Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (2017) by Victoria Stewart

Source: Review Copy (Cambridge University Press)

As part of a general aim for this month, namely to get around to reading the various literary criticism I have on crime fiction, I decided to finish off reading this book today.

Stewart in her introduction sets out her intentions:

‘My focus in this study is on what, if anything, interwar detective fiction might have been trying to escape from and whether this escape was or could ever be successful. I will bring to light some of the varied non-fictional accounts of crime from this period, and also examine novels that refuse to comply with the ‘rules’ of detective fiction but which are centrally concerned with crime and criminality, often reworking in fictional form cases that would have been familiar to contemporary readers.’

‘My contention throughout this book is that it behoves us to examine these contemporaneous narratives about, and ways of understanding, crime because detective fiction was not hermetically sealed from a broader, pervasive field of representation of criminality.’

Whilst I am not sure she manages to cover all of these aims, the intention which came across most strongly for me was her exploration of how authors were influenced by and used true crimes past and present in their work and how in turn newspaper trial reports and perspectives on real life cases were coloured by the mystery novels people were reading at that time. Furthermore, Stewart states her focus on female authors of the time, in particular Marie Belloc Lowndes, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers and Daphne Du Maurier and a key theme she draws upon with some of these writers is looking at how ‘the ways in which relations between men and women are addressed (or avoided) in’ their crime/mystery narratives. In addition Stuart also considers the non-fiction that mystery writers sometimes wrote on sensational cases or trials, (the Notable Trials series is looked at a lot), and in doing, she also examines the similarities between true crime and mystery fiction and the fine line authors were treading in their fictional work ‘between critiquing and indulging sensationalism, producing stories that question the representational strategies of both fictional and non-fictional crime writing.’

Aside from introducing the reader to her aims and the historical/literary context she is writing about, she also goes on to look at how perceptions and accounts of trials evolved in fiction and newspapers and it was interesting to read about the various legal changes which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th century when it came to trials, such as when they finally allowed the defendant to speak and be questioned, as in earlier times the accused was prohibited from speaking. As trials became longer and more prominent so did their fictionalisations, though Stewart does note that:

‘detective novels tend not to recount the trial of the individual whom the investigator identifies as the guilty party because the watertightness of the investigation itself acts as a substitute for the depiction of the judicial process. An account of the trial would reiterate the findings of the investigation that has formed the body of the narrative. Thus the detective figure is a substitute for both the police and the legal system.’

Though of course is Stewart is aware that exceptions did exist and I am sure we can all think of quite a variety of examples from the works of Carr, Sayers, Allingham, Frances Iles and Philip Macdonald etc.

The rest of the book is divided into four chapters plus a final coda. In each chapter the reader is introduced to a variety of real life cases, such as the Charles Bravo, Madeline Smith and Harriet Staunton cases in the first chapter. The work of Marie Belloc Lowndes crops up a lot in this chapter, which seeks to look at how interwar writers were responding to and selectively choosing criminal cases from the previous century, in particular how they were critiquing social attitudes and the role of women as perpetrators and victims of violent crime, with the former sometimes being seen as victims of unfair social circumstances. I think the wideness of the scope of this chapter let it down a bit, at times, as the narrative jumps around in topic, so it takes an effort to find the links between them all. Moreover, a range of lesser known works by Lowndes are discussed in a general fashion, which helps to place them in their literary context, but I think detailed discussion was lacking. I would have preferred more detail on specific points as I felt like I was getting close to something interesting, only to be hurried on.

The next chapter in the book focuses on the fictional and true crime writing of F Tennyson Jesse, an author I have only encountered in Double Death: An Exercise in Detection (1939). A key trial looked at in this chapter is the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters trial of 1922, where critics such as Lucy Bland, say that Edith ‘was on trial not just for murder but arguably also for her modernity, her consumption of mass culture – her seeking of sensation – and above all for her sexual agency,’ as well as being judged on the novels she read, (as these were discussed during her trial). I enjoyed reading about Jesse’s non-fiction work on notable trials and how this was affected by her creative writing leanings: ‘There is then, a tension between her desire to explain crime as a measurable social phenomenon and the creation of the narrative of an individual’s life and crime from the various fragments of available material.’ Jesse was also known for having popularised the term, “murderee” and Stewart goes on to look at how Jesse explored the psychology and behaviour of the victims she wrote about, with Jesse’s opinions even going as far as suggesting that some people are born to be killed, in the way their actions put their lives in jeopardy and stir up the violent nature in others. Jesse according to this chapter seems to have more compassion for female killers than female victims and Stuart uses an apt example in the short story, ‘Lot’s Wife.’

