Jeanne Matthews happily announced the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021. Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can. Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher. Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website. http://www.jeannematthews.com
After my Road’s Scholar travel adventure to Morocco was canceled for the third time because of COVID, I applied my transferrable deposit to an online program entitled “The Art of the English Murder Mystery.” Over the course of five days in February – when it’s 70 degrees in Marrakesh – I sat in front of my computer screen in a thick sweater and wool socks and contemplated murder in the country that made writing about it an art. The climate, both real and fictional, was less balmy than Morocco, but the company was brilliant. Award-winning author Martin Edwards and theater expert Giles Ramsay led a small group of Anglophile mystery addicts through a veritable souk of British crime fiction.
Critic, historian, and consultant for the British Library’s Classic Crime Series, Martin Edwards knows more about the origins and evolution of crime writing than just about anybody. In 1964, eight-year-old Martin saw the movie premier of “Murder Most Foul” starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and was inspired by Agatha Christie’s genius for creating an intricate but solvable puzzle. Since then, Edwards has read every significant book in the genre and written more than a few, himself.
His analysis of the Victorian and Edwardian detectives, combined with little known details about the authors’ lives, was fascinating. In some cases, we heard directly from the horse’s mouth. Mr. Ramsay presented a 1927 filmed interview with Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes, that “monstrous growth” as Doyle described him. But his Frankenstein had captured the public imagination and Doyle felt forced by public demand to continue writing about him. I loved his coy comments about “little dodges” he inserted into the Sherlock stories. (https://youtu.be/28FDo_KYDtg).
Edwards devoted considerable discussion to the Golden Age, that time between the World Wars when people craved entertainment – cryptic crosswords and clever murder mysteries. Christie’s innovative plots were seminal and Dorothy Sayers began to explore the development of character with the introduction of Miss Harriet Vane. I thought I’d read all of the classics of the period, but Edwards introduced me to a few authors I’d missed, including H.D. Bailey and Phillip MacDonald.
As conversation moved into the modern era, it became obvious that Edwards knows or has known most of the English crime writers of the last forty years in a very personal way. He is the current president of the Detection Club, a 90-year-old society founded in 1930 by the leading lights of British detective fiction. To this day, members must swear an oath: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
The members have collaborated at various times to produce books and broadcasts. In 1931, fourteen authors constructed a whodunit called The Floating Admiral, each contributing one chapter. In 2020, Edwards edited a collection of essays from ninety present and former members titled Howdunit: A Masterclass in Crime Writing.
Detective Inspector Ken Wharfe gave the class an insider’s view of the British police. Asked how real-life procedures compare with fictional portrayals, he said Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse got things mostly right. During one phase of his career, Wharfe investigated police corruption and recommended a critically acclaimed 2012 BBC police procedural called “Line of Duty,” now streaming on Britbox and Amazon Prime. I’ve watched the first three seasons and find it absolutely gripping, one of the best crime dramas I’ve ever seen. Wharfe also served as bodyguard for the late Princess Diana and has written several books about his experiences.
Nigel West, a former member of Parliament who writes fiction and non-fiction books about espionage, spoke to the class about spy novels. He noted Ian Fleming’s role in designing the Allies’ “deception campaign” during WWII, but didn’t hold Fleming in high regard as a writer. He pointed out that author Phyllis Bottome invented the dashing British spy with a taste for fine wine and beautiful women that Ian Fleming stole in almost exact detail and renamed James Bond. As for the evil organization Fleming called Smersh, the word was coined by Joseph Stalin. West admires the work of John Le Carre, but believes Somerset Maugham came closest to creating the perfect spy with his Ashenden short stories. I recently read Maugham’s “The Traitor.” It gave proof that a tale about spy craft, like many tales about murder, can rise to the level of literature in the right hands.
By the end of the course, I had acquired a long list of writers new to me, if not to the annals of British crime fiction. Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade, Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert, The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux – my bedside table groans under the weight. I confess, however, that every now and then, I pull out my Traveler’s Guide to Morocco and get a little misty.