Not going to have time to post this tomorrow morning so posting a little earlier than usual. It is already Tuesday in other parts of the world so we can just pretend that I am from somewhere like Dhaka, Kyiv or Addis Ababa. This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are sharing our thoughts on who are the “great,” best and most notable fictional detectives, in honour of the publication of the 100 Greatest Literary Sleuths, which should be released in a few days’ time. Last week I looked at Amelia Butterworth, Mrs Bradley and Sister Pelagia, who have each added to the elderly/spinster niche of mystery fiction in their own ways. If you missed that post you can catch up here and if you need to track down posts from other contributing bloggers here is another handy link.
My choices for today’s sleuths have several things in common: they’re all male, they’ve all had some experience in teaching, (though some more than others), they’re all comical sleuths in their own way and their sleuthing is more of a hobby or pastime than a life’s work and above all they like to do things their own way, for better or for worse.
My first choice is Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham. His sleuthing career began in 1925 with The Layton Court Mystery and continued in 9 more novels until Panic Party in 1934. He also featured in several short stories, as well as in stage and radio plays. Now regular readers of the blog will know that Sheringham can quite frankly get on my wick, so you may be wondering why I chose to write about him. Well firstly literary value and greatness can’t necessarily be equated with likeability, as in fact part of Sheringham’s contribution to the genre is his at times insufferable behaviour and secondly, having read quite a few Berkeley novels last year, as well as one this year, I think Sheringham as a character becomes less annoying over time, with his worst outbursts of arrogance being in his cases during 1920s.
I am not the only person to find Sheringham annoying. Stephen Knight (2003) describes him as an ‘anti-heroic detective’ who is ‘languid and rude,’ (Knight, 2003: 86) whilst even his creator said that Sheringham was ‘an offensive person, founded on an offensive person I once knew, because in my original innocence I thought it would be amusing to have an offensive detective.’ Additionally William Bradley Strickland (1984) writes that
‘Sheringham appears as a loud meddler, painted broadly as a beer-drinking, abrasive, self-centred, rude man, at once absurdly vain and cynically deprecatory of public taste and intelligence; and, above all, bull-headed to a fault’ (Strickland, 1984: 124).
So you may be wondering why Berkeley made such a character, aside from amusement purposes, and what value an annoying protagonist can have. Well to begin with Turnbull (1996) points out that Sheringham was ‘first intended as a satirical figure, conceived as the very antithesis of the Great detective’ (Turnbull, 1996: 35), as apart from being irritating he is also highly fallible as a detective. Many see him as a literary descendent of E. C. Bentley’s Philip Trent, as he too often picks the wrong suspect when trying to identify the killer and often the police are much more on the ball, which has led some to see this as part of Berkeley’s attempts of sending up the detective genre in his mystery writing.
This fallibility is visible from the get go and is fairly consistent throughout Sheringham’s career. At the start of The Layton Court Mystery, Berkeley writes that:
‘I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery behave as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry, who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once overbalancing or turning aside after false goals…’
Critics such as Howard Haycraft have praised this element of Berkeley’s work, whilst fellow writers lampooned Sheringham’s detecting style, such as Christie in her short story collection: Partners in Crime (1929) and in Have His Carcase (1932) by Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey says that, ‘there’s the Roger Sheringham method, for instance. You prove elaborately and in detail that A did the murder; then you give the story one final shake, twist it around a fresh corner, and find the real murderer is B – the person you suspected first and lost sight of …’
So I would say that Sheringham’s unlikeable qualities and his fallibility go hand in hand, as the reader enjoys seeing him get things wrong and get into trouble much more, because he is not a wholly likeable individual – an aspect which contributes to the comedy of the novels. This occurs most especially in Jumping Jenny (1933), where Sheringham’s desire to pervert the course of justice (and allow a killer to escape police attention), backfires spectacularly when those around him assume he is in fact the murderer. In this moment of weakness and vulnerability, Sheringham becomes far more personable. Like Mrs Bradley, who I talked about last week, Sheringham has an unorthodox approach to justice, as he often prefers to let killers get away than see them hang, frequently believing the victims were sometimes deserving of death. Also like Gladys Mitchell’s sleuth, Sheringham increasingly becomes a detective whose skills hone in on the psychological elements of the case, a point Martin Edwards brings up in his discussion of Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927), in which Sheringham says that ‘every detective must be a psychologist, whether he knows it or not.’
