There have been many examples in my reading life of discovering books very late. Books which have been staring me in the face for years, books recommended by afficionados, the list is pretty long. Mapp and Lucia are among the many I have missed out on and then in 2006 I picked up and read Gaudy Night by D L Sayers and fell in love. I don't regret the missed years, au contraire, I am now glad and happy that these were saved up for me when I have all the time in the world to read and can sit for hours and indulge myself.
So it is seven years later and I have now read all of D L Sayers, some titles several times (Gaudy Night I seem to read every six months) and feel it is time to re-read them again despite the teetering pile of new books awaiting my attention. The reason for this that I have just re-read almost all of my collection of Ngaio Marsh over the last few weeks as the eagle eyed will have spotted on my list of 2013 reading on the blog. September has been family orientated and driving hither and thither and looking after grandchildren and have had no time to concentrate on new books at all. And as I have always linked Lord Peter and Roderick Alleyn together I thought I would post about them.
I have done this before and have plundered the Random Archives to ponder on my earlier thoughts. Always interesting to see if one's viewpoint has changed in the meantime.
Both are 'gentlemen detectives' though Roderick Alleyn is a real policeman and a member of the CID, while Lord Peter regards it as a hobby. They are both elegant, wear their clothes well, are interested in the theatre, music and books.
They both marry strong women with their own careers: Lord Peter marries Harriet Vane, who writes detective stories and Alleyn's wife, Agatha Troy, is a famous and distinguished artist. Harriet and Troy also share a similar trait, both have a prickly personality in that they both fought their feelings and, initially, did not wish to marry. Harriet because she disliked being beholden to Lord Peter who saved her from being convicted of murder, and also did not wish to lose her independence, and Agatha, a very private woman, who disliked her husband's profession very much. As she was involved with a murder investigation (Artists in Crime) shortly after their initial meeting, this is hardly surprising.
As with all good detective stories, each has his 'side kick', usually of the plebeian order, Lord Peter has Bunter (who, in many ways is a more of a snob than his master) and Alleyn has Inspector Fox, who he calls rather whimsically (if you will forgive the use of the word) Brer Fox. Both are essentially there to admire and appreciate their superior, usually uncritically. Readers know that Bunter and Fox are devoted to their masters and would lay down their lives for them.
Both Alleyn and Wimsey moved in high society circles; both had aristocratic mothers, Alleyn had a brother George ( a 'silly ass') who was a diplomat and Wimsey had a brother Gerald (also a 'silly ass') who held the fictional title of the Duke of Denver. One of my favourite Marsh novels is Death in a White Tie which is set in the Season and where a murder takes place at a grand social occasion. Beautifully described and written this shows Ngaio Marsh had a very good working knowledge of the aristocracy and its comings and goings at this time.
The 'gentleman detective' has, of course, continued in the books of Elizabeth George and, to some extent, in PD James Inspector Dalgliesh stories (as well as being a policeman he is also a poet). Elizabeth George is an American writer who has a huge admiration for the English detective novel and has striven to recreate this genre. The current editions of the Sayers have a foreword written by her in which she makes no secret of her admiration for these books.
Sadly, her detective, Inspector Lynley (who is a member of the aristocracy and is called 'Tommy' by his friends for heaven's sake) is a pastiche and not really believable. He is self obsessed, angst ridden and continually doubting himself and his motives. He also has a 'pleb' side kick, Barbara Havers, very much a member of the working class, no musical tastes, eats junk food, wears trainers and dreadful anoraks, and is a complete contrast to her boss. Though she will not admit it, she is devoted to the Terrible Tommy and it is her detecting that solves the problem most of the time. Lynley marries an equally self obsessed, ghastly wife called Helen who is, without doubt, the most irritating female I have ever met in fiction (with perhaps the exception of Irene in the Forsyth Saga, who I wanted to shake most of the time. My sympathies were always with Soames who I felt showed remarkable forbearance towards his wife but that is a blog for another day). Elizabeth George had the sense to kill her off to my relief which vanished pretty quickly when I realised it merely gave Lynley the chance to wander off and treat us to hundreds of pages of more angst and introspection. I have read all of the George books and the last two have really driven me barmy, one of them using the James Bulger case as a plot device which I found utterly despicable, but I have this awful compulsion to carry on reading them to find out what happens. Masochistic - that is me.
I do wonder who had influenced who in the Peter/Roderick output and if either of these authors had read the other and, on checking bibliographies, can see that the first D L Sayers novel was published in 1923 and Ngaio Marsh had her first, A Man Lay Dead, published in 1934 so she would have had ample time to read, and be influenced by, Lord Peter Wimsey. I have been hunting out some references on Ngaio's thoughts on DL Sayers and have found this:
"She had cordial relations with Christie and Allingham but loathed Sayers, and was one of the most vehement proponents of the cruel rumour that Sayers was a pathetic, dried-up old biddy who created Harriet Vane as an author avatar because she had fallen in love with Lord Peter Wimsey". This is rather horrid and I find it a bit upsetting that she had this view of DLS, a biography of whom I recently read which shows that this is rather wide of the mark.
and then this: "Miss Idris Campanula and Miss Eleanor Prentice in Overture to Death are both vicious caricatures of Dorothy L. Sayers. Eleanor Prentice is a passive-aggressive, sex-hating, shrewish, bitter harpy who literally cannot control herself when she hears the ringing of church bells and is driven to madness by the possibility that she might miss Sunday service. Idris Campanula is a vicious, screeching tartar who tries to control people with money. Even their names are allusions: "Campanula" means "bell ringer" and is an allusion to Sayers The Nine Taylors, while Miss Prentice of the Hall is a reference to Prentice-Hall, Sayers's publisher"
NOT very nice and yet, despite this, her creation owes a lot to Wimsey. Perhaps she was a tad miffed that she had not come up with a 'gentleman detective' first.
I have discovered two marvellous illustrations by Robert Fawcett (1903-1967) who achieved fame as a book and magazine illustrator. "As he was slightly colour blind, Fawcett did not excel as a painter, but he was an excellent draftsman and designer, with a strong eye for detail. He produced story illustrations and full-page ads that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's Weekly, Holiday, Cosmopolitan and numerous other magazines".
They are both from Final Curtain in which Troy is persuaded by Thomas Ancred to paint his father, Sir Henry Ancred, a retired actor and Knight of the Realm.
"The man who stood before the unkindled hearth was tall and stooped a little. His hair, which had the appearance of floss, stood up thinly like a child’s. He wore glasses and blinked behind them at Troy.
The second shows Troy at work painting Sir Henry, who is in costume as Macbeth, one of his greatest parts.
I love both these illustrations and if you Google Robert Fawcett and check him out, his catalogue of work and illustrations is simply fascinating.
I adore the Golden Age of crime writing and part of its charm is the manners and speech of the time. Marsh is stuck in this time warp in all of her books, even the later ones written in the 60s and 70s, which makes them sound rather dated to say the least. She has a slightly mannered and camp style which appeals to me enormously and after an extended run of Marsh I find the words insufferable, impertinent and tedious start to litter my conversation....
Of course after reading D L Sayers I find myself saying 'Don't cha know' and pronouncing dropping as droppin' and getting a bit high and mighty. I then remember Lord Peter saying to his faithful Bunter to whom he gives an enormous amount of leeway 'borderin' Bunter borderin' just to remind him not to overstep the mark.
After a tough crime novel set in the US or an enigmatic and dark one set in Scandinavia or a glut of serial killers, there is something soothing about returning to this era of 'teckery' (and that is a Marshism!)
Who do you prefer - Alleyn or Sir Peter? Or, like me, do you love them both...