There is nothing more conservative than ...

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, May 18, 2009 ,

… than the detective novels of the so-called Golden Age, that is the twenties and thirties. To be perfectly honest, even Tory Historian finds many of them a tad tedious but they have their virtues. The one under discussion is “Colonel Gore’s Second Case” by Lynn Brock (real name Alexander McAllister but also wrote under the name Anthony Wharton), once a very well known and popular writer of detective stories, now barely remembered.

Willard Huntington Wright (otherwise S. S. Van Dine) thought Colonel Gore to be “ponderous and verbose”. Then again, most readers think that the precious hero of Van Dine’s novels, Philo Vance, needs, as Ogden Nash so aptly put it, “a kick in the pance”.

Dorothy L. Sayers was more charitable in her famous Introduction to the “Great Short Stories of Crime, Mystery and Horror”, published in 1928 and Marjorie Nicolson, the eminent academic and the author of a wholly delightful essay, “The Professor and the Detective”, published in Atlantic Monthly in 1929 says:

There is the amateur Colonel Gore, who began his career by a chance application for a golf secretaryship, and has now opened his private inquiry office – a movement which his admirers greet with pleasure, as promising an indefinite number of cases for the future.
This is not entirely accurate as the book which starts with Colonel Gore applying for that secretaryship and ends with him opening the private inquiry office is the second one, the book mentioned in the first paragraph, in fact. But there were, indeed, several further adventures.

The book is certainly well written though the plot is over-elaborate; there are two whole maps to delight Tory Historian’s heart but it cannot be said that they are at all helpful in following our hero’s movements around the specified area.

The novel is, naturally enough, extremely conservative in its attitude to social mores and to moral certainties. The latter is a prerequisite to any good detective story. Murder, the crime of the modern detective tale, is not just wrong, it is wrong on a cosmic scale. Morality has to be restored and the murderer apprehended, though it is true that on various occasions said murderer is allowed to take his own way out (i.e. suicide) if the victim is judged to be a real bad ‘un, usually a blackmailer.

On at least one occasion Roger Sheringham lets the murderer off completely on the grounds that the vile chap who had blackmailed and tormented women deserved what was coming to him. But that does not condone murder, merely accepts that there are extreme circumstances that need extreme measures. One does not need to condone war to accept that sometimes it is inevitable and, probably, necessary.

Then there is the curious circumstance of a gentleman, in this case Colonel Gore, being able to ask questions from anyone and not told to mind his own business; at worst he has to dispense largesse in the form of half-crowns or sovereigns, depending on the recipient.

The press are not seen much in this novel but what we know of them is that they cannot be allowed to share space with decent folk. That, oddly enough, is a continuing theme in detective novels even when the investigator is a journalist. Then it is other journalists and, particularly, editors and newspaper proprietors that are scum.

The local police are consistently stupid though honest and not venal. Even when the investigator is from the Yard, that remains true. If he is an amateur as Colonel Gore is, the invincible stupidity of the local constabulary is almost a given, though the reader has to suffer through many examples.

In a typically entertaining essay, “Murder at $2.50 a crime”, the great Canadian humorist, Stephen Leacock, wrote:
So there is the story away to a good start – Sir Charles’s Body found next morning by a “terrified” maid – all maids are terrified – who “could scarcely give an intelligent account of what she saw” – they never can. Then the local police (Inspector Higginbottom of the Hopshire Constabulary) are called in and announce themselves “baffled”. Every time the reader hears that the local police are called in he smiles an indulgent smile and knows they are just there to be baffled.
In “Colonel Gore’s Second Case” the local police are worse than baffled – they are convinced they know who the murderer is in at least one crime and can hardly bear to give up their conviction even when the man in question is found heavily drugged and hidden in a subterranean chamber.

Meanwhile various members of a fabulously wealthy family keep meeting apparently violent ends and nobody in any constabulary thinks “’ullo, ‘ullo, ‘ullo, wot ‘ave we ‘ere?”. To be fair, neither does the coroner or the gentlemen of the press or the remaining members of the family (though, naturally, some of them have very good reasons for insisting that the deaths are unconnected) and even Colonel Gore spends some time being baffled and bewildered.

Colonel Gore also finds himself led badly astray by an obvious red herring in the shape of a very brightly coloured golf sweater and an abandoned monogrammed golf ball. Tsk, tsk. Every tyro reader can see what those clues signify but not Colonel Gore or, at least not till the last twenty pages of the actual story. (After which there are many pages of explanation as the entire plot had been too complicated to understand at first reading.)

It is interesting how often that contempt for local police or, rather “village bobbies” crops up even in modern detective stories. In Caroline Graham’s “Faithful unto Death” Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is irritated by the gentle village policeman and allows his sergeant to bully him mercilessly. In fact, he contemplates moving the unfortunate chap to a tougher district, which would probably break him and deprive the villages of their much liked bobby.

In the end he realizes that his own mistakes in the investigation are far worse because of his greater experience. He never learns that the bullying had prevented information from being passed on that would have put him on the right track and saved one person from being killed. The attitude remains but the surrounding facts have become more complicated. The detective hero has never been infallible, as Colonel Gore proves but these days the mistakes are more serious.

Conservative in moral and social attitudes books like “Colonel Gore’s Second Case” might be but in one respect they are anything but that. There is no assumption about who might or might not be the killer.

The local constabulary may not like interviewing robustly members of an important, let alone landed gentry, family and are horrified at the thought of suspecting any member of it. But the reader and the detective hero know that crime knows no class boundaries – anyone could have done it and usually did.


  1. I enjoy your insights into detective fiction. It is a shame that these posts do not attract more comments.

  2. Thank you. It would be nice to have more comments but the few that appear tend to be good. :)

  3. Even the legendary Robert E. Howard had the verbose bug, so we can be a little tolerant about Lynn Brock. And vintage crime, with all its tediousness, is still attractive, at least to me.

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