From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (2001) by Susan Rowland

This is my last Christmas present read, which if nothing else leaves me with the pleasing feeling that my TBR pile is only filled with this year’s books. The Palgrave Macmillan Crime Files series, is one I have dipped into on the blog from time to time, though often the issue tends to be the cost of the books themselves. However today’s review is one of the more reasonably priced ones. Rowland looks at 6 writers in this book: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. I felt it was a strength of the title to explore a handful of authors rather than just one or two. Though perhaps it is just me, but I felt like the selection of the writers endorses and reinforces the notion of Queens of Crime, a phrase Rowland does use in the book. Whilst this is not a dreadful thing to do, I do think it has contributed to the persisting trend of academic work to focus on these authors so much, often setting them up as a standard that is supposed to reflect all of golden age crime fiction. In the past few years there have been an increasing number of exceptions to this rule, but I still think there is some way to go, as a weakness of focusing on the Queens and then generalising from them as that there are so many golden age novels which buck these generalities and consequently a distorted picture begins to build up. However leaving this niggle aside I enjoyed how most of the chapters feature an individual novel analysis from each author, as I think it allowed Rowland to explore many of her ideas in more depth. At least with them being more well-known authors, it meant I had read most of the novels in these studies and could therefore form an opinion on what she was saying.

Chapter 1 – Lives of Crime

Rowland’s work begins with biographical sketches of the 6 writers, with the aim of ‘a more nuanced consideration of [the] authors’ lives in the context of their work.’ For readers familiar with these authors, most of the biographical information will be quite familiar, though I never realised how tough Allingham’s life was, health wise, financially and maritally. Rowland in particular with these sketches looks at the maternal influence on these writers, their personal romantic relationships as well as their childhood and adult traumas. Rounding out the chapter Rowland also generally discusses the following themes, which look ahead to the later chapters: ‘psyche and inspiration, families, artistic and generic arguments, religion and the vexed question of ‘homes.”

One thing I had not considered before, which Rowland brings up, is the connection between the works of Allingham and Rendell. Rowland writes that these two

‘have an artistic alliance across time in that both develop the genres towards novels of suspense and obsession. Allingham’s remark that the act of murder can be also, or even instead, a metaphor for psychological cruelty and social dysfunction actually anticipates much of the work of Barbara Vine.’

And in later chapters when it comes to certain themes, such as the Gothic, these two writers are shown to have further in common.

She concludes her opening chapter with her to aim:

‘to provoke debate, in particular by moving away from the stale conception of these writers as unproblematically conservative […] it is time to look at the processes of crime novels and not give too much importance to their endings, their ‘closure.”

Whilst I agree with her to a point on the linkage between conservatism and the closure brought about by endings of many detective novels, I don’t think one should entirely dismiss the endings of golden age detective novels, which don’t always bring as much closure as you think.

Chapter 2 – Gendering and Genre

Early on in this chapter Rowland poses this question: ‘what has been the impact of hugely popular women writers on detective fiction?’ One of the key ways she tries to answer it is by arguing that detective fiction is structurally gendered as feminine. In a nutshell Rowland puts forward that the feminine is seen as ‘other’ in relation to masculinity, with all stereotypical included and lacking traits implied. The law within feminism is regarded as masculine, yet Rowland continues that:

‘what I mean by this is that all crime fiction, when clearly defined as fiction, is offering a story that the laws cannot or will not tell. It is saying, in effect, that there is more to crime than the institutionalised stories told in courts and police stations; there is more to criminals, their motives, actions and lives that can be represented through the cultural authority of the legal system. Crime fiction is the other of the powers of legal institutions to represent crime to the culture.’

This leads her to conclude that, ‘perhaps critics should rather be concerned to explain how anxious male writers engender a fundamentally unruly femininity in the genre, rather than start from the position of women authors as anomalous.’ She goes on to provide an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes as the ‘other,’ to the law, in the sense that he is created to rectify and supplement the limitations of it. Overall though, when it comes to the six writers she is discussing, she intends this chapter to ‘look at genre as a potential space where gender strategies may be tested, confronted and reconfigured by queens of crime.’

Rowland also refers back to and builds on the work of Alison Light who explored the effect of WW1 on the construction of detective characters. Rowland puts it as ‘an ethic of anti-heroism in the female-authored detective in the traumatised aftermath of the First World War,’ which leads to a democratising ‘of the form and allows the puzzle genre to become something the reader is invited to enter on more equal terms.’ Moreover, ‘a particular factor in the anti-heroic detective is the way personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities are not external to the success of investigations, but intrinsic to them. That which appears as ‘excessive’ or unnecessary to the detective function becomes a vital ingredient of success.’ I felt this latter argument worked especially well with her discussion of the four golden age authors, though it was not quite so successfully proven when it came to Dalgliesh and Wexford.

