Crime fiction reflects the world it is written in.
Sherlock Holmes is the first detective. Let’s not count Sergeant Cuff and Dupin. They are policemen. Sherlock Holmes is the first modern detective, the one who sets the template. He is a private man, who follows his own definition of justice, not that of the law. He is brilliant, self-assured, the cleverest man in the room, with his dogged and not quite as bright friend chronicling his adventures. After Arthur Conan Doyle created this pattern, other Victorian detectives followed. Carnacki hunts ghosts, admiringly chronicled by Dodgson. Max Carrados is blind, but rich, and clever. Dr Thorndyke is a doctor, and a lawyer, and has his amanuensis Christopher Jervis. Even Raffles, the gentlemen burglar follows this template.
These are the men of the Empire. Britain runs the world. They are certain of their place in the world, and that the world belongs to them. These detectives are upper middle class, or upper class. They have an independent income. They are free to follow what pleases them. They are front and centre of the story, and they are the only ones who have a voice. As in society, the rich white men speak. Everyone else listens.
Women do appear—often strong and clever women—but as helpmeets, or villains or victims. Their story is told via their lovers and brothers, the actions in their lives prompted by the actions of a man. The working class rarely appears except as comic relief or a useful witness. They don’t even get to be the villain most of the time. The butler hardly ever does it. As for people of colour—they are exotic assassins, or faithful servants. All of these people rarely get to speak. Their stories are told by and judged by—the men in charge.
And this was the way it was in Victorian and Edwardian England (the stories may be set in Britain, but they are firmly English). These detectives are often kind, often understanding, but are firmly and immutably the best person to be in charge of every situation.
I would like to mention that there are a few female detectives—but unfortunately, they were not the stars of the genre. Which is a pity, because their books are cracking good reads.
But the world of the Man of the Empire was not nearly as secure as they thought, and in August 1914, it began to shatter. The Great War – the war that was supposed to end by Christmas—broke out. It was of those very rare events that changes everything. Those fours year tore the safe comfortable Edwardian world to bits, and once it ended, everyone was scarred and damaged.
The men of the Empire walked into battle calmly assuming they’d win, as they always did. But they died, and the men that followed them died, and the woman they left behind learned to live without them. When those few rich white men who were left alive (though badly damaged, in body and mind) came home they realised they weren’t the only voices any more.
Women got the vote and demanded more. The working class went on strike, refused to pay rent, demanded their rights in Parliament. They weren’t prepared to be quiet anymore—and as they spoke up, crime fiction gave them a voice.
People have loved crime fiction since it was invented. All classes devoured the stories in the Strand and Household Words. A good crime writer knew they had to reflect the world they lived in. People wanted to recognise the world they were reading about, and get a frisson of fear that it could happen to them, and a sense of safety that there was a detective that could save them. The spread of universal education and other factors meant that these stories were now being read more by women and the poorer classes.
In a world where everyone knew the rich white men at the top would not, could not, had not saved them, they turned to other heroes.
The star detective writers of the post-war period were all women—and working women too. Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham both acted, Dorothy L Sayers worked in advertising, and Agatha Christie was a pharmacy nurse. They had all been affected by the war, and they had gone on to live independent lives, supporting themselves, making their own choices. This was reflected the books they wrote and it was Agatha Christie who led the change.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (published in 1920), is inspired by Holmes and Watson, Christie admitted it. There is a deviously clever murder method, don’t trust anyone with a beard, the not-too-bright sidekick chronicler in Captain Hastings. But the hero is not an upright Empire man. He’s not even English. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian refugee.
Christie had got to know some people evacuated from Belgium during the war, and to one of them she gave a voice. This was not a confident man of the upper classes. This was a man torn away from his life, facing prejudice and mistrust, with no convenient links to the establishment, no friends in the police (at first), no security, no safety. Behind Hercule Poirot is always that sense of a man slightly lost in the world, wandering from case to case, never quite finding the place he belongs. Even his sidekicks leave him. Hercule Poirot is a man who has faced great loss, still faces prejudice and understands the fragility of the human spirit. More than once he expresses sympathy for the killer. He is no Holmes. He is a new kind of detective.
