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Saturday 1 October 2016

E. M Channon (1875-1941)

Detectives of the Golden Age
E. M Channon (1875-1941)
by Carol Westron

Ethel Mary Channon was born in Ireland in 1875, the daughter of a vicar. Her maiden name was Ethel Mary Bredin. Her father died when she was four years old and her only brother died in early childhood, so she became an only child brought up by a widowed mother. Very little is known about her early life or education, except that she made several visits to St. Leonard's-on-Sea to visit cousins and, in 1893, aged seventeen, she spent a year at Cheltenham Ladies College to read for the Cambridge exams. It appears that Channon (at this time still Ethel Bredin) did not attend Cambridge University, there is certainly no record of her there, but it is not known what she was doing for the next ten years. However, in 1904, she was back in Cambridge for her wedding to the Rev. Francis Granville Channon, a senior wrangler, fellow of Corpus Christi and curate of St. Benet's Church, where the wedding took place. It is believed that the couple met at a May Ball and had a long engagement. Francis Channon gained a post as chaplain and tutor in mathematics at Eton College and the family remained there for twenty-eight years, until he retired in 1932, when they moved to Shropshire. The couple had six children, two sons and four daughters.

It has been impossible to trace what Channon was doing in the years between leaving Cheltenham Ladies College and her move to Eton, but marriage and family life certainly seems to have improved her ability to write publishable books. Perhaps, as Hilary Clare, editor of The Encyclopedia of Girls' School Stories, suggests, Channon was motivated by the need to educate and help provide for her growing family. Whatever the impetus, between 1909 and 1915 Channon wrote and published eight books. These were adult novels, distinctly melodramatic but with lively plots, well-drawn characters and an underlying humour. Miss King's Profession (1913) tells the story of a young woman who is determined to be a writer. There is authenticity and a wry sympathy in Channon's description of the young woman's struggles. Perhaps, during the ten 'missing years' Channon had been attempting to become a published author.

The First World War and difficulties of getting domestic staff may have contributed to Channon's failure to continue with this great surge of writing. Between 1915 and 1921 she published only one children's book. However, after 1921 she got back into full production with a large number of children's books, including the school stories for which she is best remembered.

Channon had a friend who was a Justice of the Peace and she briefly turned to crime, writing three detective stories between 1929 and 1932. The Chimney Murder was published in 1929, Twice Dead in 1930 and The Gilt-Edged Mystery in 1932. All three books were published by Ernest Benn. One source I read said that Channon had also written a thriller-style novel, The House with No Address, but I can find no trace of this book under her name and wonder if the writer was mistaken about the author and was referring to the 1909 novel, The House with No Address (also published as Salome and the Head) by E. (another Ethel) Nesbit. 

In 1931, between Twice Dead and The Gilt-Edged Mystery, Channon returned to writing school stories and produced one of her best, The Honour of the House, which was reprinted by Collins in 1941 and by the Children's Press in 1955. After 1932 Channon abandoned crime writing and returned to writing books for children and adults. Some of her best work dates from this period, including the innovative and amusing A Fifth Form Martyr (1935). Little G (1936) was her penultimate book for adults and many critics have declared it to be her best book for adults. She died in 1941, aged sixty-six.

Channon seems to have been a very private person and little is known about her life, however a lot can be discovered about her by considering her books; in this case her three crime books, written between 1929 and 1932.
Channon's three crime novels have certain faults in common: they are all very short, they depend too heavily on coincidence and they tend towards the melodramatic. The plots are neatly laid but not at all difficult to solve. However they have a lot to recommend them, chiefly the author's skill at strong characterisation and underlying, sly humour and her willingness to tackle issues that were rarely considered in any depth at this time, especially the theme of marital abuse and its consequences for both victim and abuser. They are also a delightful social record of and the years between the wars.

Channon's three crime novels have certain faults in common: they are all very short, they depend too heavily on coincidence and they tend towards the melodramatic. The plots are neatly laid but not at all difficult to solve. However they have a lot to recommend them, chiefly the author's skill at strong characterisation and underlying, sly humour and her willingness to tackle issues that were rarely considered in any depth at this time, especially the theme of marital abuse and its consequences for both victim and abuser. They are also a delightful social record of the years between the wars.

