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).
‘“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
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.’
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?”
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.’
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.”