Category Archives: Dorothy Sayers

At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:
 

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 
 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:
 

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’
 

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:
 

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’
 

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout

In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

Strange and Misleading TitlesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about book titles. And while I’m mentioning that excellent blog, let me encourage you to pay it a visit. Moira’s blog is the source for all kinds of interesting discussion of fashion and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us. In the post, Moira shared some interesting book titles that are misleading in the sense that they don’t have much to do with the actual subject of the book. There are plenty of other titles too that are enigmatic, so that it’s hard to tell exactly what the book is about, really.

On the one hand, a title that tells the reader something important about the book can be a really useful marketing tool, especially if it’s not overlong or difficult to remember. On the other hand, sometimes, enigmatic or odd titles can generate interest too, and get the reader wondering what’s in the book. There are certainly titles like that in crime fiction; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) has, as fans will know, nothing to do with floods, tides or water. Rather, it’s the story of the Cloade family, and what happens when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade marries without making a will – and then is tragically killed in a bomb blast. His young widow Rosaleen is now set to inherit his fortune, and his other family members are understandably not pleased about that. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not have been a widow, as she claimed, at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If her first husband is still alive, her second marriage is of course null and she cannot inherit. So there’s a lot of interest in whether ‘Enoch Arden’ is telling the truth. One night he’s killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of the Cloade family, and his interest is piqued in the case. There is a connection between that quote from Shakespeare that serves as the title and the novel itself. But it’s not a direct connection that would give away the premise (as opposed, say, to Christie’s The ABC Murders).

If you picked up Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, knowing nothing about it, you might assume it’s about people who make clothes. The reality is that the novel has nothing to do with the making of clothing. Rather, it’s the story of an ill-fated trip that Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter take through East Anglia. They have a car accident near Fenchurch St. Paul, and Rector Theodore Venables comes to their aid, even inviting them to stay at the Rectory until their car is fixed. They agree with gratitude and settle in. As it turns out, Lord Peter is soon able to repay the kindness. The local change-ringers are getting ready for their New Year’s Eve ringing when one of them, Will Thoday, becomes ill. Wimsey takes his place and the ringing goes on as planned. On the same day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry, has died of the same illness. So Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry has died, and the gravediggers preparing for his burial have discovered to their shock that there’s another body in the Thorpe grave. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. When he does so, Wimsey finds that it’s all connected to a long-ago robbery. So where does the title come in? It’s the number of times (nine) that the church bells ring when a man dies (ringing the nine tailors). It’s connected to the story, but you need to know that change-ringing term to see that link immediately.

Philip Kerr’s March Violets is the first in his historical series featuring cop-turned-PI Bernie Gunther. The story’s focus is a stolen diamond necklace. Wealthy and powerful Hermann Six hires Gunther to track down the necklace after it’s taken from the safe in his daughter’s bedroom. As he explains to Gunther, his daughter and her husband were shot that same night, but he is relying on the police to investigate those murders. His motivation for hiring Gunther to find the necklace is that he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the increasingly powerful Third Reich. Gunther agrees, and begins to ask questions. As he does so, he comes to the unwelcome attention of some of Berlin’s criminal class, who do not want him to find out the truth. And when Gunther finds a link between those people and the newly-emerging Nazi leadership, the Nazis too are motivated to shut him up. As you can see, this novel isn’t about horticulture. The title comes from the derogatory term used for those who supported the Nazis, but only after they had taken power in 1933. Those were people who, as the explanation went, waited to see which way the wind blew before aligning themselves.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water isn’t about water, or even about mysterious shapes. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He was found in a very compromising position in a car at a notorious place called The Pasture, where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are conducted. There seems on the surface of it no reason to believe that this is murder. Luparello seems to have died of natural causes (a heart attack) at a very inopportune time, but there’s no reason to think he was murdered. Still, Montalbano has a feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s given two days to follow up. Sure enough, there is plenty beneath the proverbial surface, and Montalbano finds out what it is. This title refers to a story that Luparello’s widow tells Montalbano. The key point of that story is that water doesn’t have a shape; it takes the shape you give it. This case has the shape, in other words, that it’s been given.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce. Much of the series takes place in the 1950s in and around the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. The titles of these novels are (at least in my opinion) inventive. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; and I am Half-Sick of Shadows are just three examples. They are all connected with the stories in some way. Still, these titles don’t really directly reflect the main plot.

And I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning a non-crime-fictional example. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about grains or a position on a baseball or cricket team. As you’ll no doubt know, it’s about the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, and the experiences he has after he leaves the prestigious school he’s attending. It’s got plenty of other themes as well, of course. The title comes from a misquoting of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye, and from Caulfield’s desire to preserve the innocence of childhood (and his own particular world view).