And once that barrier was broken, other writers quickly followed. Lord Peter Wimsey (created by Dorothy L Sayers) seems to fit the original mode—he is upper class, and clever. But he is a man broken by war. He is a man who has learned to hide his mind, and play the silly fool. He flitters about through life trying to be insouciant, and yet crying in Harriet Vane’s arms when he sends a murderer to be hanged. He suffers PTSD. Despite his upper-class credentials, he places more importance on someone’s mind than their antecedents. He does not see that being a Lord makes him better than anyone else—he sees it as duty he has to fulfil, to protect and serve others. His sister, Mary, too, leaves her upper-class heritage to marry a police officer.
Albert Campion (by Margery Allingham) is also a silly, upper-class fool—at first glance. But his background is shrouded, he knows all kinds of disreputable people, he works in intelligence, and his life constantly changes. He never quite sticks to one version of who he is.
As for Inspector Alleyn of Ngaio Marsh’s book—surely this gentleman detective fits the old prototype? He’s tall, good-looking, from aristocracy. And yet—he understands and appreciates modern art. He is comfortable in the company of theatre folk. He is a policeman—a working man, subject to the vagaries of his bosses.
But—what about the others? The silent victim women, the comedy working class. They’ve changed too.
The sidekick is no longer a Watson type. Now the detective is most likely to work with someone from a different class, even a woman, and they are all very clever—perhaps more so than the detective. Look at Magersfontein Lugg, a burglar who Campion treats with disdain but would tear the world apart to find when he goes missing. Bunter was Peter Wimsey’s batman in the war, and plays a huge part in investigations, and in caring for Wimsey’s shattered mind. Bunter is not just a valet—he is a respected and trusted partner, capable of making deductions.
There are clever, working women, who refuse to be categorised as a victim—reflecting their authors as much as their readers.
Harriet Vane writes for a living and has a clear cold assessment of how being tried for murder affects her sales. Agatha Troy is an artist, and Inspector Alleyn leans on her more and more, allowing her art to represent his softer, more vulnerable side. And Campion is joined by the fiery airplace engineer Amanda, as much a fighter as Lugg. Most of these women do not fall into their heroes’ arms at first glance.
As the twentieth century went on more women are granted a vote, more people from the working classes demand a change in the world for their benefit.
And as in in life, so in crime novels. Gaudy Night, who many consider to be Sayers finest novel, places Harriet Vane front and centre, in a women’s college. When Wimsey appears, it is almost an intrusion into this female world. As for the criminal (and this is a spoiler)—Annie is a maid. Annie is passionate and intelligent and lost her husband simply because of an academic squabble. She despises these middle class, well-paid, comfortable women who sit and think all day long—and she isn’t mocked for it. She might even have a point. She is granted a final scene where she raises her head and tears into all these academic women, telling them how futile their lives are, how they are laughed at. The servant girl is no longer silent. She has a voice and she has power and she uses it.
Christie dispenses with men altogether for Miss Marple. Most of the men in the Miss Marple novels are suspects or witnesses—and silent. She talks to the women. She has an army of maids she has trained and old friends and as for the men—bless them, as she would say, but not quite up to the job.
Women and servants are not the silent background figures any more. They are the drivers of their plots, and they will be heard. An upper class of men broken and shattered beyond repair, playing games to cover up their pain, have nothing to offer them anymore.
As the second world war approached, the world was no longer what it was in 1914. All certainties had been swept away. The sole voice was no longer the well-to-do establishment man (although he was still a dominant voice). And in the crime fiction of the day, that was reflected, in Lugg and Harriet Vane, in Annie and Poirot. Ngaio March from New Zealand even gave a voice to the colonies—previously just a place people exploited for riches and then came back to England to be murdered.
Of course, some voices were still silent. There was still a lack of queer characters and people of color. Although—they are there. If you know the signs, the words to look out for, you can find these people in the stories—but they are quiet. They are hidden. It would take decades before they got a starring role. But the stereotype of the man of the empire as detective, secure, in charge, above all others had gone forever. After WWI, in books as in the world, the detectives and criminals were women and workers and no longer silent.