Before moving on to my next sleuth I will leave you with this excerpt from Jumping Jenny, which sums and glories in Sheringham and his foibles…
‘In matters of detection, Roger Sheringham knows his own limitations. He recognises that although arguments and logical deduction from a fact are not beyond him, his faculty for deduction from character is a bigger asset to him … He has, in point of fact, very often been wrong. But that never deters him from trying again. For the rest, he has unbounded confidence in himself and is never afraid of taking grave decisions, and often quite illegal ones, when he thinks that pure justice can be served better in this way than by twelve possibly stupid jury men. Many people like him enormously, and many people are irritated by him beyond endurance; he is quite indifferent to both. Possibly he is a good deal too pleased with himself, but he does not mind that either. Give him his three chief interests in life, and he is perfectly happy – criminology, human nature and good beer.’
So from the difficult Sheringham my second choice is Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen, a sleuth I was definitely keen to bag, as he is a great sleuth but also a likeable one. Fen, when he is not doing a spot of amateur sleuthing, is a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. He stars in 9 novels, as well as 2 short story collections, beginning his career in 1944 with The Case of the Gilded Fly. His time of sleuthing comes to an end in 1979 with Fen Country, one of the short story collections, though his last appearance in a novel is in 1977 with Glimpses of the Moon. An interesting fact is that Crispin, (real name Robert Bruce Montgomery), got his pen-surname from a character in Michael Innes’ Hamlet Revenge! (1937), called Gervase Crispin. In a similar way to Miss Marple, Fen is composed of conflicting traits, which when put together give the reader a dynamic sleuth to contend with. In The Case of the Gilded Fly, for instance, Fen is described as ‘Cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful […] taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar.’ In the main Fen comes across as a maverick and comical character, who charges into situations head first, yet somehow ending up unscathed. He invariably fits into the “Great Detective” branch of mystery writing, being reliable in terms of catching the right killer and in his abilities to control situations, however wild.
Putting entertainment value to one side, I think one of the main reasons why I chose Fen as one of the ‘great’ sleuths, is that in the early post war period he refreshed the satirical section of the detective fiction genre – exposing the artificiality of the stories he is in, but in such a brilliant and enjoyable way and Gervase Fen is a key vehicle through which this is achieved. Fen consciously and unconsciously satirises a number of different things. First of all there is the detective fiction genre itself, with Fen being a keen dabbler in metafiction. Always hard to pick your favourite lines with Crispin but here a few to give you a flavour of Fen in action…
In The Holy Disorders (1945), for example, we have Fen saying that ‘I’m a very good detective myself,’ he concluded modestly. ‘In fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction’ and there is even a moment where Fen begins a disagreement with his creator, over the name of a knot with one of Fen’s comments inciting a biting retort in the footnotes by Crispin. Whilst in Love Lies Bleeding (1948) Fen at the end of the story says that ‘no one could possibly make a detective story,’ out of the case that has just been investigated. Though it is in The Moving Toyshop (1946), that some of my most favourite lines can be found. For instance during a chase scene, the thriller feel to it is significantly undercut by Fen, firstly when an unwanted ageing don hanger on, ends up ‘clinging on [… to Fen] like the Old Man of Sea,’ when their vehicle has to do an emergency. There is also the well-remembered line in which Fen says ‘Let’s go left… After all, Gollancz is publishing this book,’ when trying to decide which direction to take.
Fen’s satirical talent unsurprisingly also centres on the world of academia and academics, which again can be strongly seen in The Moving Toyshop. At times he upholds the don stereotypes, such as being highly impractical, (in his case especially when it comes to cars: ‘He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside.’) He also has his ‘eccentricities’ and has a fairly erratic nature which his personal appearance reflects: ‘his dark hair, sedulously plastered down with water, stuck up in spikes at the crown.’ Yet he never becomes a figure of ridicule, something I think that is important in his contribution to the genre.
