Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery
Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
The so-called Humdrum writers are a deserving group in their own right. For one thing, they have been the most persistently and undeservedly defamed of English mystery writers. Elementary fairness calls for a more in-depth look at their written record.
And in that spirit Curtis Evans, (proprietor of the Passing Tramp blog), begins an entertaining journey through the lives and works of three typical Humdrum writers.
What is a Humdrum writer? Julian Symons, the crime writer, critic and historian of the genre, coined the term to describe those mystery writers of the ’20s and ’30s who valued plot above all else. Symons accused them of publishing ‘books which had almost invariably been plotted with a slide rule, but were written without style or savour’. His landmark history Bloody Murder cemented and popularised this view and argued that an evolution from Humdrum mystery to the more sophisticated crime novel was inevitable.
In a convincing opening chapter, Curt argues that critics who followed Symons pushed the Humdrums deeper into obscurity by an unthinking application of the familiar labels of ‘cosy’ and ‘hard-boiled’. British authors – their ranks often thinned to the four ‘queens of crime’ – were cosy and feminine. US writers were hard-boiled and masculine.
Curt points out that the overwhelming tendency of commentators to subscribe to the Symons view has concealed a more nuanced picture. For starters, the move from Humdrum to crime novel was not as smooth as has been made out. Chapter one of Masters deals with the alleged lack of readability of the ‘pure’ puzzle, putting the record straight with quotations from contemporary reviews (many from acknowledged literary greats) and publishers’ blurbs. Take this Collins’ blurb:
‘[Rhode appeals] mostly to those who like a really intricate problem… Often one will need a map, ruler and compass.
Curt argues that the idea that mere ingenuity was something to be outgrown would have surprised the reader of the 20s and 30s, and quotes one fan’s comment on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (Sayers in many ways led the herd away from ‘mere puzzles’ by introducing literary ambition to her mysteries).
The last depravity! Why should my corpse be garnished with parsley from the Young Maiden’s Garden of Verses?
Of course, other critics felt differently, evidenced by a number of less-than-positive reviews.
…the puzzle is scrupulously fair, and unrolls with the customary deliberation till the time comes for Dr. Priestly to shy the Encyclopedia Britannica at the reader’s head.
The bulk of the book consists of biographical sketches and critical overviews of three neglected writers, demonstrating their interest in business and industry and ‘emphasis on material detail and technical and scientific soundness‘ – a marked contrast to the supposed British ‘cosy’ approach.
The three writers – as popular in their time as Christie and Sayers – are: ‘railway engineer and devout low church Anglican Freeman Wills Croft; army artillerist, military intelligence officer and electrical engineer Major Cecil John Charles Street; and Scots-Irish chemistry professor Alfred Walter Stewart.’
As John Rhode, Street introduced his great detective Dr Lancelot Priestley in The Paddington Mystery (1925). Priestley is a retired mathematician with an interest mainly in the logical aspects of investigation, ideal for tackling the ingenious murders devised by his creator (Curt calls him a ‘master of deviously devised destructive designs‘).
In 1930, Street launched another brand, Miles Burton, and used that name to write 59 stories featuring the more stereotypically Golden Age dilettante/detective Desmond Merrion.
Curt argues that Rhode possessed a ‘genial, worldly and intelligent personality‘ which came through in his stories, and that he offered ‘an engaging grounding in solidly English settings’ – especially the pub. Despite his plain style, he had a sense of the odd (best demonstrated by his use of a green hedgehog as an instrument of death).
Curt doesn’t attempt to defend the more pedestrian writing of his next subject, Freeman Wills Crofts. He cites several deplorable habits, including diversions into unconvincing working-class dialects, travelogue, and ‘a lack of perception of the emotional bases of darker human behaviour‘. However, he values Crofts’ commitment to plotting (the former railway engineer became a master of the timetable mystery) and argues he has additional interest as a religious writer. Crofts was a disciple of moral rearmament in the 1930s, and his stories reflect this.
The final author, Stewart, was a university teacher of chemistry who began his literary life as J. J. Connington with the strange dystopian and quasi-fascist novel Nordenholt’s Million. This described a new society arising after the demise of civilisation:
no Parliament, no gabble about Democracy, no laws that a man can’t understand…
When he turned his hand to the detective novel, his detective Clinton Driffield is equally cold-blooded and high handed – perfectly happy to act as judge and jury as well as chief of police. A high point for me was the correspondence between Stewart/Connington and his friend Gould – two bluff chaps putting the world to rights, and swapping examples of – ahem – abductiana.
I ended up quite liking all three writers for their intelligence and their self-confidence. Each of them had a definite world-view which came through in their mysteries. Of the three, it’s the John Rhode books I want to check out (and in fact I have just ordered his A. S. F. – mainly because it features a baddie called Richard Westwood).
This is a book well worth reading if you have an interest in the history of crime writing. The tone of Masters will come as no surprise to readers of Curt’s blog: eminently readable, affectionate for his subject, and full of original research. He has a keen eye for the apposite (and often hilarious) quotation, and is even-handed in his treatment of his three subjects. This would be an ideal book for any collection of literary criticism or cultural history as well as for fans of Golden Age crime.
Later in the week I’ll be talking to Curt about Masters, so keep an eye out for that.
See also: Bloody Murder
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.