Twice Dead is a whodunnit in the classic Golden Age style. The story is set in and around a country village. Lady Braden, the wealthiest and most important lady in the district, has arranged for a fortune-teller to be present at her garden party but things become nasty when the woman warns Lady Braden's nephew, Philip, that he will 'have a double death for your end.' Soon Philip falls victim to sinister events, and – due to a profusion of love triangles – several of his acquaintances are suspected. Channon's female characters are usually strong and vibrant and Sylvia, the centre of the love interest, is an intelligent and courageous young woman, a character one can admire. Lady Braden is the rudest old lady in the county, but she too is strong-willed, intelligent and surprisingly generous. When she decides to hold no more garden parties but, instead to entertain two coach loads of poor mothers and children from the London slums, she may be influenced by her desire to match-make but she gives her visitors a wonderful treat. Of course, not all the women in Channon's work are likeable and her depiction of Sylvia's cousin, Anne, selfish, spiteful and neurotic is beautifully drawn.

Channon illustrates the social divisions gently but graphically, as when Sylvia frets that the children from London will make themselves ill by over-eating.
'”But it can't be good for them!” Sylvia urged.
“No more good for them than living twelve in a three-roomed tenement in a blind alley; but they survive that too – fairly often,” said Dr. Mackay.'

Twice Dead relies too heavily on coincidence but it is a very enjoyable, traditional mystery, and well worth reading. I found it especially worth noting that the book was written a year after Knox produced his Ten Commandments, laying down the rules for detective fiction, one of which bans including Chinese people, who were popular, stereotypical villains of this time. Channon has a Chinese man in Twice Dead who is not a villain but a victim, attacked by mindless thugs who are taking advantage of the atmosphere of Sinophobia that was current in Britain at this time. Channon's books make it clear that she was a remarkably astute social observer of the time.

One of the things I found most interesting about Channon's detective novels is her depiction of dominating husbands and intimidated wives. This is present in both The Gilt-Edged Mystery and The Chimney Murder.
In The Gilt-Edged Mystery, Alured Dalmaine, who prefers to be known as Dal, is persecuted by the determined attentions of his two cousins Halured and Keren. Dal is a scholar, a mathematician, enjoying a holiday in Europe, but when he meets Keren in Geneva and she insists that he accompanies her to her daughter's school concert, Dal encounters Helga Andersen, a young teacher, and falls in love at first sight. Dal has a holiday cottage in Derbyshire and when Helga reveals how worried she is about her sister, Ida, who is married and lives in Derbyshire and who writes to Helga so infrequently and so coldly, he agrees to return to Derbyshire and seek out Ida and let Helga know if anything is wrong.

As is common in Channon's work, the book is riddled with outrageous coincidences: not only does Dal have a cottage near Ida's new home, also Halured and Keren go to a hotel in the same area to meet a cousin (on the other side of their family) who has recently inherited money from a wealthy relative. On top of this, Dal happens to share a train carriage with the newly-prosperous cousin, Samuel Hooper, who tells him all about his desire to establish good relations with the relatives he knows have every reason to wish him ill, especially as they will inherit his money after his death. This Dal knows is true because he had seen his cousin Keren's reaction when she received Samuel's invitation: 'her little hen's eyes were bright with a hen-like greed.' A few days later, Samuel is discovered with his throat cut in the hotel garden. It seems probable that one of Samuel's relations was unwilling to wait for his inheritance and has murdered him. Dal really hopes that, annoying though they are, the culprit isn't either of his cousins.

The plot is workmanlike, despite the numerous coincidences, but what makes Channon's work so eminently readable is her fluent, gently humorous style and her superb characterisation. Dal is skilfully drawn as a young scholar who, until this point, has been in love with Mathematics rather than a girl. He is willing to seek out Ida for Helga's sake but Channon pokes gentle fun at his instinctively superior attitude regarding her fears

. 'He did not for a moment expect to find anything seriously amiss in the red and white house. Girls (he said to himself in his masculine wisdom) were like that; they fancied mountains where there was not even a mole-hill. Helga was lonely without her sister, she had expected too much in letters.' Like many men Dal is nagged by his female relations until he complies with their wishes, in this case Cousin Hulured, '… very, very good... very, very serious... fat and white and placid, with an unquenchable thirst for information; and she would read aloud to him... interminable letters from distant cousins of whom he had never heard.' Cousin Keren is very different from her sister, but equally to be feared: 'She had small, bright, meaningless eyes like a hen's; and, like a hen, she was in incessant motion, casting quick, shallow glances in every direction, and chattering as a hen cackles.'

