This is the third week of the Tuesday Night Blogger’s month long look at some of fiction’s best and greatest sleuths and detectives, in our opinion of course. This is in honour of the publication this month of 100 Greatest Literary Sleuths, ed. by Eric Sandberg. So far I’ve looked at elderly and spinster sleuths in week 1 and comic male sleuths of the teaching and writing professions last week, (long-winded category I know). This week sees me returning once more to the realms of comic crime fiction, as this is one of my preferred corners of the genre, but this time round we have the ladies.
My first choice this week is Joan Coggin’s Lady Lupin, who is definitely another sleuth I would love to meet in person, (if only it were possible). This is why it is such a shame that Coggin only wrote four novels featuring this brilliant amateur sleuth. The first of these is a Christmas set mystery, Who Killed the Curate? (1944), which is then followed by The Mystery at Orchard House (1946) and Why Did She Die? (1947). The final novel in the series, Dancing with Death (1947), also takes place over Christmas and New Year. Based on the first title, it won’t seem too surprising that Lady Lupin is a vicar’s wife. Yet of course the key point is, is that she is the least likely and perhaps least suitable person for such a role, being a vibrant, ditzy and verbally haphazard twenty something socialite. Many wonder how she’ll fit into the staid, respectable, quiet Glanville; a small seaside town, in which her much older husband, Andrew Hastings is vicar. In a way this is a central focus to this opening novel, providing the reader with lashings of entertainment and laugh out loud moments.
I’ve read online that Lupin is the first fictional sleuth who is a vicar’s wife, (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Yet Lupin is important for more reasons than that, as she makes an important contribution to the subgenre of comic crime and also that of amateur female sleuths. I think this is because Lupin sits between two diametrically opposed camps. She is neither an infallible sleuth such as Miss Marple, nor a wholly fallible wash out of a sleuth, (looking at you Miss Pym!). Moreover, unlike many female sleuths who remain single or reduce their sleuthing roles once married, letting their spouses take over, Lady Lupin’s career only actually begins when she is married and her husband is never really involved in it. She gets some outside assistance from her friends, but in the main she runs the show, even if this is done in a scatterbrain fashion.
One of the main reasons why I think she can uphold this middle ground is in the way her character develops and changes over the four books. There is comedy in all of them, but I think the direction of this comedy alters as the series progresses. Lady Lupin is of course at the centre of it all and in her first outing, the humour is pretty much directed at Lupin. She is somewhat out of her depth in her new parochial surroundings and is definitely not the sharpest tool in the box. Remarks such as the following do crop up a lot:
‘I am afraid we must go; you see tomorrow is Sunday and Andrew always gets up early on Sunday to go to church, you know.’
‘Miss Gibson said would I like to ask them a question; I felt absolutely paralysed and all I could think of to say was, ‘What is your favourite pudding?’ As a matter of fact it went most awfully well and the children looked more intelligent than you would have thought possible and they all began to answer quite brightly; but I don’t think it was an enormous success with Miss Gibson and the teachers.’
Also the wrong end of the stick, becomes sticks with Lupin, all of which is greatly fun for the reader to witness. The best example of this is when she is asked to join the Mother’s Union, as an organiser, whilst instead she worries about her legitimacy to be in the group, wondering how to explain that she isn’t pregnant and expecting. Yet despite this, she is not a character to be dismissed. Her journey to the solution, of who indeed had murdered the curate, may be circuitous, with many misunderstandings, but her logic, however out there and zany proves correct. There is unexpected astuteness and sharpness beneath her scatty surface. For instance she is quite correct in suggesting that Phylis Gardner is not the murderer, yet her reasons for believing so are far from orthodox: ‘Even if she so far forgot herself as to commit a murder, she would never have walked through the streets carrying a parcel wrapped up in a newspaper. She had the highest standards.’ I also love the moment when she has called out the name of a suspect in her sleep and her husband says, ‘I wish you wouldn’t call out other men’s names in your sleep, darling. The best vicar’s wives don’t do that sort of thing.’ Her reply is brilliant: ‘How do you know?’ One more final favourite from the book is when a policeman asks her: ‘Who was in your sitting room during that interval? Say four-thirty on Tuesday and ten or eleven yesterday morning?’ To which she responds:
‘If you have ever lived in a vicarage you wouldn’t ask questions like that; people just walk in and out all day long. When Andrew asked me to marry him, he said he was afraid I should find it very quiet here and what he meant I can’t imagine! If I wanted quiet I’d rather retire to the Tower of Babel with a saxophone.’