Those enigmatic or even misleading titles can be intriguing and they can certainly set a book apart. What do you think? Does it bother you when a title doesn’t directly tell you about the novel? If you’re a writer, do you opt for a more straightforward title, or do you choose something less obvious?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Word.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, J.D. Salinger, Philip Kerr

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

Are You Strong Enough?*

Real RelationshipsHere’s the problem with Valentine’s Day, as I see it anyway. It’s an illusion. Let me explain what I mean. If you watch or listen to the advertisements, or see the greeting cards, or watch one of the dozens of romance films and TV shows out there, you can easily get the idea that relationships are happy, even blissful, and exciting, with flowers, lovely holidays and so on. But that’s the thing. They’re not.

Of course anyone who’s been in a long relationship will tell you that flowers, holidays and all that sort of thing are a part of it. They’re terrific. They really are. But real-life relationships are not easy. And they’re not always fun. People who expect otherwise can get very disillusioned when they learn that relationships need work. Sometimes that work is painful and difficult. It involves forgiveness (Ever done something stupid and had to ask your partner to forgive you? Me, too.). Sometimes it involves giving up things you want, or forgiving your partner when you really don’t want to. Nobody in the greeting card industry tells you that part of it.

Relationships can be hard work because no-one is perfect. We all carry ‘baggage,’ and we all have faults. When you expect that a relationship with an imperfect person (when you’re not perfect either!) will be smooth sailing, you’re bound to be sadly disappointed.

But here’s the thing. Good relationships – the kind you admire in couples who’ve been together for decades and decades – are worth the work. It’s not the candy, flowers, sexy lingerie and so on that make them solid. It’s the bond between the people involved. Let me offer a few examples to show you what I mean.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician (now retired) who’s had her share of blows over the years. She’s come out of it all a stronger person, and in general, she doesn’t obsess about the things that have happened to her. She is married to successful attorney Zack Shreve, who has his own baggage. They’re both intelligent and strong-minded people; and although they love each other very much, they’ve had their rocky times. Bowen doesn’t gloss over the hard work involved in staying married, even when you’re in a good relationship. But at the same time, she doesn’t skip over the positive things either. Joanne and Zack enjoy each other’s company. They’re good ‘sounding boards’ for each other, and they support one another. As Joanne herself puts it,
 

‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’
 

I honestly don’t know if any really good marriage is also really easy.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows all about the hard work involved in a long-term relationship. In some ways he’s still working that out for himself, and fans will know there are a few story arcs that involve his love life. But he has a good role model. His mentor is successful clothier Anthony Gatt, whose partner is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Those two have been together for some time, and have had their share of troubles. I won’t spoil the story arcs by detailing everything, but suffice it to say that Anthony and Jared’s lives have not been uninterrupted joyful bliss. But that’s not what keeps them together anyway. They love one another, and each has the other as a top priority, even when things go wrong between them, or when something happens to one of them. They’ve resolved to patch up whatever differences they have, and that bond is more important to them than anything else. But it hasn’t been easy. The ‘frothy’ romance films don’t tell you how difficult staying together can be…

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, we meet Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. The main plot of this novel concerns the murder of Ruby Devine, a brothel owner and friend of Swann’s. But running in the background is Swann’s relationship with his wife Marion and his daughters. The family has been going through a very rocky time, as families sometimes do. And Whish-Wilson doesn’t make light of that. As the novel goes on, everyone has to start to put the family pieces together and learn to trust each other again. But in Zero at the Bone, the second Frank Swann novel, we see the result of that. Frank and Marion Swann are devoted to each other. It’s not the devotion of fancy flowers, fine champagne or a night in a five-star hotel. It’s that gut-level devotion where each one accepts and appreciates the other, flaws and all. And that’s because each has made the conscious choice that the marriage is more important than ‘winning.’

That’s also true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin and his wife Rebecca. When we first meet them in The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, Charlie has recently returned to Australia after serving in WW II. He meets Rebecca during the course of an investigation into a series of robberies and a suspicious death, and the two fall in love. But it’s not a ‘greeting card’ sort of romance. Charlie’s dealing with the ghosts he’s brought back with him from the war, and Rebecca has her own issues. Nevertheless, they love each other and support each other. In Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, we see that their marriage has to endure its share of ‘bumps in the road.’ McGeachin doesn’t indulge in ‘over the top’ events just to show that the marriage is tested; rather, the couple faces some of the things any couple could face. It’s not an easy ride, but Charlie and Rebecca take it together.

A lot of Golden Age mysteries involve couples who fall in love, usually as one or the other of the couple is suspected of murder. One couple in particular is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane. They first meet in Strong Poison when Harriet is charged with murdering her former lover Philip Boyes. Lord Peter attends the trial and finds himself smitten with Harriet. In fact, he determines to clear her name, and clear his own path to marrying her. But it’s not all flowers and candy. For one thing, Harriet has to deal with having been on trial for murder, and with her reluctance to trust this man she thinks she loves. And Lord Peter has things to learn too. They’re not a magical couple who all of a sudden fall in love and marry, to live happily ever after. They have to work through things, and they have their difficult times. In the end, the awareness that they’re better together than alone cements their relationship and allows them to reach out for each other.