Dal is not a policeman and has no interest in investigating Samuel's murder. He is more preoccupied with meeting Helga's sister, Ida, a young woman with a beautiful home and an attentive, successful husband many years older than herself. Hugo Warlingham is a retired barrister and everybody in the neighbourhood speaks well of him, although he was a far from impressive man. 'He was, indeed, a very short husband for so tall a lady; and a rather old husband for so young a wife. Also he was – not ugly; for a man can be very ugly and yet very distinguished-looking; but irredeemably plain, which is far worse. His face was round and commonplace and pink, with the most inadequate of noses; his mouth was wide and ugly; he was rather comically bald, with a little salient of shining pate projecting below the tonsure-like expanse above... Also he wore rather darkly tinted spectacles: so it was impossible to see if Nature had atoned for her unkindness... by giving beautiful eyes. But he had two great assets. He had a round and mellow voice... and he possessed that most illusive and precious of all gifts that is called charm. Dal, a shy and reticent person who did not easily make friends, felt in three minutes that they had been acquainted for years.'

There could be no more incongruous pairing than that of Hugo and Ida. She makes Dal think of the  Snow Queen: 'under his eyes, she had turned again into a mere statue of a woman – this time, not even a tinted statue. The colour had all dropped out of her face. Even her lips were white. She sat rigid, like the Lady spell-bound by Comus, gazing with wide eyes.'

In my opinion, Channon's subtle, sensitive description of Narcissist and victim is one of the finest pieces of psychological writing of the time.

It is also endearing that Channon's hero in The Gilt-Edged Mystery is Dal, a Cambridge scholar, the youngest Fellow in his College and a Mathematician, like Channon's husband, but it is Dal's contemporary, the journalist Howler Munroe who has his finger on the pulse of things and possesses the lively wit to see the truth about Samuel Hooper's murder, even though at Cambridge he had 'scraped cheerfully through with difficulty and a poll degree.' Channon's characterisation is so skilful that even the most peripheral characters are fully developed and add richness to the entire narrative.

The Chimney Murder was the first of the detective stories written by Channon and, in many ways it is the most interesting. It cannot in all honesty claim to be a whodunnit. Far from offering the reader a large suspect pool, Channon gives five of her suspects an unimpeachable alibi; and, rather than having a victim who was universally hated, for much of the book there seems to be no reason for anybody to kill such an inoffensive nonentity. As in her other books, there are too many coincidences, but these are forgiveable when the characterisation, gentle humour and beautifully set scenes are so excellent.

J. Harbottle Binns is a household bully who keeps his wife, Selina, and their two, grown-up children, Cynthia and Adrian under subjugation by his capricious behaviour, verbal abuse and occasional violence. He has worn Selina down until she is afraid of everything and knows that nothing she or the children can do will satisfy the domestic tyrant. His effect on the family is made clear within seconds of his entering the house.
'His fierce little eyes glared from one guilty face to the other, but apparently he realised that no reply was forthcoming, for he merely walked on and in, driving his womenfolk before him and demanding if tea was ready.
“Almost ready, Harbottle--”
“Why not quite?... Where's Adrian?”
Having spent a few minutes berating his son, he is interrupted by his wife's return.
“Tea is ready,” Mrs Binns murmured faintly in the background.
“Well what do you bring it in for before I've so much as had time to wash my hands, eh?” said Mr Binns, and stamped upstairs to the bathroom with an alarmingly purple face, while Mrs Binns walked tremblingly into the dining-room and surveyed the table with doubt and misery. This seemed likely to be one of the many occasions when nothing that she provided would give satisfaction, and she was confirmed in this belief before five minutes were over.'