However, this latter argument does lead nicely onto a since well-explored idea of the domestic nature of crimes and clues requiring ‘the resources of feminised practices’ and Rowland goes on to suggest that ‘all these women writers in various ways include what might be called, in this context, a feminine structuring of knowledge, as a valuable and necessary mode of detection alongside the traditionally masculine gendered methods of the law.’ I was also particularly interested in the comments concerning how the golden age writers ‘should be viewed in relation to contemporary modernist experimentation,’ as both Mark Green and myself have written on this topic.

An interesting overarching idea Rowland hints at in her introduction but explores more fully in this chapter is how the detective stories these six authors write ‘are interested in society and its attitude to deviance, but they express their anxieties by strategies ranging from social comedy to tragic realism.’ Christie, Allingham and Marsh are placed more down the comedy of manners end, whilst Rowland situates Sayers work as tragi-comedy, with P. D. James heading the tragedy department. One thing Rowland’s book has definitely reminded me of is how bleak, forlorn and depressing James’ work is and probably one of the reasons I’ve not felt drawn to re-reading them. However I digress… This principal idea follows into these writers’ approach to death, as Rowland argues for the idea that the four earlier writers, through their embrace of theatricality and ‘self-conscious fiction […] parody death.’ Furthermore she says that, ‘golden age fiction is deliberately unbelievable artifice which ‘solves’ death by absorbing it into a story which fully ‘accounts for’ it. Death is disposed of as unnatural, solvable, as a mendable tear in the social fabric […] in this sense, golden age fiction is about the restitution of comedy in the face of tragedy.’ The author does mention some exceptions to this idea such as the ‘dwelling upon the execution of the murderer in such novels as Busman’s Honeymoon,’ but I feel there are perhaps more than her comments imply, with Christie’s Five Little Pigs, coming to mind. Equally this type of comment epitomises the dangers of generalising from such a close group of writers, as if you look more widely within the field of golden age mystery novels, the list of exceptions to the rule fills out substantially.

The novels under analysis for this chapter are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Strong Poison, Death of a Ghost, Artists in Crime, Shroud for a Nightingale and Kissing the Gunman’s Daughter. The readings which particularly stood out for me were for the Christie and Sayer’s titles. Given the ending of the Christie book and the way the Watson narrator is used, the reader is required to re-evaluate the story they have been given and Rowland writes that this ending ‘must be seen as a gendering strategy in the novel,’ as the reader has to challenge the professional male narrative voice. As to Rowland’s thoughts on Strong Poison I loved the idea that ‘there is also a sense of Sayers playing a role reversal in that much of the detecting action is taken by the spinsters, with Wimsey in a frustrated and passive feminine position.’ I had never thought of Wimsey’s role in that way before, but it definitely holds water. Conversely though I think Rowland and I will have to disagree on the strong ‘sexual magnetism’ of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Am I missing something here?

Chapter 3 – Social Negotiations: Class, Crime and Power

A key goal for this chapter is bursting ‘popular conceptions’ automatically aligned the work of these six writers, ‘with conservative politics and against the democratising forces of modern society. Crime fiction implies naming and capturing a criminal. This, in turn, suggests the restoration of both a moral and social conservatism which manifests itself as a nostalgic re-forming of social classes.’ Rowland doesn’t deny that these components feature in the works of many of these authors, but she feels presence does not equal complete acceptance of them and argues that the ‘self-consciously fictional ‘game,’ golden age writers’ play, ‘permit[s] a self-critical depiction of social class embedded in the genre.’ With these earlier writers, Rowland asserts their support of social class structures, with an eye on them ‘expand[ing] and mutat[ing] in order to survive in modernity.’ When stagnation occurs instead, ‘traditional class structures’ are shown as ‘outmoded and morally empty.’ I especially liked Rowland’s idea that ‘these writers portray social status as theatrical and ethically vacuous unless reinvested by the drive to justice embedded in the detective.’ It will go without saying for long time fans of Ruth Rendell’s work that she very much stands apart from the other writers on this issue, working towards ‘a more liberal recasting of’ the form.

