Why Keep the Brakes On? Let’s Misbehave!*

1920'sWhat do you think of when you think of the 1920’s? Do you think of ‘flappers?’ Of Babe Ruth? Prohibition?  The growth of Hollywood? It was an action-packed decade, and so many things happened at that time that it’s no wonder it’s got such an appeal. There’s a certain mystique about art-deco and 1920’s style extravagance among other things. So it’s no wonder that the 1920’s is also a big part of crime fiction.

For one thing, many people argue that the Golden Age of crime fiction began to hit its stride in the 1920’s. And I’m sure that those of you who are Golden Age fans could list a large number of authors and books from that time – many more than I could. Let me just mention a few. Dorothy Sayers’ series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey debuted in 1923 with Whose Body?, in which Wimsey investigates the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in a bathtub. This plot thread ties in with embezzlement and another man who seems to have disappeared. In this novel, we see one of the hallmarks of the 1920’s – the class differences that still remained quite strong. Wimsey and his family are wealthy and privileged. They have access to all sorts of means that ‘ordinary’ people do not. And the theme of class differences is woven into more than one of Sayers’ novels. phryne-fisher-200x0

We also see those stark class differences in historical series. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features Fisher, who was born to the working class but inherited a title and fortune. So she mixes and mingles in the highest social circles. And yet, we also see that not everyone has that sort of prosperity. In Cocaine Blues for instance, Fisher gets involved in cracking an illegal (and dangerous) abortion clinic for working-class girls and young women whose families don’t have the means to make it all quietly ‘go away’ safely.

The 1920’s were also a time of great waves of immigration, and not just to the United States. Travel was becoming easier and the Great War had uprooted millions of people. The resulting diversity was one of the major social changes of the era. But that immigration also resulted in quite a lot of ethnic and racial prejudice. We see that reflected in crime fiction of the era too. In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley for instance, a group of friends is gathered at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. During the course of this house party, Petrie’s uncle Gordon Crombie dies, and it looks very much as though his death is suspicious. One of the guests Albert Campion takes a hand in finding out the truth about the death and about a mysterious ritual that’s supposedly associated with the family living there. In the course of the novel, there are several ‘isms’ and offensive references to members of different groups. You’ll find those in lots of other crime fiction of that decade too.

For several reasons, the roles of women changed fundamentally during the 1920’s. Just as one example, between 1920 and 1929, voting rights were extended to include women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S. and Belgium among other countries (Australia granted federal voting rights to women in 1902, but some states granted it earlier for state elections. Canadian women had full federal voting rights in 1918. Women had had full suffrage in New Zealand since 1893).  We see the changing status of women in a lot of crime fiction from and about that era. Certainly we see it in Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Fisher is single and in no hurry to marry. She’s independent, liberated and although she certainly depends on her circle of friends, I’d say the word ‘demure’ hardly describes her.

We see that also in the work of Agatha Christie. Several of her female characters are independent, strong women. There’s Anne Beddingfeld from The Man in the Brown Suit; there’s Katherine Grey from The Mystery of the Blue Train; and there’s ‘Cinderella’ (giving away her real name would be giving away too much of the plot) from The Murder on the Links, just to name three. All of these women think for themselves. They’re not averse to falling in love, and they’re not ‘man haters.’ But all of them reflect the reality of that time that women were coming into their own, so to speak.

A lot of people associate the 1920’s with extravagant parties and hedonism and it was certainly there. We see a hint of that in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poiriot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell, who supposedly died of liver failure, but has a group of relations desperate for her fortune. One of them is Theresa Arundell, a young ‘jet-setter’ who goes with a ‘party crowd,’ drinks heavily and so on. She’s not painted unsympathetically, but she is reckless.

And reckless is I think a good way to describe some aspects of that era. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure why the 1920’s was such a time of reckless abandon for a lot of people but here’s my guess. World War I changed everything for everyone. The real threat of mortality (especially with the influenza pandemic that followed that war) made a lot of people decide to enjoy life while they could You see that in writing from the era (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) and you see that theme of deep wounds from the Great War in some terrific historical mystery series too. May I suggest Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, ‘Charles Todd’s’ Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series. You can also see it in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In all of those novels and series, we get a sense of the privations of the war and the ‘flu pandemic. People wanted to forget it, to plunge into life and have fun while they could.

