Having just read one of E. C. R. Lorac's novels, These Names Make Clues, (not one of her best, as it happens though it strengthens my suspicion that Edith Caroline Rivett, a. k. a. E. C. R. Lorac, a. k. a. Carol Carnac, was a crossword addict who would not have dreamed of starting her day's activity without finishing the one in the Times first) I have once again noted a curious aspect to Golden Age Detective (GAD) novels. The characters, if they happen to be educated literate ones, which they often are, always seem to have read every single recently published book.
When did they have time to do all that and do their own work as well as other activities and keep up with their knowledge and reading of the various classics? Were there fewer books published in the thirties? There certainly were in the forties because of paper shortage but it all picked up again in the fifties. Were there more hours in the day, more days in the week? Books were certainly cheaper but not that cheap, relative to income, so there is the financial consideration to be taken into account. Or was it simply the fact that they did not have to do the washing up and there was no TV to watch?
While we are on the subject of detective fiction characters' reading, I may add that one aspect of P. D. James's novels have always bemused me. Her hero, who rises through the higher ranks of the Metropolitan Police is Adam Dalgliesh, Commander, I believe, towards the end of the series (so far) and a well-known and highly regarded poet. Now, I happen to be acquainted with poets and know about the extent of poetry reading in this country. Actually, extent is not really a word one would use, so negligible it is, when it comes to newly published poetry. Yet, whenever Adam Dalgliesh with whatever rank turns up to investigate a crime and interview the various suspects and people involved, among them he always finds a number who have read his poetry and have acquired his latest book. This is not remotely realistic.
Before TH moves to a discussion of the two titles, the collection as a whole and of its astonishing author, let us look at the curious conundrum raised by Bryan Morgan (himself a railway enthusiast, author of books on the subject and editor of The Railway Lover's Companion as well as of an exellent collection, entitled Crime on the Lines):
The nexus between railways and the clergy (today including at least two bishops, and extended to include such fringe churchmen as organists) has been often remarked upon but never fully explained. Should one, for instance, accept the view of a current professor of scripture that the organisation of a railway is a microcosm of God's organisation of the universe, or agree with that vicar and author of popular children's books who claims that despite their faults the railways and the church are the best ways of transporting a man to his final destination? Or should one look to the late Canon Roger Lloyd's opinion that railway-lore is 'morally good in the sense that it healthily occupies the mind and so becomes a subsidiary and indirect cause of that self-forgetfulness which is at the root of all virtue'?Most certainly there is a link between railways and spy stories, at least those of that period as well as detective ones. But why the clergy should find itself so enamoured with trains and all matters to do with them remains a mystery and if Bryan Morgan cannot solve it, nobody can.
Certainly, though, the clerical or lay enthusiast of the early years of the present century was a happy man; for Britain's railways were then at their peak of glory. 'Brief years, from the death of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of war', as Mr Hamilton Ellis has written, 'were proud years. Enormous coal-trains rumbled and handsome expresses rushed about the country. Maintenance was high and locomotives were often painted in gorgeous colours.' Bradshaw ran to nearly 1200 pages (a figure never preceded or exceeded) and in many a country rectory stood as a work of reference beside Crockford's. Numerous parsons stumped while drafting a sermon must have relaxed intellectually by working out the quickest route between Saxmundham and Blisworth.
Whitechurch was an astonishingly prolific author of detective and other novels and short stories as well as books of topography and autobiography. As Mr Morgan says, his duties in the Church could not have been particularly onerous.
His knowledge of the railways seems to have been outstanding and several of the short stories have pages of incomprehensible detail about the various activities, which does not, oddly enough, detract from the actual plots that are usually very straightforward, sometimes of the detective, sometimes of the thriller variety.
Nine of the fifteen are concerned with the activities of the "first railway detective" as acknowledged by no less an authority as Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Thorpe Hazell, who shares his creator's knowledge of trains and railways but is also something of a diet and exercise weirdo. TH has wondered idly whether Mrs Ariadne Oliver's creation, the vegetarian Finn, Sven Hjerson might not have been influencd by the character of Thorpe Hazell, though the latter sticks to a seriously unhealthy diet of milk, lentils, macaroni and Dutch cheese with nary a piece of fruit or vegetable. He also eats Plasmon biscuits and chocolate and does quite ridiculous exercises before and after meals. But give him a problem such as how to stop a German messenger from taking a stolen document out of the country or how to ensure that an important diplomatic meeting takes place or what happened to a valuable picture and, indeed, the carriage it was in and Hazell is in his element.
There are also six non-Hazell stories and these are all thrillers with the villains ranging from German agents to Russian police officials and violent union leaders. All in all, quite interesting but not altogether thrilling. According to Bryan Morgan, the British Library catalogue renamed the collection from Thrilling Stories of the Railway to just Stories of the Railway, and that is how they were reprinted in 1977. As indicated above the Australian on-line version restores the original title as did the BBC when it recorded Benedict Cumberbatch reading inexplicably abridged versions of the stories.
Even better, this was a new edition, published by John Murray (sadly now a part of Hodder and Stoughton) in 2006, sixteen years after the original, during which time many things happened in Central Asia and a new Great Game started. Mr Hopkirk acknowledges this by a new Preface and a whole new map. TH is lost in admiration. There were five maps before and now there are six, with an extra one that depicts The Battlefield of the New Great Game. Excellent.
Equally excellent is the conclusion of the new Preface:
For the collapse of the Russian rule in Central Asia has tossed the area back into the melting pot of history. Almost anything could happen there now and only a brave or foolish man would predict its future. For this reason I have note attempted to update my original narrative beyond adding this brief foreword. Among all the uncertainties, however, one thing seems certain. For good or ill, Central Asia is back in the thick of the news once more, and likely to remain there for a long time to come.Eight years on, that remains true.
The picture above, in the National Portrait Gallery, shows him in a slightly unusual mode, as an art collector.
Here, on the other hand, is an article from History Today about the politician and his end.