In December, I raided my public library for Golden Age mysteries. Previously, my experience of them had been confined to the first Poirot mystery, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I had enjoyed it, but never followed up until the end of last year, when I brought home the following: the first two books of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries (A May Lay Dead and Enter a Murderer); the first and third books of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series (The Murder at the Vicarage, The Moving Finger); and the second and third books of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion series (Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady).
I started with Ngaio Marsh‘s mysteries. A Man Lay Dead (published 1934) was in some ways very similar to my memory of Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It’s a murder at a country manor and Marsh’s character Nigel Bathgate serves a similar role to Chief Inspector Alleyn as Arthur Hastings did to Poirot. Both Bathgate and Hastings are young earnest men that are nevertheless rather foolish, especially in comparison to their respective great sleuth friends. A Man Lay Dead was a competent mystery, I thought, and the dialogue was often entertaining. I found Enter a Murderer (1935), whose plot revolves around a murder that happens on the stage, to be the stronger entry. This is undoubtedly due to Marsh’s background in the theatre and her description of life in the backstage benefited from her personal experience. That said, this mystery also left me a little cold, especially in retrospect, after my much more delightful experiences with Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham’s books. I’ve heard that later books in the series are much better, but I think it will be a while before I return to the Roderick Alleyn series.
I delved into Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple series next and was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. Sometimes classic genre fiction is ruined because all of their tricks and hallmarks have been reused and reshaped by later authors and later filmmakers. But I was cheerfully led astray by red herrings in both The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and The Moving Finger (1942). And I found the incorporation of the series’ heroine to be still rather unconventional. Miss Marple is not the main character, as I had somehow supposed. At least in the two books I read, she remained mostly in the background and even her unerring judgments on the cases were worked in rather unobtrusively. The narrator in the first book is the vicar, in whose house the murder takes place. In The Moving Finger, the main character is a newcomer to a rural village, recuperating from an injury. Both are likable gentlemen, surrounded by likable – or at least entertaining – people. I loved the vicar’s relationship with his wife Griselda, and was also delighted with the sibling relationship in The Moving Finger. Miss Marple usually plays a crucial role, but in both books, the solution to the mystery is a group effort; it takes a village, indeed.
The final bit of my explorations led me to Margery Allingham‘s Albert Campion series. My library didn’t have the first of this series on this shelf, but this didn’t detract from my experience of the second book, Mystery Mile (1930). Albert Campion is a mysterious young fellow with both financial means and the high and low connections that enable him to help people after their other alternatives have dried up. In the case of Mystery Mile, Campion helps protect a retired American judge who has attracted the deadly attentions of a powerful mobster. In Look to the Lady (1931), he comes to the aid of an English family who have been the stewards of an ancient artifact for generations.
Campion is an odd duck: Allingham rather overuses the terms “ineffectual” and “vacuous” to describe his physical appearance, but his deceptively inane patter rarely fails to entertain. Take the following excerpt, which is from a scene in Look to the Lady where Campion is driving with a young stalwart woman named Penny (both books featured a number of young stalwart women, both American and English varieties). Penny and Albert both suspect they will soon be waylaid by a criminal element.
[Campion] drove with the apparent omnipotence of the born motorist, and all the time he chattered happily in an inconsequential fashion that gave her no time to consider anyone or anything but himself.
“I love cars,” he said ecstatically. “I knew a man once – he was a relation of mine as a matter of fact – who had one of the earliest of the breed. I believe it was a roller-skate to start with, but he kept on improving it and it got on wonderfully. About 1904 it was going really strong. It had gadgets all over it then: finally I believe he overdid the thing, but when I knew it you could light a cigarette from almost any pipe under the bonnet, and my relation made tea in the radiator as well as installing a sort of mechanical picnic-basket between the two back wheels. Then one day it died in Trafalgar Square and so – ” he finished oracularly – “the first coffee-stall was born. Phoenix-fashion, you know. But perhaps you’re not liking this?” he ventured, regarding her anxiously. “After all, I have been a bit trying this morning, haven’t I?”
Penny smiled faintly at him. “I don’t really dislike you,” she said. “No, go on. Some people drive better when they’re talking, I think, don’t you?”
“That’s not how a young lady should talk,” said Mr Campion reprovingly. “It’s the manners of the modern girl I deplore most. When I was a young man – years before I went to India, don’t you know, to see about the Mutiny – women were women. Egad, yes. How they blushed when I passed.”
Penny shot a sidelong glance in his direction. He was pale and foolish-looking as ever, and seemed to be in deadly earnest.
“Are you trying to amuse me or are you just getting it out of your system?” she said.
It’s true that Campion’s patter sometimes loses me. The books were published in the 1930′s and Campion will make a number of cultural allusions that may have been clear to the readership at the time, but are not so clear to me. All the same, I usually get the gist, and enjoy the glimpse into that time period.
I’m really glad I impulsively decided to have this personal reading project. I found both the Miss Marple series and the Albert Campion series to be delightful and I know I will continue with them in the future. (I may need convincing for the Roderick Alleyn series). For those who have also read some of these Golden Age mysteries, which series or standalones are your favorites?