Of course there was plenty of violence during the 1920’s too. There was a lot of union unrest and the backlash from that. There was plenty of ugly, ugly racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and political corruption and that too led to a lot of violence. And there was organized crime. There’s a trace of that rise in organized crime in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, in which Charles Moray returns to England after some time away only to find that his home has been taken over by a criminal gang and that the woman who broke his heart may be mixed up with it. And then there’s Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that historical mystery, Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson is a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol who supplies Hollywood’s luminaries with ‘liquid fuel’ for their parties. When a friend of his is murdered, Hud goes after those responsible, including a very nasty crime gang that’s moved into the area. That novel also explores what Prohibition was like in the U.S. (and makes it clear why the law enforcing Prohibition was never going to be really successful).

I could go on and on about the 1920’s (Jazz, anyone? The Harlem Renaissance? The fashions!) Moira at Clothes in Books has done some great posts on the clothes and fashions of the era. Here’s just one example. But this one post doesn’t give me nearly enough space to talk about it all. The 1920’s was too influential a decade for that. So now it’s your turn. Does that era appeal to you? Which books and series from and about that era do you like? Help me please to fill the gaps I left.


ps. The pearls on the left in the top ‘photo are part of a long double strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother. On the right is a double-strand necklace that belonged to my grandmother-in-law. Both are genuine vintage…   The other ‘photo is of the terrific Essie Davis, who portrayed Phryne Fisher in the very well-done (in my opinion, anyway) Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. These episodes are adaptations of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and if you get the chance, I can recommend them. They aren’t of course 100% true to the novels, but very nicely done I think.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Jeffrey Stone, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth

36 responses to “Why Keep the Brakes On? Let’s Misbehave!*

  1. Skywatcher

    The 20s were very much a ‘let it all hang out’ decade. Comparing the world of 1914 with the world of 1920 is quite a shock for both us and those who lived through those times. In John Buchan’s THE THREE HOSTAGES the hero Richard Hannay is shocked and repelled by such things as Jazz music. Buchan was very aware that the certainties of the pre-War era were gone forever, and there is a nervous fascination in the book with the much more fragile world order of the 20s. He scores a bull’s eye when he has the characters point out that new media such as radio and film will be enormously important.

    I love some of Christie’s thrillers of the time such as THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS, THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY and THE SECRET ADVERSARY. We tend to think of her as an elderly lady, but she was still a young woman in the 20s, and those books have a vibrancy and humour that speaks of the very best of the era. If they had been written only a few years earlier one feels that they would have been very different. Tuppence Beresford and Bundle Brent are very much ‘new’ women.

    • Skywatcher – I love the term nervous fascination. It describes exactly what the feel of the ’20’s was. There was a strong sense that the world as everyone had known it was over and everything was changing. And yes indeed those early Christie thrillers reflect both her own youth, vibrancy and interest in life and the times. There’s a sparkle about them that I agree was a good part of that era. There’s almost a sense of derring-do if I can use that term that there might not have been earlier. I think you’re spot on about that.
      It’s interesting too that you mention the views about Jazz music that are reflected in Buchan’s work. It reminds me of the the stories I’ve heard of when my grandfather-in-law used to go out to ‘those’ clubs at that time. It was considered shocking for ‘nicely-bred’ boys and girls to enjoy that kind of music. And right you are indeed (Buchan too) about the coming importance of TV and radio.

  2. I love historical mysteries and other historical novels. Recently I gave Play Him Again a good review. It was fun to learn about prohibition and rum-running and the early movie studios. The 20s are hard to get a handle on when so many ordinary people were routinely breaking the law (prohibition) and other criminals became famous, even admired.

    • Barbara – I’m glad you enjoyed Play Him Again. I think Stone captures the era really effectively. You make a very good point too about everyone’s perceptions about what was right and wrong and what people should(n’t) do. In the U.S., where there was Prohibition, people flagrantly violated the law. Regularly. Even in other countries, there was a sense of ‘anything goes,’ especially if you can get away with it. Those who could were indeed nearly hero-worshipped…

  3. Margot, you make an excellent point about the way the 20s influenced the writing of the so-called “Crime Queens,” particularly Sayers, Christie and Allingham. Lord Peter Wimsey, as I remember, suffered from shell-shock – what today we would call PTSD – as a result of his army service in World War I. And I think Sayers really captured the spirit of the age in 1933’s “Murder Must Advertise,” where the drug culture and the wild parties play a central role in the tragedies of that book. The Christies you have cited are also excellent examples, particularly “The Man in the Brown Suit” and the early Tommy and Tuppence books (before they are domesticated and become considerably more staid!).

    I think a lot of the American authors in that time period were mostly concerned with the ill effects of Prohibition. There’s a great collection of early Erle Stanley Gardner stories about a character called the Patent Leather Kid, a sort of elegant Robin Hood type crook, who gets into regular gun battles with the gangsters involved in Prohibition – the stories date from 1931 to 33, so I suppose we’re a little late for the 20s, but Prohibition was an overwhelming influence on America throughout the 20s right up until repeal in 1933.