I wish the greeting card companies and the Valentine’s Day publicity machine told people that a good relationship is not easy. It’s very hard work, and it’s not always fun. But then, if they did, they’d probably scare too many people away from getting involved with someone, and that would be a shame. Because what you get if you’re willing to do that work is a lot better than candy. Even dark chocolate almonds.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, David Whish-Wilson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin

Same as it Ever Was*

Classic links to todayThere’s an old expression Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more it’s the same thing). There’s some wisdom to that saying if you think about it. Certain things about human nature, and certain kinds of situations have happened for a very long time and still happen.

When we see that sort of thing in a novel, it can help us connect with the story, even if the story was written decades or more than a century ago. Times certainly change, culture changes and technology changes. But some things seem timeless, and they can add to the modern-day appeal of a classic or Golden Age crime novel.

For instance, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has as its focal point the Jarndyce case, a longstanding dispute over a will. In fact, the case has been languishing in the Courts of the Chancery for generations. The fact that this case concerns a contested will certainly resonates even today. Wills can lead to a great deal of turmoil and contention, particularly if a lot of money is involved. And in this case, the dispute has been a very protracted one. In fact, Dickens uses the novel in part to skewer the legal system of his day, and many people still agree with some of his criticisms. If you’ve ever been involved in a long and complicated legal battle, you know what I mean. Each party’s attorneys do their best to win. And sometimes that means continuations, negotiations that go on for a time but fall through, and other things that can drag a case out for a long time. Even if you’re not fond of Victorian literature or Dickens in particular, you can probably relate to that aspect of the novel.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of the central characters is the Reverend Mr. Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, in Cornwall. His old friend is Dr. Pendrill, the local physician, and the two enjoy regular dinners and conversations about books. They also engage in interesting and spirited debate about the roles of science and faith in thinking. At one point in one of their conversations, for instance, Pendrill has made a scientific, reasoned point:
 

‘‘Oh, I grant you that! I grant you that!’ The Vicar was getting shrill in his excitement. ‘But why base all truth on scientific proof? What about Faith, my dear chap?’’
 

The relationship of reason, science and faith isn’t the reason for the murder in this novel. But it’s an ongoing debate in the novel, and people still struggle with it today. We each resolve it in our own way, but those issues resonate even in modern times.

So does the mixing and blending of families when two people marry. Even for people who don’t live near their families of origin, there’s a perennial set of issues around whether the two sides of the new family will get on together, and how each spouse will be received by the other’s family. Sometimes, it goes well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always a question. That very question is addressed in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane have finally married and are off on their honeymoon at Tallboys, the country house Wimsey has bought for his bride. At one point, Harriet pays a visit to her new mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Here’s what the duchess writes about it in her journal:
 

‘She walked straight up to me, rather as if she was facing a firing-squad, and said abruptly, in that queer, deep voice of hers, ‘…Do you honestly not mind too much, about Peter and me? Because I love him quite dreadfully and there’s just nothing to be done about it.’’
 

The duchess reassures Harriet immediately, and it’s soon clear that they’re likely to have a good relationship. But new spouses and partners everywhere will understand that anxiety.

I think each of us can also relate to certain perennial idiosyncrasies of our own professions. For instance, retailers have always had to deal with rude/fussy/miserly/etc… customers. And anyone who’s ever been in higher education will understand this:
 
‘He was returning…from one of those innumerable educational conferences which spring up like mushrooms to decide the future of this institution or that, and whose decisions, if any, are forgotten two days after they are over…’
 
That bit comes from the beginning of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, and describes the return of Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, to Oxford after such a conference. Soon afterwards, his sense of tedium is forgotten when a member of a visiting theatre company is murdered on campus. The novel was published in 1944, but as anyone in academia can tell you, that aspect of higher education life still resonates more than 70 years later…

And finally, here is an interesting observation from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Fans will know that this is the story of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her new husband Simon are in the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile when she is shot. At first, the most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was until he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie could not have committed that murder, so Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise, has to investigate further to find the killer. One of the other passengers is Rosalie Otterbourne, daughter of once-famous novelist Salome Otterbourne. In the last few years, sales of her mother’s racy books have been plummeting, and here’s what Rosalie says about it:
 
‘She got discouraged. Her books didn’t sell any more. People are tired of all that cheap sex stuff… It hurt her-it hurt her dreadfully.’
 

In that comment, we see a very similar issue to what writers face today. Will people tire of what have often been called trashy novels? Will they stop selling? It’s an interesting issue that’s as relevant now as it was in 1937, when Death on the Nile was published.

And that’s the thing about certain experiences, debates and issues. They really are perennial, and part of the overall human experience. So they resonate, even in books that are a hundred years old or older. It’s arguably those aspects of such novels that keep them interesting, even if the language is a bit dated, or if there are ‘isms’ we find offensive today, or…..or…

What things have you seen in classic/Golden Age fiction that still resonate with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, John Bude