However by the second book, things are beginning to change, as Lupin gets to grips with her new role in life. She is still highly fallible in an entertaining way, making various mistakes, but we also get to see some of skills which make her an ideal amateur sleuth. For example one character says to her: ‘Yours is a very sympathetic character […] not deep, the mind underdeveloped, floating on the shadows of life, yet good-hearted and ready to help others according to your limitations.’ Backhanded compliment indeed! Yet she responds to it by saying, ‘no one can look at me without telling me the whole history of their past life’ and I think her skills as a confidante, however reluctant, are an important part of her role. Books 3 and 4 reveal a greater transformation in Lupin though, with the third book probably being the darkest and most spine chilling of the lot, especially in regards to its victim and again once more Lupin’s role as a sleuth is further substantiated and recognised by others. One line I found particularly telling is, ‘Lady Lupin is not a clear thinker … but there is not much that escapes her,’ as for me it really encapsulates the middle ground she holds as a sleuth. Furthermore, the comedy tends to shift slightly. We spend less time laughing at Lupin for saying something inane or daft and more with her as she sees the ridiculous nature of her situation and when her desire to be a good vicar’s wife internally clashes with her own natural instincts. For example when a character says, ‘I am glad your husband is with him,’ on the inside she is thinking she might not be ‘so glad. If Dick really had turned into a homicidal maniac she would have preferred him to choose someone else’s husband as his walking partner but she thought it might sound selfish to say so, so she sank down into a chair and lit a cigarette in silence.’ Moreover there is another occasion when she despairs over the way she keeps getting involved in solving crimes:
‘I don’t know why it is, exactly, but there must be something queer about me, like those people in Greek tragedies, you know. The minute I appear upon the scene everyone cries, ‘Let’s have a murder!’
So whilst Lupin still comes out with some great lines and thoughts, I think in these final two books she has a greater sense of self-assurance, she is more comfortable in her own skin and her dual roles of vicar’s wife and amateur sleuth. In fact I would go so far as to say that her role as a vicar’s wife is instrumental in how her character develops over the series. In the final book she directly tackles her married friends who have fallen out, in a manner which would not have happened in the first book and her explanation for this is telling:
‘Now look here, you two, it is no use expecting me to behave in a reticent, well-bred way. Whatever I may have been before, I have been a clergyman’s wife for ten years and interfering is my job. What is the matter with you?’
In the way elderly single woman are presupposed to be nosey and interfering, Lupin’s role as a vicar’s wife gives her similar camouflage. Her sleuthing skills also become more refined through practice and she frequently picks up information through conversations, as well as through association of words and ideas.
So if you’ve not tried any of Lady Lupin cases then I strongly recommend you do, as she truly has an unforgettable personality and dialogue. I’ve never seen any early prints of her books but thankfully the Rue Morgue Press reprinted these four titles, so copies can be found reasonably easily.
My second choice this week, is another personal favourite and a sleuth I have blogged about a lot in the last couple of years. Regular readers of the blog will not be surprised when I tell you that my final sleuth is Jane Brown, an amateur sleuth created by Delano Ames. She is part of a couple sleuthing team, working alongside her incorrigible husband, Dagobert. They featured in 12 novels together, beginning with She Shall Have Murder (1948) and ending with Lucky Jane in 1959. Their investigations often occur when they are travelling so there are cases set in Mexico (Murder Begins at Home (1949)), France (Corpse Diplomatique (1950)), Spain (No Mourning for the Matador (1953)) and even Austria (Crime Out of Mind (1956)).
Now some may disagree with me trying to suggest Jane is a great detective, fearing she is overshadowed by her husband. Barnett (1997) summarises things well when she writes:
‘What was maddening about Jane Hamish Brown was her husband, Dagobert. She was an attractive, well-educated, self-supporting young Englishwoman, swept into marriage by a divorced, upper class Cambridge graduate. Dagobert was self-centred, financially irresponsible and willing to let Jane support him’ (Barnett, 1997: 141).
