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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Detectives of the Golden Age - Dornford Yates (1885-1960)

Detectives of the Golden Age
Dornford Yates (1885-1960)
By Carol Westron

Dornford Yates was the pseudonym of Cecil William (Bill) Mercer, who created his pen-name from the surnames of his two grandmothers. Yates was born in Kent, into a middle-class family; his father was a solicitor. Yates' cousin was Hector Hugh Munro, the writer Saki, who was killed in the First World War. It is reported that Yates idolised his older, successful cousin.

Yates was educated at Harrow School and at University College, Oxford, where he was prominent in the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), becoming its president in 1907, in his final year at the University. One of Yates' most predominant characteristics, in his life and writing, was his snobbery and, for the rest of his life, he boasted about his eminence in the OUDS while trying to pretend that he had attended a more prestigious Oxford college.

His Third Class law degree meant that he was unable to follow the traditional route to become a barrister, but his father used his influence to get him a post as pupil to a prominent barrister. In 1909 he was called to the bar. In later years, Yates had many stories to tell of the numerous important cases he was involved with, but, as with so much of Yates' life, it is impossible to separate reality from wishful fantasy.

At this time, while working as a pupil and as a barrister, Yates also wrote short stories for Punch, The Harmsworth RED Magazine, Pearson's Magazine and the Windsor Magazine. In 1914, fourteen of the short stories first published in the Windsor Magazine were edited and published in book form under the title The Brother of Daphne.

At the start of the Great War, Yates joined the County of London Yeomanry and was commissioned as second lieutenant. In 1915 his regiment was posted to Egypt. On the Salonika/Macedonia front the war was at a stalemate and he saw very little action. In 1917 Yates was posted back to England suffering from severe muscular rheumatism. He left the army in 1919 at the rank of Captain, which he continued to use even when he'd rejoined civilian life.

In 1919 Yates married Bettine Edwards, a beautiful and talented American girl, who was a professional dancer and singer, and in 1920 their only son, Richard, was born.

Yates had continued to write and publish short stories, many of which formed the basic material for his later books. After the war he decided not to return to the bar and to support his family by his writing. In 1920 he published The Courts of Idleness, a set of three stories in book form. In 1921 he published Berry and Co, another set of short stories combined to make a novel, and in 1922, in a similar short story format, Jonah and Co. These books were comedies of manners, featuring Berry Pleydell and his wealthy, upper-class family who lived together in an idyllic country house called White Ladies. The family consisted of Berry; his wife (and cousin), Daphne and her brother Boy, who is the narrator of the stories; also their cousins Jonathan (Jonah) Mansel and his young sister, Jill. These books were a great success and it is clear that they struck a chord with readers who were struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War. The War is mentioned, although not dwelt upon; however Berry has retained his rank of Major although he is now a civilian, and Jonah is often referred to as Captain Mansel. Jonah has a lame leg, the result of a bullet wound received at Cambrai. It seems, for many people at this time, light hearted tales of a close-knit, privileged family, dealing with minor adventures and mishaps, was a reassurance that the stability and structure of the old, pre-War world still survived. Yates' description of Daphne and Jill is idealised. They are both exquisitely beautiful, gentle, gracious and charming; their role is passive; they are to be protected by the men in their lives and served in the way a knight in a story would serve his lady. The only woman who has a more active role is Adèle, Boy's American wife. She is the only woman of the family who can drive a car, which she had learned to do before she met and married Boy.

In 1922, deciding that England was too expensive for him to live in the style he wished and needing a milder climate to ease his muscular rheumatism, Yates moved his family to Pau in the western Pyrenees. It is not clear why he chose Pau, but it has been suggested that it was because it was a place that had been visited several times by King Edward VII and thus had the royal seal of approval. In Jonah and Co (1922) the Pleydell family are spending the winter in Pau.

In 1927, starting with Blind Corner, Yates embarked on a new, very different series of books: fast-paced thrillers, where the action is mainly set in Europe. Yates' publishers, Ward, Lock & Co., did not approve of his change of style and the Chandos series were published by Hodder & Stoughton.