The third chapter turns to Dorothy L. Sayers, the theme of undiscovered or perfect crimes and how these types of crimes have to be managed in fictional formats, in terms of narrator, characterisation and order and focus of plot events. Difficulties such as how to punish a criminal character who has been humanised and whether a fatality which occurs via suggestion can be classed as murder are also mentioned. Two texts which are discussed in detail are Sayers’ contributions to Six Against the Yard (1936) and The Anatomy of Murder (1936), in the latter of which Sayers discusses the Wallace case – both of which were well written about. I also particularly enjoyed reading about a short story written by Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ (1889). Another interesting point which is raised in the chapter is how newspapers at the time had an array of crime texts: trials reports, mystery story serialisations, as well as essays on past trials and how this array merged in the minds of the readers, making fictional and real life criminal cases hard to separate at times in terms of how you respond to them.

The final chapter commences with looking at the 1924 Patrick Mahlon murder case, as a gateway into discussing how ‘issues of masculinity, sexuality and violence [were] coming into focus in highly troubling ways and [how they therefore] became a frequent point of reference for literary authors.’ Lowndes, Elizabeth Bowen and Daphne Du Maurier are the three key writers focused on in chapter and how they ‘raise the question of how criminality and supposed criminality can expose a crisis in masculinity, a crisis which is both a cause and a symptom of criminal behaviour, and is closely imbricated with the domestic.’ Whilst finding this a very interesting and engaging chapter I am not entirely sure Stewart achieved the aims she sets out at the start of the chapter, as I felt that the two dominant themes of the chapter were how writers such as Lowndes were using cases like the Mahlon one in their work to explore sexual double standards for women and how writers such as Bowndes were looking creating a subgenre of mysteries which could be entitled: ‘Who have I married?’ – tales where a newly married woman begins to have grave suspicions about the man they have wedded. I can see how these themes do kind of tie into the idea of ‘dangerous men,’ (a key term from the chapter’s title), but on the whole I don’t feel this idea was explicitly linked to the texts explored sufficiently.

The final coda looks ahead to the 40s and 50s and how the relationship between fictional and real life murder cases were evolving. On an entirely random note Stewart’s brief discussion of John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) at the start of the chapter enabled me to have a light bulb moment about Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problems (1927), as it suddenly dawned on me how the similarities in plot events between the two arguably make the later novel a comic re-writing and an almost spoof of the former. Apologies for the tangent – but it was a point which interested me. Back to the book under review. One of this book’s biggest strengths is its inclusion of and discussion of obscure writers and titles. Anyone else not heard of Jessie Rickard and Elizabeth Jenkins? Equally whilst I have read some of Lowndes stories, this book has inspired me to return to her work. It is easy to tell that Stewart has put a lot and time of effort into researching her subject, as the additional footnotes have a wealth of interesting and important information, meaning that you don’t need too much prior knowledge before reading the book. Stewart’s choice of topic is a good one, as I was kept engaged throughout, despite my odd niggles about whether stated aims were achieved or not. I think this book also shows how much the British Library Crime Classics series has contributed to academic works, as I have seen quite a few academic publications turning to less critiqued authors, presumably aided by these reprints. So this is definitely a book I think golden age detective fiction fans will get a lot out of. The only difficulty perhaps is not a lack of available copies but the price of them.

Rating: 4.5/5

22 comments

  1. After your excellent analysis, I was sufficiently interested to look this up — holy moly, what a price they want for this! It’s more than CDN$100 and I didn’t even stop to look at the shipping costs since my wallet was on fire already 😉 But this piques my interest about what this writer has to say about Tennyson Jesse, whom I’ve always thought had an interesting take on mixing true crime with fiction; I may try and get this from the library. Sorry, Cambridge University Press, but that price is just too high for non-institutional individuals who want to read this.

    Liked by 3 people

      • Well, she’s a pretty obscure one, even her Detection Colleague John Street referred to her as “that mysterious individual.” It’s interesting Stewart mentioned her, I’ll have to see that. I think Stewart is the first academic who has actually cited me (once), so naturally I’m all for giving Stewart props for looking at sources a lot of other academics haven’t been!

