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Thursday, 12 December 2019

The Golden Age: Villainy in the Villages

Part One: Agatha Christie. Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh
by Carol Westron

The concept of the village setting for crime novels was popular throughout the Golden Age and has been used by writers ever since, so that it even has its own sub-genre, village mysteries. Agatha Christie seems to have been particularly appreciative of the village as a community less enclosed than the country house and therefore often less restricted regarding inhabitants. However, many villages had manor houses as part of their lay out, and the country house mystery and village mystery are closely aligned. The village was a community where most inhabitants knew each other, often for generations, and remembered old scandals and ancient secrets, as well as gossiping about newcomers in their midst.

The most famous Golden Age village must be St. Mary Mead, the lifelong abode of Miss Jane Marple, which was introduced in detail in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), the first novel featuring Christie’s famous, gentlewoman sleuth. It is interesting to note that this iconic village had been mentioned previously in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), where it was spoken of as the home of Katherine Grey, one of the protagonists in the book. However, Katherine neither appears nor is mentioned in Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead novels. One of the major mysteries about St. Mary Mead is its location: in The Mystery of the Blue Train it is located in Kent, in The Murder at the Vicarage it is in the fictional county of Downshire, and in The Body in the Library (1942) it has moved to Radfordshire. Later it became established that St. Mary Mead was located in south-east England, near Market Basing.

In 1930, St. Mary Mead was a small village, with one main road that ran through it. Transport is served by Inch’s taxi business, a small local firm in which successive owners take on the identity of the man who started the business, at least in the minds of the older inhabitants. There is also a railway station, although this may have closed by 1957, because in The 4.50 From Paddington, Mrs McGillicuddy has to take a taxi to St. Mary Mead from the station at Milchester. One thing that St. Mary Mead has in excess is elderly, middle-class women, either spinsters or widows, who spend a lot of time is spying on their neighbours and gossiping. By 1962, time and the Second World War had taken its toll and many of theoriginal inhabitants of St. Mary Mead have died or become too old to leave their homes. This does not apply to the resilient Miss Marple who, frail but determined, outwits the companion foisted upon her by her over-protective nephew, Raymond, and sets out to explore the new housing estate, known to the older inhabitants as ‘The Development’. Of course, being Miss Marple, she encounters a person who, shortly afterwards, dies in suspicious circumstances (The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, 1962).

The number of murders that Miss Marple investigates are excessive for an elderly gentlewoman with no official connection to crime, and it might be thought that St. Mary Mead was a hot bed of murder and mayhem. In fact, although many of the Miss Marple stories start in St. Mary Mead, only three of the novels have murders occurring in or near the village: The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942) and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962). There are also murders set in St. Mary Mead in a few Christie short stories, such as Death by Drowning in the collection The Thirteen Problems (1932) and The Tape Measure Murder in Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979). 

In the novels set in St. Mary Mead, Miss Marple’s knowledge of human nature is paired with her knowledge of the people involved. They are her community and she can understand their history and their motives. However, although her village acquaintances are occasionally mentioned and may even proffer a minor clue, it is rare that they become deeply involved in her investigations. The exception to this is Mrs Bantry, who first appears in The Thirteen Problems (1932) as the hostess of a dinner party, which is the second social gathering at which people exchange stories and challenge their fellow guests to solve the mysteries they recount. Although Mrs Bantry is apparently a stalwart of the village, she played no part in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and expresses astonishment when Sir Henry Clithering, the Ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard, asks her to invite Miss Marple to join the dinner party. ‘“But how extraordinary! Why, dear old Miss Marple has hardly ever been out of St. Mary Mead.” “Ah! But according to her, that has given her unlimited opportunities of observing human nature – under the microscope as it were.” (The Blue Geranium, The Thirteen Problems, 1932).

The two novels where Mrs Bantry appears are ones in which she is personally involved through the manor house that is her home. In The Body in the Library (1942), the library in question belongs to Colonel and Mrs Bantry and the body is that of a young woman. Mrs Bantry is desperate as she appeals to Miss Marple to solve the crime, especially as vicious village gossip is declaring that Colonel Bantry had some salacious involvement with the murdered girl. In The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962), following the death of her husband, Mrs Bantry has sold the big house to an American film star. However, she lives in a small house nearby and still takes a lively interest in what goes on, especially when it involves a sudden death, and immediately enlists Miss Marple to investigate.

Miss Marple may not always be in St. Mary Mead but the village is always in her, so much part of her inner knowledge that it is her constant point of reference for mysteries great and small. As she points out, ‘“Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes.”’ And, soon after, when she is the only one of the listeners who can solve the mystery described by Sir Henry Clithering: ‘“A sad case, a very sad case. It reminds me of old Mr Hargreaves who lived up at the Mount. His wife never had the least suspicion – until he died, leaving all his money to a woman he had been living with and by whom he had five children. She had at one time been their housemaid. Such a nice girl.”’ (The Tuesday Night Club, The Thirteen Problems, 1932.) In The Thirteen Problems, before Miss Marple’s investigative career has swung into action, she acknowledges that she has ‘“lived what is called a very uneventful life, but I have had a lot of experience in solving different little problems that have arisen. Some of them have been really quite ingenious, but it would be no good telling them to you, because they are about such unimportant things that you would not be interested... Very interesting things, really, to any student of human nature.”’ (The Thumb Mark of St. Peter, The Thirteen Problems, 1932.) In The Thirteen Problems, Miss Marple often speaks of her village experiences and how they have allowed her to draw parallels that solve similar crimes. ‘“It’s really a matter of practice and experience”... “What my nephew calls ‘superfluous women’ have a lot of time on their hands and their chief interest is usually people”... “It explains why I felt no doubt in my mind the first moment I saw the Sanders together that he meant to do away with her.”... “I remember Walter Hones, who kept the Green Man. Walking home with his wife one night she fell into the river – and he collected the insurance money.”’ (A Christmas Tragedy, The Thirteen Problems, 1932).