The novels which receive their own individual analysis in this chapter are The Murder at the Vicarage, Murder Must Advertise, Police at the Funeral, Death and the Dancing Footman, Death of an Expert Witness and A Dark-Adapted Eye. Rowland’s reading of Death and the Dancing Footman, stood out for me, in particular when she writes that the novel ‘asks what needs to be cast out of, or renegotiated within, social and national identity to survive the profound crisis of war.’ She goes onto say that in within Marsh’s work generally, ‘the foreigner is rarely guilty and serves to examine English racist residues or colonial identities within the detecting narrative.’ I like both of these ideas but, my hazy memories of Marsh’s oeuvre leave me wondering whether this idea is rooted in the texts themselves or is imposed on from without. If you have a better memory for Marsh’s novels, it would be great to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Chapter 4 – Lands of Hope and Glory? Englishness, Race and Colonialism

From the very beginning of the chapter Rowlands narrows in on her target when it comes to Englishness:

‘these six novelists are artists of the dominant region of English political culture in the twentieth century, the southern and eastern lands radiating from London. The detection of crime in the English hearth and home almost obsessively concentrates on what are still known as the ‘home counties.’ Therefore this chapter will look at the novels in the context of the construction of a dominant form of Englishness, still deeply imbued with class structures […], but nevertheless formed in tension with a constant preoccupation of twentieth-century Britain: race and the legacy of colonialism.’

This idea struck a cord with me, given a post I wrote last summer about the dearth of vintage crime novels set in the North of England.

One highlight from this chapter was Rowland’s thoughts on Christie’s Captain Hastings and I am interested in readers’ views on her reading of his surname:

‘Taking his surname from the greatest English military defeat prior to a successful invasion by a French-speaking people, Hastings ironic double act with his stupendously more intelligent detecting friend is a comically bathetic repetition of the national defeat of English pride and aggression. Poirot always wins. It is frequently his specifically non-English habits which prove successful against Hastings’s mundane taking of stereotypical characters at face value.’

In some ways I think perhaps Hastings’ ‘defeats’ against Poirot do not bother the reader personally, as often the errors he makes are not one’s the reader is making, thereby meaning the reader is not so readily identifying with him.

Rowland also brings a duality to Marsh’s work, which I had not hitherto contemplated, asserting that, ‘Marsh is a colonial writer in accepting the paradigms of Englishness and the English golden age genre as her ‘norm.’ She is also a post-colonial writer in her exploration of the incoherencies of colonial and English identity.’ The author then continues to mine this idea through Marsh’s country house mystery novels, but she perhaps reaches a controversial point when she claims that within the four earlier writers, ‘only Marsh emphatically addresses racism as a stain on English character.’ I suppose I have demarcated this as controversial, not because I think the other golden age writers tackle this issue more head on, but I wonder how successful Marsh is in her addressing of ‘racism.’ My dim memories of Black as He’s Painted certainly spring to mind at this point.

The novels under individual analysis in this chapter are Death on the Nile, Busman’s Honeymoon, Traitor’s Purse, Photo Finish, Devices and Desires and Simisola. I must admit some of these choices were a little surprising, given the themes discussed and for me I felt some of the readings needed to be longer in order to present a fully convincing argument. Death on the Nile was one of the titles which surprised me, but Rowland delivers an interesting argument which suggests the novel ‘takes issues of colonialism, consumer capitalism and Englishness to a point of crisis by assembling a party of upper-class English and American tourists on a Nile river-boat.’ I guess this is a book in which very often our eyes are so focused on the central love triangle that we might not always look at its bigger picture.

Chapter 5 – Detecting Psychoanalysis: Readers, Criminals and Narrative

Rowland begins her chapter looking at the parallels and similar limitations of detective fiction and psychoanalysis. I got to say that this chapter was one of the least enjoyable ones, as the works of Freud, Lacan and Jung are not of particular interest to me. However this is a purely subjective manner and is no reflection on Rowland’s own ideas. One idea which did stay with me from this chapter, was the idea of the endings to these detective novels being made up contradictory elements, as so very often a killer awaits prison or execution, which can be seen as the severing of relationships. But on the other hand the endings equally often entail the union of two other characters, bringing about a sort of new life/death juxtaposition.

The novels which were individually analysed were: The Hollow, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Flowers for the Judge, Opening Night, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Veiled One.

Chapter 6 – Gothic Crimes: A Literature of Terror and Horror

Given the way many golden age authors endeavoured to make detective fiction distinct from other genres, I was immediately intrigued by this topic choice and Rowland grabs readers in with these tantalising opening questions:

‘Why does Roderick Alleyn refer to himself as a werewolf? How can we understand Reg Wexford’s claim to be possessed of near supernatural powers and why do both Lord Peter Wimsey and Adam Dalgliesh appear to re-enter the terrifying machinery of Wuthering Heights?’

