It’s been a while since I wrote up a non-fiction book for ‘Just the Facts’, in fact the last was Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder. Given that both books came out in 1972, and cover much the same ground, they couldn’t be more different in character or approach.
Erik Routley (1917–1982) was an English Congregational minister (and one-time President of the Congregational Church in England and Wales), a composer and musicologist, and reviewed detective stories for the British Weekly for 14 years. In The Puritan Pleasures he presents a survey of detective fiction (definitely not crime fiction) from its beginnings in the nineteenth century to the present day.
There are, I think, three conditions that must co-exist in order to form a climate in which the detective story can flourish: and as soon as we mention them we shall see that they did co-exist very felicitously in a certain class of English society about the time the detective story was, on my hypothesis, invented. These conditions are, first, a tradition of integrity in the police force; second, a readiness in the reader to accept a ‘hero’ played perfectly straight, a detective who never fails; and, third, an eagerness in the reader to take pleasure in the special activity of observation.
Routley’s idea, which is not, I think, intended to be dogma, is that English society is essentially puritanical and that therefore it is preconditioned to enjoy detective fiction. He doesn’t mean puritanical in the religious sense, but in a moral/intellectual sense. Broadly, Routley’s puritans are:
- Committed to social justice
Sherlock Holmes came along at just the right point to capitalise on the Victorian brand of puritanism, which partially explains the success of that character:
[Conan Doyle] gave his reader a man who lived in London at an identifiable address, who was himself nearly as classless as any fictional character has been, who walked the streets and travelled in trains and went to identifiable places like Birmingham and Winchester, whose biographer wrote ‘1887’ and not ’18–‘; and this character held the reader’s interest by the mainly exercise of intellect in the cause of exposing the truth about perfectly possible and familiar situations. A generation brought up to believe that reading fiction was woman’s work but in men a sign of degeneracy was presented with a literature of which it need not be ashamed.
Routley spends a lot of time on Holmes, then an equal amount on Chesterton’s Father Brown. He then follows a chronological order up to Nicolas Freeling’s Van Der Valk novels.
No surprises: He covers the crime queens in some detail, as a ‘Quartet of Muses’. Agatha Christie he praises as the ultimate in reliability:
She has earned the name of ‘Queen of Crime’ by maintaining a certain standard… more than anyone else in the true detective tradition, runs like a train… She is the Hymns Ancient and Modern of detection.
Christie operated within strictly self-imposed limits as to place and character, which made for a greater quality in the puzzle element of the stories. Don’t look in Christie for memorable characters or psychological realism.
Ngaio Marsh gets a better write-up than is usual and Routley has almost made me want to revisit her books. Perhaps I’ll reread A Surfeit of Lampreys.
In the collaboration of Alleyn and Fox… you have the zenith of what we now call the Dixon of Dock Green tradition. Nowhere is the integrity and honour of the police force so generously celebrated.
Moving on to Allingham, he correctly identifies Charlie Luke as the main character after Campion became superfluous, and interestingly proposes a real-life model for him: Charles Williams, the Inkling poet who also wrote Many Dimensions.
To me, Margery Allingham’s descriptions of him, with his flashy dialogue, his irrepressible dramatic gestures while he talks, his unusual accent, recreate the poet Charles Williams who died in 1945.
About those crime queens… he has a chapter called ‘And a large supporting cast’ in which he briefly and slightly apologetically looks at other writers from the era. For example, Routley is not backward is praising Carr, but as a male writer Carr just doesn’t fit into history as she is wrote.
The other figure jostling with some impatience and sense of injury at the head of the queue is John Dickson Carr, and he has a right to ask why he wasn’t selected to travel first class in this carnival… I am almost disconcerted to have to admit that you could tell the main story without mentioning him. Yet it was so.
I’ve never seen teleology quite so bare-facedly admitted by a writer!
Anyway, as so often with these overviews of the field, the real interest lies in the recommendations – especially when they are a little bit obscure and idiosyncratic. Here are some of Routley’s – has anybody read them?
- C. V. Galwey’s Murder on Leave (mentioned as being as good as Green for Danger – ‘the same haunting blacked-out quality, the same feeling that characters are being drawn by the light of naked bulbs in corridors.’)
- Andrew Garve’s The Golden Deed (‘explores the consequences of a man’s rescuing a child from drowning – for ends that turn out to be surprisingly disreputable.’)
- Stanley Hyland’s Who Goes Hang? (‘Hyland was a librarian in the House of Commons, and in his novel caused a body to be discovered in the ‘Big Ben’ tower during the extensive repair operations which were in progress there during the middle fifties.’)
- John Trench’s What Rough Beast (‘a devastating picture of a corrupt suburban society destroying an ancient cathedral town’.)
Routley is admittedly a bit of a theoretician, but I wouldn’t want you to think that this is an academic book – it is a personal monograph, a little bit idiosyncratic, and full of the author’s character and sense of humour. It’s quite jolly in places.