In the new series, the main characters are the narrator, Richard Chandos, his friend and contemporary, George Hanbury, and their leader and mentor, Jonathan Mansel.

Jonathan (Jonah) Mansel is one of the main protagonists in the Berry books and spans the two series. In Jonah and Co (1922) there are early hints of the steel behind the banter, as when Jonah discovers his old charger, whom he had ridden for three years in the Great War, being flogged to near death by a cruel driver. During the War, 'Jonah was shot through the knee and Zed - poor Zed disappeared.' Jonah had tried to trace his horse but had failed, until, by chance, he finds him being brutalised. As the narrator, Boy Pleydell, explains, at Oxford Jonah was a boxing champion, until... 'In his second year, in the Inter-University contest, he knocked his opponent out in seven seconds. The latter remained remained unconscious for more than six hours, each crawling one of which took a year off Jonah's life. From that day my cousin never put on the gloves again... All, however, that the Spaniard saw was a tall, lazy-looking man with a game leg.' In the Chandos books, Jonah is presented as a man who was part of the Secret Service and is known and respected by Scotland Yard; a man who can move through the criminal underworld as easily as through his own social class. In fact, in every way, the Jonah of the Chandos books is a far more ruthless and dangerous character than the Jonah of the earlier Berry books.

Not content with having annexed one of his 'Berry' characters for his new thriller series, Yates went further and, in Perishable Goods (1928) he has Adèle kidnapped by the villain that Mansel and his colleagues had defeated in Blind Corner (1927.) Jonah is nearly killed rescuing her and their relationship develops in a way that, unavoidably, must have caused Yates problems in the long-term future of the Berry books.

Between 1927 and 1949, Yates wrote eight Chandos books. Mansel and his friends fall into the category of gentlemen adventurers, frequently travelling in fast cars through fictional European principalities, in search of treasure, which is often in the hands of villains who rejoice in such names as Rose Noble, Auntie Emma and Casca de Palk and their henchmen, such as Goat and Sweaty. Yates acknowledged his debt to the Ruritanian writings of Anthony Hope but it seems his choice of names owes a great deal to the influence of Dickens.

It is important to separate Yates' books, which are still eminently readable, from Yates himself. It is impossible to deny that Yates was, in many ways, an unpleasant man and he was certainly a horrible husband. Bettine was a sociable, lively woman, but Yates had no wish to join French society; he preferred to surround himself in the fantasy world of the Pleydell family, which became increasingly real to him. Even within the house he was a strict, self-centred man: 'Should Bettine desire to share the room with him, as she often did, she was welcome enough on the clear understanding that she sat quietly and got on with her knitting or with whatever other female task happened to be engaging her attention.' (Dornford Yates – A Biography by A.J. Smithers, 1982.) In 1929 Bettine left Yates. It seems probable that she had been driven by Yates' coldness into having extra-marital affairs. In order to avoid scandal, Yates agreed to pay her £500 a year if she quietly accepted divorce and Bettine returned to her family in the U.S. In later years, Yates rescinded on this agreement and Bettine spent her last years in poverty. It is interesting to note that it was at this time of marital disruption that Yates wrote Perishable Goods, in which Boy's wife, Adèle, is unfaithful to him with his cousin Jonah; although Adèle and Boy's marriage did not end for several years after this.

In 1931 Yates published Adèle and Co, the first of the Berry books that had the structure of a full-length novel, rather than a connected set of short stories. It is the first of the Berry books that acknowledges the break up of the family group, which is interesting as it is written after Jonah and Adèle's romantic involvement in Perishable Goods (1928), although at the end of that book, the narrator, Chandos, claims, 'Adèle and Mansel took up the thread of life as though they had never let it fall. If ever they made believe, I never saw it: and, when I was alone with either, neither by word or look was any reference made to what had passed between them at the Castle of Gath. Indeed their passionate adventure might never have been.' Be that as it may, at this point, at the start of Adèle and Co.,Berry, Daphne, Adèle and Boy are living in Hampshire, but Jonah is based in London; and Jill, who at the end of Jonah and Co (1922) had fallen in love and become the Duchess of Padua, is living with her husband, Piers and their twins in Padua. Only once a year do the cousins all meet, in Paris, and it is on this occasion that they are drugged and robbed of their jewellery and other valuables. As they set out to regain their possessions, it is Jonah who is the acknowledged and natural leader because of his quick wits and knowledge of the criminal underworld, but Berry and Boy also play important roles in bringing the adventure to a successful conclusion.