Yet, having read 10 of the 12 Brown novels I think the situation is a little more complicated than that in terms of the Brown relationship and Jane’s sleuthing. Beginning with the latter I think Dagobert does try to control the limelight, often withholding information from Jane when investigating, but I also think that two can play at that game, with Jane working on her own to find clues. This is particularly the case in Death of a Fellow Traveller in which Jane has to carry the investigation by herself when Dagobert gets beaten up and is out of action. Furthermore, whilst Dagobert seems to go to absurd lengths to uncover information, Jane is shown to find such information and more through normal everyday conversations with those around her.
I also think Jane regains a certain level of control through being the series’ narrator. Whilst Watson narrators abound I think it is more unusual to have one of two amateur sleuths to narrate their cases. By doing it this way round I think Ames’ allows Jane to always have the final laugh on Dagobert’s antics. Moreover, as the narrating sleuth, who writes their adventures up as mystery novels, Jane also gives us much metafictional humour to enjoy. A good example of this is again found in Death of a Fellow Traveller, which begins with Jane describing the difficulties of writing a novel:
‘There is always a great deal of fuss in the family before I start a book. The situation briefly is this:
a) I am not a novelist – which may seem a discouraging admission to make at the offset.
b) I believe a woman’s place is in the home – at least until six o’clock in the evening
c) I can never think of anything to write about’
Interestingly Dagobert does not condone the servitude connotations of her second reason and as to the third notes that, ‘what we want… is somebody to get killed. We could easily spare some of your friends.’ Whilst in The Body on Page One, the novel begins with Jane writing that, ‘I have always wanted to write one of those books with a body on the first page’ and by the end of the first page it seems her wish has been granted. There is also an entertaining moment when she is discussing her work with a guest, ‘I told him, and we chatted animatedly for several minutes about the creative writer’s place in modern society, handicapped only by the fact that he had decided I was Dorothy Sayers.’ On re-reading this quote something which has just dawned on me is that perhaps Jane and Dagobert are supposed to be a satirical variation or parody of Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey. Both Harriet and Jane are writers, though Harriet is by far the more committed of the two and the men in their life are far from uncomplicated one way or another.
There are quite a few sleuthing couples in vintage crime fiction, to the extent it could always qualify as a subgenre. Yet I think the Browns are a very important component of this select group, as unlike some of the couples I think their relationship is described in such a way that they are a balanced couple, they can give as good as they get. Jane in no way idolises Dagobert and is no one’s door mat. Instead she has a wry way of describing the bumps in their relationship: ‘I have been married to Dagobert for nearly two years, and I have never had a dull moment. I could do with a dull moment.’ Also in Landscape with a Corpse (1955), there is a definite undertone of sarcasm in the following lines: ‘But I was worried about Dagobert. There was in his eyes that indefinable “longing to get away from it all” which attacks him so recurrently. He is evasive when asked to define that “it all” consists of. Could it be the threat of employment?’ Finally one of my favourite moments in Death of a Fellow Traveller is when Jane brings Dagobert down to earth during one of his wilder moments of fancy:
Dagobert: ‘I might try that trick of ‘reconstructing the crime’.’
Jane: ‘I’ll play the part of the person who shoves you off the cliff…
Finally I would say there is some admirable in the lifestyle Jane and Dagobert choose for themselves. Jane might find it irksome at times but I think she does actually enjoy the unpredictable lives they lead and in a way their bohemian way of living is a forerunner of the social changes which happened in the 60s onwards. Neither of them have regular 9-5 jobs, they don’t have a permanent place to live, being always on the move instead. Also interestingly something I didn’t notice until Moira at Clothes in Books pointed it out, was that Jane and Dagobert cohabited before marrying, which I think for the late 40s was still ahead of its times.
It goes without saying that you should give these guys a try, though some of the books in the series are easier to track down than others. I am still hoping to get the 11th book in the series, She Wouldn’t Say Who, to complete my collection, but it hasn’t happened so far. 2018 could be the year!
Next week for my final post I will be packing my bags to meet some more international sleuths.
Barnett, C. (1997). Mystery Women: An Encyclopaedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction: Volume 1 1860-1979. Arizona: Poison Pen Press