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Wednesday, 7 August 2019

The Sport of Angling in Golden Age Detective Fiction

The  Golden Age

Fishing For Clues
by Carol Westron

Recently I wrote an article about cricket and its place in Golden Age Fiction that attracted many positive comments, which encouraged me to research another sport that was popular at the time and provided the setting for several detective stories, and about which I know even less than I do about cricket. The fishing referred to in Golden Age fiction is not that of men going to sea to return with a cargo of fish to feed the nation. It is the intricate sport that is also known as angling, which, in the early 20th century had already been celebrated for hundreds of years, most notably in Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653).

The Victorians had a profound influence on fishing as a recreation and, as with cricket, it was the wealthy who had the money and leisure to employ skilled working-class men to facilitate their success. This was a time when, thanks in no small measure to Queen Victoria, the wealthy upper classes discovered Scotland, with its excellent fishing and accomplished ghillies to help them catch salmon and trout. What is more, if they grew bored with that or the weather was unsuitable, the ghillies would guide them on hunting trips to shoot deer and grouse. This use of local expertise extended to other fishing localities, along with hotels that specialised in catering for anglers. This was a useful device for those authors who wished to extend the country house mystery to include a wider and more disparate group of people gathered together under one roof. The main requirement of being a hobby fisherman in the early 20th century was to be affluent enough to afford to buy the equipment and to be able to take time off to travel to suitable locations and spend a large amount of time on a river bank.

Several Golden Age authors set their detective stories in a fly fishing setting. Dorothy L. Sayers favoured Scotland for her Wimsey novel, Five Red Herrings (1931) and for her short story The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach (1928); and Ronald Knox also used Scotland for his last Miles Bredon novel, Double Cross Purposes (1937). Scotland is also the setting for Josephine Tey’s final Alan Grant book, The Singing Sands, published in 1952, after it was discovered amongst her papers after her death. Murder Jigsaw (1944) by E. & M.A. Radford is set in a Cornish fishing hotel, The Tremarden Arms. Death by the Gaff (1932) by Vernon Loder and Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland are both set in fishing hotels in Welsh villages. Cyril Hare and Ngaio Marsh defend the excellence of English waters. Hare creates the River Didder and the village of Didford Magna in his 1938 novel Death Is No Sportsman. Marsh sets her Roderick Alleyn investigation in Scales of Justice (1955) in the village of Swevenings where ‘the Chyne, a trout stream, meandered through meadow and coppice and slid blamelessly under two bridges.’

One Golden Age murder mystery about trout fishing that is out of print and unobtainable is The Cast Of Death (1932) by Nigel Orde-Powlett. This was commended by Dorothy L. Sayers in her review of 6 August 1933 ‘His first book... was one of last year's good things and has a special appeal to trout-fishers (technical details audited and found correct).’

When reading these books, one thing becomes apparent, many great detectives are fly fisherman, and what is more, without their presence, the murderer would escape justice for the simple reason that no crime would have been suspected. In the novels mentioned above, all but Knox, Hare and Marsh have their detective heroes on holiday when murder strikes, and it is due to the detectives’ acumen that an investigation takes place at all. Naturally, the local police are so overwhelmed by the great detectives’ abilities that they enlist their help in the investigation.

In The Compleat Angler Izaak Walton compared the angler to the fishermen chosen by Jesus to be his first disciples ‘because he found the hearts of such men by nature were fitted for contemplation and quietnesse; men of mild, and sweet, and peaceable spirits, as indeed most Anglers are’. This is not borne out by the dissension displayed amongst the fishermen in Golden Age detection. It is not a spoiler to say that the unsporting fisherman who is causing the conflict is usually the victim.

Fishing Associations are basically an organisation where fishermen arrange to take an individual place along the river so that they don’t spoil each other’s sport. The misdeeds of the unpopular fishermen may be that they do not respect the rights of others, as a member of the fishing community explains to new arrival Harry Manson, in Murder Jigsaw (1944) by E. & M.A. Radford.
‘“Fact is, Doctor, we’ve got an unpleasant gent here named Donoughmore – Colonel Donoughmore – don’t think you’ve met him. He’s usually back from fishing about five o’clock but hasn’t turned up today. Funnily enough, his landing net is in its usual place, and its wet. Emmett, here, said the blighter had been poaching on his beat this morning, and threatened to chuck him in the water if he didn’t get out and keep out.”’

