With a paper knife in the library

Linda Kelly

Filed under: Fiction

Linda Kelly considers the love of 'real' writers for detective fiction.

The election of Agatha Christie as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950 caused considerable controversy when it was first discussed. It turned out to be a very happy choice. She much enjoyed the RSL, attending its meetings and lectures regularly and was always refreshingly modest about herself. ‘Of course I’m not a real writer like all of you,’ she used to say. Other Fellows, thinking of her sales, could only look at her with awe.

Freddy Birkenhead, chairman of the RSL at the time, and one of her chief advocates on Council, was an avid reader of detective stories, unabashed at appearing in the most highbrow circles with a book with a blonde with a knife through her chest on the cover. He belonged to a numerous band of so called ‘real’ or serious writers of the period – the golden age of the classic detective story, roughly spanned by Agatha Christie’s career – who delighted in reading crime fiction. Some, like Bertrand Russell, who read a detective story every night in his later years, were relatively unselective. But others had their special favourites, Agatha Christie high among them. There’s a marvellous exchange with Dylan Thomas in Joan Wyndham’s wartime diary Love is Blue. ‘Poetry is not the most important thing in life,’ he tells her. ‘Frankly I’d much rather lie in a hot bath sucking boiled sweets and reading Agatha Christie.’

Cyril Connolly was another writer who loved Agatha Christie, and in The Unquiet Grave, without actually mentioning her by name, he evokes the characteristic pleasure of her detective stories, read on lazy, homesick afternoons in the South of France: ‘whisky, beefsteaks, expresses from Paddington, winter landscapes, old inns and Georgian houses that screen large gardens off the main streets of country towns… solicitors and doctors and clever spinsters who brew home-made poison and who come into their own in these exacting tales… the artist from London and the much-consulted military man.’

It’s a nostalgic passage, still more so 60 years later when Agatha Christie can be seen not only as a creator of intricately plotted murder mysteries, but as a social historian of a vanished slice of English life.

If Agatha Christie was the queen of crime in England in the mid-years of the twentieth century, Erle Stanley Gardner was her equivalent in the United States. His Perry Mason mysteries, with their Los Angeles settings and dramatic courtroom finales, sold in tens of millions and were admired by writers of very different kinds. John Updike devoured him in his youth – ‘I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner by the time I was fifteen’; Ogden Nash wove him into one of his most ingenious couplets in his poemPeekaboo, I Can Almost See You, on the trials of having to have two different pairs of glasses:

One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Keats’s Endymionwith,
The other for walking round without saying Hello to strange wymion with.

In England Evelyn Waugh was a devoted fan. ‘You grow more like Perry Mason daily,’ he writes to his agent A.D. Peters. ‘I know no higher praise.’ From another of his letters we surmise that Graham Greene was also an enthusiast. I have just learnt a most alarming thing,’ Waugh writes to him, ‘Perry Mason is a Free Mason (The Case of the Dangerous Dowager).’ On one memorable occasion he writes to Gardner himself:

May I, as one of the keenest admirers of your work,
correct what I first took to be a slip but now realise must be
a genuine misconception
You seem to think that a ‘davenport’ is some kind of sofa.
It is, and can only be, a small writing desk.
Are you perhaps confusing it with a ‘chesterfield’?

To this an editor at Gardner’s publishers replied that ‘davenport’ was used for a kind of sofa in the United States. Gardner sent a supplementary reply, informing Waugh that if he was ‘the Evelyn Waugh who wrote that wonderful exposé of Hollywood and apparently you are… you have the greatest gift of satire I have ever encountered and that means philosophical perspective and writing ability of a high order.’ Thus did the two great masters of their respective genres salute each other.

Writers like Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner set their mark on a whole era. Today the field is more diverse, with foreign writers in translation playing an increasing role, and it is impossible to name a single over-riding figure. But the cross references between ‘real’ writers and writers of crime fiction continue: Philip Larkin’s admiration for Dick Francis is a case in point. Sometimes the two overlap. Cecil Day-Lewis wrote detective stories under the name of Nicholas Blake as well as being Poet Laureate; more recently Julian Barnes as Dan Kavanagh, and John Banville as Benjamin Black have made successful ventures into the genre. And Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ (if they can be included in the category) are regarded by some as his best work.

Not all ‘real’ writers enjoy detective stories. Some simply regard them as a waste of time, others actively disapprove of them. The most notable example of this was Edmund Wilson, who in 1947, the heyday of Christie and Gardner, wrote a series of three articles in the New Yorker denouncing the whole genre. The second of these, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, went straight for Agatha Christie: ‘I did not care for Agatha Christie and never expect to read another one of her books.’ He was perfectly entitled to his point of view. Crime fiction is not for everyone. But even Edmund Wilson, in the last of his three articles, admitted that he sometimes lulled himself to sleep by reading Sherlock Holmes.

RSL Review 2009

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Linda Kelly 2003