    Oh, and Cole Porter was an excellent choice – “Let’s Misbehave” was from his first hit show, “Paris,” dating from 1928!

    Another first-rate post, Margot. Thanks!

    • Les – Thank you 🙂 – I’m glad you enjoyed what I wrote. I’m also glad you mentioned Wimsey’s dealing with PTSD (well, as you say, they called it ‘shell-shocked’ at the time). It’s a sobering reminder that the 1920’s weren’t all parties, drinking and so on. There were some difficult issues people faced, and what to do with/about/for veterans of the Great War was one of them. I think those uncertainties, the spirit of experimentation and some developing technologies all really did affect the major writers of the time. Oh, and thanks to you and Skywatcher for reminding me of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their sense of adventure in ,i>The Secret Adversary perfectly captures the 1920’s zeitgest.
      It’s interesting that you mention those stories of the Patent Leather Kid. Prohibition was of course unsuccessful, especially given the times, and it’s interesting that there’s discussion of it in crime fiction. It led to increased crime and violence rather than less, and many people did actually look up to those who smuggled alcohol and otherwise flagrantly violated the U.S. Volstead Act.
      And about the Cole Porter song? That one was an easy choice….

  4. Nice post. On Christie, I always thought Tuppence was cleverer than Tommy. I think the 1920s were a breath of fresh air in mystery writing, when a lot of the cobwebs of the Victorian/Edwardian era were finally swept away. I’m always amazed when today people portray Christie as some fusty, dowdy writer. She was a modern!

    The house in And Then There Were None (1939) is a modern art deco house, though on covers it usually is portrayed as a creepy Victorian or Tudor house.

    • Curt – Thank you 🙂 – And you’re quite right about Christie. She was indeed a modern and what amazes me is that she stayed ‘a modern.’ And I’ve always thought Tuppence cleverer than Tommy too, although to Christie’s credit, he’s not portrayed as a buffoon or a fool. Interesting point about the differences between 1920’s crime fiction and earlier crime fiction. I hadn’t thought about it that way but yes, there were some real positive changes in the crime fiction of the era.
      And thank you for mentioning that house. Lots of people forget that the house is modern. So yes, it’s art deco and updated. I wonder if the people who design covers believe that Victorian or Tudor houses are eerie.

  5. Except for the Christie novels, I don’t think I’ve read many mysteries set in the 20s. I keep meaning to check out Winspear’s series but haven’t done it yet.

    • Pat – Oh, I hope you’ll get the chance to try some Winspear and if you do, that you’ll like her work. I’m biased I’ll admit but I like her Maisie Dobbs chracter quite a lot.

  6. Margot, this post is one of your best. I am enjoying reading mysteries written in or set in the period between the two wars, and learning so much. This makes me want to reread some Sayers and Allingham. When I read The Secret Adversary, I was surprised at what a strong character Tuppence was and liked that aspect especially. You have alerted me to even more characteristics of that period to pay attention to.

  7. Lovely post.
    Agatha Christie had some really good women characters from that decade- in addition to the names you mention, there’s Tuppence (in the earlier books, before the world tried telling her she was “too old”), and the Bundle Brent (?- the one in Secret of the Chimneys). Eventually turns out to be not a nice person, but there’s also Nike of Peril of End House who is very much her own woman.
    And those are two lovely pieces of jewellery!

    • Natasha – Thank you – I feel honoured to have them. And thanks for mentioning those terrific characters Nick Butler and Bundle Brent (What a nickname!). Both of them are smart, independent women who very much think for themselves. And Tuppence does, too. She’s a delightful character I think.

  8. Margot: Laurie R. King’s has Mary Russell meeting and marrying Sherlock Holmes after WW I. The series gives a major role to Russell in the solving of the mysteries. I am not sure a real life Holmes would have had a female detecting partner at that time but it is an interesting series.

    One of Canada’s most famous court decision, the “Persons’ case, saw 5 Alberta women in 1929 win a court action to have women recognized as persons under the British North America Act.

    • Bill – Thanks for reminding me of the Laurie R. King series. I have to say I agree with you about the likelihood that the Victorian Holmes would have willing to partner with a woman and let her do a major part of the detecting. Sill as you say it’s an interesting concept.
      And thanks too for letting me know about the ‘persons’ case. I’ve read it mentioned but didn’t know much about it. I’m glad you explained what it was.