Yates' divorce from Bettine became absolute in September 1933 and, in February 1934, he married Doreen Elizabeth Lucie Bowie, the daughter of a solicitor. Yates' second wife was twenty years younger than him and had been crippled by polio. Yates seems to have adored her, as she did him, and she seems to have been content to be subservient to him in their isolated life. Yates decided that Elizabeth was the real-life incarnation of his character Jill Mansel and, at Yates' insistence, throughout their married life Elizabeth was known as Jill.

Yates no longer wished to live in the house he had shared with Bettine and so he and his new wife built a house twenty miles south of Pau, near the Spanish border. Eaux Bonnes, the place where he built his house, is featured in the final scenes of Adèle and Co. This house was named Cockade but in Yates' fictional version, in The House that Berry Built (1945) the house is called Gracedieu (God's Grace.) Cockade seems to be a remarkably inappropriate dwelling for a woman who was crippled by polio, as it was only accessible by a vast flight of ninety-three stone steps, but Yates' wife, who seems to have become as immersed in his fantasy life as he was, seemed unworried by this.

Yates and his wife did not enjoy their French home for long. The outbreak of World War Two and the fall of France to the invading German army meant that they fled and spent the war in Rhodesia. Yates was recommissioned into the Royal Rhodesian Regiment and ended the war with the rank of major. After the war, they returned to France but were unhappy at the decrepit state of their house and the less than servile attitude of their post-war servants. They returned to Rhodesia and Yates supervised the building of a replacement house, again built into the hillside. They named this house Sacradown,

Yates died in 1960 aged seventy-five. The popularity of his books continued for several years and the Berry and Chandos books are still available on Kindle and as paperbacks.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Yates is that he became totally immersed in his own fictional world. He tied his own life in with the Pleydells and Mansels, who lived a luxurious and privileged life in a society where they were admired by all right-thinking people. Yates built around the Pleydell family a semi-autobiographical fantasy that mirrored his vision of what he dreamed his life should be. There are many factual details taken from Yates' own life. Berry and Jonah, like Yates, retain their war-time military ranks. Like Yates, Berry suffers from muscular rheumatism. Like Yates, Boy has been a solicitor and, in The House That Berry Built (1945), claims that he was part of the legal team that prosecuted Crippen. Boy marries a beautiful young American, Adèle, and in later books she leaves him, and he marries his cousin Jill. It is interesting to note that although Boy and Jill marry outside the 'core' family, in the end they return to the five original cousins. Boy marries Jill after Boy's wife, Adèle, leaves him and Jill's husband and children are killed in an accident.

It is important to remember the time in which the books are set. The 1920s were a time when all earlier certainties had been destroyed. In 2006 the University of Newcastle ran a conference on The First World War and Popular Culture in which George Simmer delivered a fascinating paper entitled 'Dornford Yates and the Uses of Facetiousness.' (It is available on line.) Certainly Yates is not the only writer of this period to use facetiousness to help their characters to cope with horrors that cannot be spoken of in any other way. Dorothy L. Sayers has Lord Peter Wimsey at his most facetious when he is trying to conceal his deep emotions.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Yates: his use of clichés and his despising attitudes to most foreigners; not to mention his blatant use of coincidence. Alan Bennet had good reason to include Yates amongst his list of purveyors of 'snobbery with violence.' Nevertheless, Yates' Chandos books are still well worth reading. His Berry books have the appeal of Wodehouse; not so much Bertie Wooster as the more intelligent (and very facetious) Psmith. Of course, ninety years on, some of the jokes are a trifle jaded and many of the attitudes are totally out-of-date, but the books are still great fun and a very worthwhile read.

