Tory Historian has already written about the British Library's excellent idea to reprint little known Victorian detective stories and to do the same for less well known writers of the Golden Age though this might turn out to be a task beyond even that formidable institution. New books are, however, being published with remarkable speed and it is quite a task to keep up with them. A number of them are selling very well both on Amazon and in bookshops, Waterstone's in Piccadilly being a prime example.
Martin Edwards, who has been appointed Series Consultant to the Crime Classics series gives some figures here. They are impressive.
Tory Historian has now read three more books, one of the early ones, Mr Bazalgette's Agent and two of the Golden Age ones, both by Mavis Doriel Hay, Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell.
Leonard Merrick's Mr Bazalgette's Agent is the third book of the Victorian period to have a female detective at its centre (though in this case there are many qualifications) and is usually described as the first actual novel about one such lady but as Mike Ashley explains in his excellent introduction, Miss Miriam Lea, who becomes a Private Agent as she cannot find more "respectable" employment is really the second one, the first being an American, The Lady Detective, Kate Goelet, whose investigation of The Great Bond Robbery was told by "Old Sleuth" alias Harlan Page Halsey (1837 - 1898) was told in 1880. Leonard Merrick's novel appeared in 1888.
Leonard Merrick (1864 - 1939), an unknown figure these days, was according to J. M. Barrie "a novelist's novelist" and was highly regarded in his day. He, on the other hand, disliked Mr Bazalgette's Agent so much that he tried to buy up and pulp every copy of it. Mike Ashley speculates that his dislike may have been based on some feeling of guilt for using Harlan Page Halsey's material.
In Mr Ashley's expert opinion Mr Bazalgette's Agent is a better novel than its predecessor. Undoubtedly, it is well written and extracts some sly enjoyment out of the narrator heroine's diary, which shows her to be strong-minded and determined but also not very good at recognizing certain truths about herself and other people. Miss Lea is not particularly likeable, being insufferably snobbish and supercilious, even towards the other strong-minded female in the book, a professional detective who travels with her as her maid.
The plot is exciting and the ending is amusing as well as unexpected (TH will not even hint at it) but the ease with which Mr Bazalgette's Agency finances Miss Lea's somewhat speculative travels across Europe, back to Britain, then to South Africa and its diamond fields is astonishing. What sort of a budget do they have and how is it that they do not go bust?
The other two books under discussion are of the later and by some definition golden age of the detective story, published respectively in 1934 and 1935. There were a good many writers in that period, many of good and even outstanding quality and the British Library, one hopes, will get round to a number of them so that supposed historians of the genre stop thinking that hardly anyone existed outside the "four queens", Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham.
It is not clear why anyone thought Miss Hay was so good that all three of her novels had to be reprinted though the suggestion that it was easy to negotiate with her estate is one to be taken seriously.
The novels are introduced by Stephen Booth who is more interesting on Miss Hay's life than on her writing. The introduction to Murder Underground gives a general outline and the one to Death on the Cherwell fills in some details. It seems that Miss Hay was at St Hilda's about the same time as Sayers was at Somerville 1913 - 1916 so one can, perhaps speculate about them meeting at some tea party or literary discussion though Sayers does not mention her in her letters. Hay does not seem to have gone back in 1920 or subsequently to collect her degree when women were finally allowed to have them. Sayers did. Another interesting parallel between the two is them both publishing novels about Oxford in 1935, the year of Gaudy Night as well as Death on the Cherwell.
Stephen Booth speculates briefly why there were no more detective stories from Mavis Doriel Hay after 1937 (the year Sayers also stopped writing them with the unfinished Thrones Dominations) and comes to the conclusion that the general situation that eventually led to the war was too serious for her to produce frivolous novels. Given how many Golden Age writers went on working in that field, this does not sound adequate. It has to be said, though that Miss Hay lost one brother in the First World War and two brothers as well as her husband in the Second one. A higher than average rate.
Murder Underground is described by Curtis Evans as being underwhelming and TH has to agree with that. There are some good aspects to the book: the description of life in London in the early thirties, of the various people in Frampton Guest House (a genteel boarding house) as well as of its owner are amusing and probably accurate. The description of servants and a good time girl one of the Bright Young Things picks up and then uses to cover up his stupidity is less successful though there is some indication that the author is not altogether enamoured of the BYTs' attitude to the rest of the world.
What is particularly problematic about the book is its laughing attitude to a gruesome crime (an old woman is strangled with a dog leash, causing suffocation by falling forward on the stairs of Belsize Park station). Stephen Booth, whose understanding of Golden Age Detective (GAD) novels is of the superficial and dismissive kind, quotes P. D. James on the subject:
The detective stories of the interwar years were paradoxical. They might deal with violent death, but essentially they were novels of escape. We feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused.Actually, this is wrong but Baroness James has never shown herself to be especially knowledgeable about the history of detective stories despite writing a slim volume on the subject. A good many books of the period show real pity, empathy and sympathy but, alas, not Murder Underground.
Even the detection is limited: the police appear briefly at the beginning and reappear "unobtrusively" towards the end, having not solved anything; the Bright Young Things who usurp the action (if one can call it that) behave with unparalleled stupidity; and the solution both of the method and the motive is almost accidental.
There are two maps to gladden Tory Historian's heart and a very simple and pointless family tree. Are the maps useful? Passing Tramp (a.k.a. Curt Evans) thinks not. Well, they are not completely useless either.
There is a map of the Cherwell, real with imaginary additions in Death on the Cherwell but that does little except confuses the issue. In fact all the various descriptions of the river do just that. However, people who know it, North Oxford and Marston now will be astonished to read of farmland extending all the way to the Cherwell in the mid-thirties.
This is a better novel than its predecessor: the plot is tighter and though there is an attempt at silly facetiousness about the death of an unloved college bursar, Miss Denning, that quickly disappears and the Bright Young Things, in this case undergraduates of Persephone College (St Hilda's) are brought under control by the police who investigate the crime, using old-fashioned methods of working out time tables and geographic locations. (Somewhat more irritating is the slang used by the various undergraduates, also mercifully absent from modern Oxford.)
Oddly enough, two of the BYTs of the previous novel appear but behave like responsible adults. Amazing what marriage and writing success can do for one.
The questionable part is Stephen Booth's introduction though further details of Miss Hay's biography are fascinating as mentioned above. But did Mr Booth actually read the novel before writing his introduction? This is what he says:
Hay seems to have been pleased with the police inspector who made an unobtrusive entrance in her previous novel, because here we meet Inspector Wythe, a sympathetic and intelligent character, not the typical clodhopping local bobby. He is not quite quick enough to beat the amateur sleuths to the solution, but he gives them a run for their money. The sleuthing becomes a competition between rival groups of male and female students from Persephone and St Simeon's. In the end, it seems none of the people concerned may be capable of crime, though moral guilt turns out to be a powerful thing in Mavis Doriel Hay's world.This is almost entirely incorrect. Inspector Wythe does appear at the beginning and continues to play a secondary role when Detective-Inspector Braydon of Scotland Yard comes to his assistance and "moral guilt" is, indeed, mentioned at the end. The rest, the bulk of the book and of the summary is completely different.
There is no competition between the male and female students, only the latter being interested in sleuthing and they are induced to tell all and to hand over their find to the police very swiftly. The amateurs do not get a look in this time and the case is solved by DI Braydon.
It has to be said that just as in the first novel there is no multitude of serious suspects. In fact, the killer in each one is very obvious. It must also be added that there is a good deal of genuine emotion in the second novel and an understanding of sorrow and waste. This might surprise Baroness James.