  9. I enjoyed your post very much, Ms. Kinberg. I just sat and soaked up the 1920s, both your post and the comments. I think Fitzgerald was probably the most prolific writer of that decade, caught between the end of one war and the start of another with the Depression of 1929 bringing up the middle. I can see why you termed the 1920s as an influential decade.

    • Prashant – Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The 1920’s really were influential years, with so much happening. It was very hard to decide which aspects to write about actually because of all of the things going on.

  10. Margot, an interesting non-fiction book about the 1920s is Only Yesterday, An informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen published in 1931. It manners to cover virtually everything morals, manners, politics, finance and the Florida land boom of 1925. I mention that because it shows we never seem to learn from the past and repeat the same mistakes over and over again. The phrase in Allen’s 1931 book is a “vast inflated pyramid of credit” which seems vaguely familiar.
    I think the writers of the Golden Age were read during the decade of the 1930s very much as escapism from the depression, and the approaching war. They gave ordinary working class people a glimpse into the lives of the rich and wealthy, something today we get from TV and the tabloid media.

    • Norman – Oh, I couldn’t agree more that we just don’t learn from our own past. Thanks for recommending this book; it sounds really interesting and it was written just after the decade ended, so it’s ‘closer’ to that time. I’ll have to look it up.
      You have a very strong point I think about reading during the 1930’s. The Depression wreaked all sorts of havoc and ordinary people’s lives were so bleak that it makes sense they’d escape through that sort of book. That’s why the cinema got so popular too I think. People used that to escape as well. And I can see how today’s TV and tabloid media serve the same purpose.

  11. That should read “It manages” not really awake yet after a stormy night here with snow!

  12. kathy d.

    This post is quite original and thought-provoking. I haven’t given much thought to the 1920s, except to the developing Great Depression, unemployment, poverty and the Harlem Renaissance — and, of course, jazz, one of my favorite music genres. This isn’t a period I am drawn to in mystery fiction. I tried some mysteries in my first go-round in my teenaged years, but didn’t have patience for books about the wealthy or that evinced prejudices, which I spotted quickly.
    I was drawn to non-crime fiction that showed a more working-class point of view in works by Steinbeck, Dreiser, Upton Sinclair. I was reading Rex Stout’s books but they began in the next decade.
    One memory I have is my father telling us about his Uncle George who was a bootlegger during Prohibition; he’d take the family in a hearse on their way to a “funeral” in Canada, where they’re purchase liquor and then drive back with a hearse full of it. My father played the role of his young son on the family outing.
    Although I love Corinna Chapman, I haven’t been drawn to Phrynne Fisher, although I wish the TV series was available over here. Is there a way to see it? I will try the latest book, which I’ve read about and sounds like fun.
    And Cole Porter? What’s not to like? A great song.

    • Kathy – Thank you – I’m glad you found it interesting. Jazz is one of my favourite genres too, so I can see why you’re drawn to it. And I’m glad you mentioned writers like Steinbeck, Sinclair and so on because they really did expose what life was like for far too many people…
      What a fun story about your uncle! Such a clever way to bring liquor in, too. Who would dare to disturb a ‘bereaved family?’ Oh, that’s very inventive.
      As to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you can find the episodes on YouTube. They’re broken up into segments but it’s not difficult to follow the pattern of finding them, and I believe they’re all there. I hope you’ll enjoy them.
      And I have to agree with you about Cole Porter.

  13. I do find that decade very appealing. Tons of cultural impact (in many ways like the 1960s, although not as far-reaching in influence/change).

    I’d forgotten about “Dumb Witness”: thanks for the reminder!

  14. I love the depictions of the 1920s in crime fiction. It superficially seems very glamorous and yet there is clearly an underside to it. Although written in 1933, I think Sayers’s ‘Murder Must Advertise’ shows the underbelly of rich society enjoying themselves and the collective hangover beginning.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s one thing I like about 1920’s crime fiction too. As you say, rich and elegant on the surface but underneath? Some seamy stuff. And yes, Murder Must Advertise is definitely like that.

  15. A really fascinating post, Margot – and thanks so much for the shoutout, you are very kind. I think we share that love for the era. I’d mention again Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver books, which I think capture a flavour of the era. And full of clothes! Love your jewellery photo.

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words on all counts, and it’s really my pleasure to share your blog with people. I think you’re quite right; we both love that era. What clothes! What shoes and accessories! And of course there’s the whole culture and the major changes that were going on. There’s a lot to think about and a lot to love. I’m glad you mentioned the McPherson series, which I don’t know as well as you do – nice that you filled that gap. Folks, try those novels to really get a sense of the ’20’s.

  16. kathy d.

    I do love the women’s clothes from the 1920s, the hats, dresses, feather boas — and jewelry. Lots of fun to look at.

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