Some idle thoughts

Posted by Helen Sunday, December 20, 2015

What with one thing and another this blog has been languishing, which shameful. There have been other projects but that is not a real excuse. Anyway, one of the projects concerns Josephine Tey, who is sometimes described as the fifth Queen of Crime, after Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham. I like Tey's novels but am not altogether sure she is up there with the leaders. My own preference for that fifth queen would Edith Caroline Rivett who wrote as E. C. R. Lorac and Carol Carnac. As they say, discuss.

However, reading about Tey I came across an interesting point. In her first detective novel, The Man in the Queue, published in 1929 under the name she used as a playwright and novelist, Gordon Daviot, part of the problem that faces Inspector Alan Grant is the lack of any identification on the victim. There are, for instance, no laundry marks on his clothes. Not a detail that could be used by detective writers these days: we no longer send our shirts, handkerchiefs or other parts of our apparel to the laundry, using washing machines at home or in the nearest launderette. There are, of course, dry cleaners and some clothes do have to go to them but that is a much less reliable form of identification.

That set me thinking about other details of evidence that can no longer be used by detective story writers but were so very popular in the thirties and even the forties. Monograms, for instance. Who on earth has his or her luggage, handkerchiefs, underwear and, in the case of certain very unreliable characters, both male and female, their specially made cigarettes monogrammed?

Then there are bigger issues: train timetables. Inspector French solved many a case in Freeman Wills Crofts's novels by co-ordinating trains whose arrivals and departures could be predicted with the use of the published time table. Imagine trying to do that nowadays. Imagine being the criminal planning an elaborate heist or murder, using that timetable, only to find that the original train has been cancelled and the one that was running later was so delayed that the connection was missed.

Mind you, there were problems even in those halcyon days. In Murder at the Vicarage (1930) Griselda Clements, the vicar's young and irresponsible wife, tells everyone that she came home from London, it being a day when you could get a cheap daily excursion ticket, with a certain train. Miss Marple, on the other hand, knows that the train was late so if Griselda was seen in the village at the "right" time she must have returned with an earlier trains. Sure enough she had done just that in order to carry out a somewhat dubious though not criminal plan with the vicar's nephew.

Then there is a question of postal delivery. I vividly recall a short story by Margery Allingham where the solution depends entirely on when the evening post is delivered in a certain street. First of all, what is this concept, the evening postal delivery? Is there anyone still alive who remembers it? Secondly, the notion that anyone, let alone the man who runs, as I recall the chemist's on the corner, should be able to tell you for certain, what time the post is delivered on any day, is so weird and wonderful as to belong to another genre, fantasy.

Delivery boys play a big part in various detective stories right up to the fifties. Messages are carried by the boy from the butcher, the fishmonger, the grocer to various houses and behaviour in those houses is noted by those self-same boys. We have delivery vans but I somehow do not think the driver from Waitrose or Tesco's is going to be much use to the detective, whether police or private. Then again, with the absence of those boys how would Miss Marple or even Miss Silver find out all that detailed information the police always misses?

1 Responses to Some idle thoughts

  1. J. J. McC. Says:
  2. The "Queen" of crime is Ellery!

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