, generations of writers following have followed her lead in mingling the two kinds of plot. Ellis Peters, Ruth Rendell, Barbara Mertz and others all published books that reveal aspects of the Wimsey-Vane template. I personally really enjoy the work of Elly Griffiths, a crime writer working today, and think that her long running Ruth Galloway-Harry Nelson romance also has its origins back in Sayers, even if there’s less quoting of John Donne.
Jill Paton Walsh has written four follow on novels that focus on Harriet and Peter after Sayers own stories run out, and I think they work because of the enduring appeal of that relationship. I’ll talk about this more in another episode, but although golden age detective fiction continuations have become quite popular in the publishing industry recently, they’re often pretty hard to pull off as anything other than a pastiche. Although she writes a decent Harriet Vane, Walsh wisely doesn’t attempt to imitate Sayers’s prose, and she also goes to the trouble of inventing fairly decent mystery plots for the married sleuths to tackle. They age through her books, too, appearing as newlyweds in Thrones, Dominations and then in their 60s in The Late Scholar.
I only read Walsh’s books very recently, despite having known about them for years, because I was put off by the concept and didn’t like the idea of Harriet and Peter being written by anyone other than Sayers. But having now inhaled them all in a matter of days I can see that I was wrong: they really work, for the reasons I’ve already outlined, and because the character have such enduring appeal. The best murder mystery romances are always walking that line between what Sayers called “sentimental comedy” and serious whodunnit. The really outstanding ones fuse the two to make something entirely new.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/happilyeverafter where there will also be links to all the books and sources I mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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I’ll be back on 1 April with another episode.