Rowland charts the way the Gothic developed and metamorphosed over time, in particular noting that ‘as the fear of modernity extended to science, technology and the city, so the nineteenth century Gothic bre[d] a new kind of ambivalent hero in the detective as a frail phantom of potential social order.’

One of the high points of this interesting chapter was Rowland’s comparison of Poirot with Miss Marple in how they interact with the Gothic. With the former it is said that his ‘obsessive tidiness defeats the Gothic. His well-groomed boundaries permit no excesses, unless his spherical shape and luxuriant moustache can be viewed as comic transgression of the limited English prejudices which his expertise constantly defeats.’ Whilst Miss Marple is revealed in Murder at the Vicarage as ‘uncanny. Her narrative impact never loses a Gothic polarisation between icon of overlooked elderly femininity and avenging ‘nemesis,’ the title of one of her later adventures.’ On a very immature note, on reading that first line about Poirot my brain did conjuror up a rather wonderful Tom Gauld-esque cartoon of Poirot taking on the Gothic in a no nonsense way.

Following on from this I enjoyed Rowland’s discussion of The Skull Beneath the Skin, in the way the Gothic in that book allows James to represent past atrocities in the detecting genre, in particular those associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust.’ Her discussion felt very rooted in the text itself and overall this chapter has galvanised me to take a closer look at my vintage crime reading for nods towards the Gothic.

The final big idea of this chapter concerns how the authors under discussion ‘re-imagin[e works by] key Gothic female writers.’ For this idea Rowland discusses how Sayers and James explore Wuthering Heights, whilst ‘Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Ruth Rendell’ are said to ‘rewrite Jane Eyre,’ in Dead Man’s Folly, Death in a White Tie and A Judgement in Stone respectively. For me this argument works best with Death in a White Tie, which actually references  Bronte’s title and Alleyn’s courtship with Troy is  textually linked as well.

The novels individually studied in this chapter are They Do It With Mirrors , Clouds of Witness, Look to the Lady, Off with his Head, Original Sin and The House of Stairs. Christie’s title is intriguingly read as a ‘ghostly outline of’ Northanger Abbey, but I felt a little more textual support was needed. An appealing idea though.

Chapter 7 – The Spirits of Detection

This chapter is concerned with the ‘metaphysical dimensions of the genre’ and two ideas which crop up are the god-like roles of detectives, but also the way in which these detectives relate to ‘conceptions of divine justice.’ Across the writers this relationship differs hugely and Rowland ‘place[s] the detectives on a sliding scale from Christie’s as the most intimate with metaphysics to the works of Rendell/Vine as the most secular.’

Though I think Rowland may have missed a trick in this chapter. She brings up issues of justice outside the law and how in Christie’s work ‘taking justice into one’s own hands is regularly deplored.’ For both of these points she brings up Murder on the Orient Express. I am not disagreeing with mentioning this title, but I think a more powerful reading could have been done with Christie’s Curtain.

The titles individually analysed in this chapter are Appointment with Death, The Nine Tailors, Sweet Danger, Death in Ecstasy, A Taste for Death and A Judgement in Stone.

Chapter 8 – Feminism is Criminal

This final chapter draws on themes previously discussed but ‘concentrate[s] on the direct representation of women in the novels.’ It then ‘move[s] from the depiction of women in the traditional family to women and work, to questions of sexuality, power, and ultimately to how and when the authors’ shaping of the genre portrays women as victims, criminals and detectives.’

The titles with individual studies in this chapter are Sleeping Murder, Gaudy Night, The Fashion in Shrouds, Singing in the Shrouds, A Certain Justice and An Unkindness of Ravens. I particularly liked Rowland’s point that in Sleeping Murder, ‘the inexperienced detectives quickly gain the impression that Helen was a man-hunter whose sexual appetites provoked her sorry end. More sceptical, Miss Marple is able to exonerate Helen from sexual guilt and detect masculine incestuous violence closer to home.’ This idea resonated with me as I feel like the reader may well be culpable of this error of judgement as well.

It goes without saying that Rowland has put a great deal of thought and effort into this composition and certainly achieves her aim of provoking debate. For me my favourite chapters were the ones on gender and the Gothic. Anyways well done for reaching the end of this post! I appreciate it was a bit of a long one, but I feel that when a nonfiction work has so much interesting and intriguing ideas within, it seems an injustice to do little more than give a summary of the chapter headings. I think fans of vintage crime fiction will find a lot to interest them in this book and would definitely recommend it.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. Thanks for this extensive and detailed review, in which distinguished very effectively between Rowland’s ideas and your own reaction to them. Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

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