One of Mr Binns' rules is that the house should never be left unattended. However, Adrian and Cynthia are not as cowed by their father's bullying as their mother and have arranged a birthday treat for her – a day trip to Windsor. Stephen has a short holiday from his work and they plan to leave as soon as Mr Binns sets off to his office and intend to return before he gets back. As Cynthia points out to her mother, keeping Mr Binns in

ignorance is a kindness: '”Only for his own good,” Cynthia soothed her. “He'd hate to know about it – you know he would, don't you?”

Cynthia and Adrian have invited their next-door-neighbours, Mrs Marley and her son Stephen, to join them. Mr Marley seems to be a pleasant enough, not very clever man, who earns so little that the family are terribly poor and Cynthia suspects that Mrs Marley often deprives herself of food to feed her menfolk.
The day is happy and everybody enjoys themselves, especially Cynthia and Stephen who admit their love for each other and become engaged, although they know they will have to wait several years to marry. They decide to keep it a secret from Mr Binns. When they get home, Mrs Binns is tired and cold and Adrian insists on lighting the living room fire. The fire smokes hideously and when Adrian and Cynthia investigate the cause they discover an arm, wrapped in newspaper, stuffed up the chimney. The police are summoned and find most of a dismembered body concealed around the house, mainly stuffed up chimneys. The head is not discovered until the next day, in a nearby dustbin. It is part of the 'blurb' on the book and so not a spoiler to say that the body belongs to Mr Marley, whom his wife had thought was away on business. Mr Marley was known to have only one enemy in the world – Mr Binns: only the day before he had threatened to murder him if Mr Marley's hens got into his garden again. Soon Mr Binns finds himself in a situation he cannot bully and bluster his way out of when he is arrested for murdering Mr Marley.

This book is not about the police investigation, although a very civil, intelligent inspector and an eager police constable both play important parts. It is the story of the two families coping with the shame of being an integral part of a grisly murder and the development of the two women, Mrs Binns and Mrs Marley, who, as the book progresses, both become capable of dealing with their own lives and the lives of those they love. Within a few days, the two women, who have been kept in the dark and disempowered not only by their husbands but by their children's loving attempts to protect them, break free of their shackles and prove that their friendship is firm enough to endure anything. In the second half of the book, the strong women who had been kept in submission by two very different but equally selfish husbands come into their own.

Channon had views that were unusual for that time and her class. One thing that she makes clear in this book is that if a woman allows a man to bully her, she will permit a situation that not only makes her unhappy but makes him a dissatisfied and unpleasant person as well. In The Chimney Murder it becomes clear that Mr Binns' unchallenged tantrums and grumpy attitude have soured not only his relationship with his family and neighbours but also prevented his promotion at work. Another thing Channon felt strongly was that all women should be domestically capable; and from the tone of this and other of her books, she was rather keen that men should know their way around a kitchen too. She was a good housewife. Her eldest daughter was physically disabled but she sent her three younger daughters to a Domestic Science College. The Chimney Murder is set firmly in a middle-class setting, where maintaining high standards and respectability was paramount. As a social account of the time it is fascinating, both in the attitudes and the domestic details. Nowadays one of the first places any police searchers would look for missing body parts is in dustbins set out all along the road, but in this book it takes an eager young constable, acting on his own initiative, to accompany the dustman on his rounds as he empties the little movable bins' and thus discover the unfortunate victim's head.

Channon never questions the status quo, in that she seems to accept that middle-class women should be in the home until the daughters marry and set up homes of their own. In other ways she is a very modern writer, laying the foundations for a later generation of writers of psychological detective stories. She examines the effect that violent crime has on the families of victims and she is especially clear on the fact that when a man is a domestic tyrant he harms not only his wife and family but also damages himself.

Channon's books have been forgotten for many years but her three crime books are now available on Kindle. The first two of Channon's detective stories have been republished by Greyladies Publishers.

The Chimney Murder
Kindle: Black Heath Editions. ASIN: B015NL4SQ2
Paperback: Greyladies Publishers. ISBN: 978-1907503177
Twice Dead
Kindle: Black Heath Editions. ASIN: B015NL4UZQ
Paperback: Greyladies Publishers. ISBN: 978-1907503047 (may be out of print.)
The Gilt-Edged Mystery
Kindle: Black Heath Editions. ASIN: B015NL4SV2

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, and The Fragility of Poppies was published .May 2016.

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