Adèle and Co by Dornford Yates

The book opens with the narrator, Boy Pleydell, regaining consciousness in a hotel room in Paris to the sight of the rest of his family and their friend, Casca de Palk, lying in a drugged sleep.
Berry and Daphne Pleydell, and Daphne's brother and sister-in-law, Boy and Adèle Pleydell, have travelled from their family home in England to Paris to meet their cousins, Jonah Mansel and Jill, Jonah's sister , and her husband, Piers, the Duke of Padua. This is an annual visit and, when in Paris, they spend a lot of time with their friend, Casca de Palk. Some chance-met acquaintances, the Count and Countess de Plaza, had dined with them and then drugged and robbed them. Amongst the most valuable items missing are the priceless heirlooms, the Padua pearls, and Daphne's emerald bracelets.

At first the victims assume that they must leave investigating to the police but, when the family is alone, Jonah reveals his observations and deductions, based on the fact that 'Casca smoked quite a lot while we were asleep,' The realisation that their friend has betrayed them and stolen their valuables angers the family but it also gives them a place to start their own investigation, for, as Jonah warns them, Casca de Palk is 'above suspicion' and the police will not take seriously any allegations against him.

Jonah is the commander of the enterprise and he enlists  Fluff and Susie Dones, an engaging pair of crooks to help them. However Boy and Berry take a large part of the action, from climbing across roofs to spy on Woking to spending a hair-raising afternoon with the vicious crook known as Auntie Emma. Despite the men's attempts to shelter her, Adèle too plays her part in the investigation.

There are exciting car chases, bluff and counter-bluff, the strategic relocation of a wasps' nest and the creation of a minor avalanche to aid their plans. The glorious final scenes involve a dangerous car chase and Berry, Boy and Piers disguised as women collecting for a charitable cause in order to fool the enemy. Berry throws himself with great gusto into his role as Hortense: 'A lemon-coloured dress, surmounted by a bolero of apple-green lace, made the most of her ample lines: a fold of black satin ribbon across her brow was tied in a luxuriant bow over one ear: and a green straw hat with a brim about half an inch wide completed as daring a headgear as ever I saw. Compared with her face, however, these things were of no account. Her superb but vivid complexion, her ripe and voluptuous lips, the wicked darkness of her eyes – above all, the flood of vivacious expressions which chased one another like lightning over her countenance made a kaleidoscopic disguise which I doubt if my sister herself would have perceived. … “Toto, cherie,” she squealed, “go slowly through the village: we may get off.” … “Whoever gives us twenty-five francs can squeeze my hand – through the glove, of course, until dark.”'

Yates' mastery of comic description, that contains something darker and more serious underneath, is obvious in when the treacherous Casca realises he has been outwitted and defeated and behaves in a way that no real English gentleman would ever descend to. 'Blubbering incoherence, Casca fell flat on his face and, crawling like any reptile, essayed to kiss Berry's foot. Had it not been revolting, the scene would have been absurd. My brother-in-law, stern and majestic, looked exactly like one of the elder sisters in a Cinderella pantomime, while Casca might have been Caliban, pleading with Prospero, in a production of The Tempest in modern dress.'
Adèle and Co is a lively, funny romp. It is not a wjodunnit: from the end of the first chapter the reader knows the identity of the villain, the book is based around the question of how the righteous will prevail. The plot is somewhat shaky, relying on too many convenient coincidences, but it is filled with likeable protagonists, working for a just cause, (who wouldn't want to see the repulsive Casca defeated and shamed and running for his life?) The action is fast and exciting and, over eighty years since it was first published, it is still very funny.

Adèle and Co is available as an ebook ISBN-10: 1842329626. and as a paperback.ISBN-13: 978-1842329627
Paperback publisher: House of Stratus; New edition (23 September 2008),

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.

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