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  2. “how writers such as Lowndes were using cases like the Mahlon one in their work to explore sexual double standards for women and how writers such as Bowndes were looking creating a subgenre of mysteries which could be entitled: ‘Who have I married?’ – tales where a newly married woman begins to have grave suspicions about the man they have wedded.”

    You just described half or more of the domestic suspense fiction of the 20th century! 😉 But that’s the point, writers like Lowndes and Ethel Lina White were precursors of the domestic suspense writers, but, oddly, they are women who don’t get much attention, at least they hadn’t for some time, despite the fact that academia has done much to promote women crime writers. In part this is due to availability, though much of their work is copyright free and being reprinted now, but also it’s in part because these women were writing classic detective fiction like the Crime Queens. They’ve been punished by posterity for that, for not fitting the paradigm, which happily is finally breaking. For a long time academia (and, to be fair, a lot of other people too) had decided that you hard-boiled in the US and Crime Queens in the UK and that was all we needed to know, really. Wrong!

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  3. Thanks for giving us an overview of this book, which sounds fascinating but decidedly unaffordable. It does sound like it tries to cover too many themes and so can’t quite give all of them the focus they deserve. I will keep an eye out in my local library but it’s not hopeful. This seems a little too niche.

    Liked by 2 people

      • It’s a real shame when you do an academic book, this is what happens. They are aiming only at college libraries that have budgets for those prices. I tried to write an accessible book while still addressing the historiographical arguments at length in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery but it still got the same price treatment. But, unfortunately, the market for more scholarly books does seem to be somewhat limited. Martin’s books sell, but they have commercial presses and are written in a very direct style that draws in more readers. Academic get bogged down, for a lot of general readers, in historiography and hashing out points prior scholars have made. Not to mention all those endnotes! That sort of thing limits the audience. Given those realities the pricing policies may make sense, unfortunately, from the perspectives of the academic presses.

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  4. I take it she cites Elizabeth Jenkins for Harriet? That used to be a pretty well-known novel, was reprinted by Penguin in 1989 and Valancourt has reprinted it. She died in 2010, amazingly. the emphasis on the Crime Queens has, imo, not only obscured a lot of male detection writers, but also a lot of men and women who wrote about crime but not detection of the puzzle sort. Symons didn’t help by treating this as mostly “Iles school” writers, as if all these writers simply were aping Iles. There was more to it than that. Actually I see you are reading the Todd Downing book, where I get into this, because Downing was an early fan of women suspense writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bravo, bonus points for you, as I’m fairly sure Harriet was the text mentioned and I think I’ve just got to the bit in the Downing book where you talk about all of this i.e. Crime Queens obscuring other mystery writers. Definitely enjoying your book so far (which is more much affordably priced).

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  5. I offered the Downing book to the University of Oklahoma Press, but they turned it down because they deemed Downing unimportant. Or I should say one editor at the Press did. Since then Downing has written about by several current academics of note, so it seems to me like that was a dumb call by the editor. But had OU taken it, they probably would have priced it much higher. On the other hand, this affordable edition has only been picked up by a few libraries. Go figure.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Crime Writing in Interwar Britain by Victoria Stuart by armchairreviewer | crossexamingcrime “… the intention which came across most strongly for me was her exploration of how authors were influenced by and used true crimes past and present in their work and how in turn newspaper trial reports and perspectives on real life cases were coloured by the mystery novels people were reading at that time. Furthermore, Stewart states her focus on female authors of the time, in particular Marie Belloc Lowndes, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers and Daphne Du Maurier and a key theme she draws upon with some of these writers is looking at how ‘the ways in which relations between men and women are addressed (or avoided) in’ their crime/mystery narratives” […]

    Like

  7. […] Crime Writing in Interwar Britain by Victoria Stuart by armchairreviewer | crossexamingcrime “… the intention which came across most strongly for me was her exploration of how authors were influenced by and used true crimes past and present in their work and how in turn newspaper trial reports and perspectives on real life cases were coloured by the mystery novels people were reading at that time. Furthermore, Stewart states her focus on female authors of the time, in particular Marie Belloc Lowndes, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers and Daphne Du Maurier and a key theme she draws upon with some of these writers is looking at how ‘the ways in which relations between men and women are addressed (or avoided) in’ their crime/mystery narratives” […]

    Like

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