Alternatively, problems may be caused if the unpopular fisherman is too demanding, as
in this letter, which begins the first chapter of Vernon Loder’s Death by the Gaff (1932). ‘Unfortunately, we have a snag here... Its name is Solly Hayes, and it is very rich, very high-and-mighty, and a perfect pig... This is an Association water, as you know. Inhabitants and visitors take tickets, and most of the anglers (bless ’em!) are decent sorts, with an idea of give-and-take, which is absolutely necessary in this kind of water. Solly isn’t imbued with the common ideals. From the first day he got ‘upsides’ with half a dozen people; for he suffers from an obsession about his rights, and appears to want a clear bank for half a mile above and below him when he condescends to woo the fish.’

This battle for good fishing spots is apparently common: ‘“When Dad and I went to that unpronounceable Scottish place, the hotel there was full of ravening wolves, ready to cut throats for preference.”’ (Death by the Gaff, 1932.)

A similar quarrel about fishing boundaries is played out in Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh, where Colonel Carterette and his neighbour Mr Danberry-Phinn have a long-term, festering dispute rooted in their rivalry about catching an enormous trout, which is known locally as the Old ’Un.
‘“Talking of gossip,” said Nurse Kettle, with a twinkle, “I see the Colonel’s out for the evening rise.”
An extraordinary change at once took place in Mr Phinn. Is face became suffused with purple, his eyes glittered and he bared his teeth in a canine grin.
“A hideous curse upon his sport,” he said. “Where is he?”
“Just below the bridge.”
“Let him venture a handspan above it and I’ll report him to the authorities. What fly has he mounted? Has he caught anything?”
“I couldn’t see,” said Nurse Kettle, already regretting her part in the conversation, “from the top of Watt’s Hill.”
Mr Phinn replaced the kitten.
“It is a dreadful thing to say about a fellow creature,” he said, “a shocking thing. But I do say advisedly and deliberately that I suspect Colonel Carterette of having recourse to improper practices.”
It was Nurse Kettle’s turn to blush.
“I am sure I don’t know to what you refer,” she said.
“Bread! Worms!” said Mr Phinn, spreading his arms. “Anything! Tickling, even! I’d put it as low as that.”

Izaak Newton ignored any claims of women to be fishermen and this tradition continues into Golden Age crime. Most of the wives or sisters who accompany fishermen to their hotels occupy themselves in other ways during the days and spend their days congratulating or condoling with their menfolk, depending on the success of their fishing day. However, the fishermen in question were not always as appreciative of these attentions as they should have been. ‘The General winced. For the hundredth time he regretted the impulse which had induced him to bring Ethel with him on his annual holiday to the little fishing hotel in the Welsh village of Aberllyn. From the first, her behaviour had proved almost unbearably embarrassing. Every morning she insisted on walking with him to the boat at the head of the lake and waved him off with a red silk parasol. She inquired, in the ghillie’s hearing, whether he was wearing enough underclothing, and had once made him retire behind a wall to put on the ribbed bodybelt he had forgotten. And every evening she was waiting for his return to greet him with false gaiety, or to overwhelm him with undeserved praise.’ (Bleeding Hooks, 1940.)

There are two exceptions to the norm regarding the role of women. One is Mrs Ruby Mumsby, an opulent ex-actress, who, according to spiteful gossip, is at the fishing hotel to catch a man rather than fish. ‘“It’s because she’s so annoyed at not catching any fish, though I must say that she ought to be used to the idea by now, for she hasn’t caught more than once since we’ve been here. It just proves what I’ve always said, that the only reason she goes fishing at all is because it’s the only chance she gets of being alone with a man.”’

