Martin Edwards's book that is undoubtedly seminal in the study of detective fiction, The Golden Age of Murder, is proving to be as fascinating as it is important. Yes, TH managed to borrow a copy from London Library within two weeks of publication. There is already a queue forming for it among that august institution's members but returning it in time will not be a problem.
Actually, the book needs a proper long review and it shall be done but first, an interesting point analyzed by Mr Edwards and that is the concept of "justified murder" in the writings of the Golden Age authors. It was Julian Symons who was largely responsible for the literary assumption that traditional detective fiction was somehow inferior to the more recent crime books, not least in its social and political conservatism and refusal to look beyond accepted norms in life and writing. (This is a rough and not entirely fair summary but then Symons was not entirely fair to many of the writers he had analyzed.)
There have, of course, been critics who have shown that view to be nonsensical but, unfortunately, the more popular books on the subject, including, sad to say, one by the late, lamented Baroness James, have stuck to a limited view, which ignored most of the writers of the period and a good many books and themes.
The Golden Age of Murder is a study of the Detection Club and its members about whom Mr Edwards has unearthed an astonishing amount of information as well as a study of their writings, which are, as anyone who has bothered to read at all widely knows, considerably more complex and varied in attitude than popular opinion would have it.
So we come to "justified murder", theoretically an anathema to detective fiction writers but a surprisingly frequent theme. It is inevitable that people who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about crime, especially murder, who are also fascinated by real-life crime, especially the unsolved or dubious cases, should sooner or later turn to the question of whether murder can ever be justified. In addition, the mid and late thirties saw the growth and strengthening of extremely unpleasant dictators and the appearance of would-be dictators in other countries, even Britain.
Then again, as this blog has pointed out before, a true conservative would dislike those dictators, real or tin-pot as radical, statist and socialist but that gets us on to the "are fascists right-wing?" discussion, which will, undoubtedly come up again.
Hitler and Mussolini came to power or held on to power through revolutionary means (despite those elections in Germany in 1932 and 1933), changing the political and constitutional structures of their countries as well as attempting to change the social ones. In this they did not succeed nearly as well as their contemporary Joseph Stalin did but none of them can be called conservative or reactionary. By the time Dictator's Way was written (late 1937 or early 1938 as the book came out in 1938) Mosley had put himself outside the political establishment and the couple of disdainful references to him in the book sum up quite well the general attitude towards him. The Labour Party and the trade unions, on the other hand, were by this time an integral part of that establishment and it was hardly radical to support them.Was the murder of such a person justified? Debates about tyrannicide go back a long way and many people thought that the killing of, say, Hitler would bring much good to the world. Would the killing of a Mosley-like figure do the same? That depended, largely, on how dangerous one thought the man to be and by the end of the thirties it became obvious that unpleasant posturers though they were, the British Union of Fascists were not really a threat. (Little did they know that the real threat to democracy came from the other lot, the Communist Party of Great Britain and, even more, from the secret agents who worked for the party's paymaster without ever really acknowledging their political allegiance.)
Moving on from there, is the murder of an unpleasant person who is making other people's lives a misery or is simply a wasteful, useless individual (the theme of one novel by Anthony Berkeley) justified? This was not a new idea in the late thirties either. Sherlock Holmes refuses to investigate on murder (he actually knows who the perpetrator is) and lets three other killers go because he sees the crimes in question as more or less justified.
Detection Club members wrestled with the problem in various ways. Gladys Mitchell subscribed to the idea strongly enough to make her detective Beatrice Lestrange Bradley (later Dame Beatrice) a murderer in at least two novels, E. R. Punshon, Margery Allingham and, especially, Anthony Berkeley used the concept in various ways and clearly approved of it, Sayers has Wimsey agonize over it only to come down on the side of law and order or, at least, conventional morality. Christie, so often dismissed by people who have not read her books as the writer of the most predictably "cosy" village murders that end with God being in His heaven and all being well with the world, based three of her best books on the idea that murder can be justified. (No, TH is not going to say which ones as readers should work it out for themselves.)
It was, however, Christie who gave the best answer to anyone who might get too carried off with the notion. Hercule Poirot who in most of his cases refuses to acknowledge that there is such a thing as justified murder, explains at least once why he holds that view. Yes, the world is better off without some people and, quite possibly, it might be a good idea to take the law into one's own hands. But what of the murderer? What will happen to him or her? For once somebody gets away with one "justified" murder and a bad person is destroyed for the good of the rest of humanity or a small part of it will the temptation to repeat that not be too strong? Who is to define precisely the extent to which harmfulness or uselessness deserves death and when will the "justified murderer" become an unhinged serial killer? For good reasons Christie's own "justified murderers" will not be carrying out any more crimes. Neither she nor the other writers who experimented with the idea solved the conundrum but Poirot's objections stand.