However with all great characters, or in this case great detectives, there is more than meets the eye. I am not denying or minimising Fen’s larger than life, entertaining and hectic persona when I say there is darker, harder and more determined side to Fen. Once more this duality is flagged up in The Moving Toyshop when Cadogan says that ‘belying all outward appearance, there was something extremely reliable about Fen,’ as well as that underneath his ‘ordinary kind of don’ appearance, he wouldn’t ‘like to have [Fen] as an enemy. There’s something one can only describe as formidable about him – not on the surface of course. There he’s engagingly naïve.’ The ending of this book, during the carousel scene, also exposes Fen’s harsher side, which the narrator finds to be ‘a new and unfamiliar aspect of his character,’ in which ‘there was not a trace of emotion of any kind in his voice.’ It is in scenes such as this that Fen’s character resonates with other amateur sleuths such as Miss Marple who have a ruthless determination to see justice done and for me a key trait of many great detectives is that you always find out more about them or new sides to their character when you re-read their cases.
So yes there is so much to enjoy about Fen and the cases he investigates and if it were possible to literally go into the world of a book, one of Gervase Fen’s earlier mysteries would definitely be on my list. Fen is a mixture of darkness and light, but it is hard to resist liking a character which so delightfully exclaims in moods of stress and exacerbation, ‘Oh my dear paws’ and ‘Oh my fur and whiskers.’
My final choice is the least well known of today’s picks, being Alice Tilton’s Leonidas Witherall, a character who has much experience in teaching, such as Fen, as well as writing fiction like Sheringham. Yet even by Fen’s standards he has lead a much more tumultuous life, due to fluctuating finances and at one works as a bookshop caretaker to earn his living. He features in 8 mysteries, starting with Beginning with a Bash which was published in 1937 and concluding with The Iron Clew in 1947, (which me being me was the first Witherall mystery I read). In the 1940s these stories were also used as a basis for a radio drama series called The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, which is quite fitting given that the mystery stories Leonidas writes are dramatized on the radio. Metafiction, as with Fen, is pleasingly pleasant in these novels, though with the novels within the novel, the metafiction is intensified in my opinion, as frequently the events Witherall includes in his own novels begin to be mirrored in his own life. No more so than in The Iron Clew (1947), arguably Tilton’s most metafictional novel in which it is written ‘that old octopus of fate… had obviously slithered out from his printed words and into his own personal and private life.’
Again I would say Witherall’s contribution to the mystery genre lies in the comical section. You may say there are lots of comic crime novels, so why is Witherall so special? Well for me I think it is due to how far Tilton pushes the plots in her novels. There are screwball comedies and zany madcap adventures and then there are Tilton novels, which take these styles to a whole new level unfurling a myriad of plot strands yet never letting go of one of them, each connecting into the final solution perfectly – and for all of this to happen we need Witherall, who is the lynchpin to it all. After all Becker (1980) says that Tilton places her characters in ‘such chaotic situations that ordinary suspense is superseded by curiosity about how the author can possible extricate her protagonists from the’ (Becker, 1980: 1372) mess they’re in.
Witherall convincingly, time after time, takes on the role of the innocent fugitive on the run and his escapades always begin with him doing some innocent little task: getting on a bus, finding a brown package, searching for a lost umbrella, yet all of these events snowball into something far bigger and zanier than imagined, to the extent that Witherall temporarily has to be at odds with the police in order to uncover what has really happened. Invariably for Witherall the window of time for him to go to the police and explain the situation is consistently short and is always one he misses, meaning he has to work outside of the law. So unlike Sheringham whose unorthodox approach affects the nature of justice in his cases, Witherall’s unorthodoxy centres on how he discovers the truth in the first place.
I really think I will need to start giving out endurance medals for these TNB posts, though this post is actually shorter than last weeks. You’ll probably all be relieved to know that I am only talking about two sleuths next week.
Beck, M. (1980). Alice Tilton. In: Reilly, J. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers. London: Macmillan Press. pp. 1372-1373.
Edwards, Martin. (2007 (In Mystery Scene Magazine)). Anthony Berkeley. Available: http://www.martinedwardsbooks.com/berkeley.htm. Last accessed 03/04/2018.
Knight, S. (2003). The Golden Age. In: Priestman, M. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 77-94.
Strickland, W. (1984). Anthony Berkeley Cox. In: Bargainnier, E. Twelve Englishmen of Mystery. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. pp. 120-141.
Turnbull, M. (1996). Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.