(Bleeding Hooks, 1940.) Mrs Mumsby does not live long enough to catch her prey. At first her death is ascribed to a heart attack after impaling her hand with a fishing hook, but Mr Winkley of Scotland Yard is on the spot on a fishing holiday and soon discovers that the hook was coated with poison.

The other woman angler in Golden Age fiction is Joan Powis in Death by the Gaff (1932). Joan is ‘an ardent angler’ who complains that ‘“The place will be full of the fishermen’s wives These places always are.”’ However, when she arrives at the hotel, she soon becomes moreinterested in solving the murder of an unpopular angler than she is in fishing, and her intelligent deductions are of great value to the police.

The desire to have the finest equipment for angling produced a whole industry to manufacture and sell it. This ranged from the small cottage industry in the village who tied flies for local and visiting fishermen, to the magnificent emporium with a multitude of choices. In Death Is No Sportsman (1938) Detective Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard, who is no fisherman, accompanies asuspect to one such shop. ‘His first impression was one of innumerable straight lines, all parallel, all vertical, stretching from floor to ceiling of the large but overcrowded showroom. It was like a schoolboy’s nightmare on the eve of a geometry examination. A second glance showed that the shop approximated more nearly to a schoolboy’s Elysium, for every one of those lines was a fishing-rod. They were of all sorts and sizes, fragile little featherweights with top joints tapering off almost into invisibility, stout, blunt-ended weapons for the big game of tropical seas, long two-handed salmon rods – rods of every kind for every one of the inexhaustible varieties of angling, all glistening in the bravery of paint and varnish, all – and this was to many their chief merit – with the magic name of Sloman engraved on the butt... Overall hung a hushed religious atmosphere, and the inspector felt as though he had intruded into a cathedral where a service was in progress, of infinite solemnity indeed, but conducted with rites of which he was entirely ignorant.’ When Mallett ventures to buy two dry flies for research purposes, he ‘was astonished to find these sacred articles were after all quite cheap.’

There is an immense lore around choosing the correct fly, which Izaak Walton described as ‘silk of several colours (especially sad coloured to make the flies head) and there be also other coloured feathers both of little birds of peckled foul.’ (The Compleat Angler, 1653.) Fashions in flies change but the anglers’ fascination with them never falters. As a flippant young lady staying at a fishing hotel explained: ‘Such a nice young fellow here spent yesterday evening explaining it to me. It seems that only common people throw worms, the others cast flies... His flies are charming, red and blue and all colours, with silver and gold bodies, and the absurdest names. One is called Major Bather, but the young man could not tell me if that meant a fat man in the water or a senior officer.’ Death by the Gaff (1932)

The detectives’ knowledge of fishing equipment is often of value when attempting to solve a case, especially when it comes to flies. In Murder Jigsaw (1944) Doctor Manson’s knowledge of dry flies helps solve a case. And in Sayers’ short story The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach (1928) Peter Wimsey confirms that a suspect is lying by chatting to him about fly fishing.
‘“What kind of fly do you fancy for this part of the country. I rather like a Greenaway’s Gadget myself. Ever tried it?”
“No,” said Mr Ferguson briefly.
“Some people find a Pink Sisket better, so they tell me. Do you use one? Have you got your fly-book here?”
“Yes – no,” said Mr Ferguson. “I dropped it.”
“Pity. But do give me your opinion of the Pink Sisket.”
“Not so bad,” said Mr Ferguson. “I’ve sometimes caught trout with it.”
“You surprise me,” said Wimsey, not unnaturally, since he had invented the Pink Sisket on the spur of the moment and hardly expected his improvisation to pass muster.’

A lot of fishing equipment is well suited to performing violence, but with the exceptions of the poisoned hook in Bleeding Hooks (1940) and the gaff (a long stick with a hook or spear used for helping to land fish) in Death by the Gaff (1932), the main danger to the fisherman seems to be that of sunstroke or pneumonia, and to his listeners of death from boredom. In Death Is No Sportsman (1938) Jimmy Rendell is tolerantly contemptuous of the enthusiasm of an elderly bird watcher. ‘With the tolerant wisdom of his years he treated his senior’s passion for birds with pity, not untinged with envy. It must be wonderful, he thought, to have attained such an age that you could grow excited over things that didn’t really matter in the least... strangely enough, it never occurred to Jimmy that fishing could be ranked by anyone as a subject for petty enthusiasm – to be indulged in only at the risk of the utter boredom of one’s acquaintance.’ The role that fishing plays varies throughout the books that feature it. Sometimes the involvement is minimal. In Double Cross Purposes (1937) by Ronald Knox, insurance investigator Miles Bredon is sent by his company to keep a watching brief on two treasure hunters, in case of fraud. Bredon is accompanied by his wife Angela and friend, Mr. Poultney, an elderly schoolmaster who uses salmon fishing as a cover to keep watch on the other side of the island. In The Singing Sands (1952), Grant’s fishing trip is much needed therapy for his mental and physical exhaustion.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Five Red Herrings (1931) is arguably the best known Golden Age novel with a fishing background. It undeniably features fishing and it is in that role that Peter Wimsey is accepted into the artistic and fishing community ‘on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, though English and an incomer, gave no cause for offence.’ However, it is a missing article amongst thedead artist-fisherman’s painting equipment that causes Wimsey to first suspect foul play, and the investigation is more dependant upon knowledge about art than skill at fishing.

With the exception of Colonel Carteret in
Scales of Justice (1955), all the victims in these fishing based mysteries are unpleasant people and some of them are evil enough to justify their murder, but it is interesting to note that despite all the quarrels and ill-feeling surrounding fishing, it is never the fundamental motive for the victims’ deaths.

I will conclude with a very different sort of fisherman. Father Brown is the last person one would associate with a fishing holiday, but he did accompany his friend, Flambeau, on a holiday fishing trip on a small sailing boat along ‘little rivers in the Eastern counties, rivers so small that the boat looked like a magic boat, sailing on land through meadows and cornfields. The vessel was just comfortable for two people; there was room only for necessities, and Flambeau had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves, apparently, to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want to fight; a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die.’ As so often in Father Brown stories, an innocent journey turns into a nightmare of violence, revenge and deceit, during which he fears he might lose his dearest friend. “Flambeau!” he cried and shook his friend by both hands again and again, much to the astonishment of that sportsman, as he came on shore with his fishing tackle. “Flambeau,” he said, “so you’re not killed?”
“Killed!” repeated the angler in great astonishment. “And why should I be killed?”
“Oh, because nearly everybody else is,” said his companion rather wildly.’ (The Sins of Prince Saradine; The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911).

An earlier Father Brown story, The Queer Feet (1910) illustrates the strange, almost mystical, importance that can be attached to fishermen, which amongst the rich and powerful has been corrupted into an emphasis upon their social importance and elite status.
‘The club of The Twelve True Fishermen would not have consented to dine anywhere but in such a place, for it insisted on a luxurious privacy; and would have been quite upset by the mere thought that any other club was even dining in the same building. On the occasion of their annual dinner the Fishermen were in the habit of
exposing all their treasures, as if they were in a private house, especially the celebrated set of fish knives and forks which were, as it were, the insignia of the society, each being exquisitely wrought in silver in the form of a fish, and each loaded at the hilt with one large pearl. These were always laid out for the fish course, and the fish course was always the most magnificent in that magnificent repast. The society had a vast number of ceremonies and observances, but it had no history and no object; that was where it was so very aristocratic.’

Later in the story, when Father Brown has prevented the theft of these ornate fish knives and forks and, of far greater significance to himself, has saved a soul, he uses a fishing analogy to explain to the club members who demand to know what had happened.
Father Brown got to his feet, putting his hands behind him. ‘“Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a
vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man? But there, if you will excuse me, you trespass a little upon my province. If you doubt the penitence as a practical fact, there are your knives and forks. You are The Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men.”
“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”’ (The Queer Feet : The Innocence of Father Brown, 1910.)

All the books mentioned in this article are available (apart from Cast of Death) on Kindle or as paperbacks or both. Most of the Father Brown stories are available free on-line.

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 the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
 To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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