Because Miss Marple's deductive skills can be generalised, she solves crimes in many situations, including an exclusive London Hotel (At Bertram’s Hotel, 1965), a seaside town (Sleeping Murder, 1976) a luxury coach tour (Nemesis, 1971), and a Caribbean holiday resort (A Caribbean Mystery, 1964). However, Christie was well aware of the usefulness of the village setting, especially for an old lady with an instinct for gossip, and so Miss Marple turns up in other mysteries with a village or small town setting.

The Moving Finger (1943) has only a slight claim to be described as a Miss Marple novel, as she doesn’t arrive in Lymstock until the book is three-quarters over, and it has even less claim to be called a village mystery, as Lymstock is described as a small, backwater, market town. Nevertheless, the village atmosphere of Lymstock, with everybody knowing each others’ business is the true hallmark of a Christie village mystery. A poisoned pen writer has been responsible for two deaths, and although the first one may have been suicide, the second is definitely murder. Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, is determined to put an end to the wickedness and, as the police have proved ineffectual, announces her intention of calling in an expert who has a different skill set to the police. ‘“I don’t mean that kind of expert. I don’t mean someone who knows about anonymous letters or even about murder. I mean someone who knows people. Don’t you see? We want someone who knows a great deal about wickedness!”’

In A Murder is Announced (1950), again Miss Marple makes a relatively late entry and does not turn up until Chapter Eight, approximately a third of the way through the book, but as soon as she does appear, she sheds light on the character of a young man who has died by violence.
‘“And perhaps he reminded you of someone?” prompted Sir Henry, mischief in his eye.
Miss Marple smiled and shook her head at him.
“You are very naughty, Sir Henry. As a matter of fact he did. Fred Tyler at the fish shop. Always slipped an extra 1 in the shillings column.”’ 

At first, when Sir Henry introduces Miss Marple to Inspector Craddock, the detective is sceptical about Sir Henry’s enthusiasm for the old lady but, within a few minutes he learns to respect her, as she explains her first impression of the victim.
‘“Well, the very first week I was here there was a mistake in my bill. I pointed it out to the young man and he apologised very nicely and looked very much upset, but I thought to myself then: ‘You’ve got a shifty eye, young man.’
“What I mean by a shifty eye,” continued Miss Marple, “is the kind that looks very straight at you and never looks away or blinks.”
Craddock gave a sudden move of appreciation. He thought to himself, ‘Jim Kelly to the life,’ remembering a notorious swindler he had helped to put behind bars not long ago.’
It seems that the experience of the police detective and the village investigator is not that different after all.

When in St. Mary Mead, Miss Marple can depend on the efficiency of her own gossip network and the news brought every morning with the newspapers, milk and groceries and reported back to her by her maid, or later her home help. When in other villages or small towns, she has to use her own questioning skills, which are regarded as natural in an old lady, whether it is chatting about recipes or knitting wool, or pretending to have forgotten the address on a parcel, to tempt a postmistress into indiscretion.

Christie’s appreciation of the usefulness of a village setting for murder is not confined to her Miss Marple stories and, indeed, predates Miss Marple. One of the earlier Poirot novels, the groundbreaking The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) owes a great deal of its power to its village setting, which is described by the narrating character, Dr James Sheppard: ‘Our village, King’s Abbot, is I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival ‘General Stores.’ Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word “gossip.”’

The doctor’s unmarried sister, Caroline Sheppard, is in many ways the forerunner of Miss Marple. Indeed, it is reported that Christie was so disappointed when the director of the stage play of the book turned Caroline Sheppard into a glamorous young woman, that she created Miss Marple to give a voice to spinster gentlewomen. Certainly, Caroline Sheppard’s information gathering abilities were equal to those of Miss Marple, as her brother points out. ‘The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is ‘Go and find out.’ If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don’t know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps. When she goes out, it is not to gather information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.’ (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926). 

Poirot appeared in other ‘village mysteries’, including the village of Broadhinny in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) and Woodleigh Common in Halloween Party (1969). H adopts his usual technique of talking to people and, even more important listening to them. The village setting has advantages for this style of investigation, as it offers him the opportunity to gather several potential suspects together and listen to their interaction and note various inconsistencies or casual clues. In the Poirot novel The Sittaford Mystery (1931), the isolation of the Dartmoor village of Sittaford is used not merely as a way of gathering together the suspects but as a key point of the plot.

In By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), Tuppence Beresford uses the village of Sutton Chancellor as her base as she explores the possibility of unexplained deaths in an Old People’s Home and the disappearance of an old woman who had been a resident there. Like Miss Marple, she pursues her investigation by adopting the guise of a fanciful, elderly woman, happy to gossip.

Christie used the village setting to great effect in several stand-alone novels, such as Murder is Easy (1939), The Pale Horse (1961) and Endless Night (1967.) She also uses the isolation of a Londoner removed to a lonely house, just outside a small village, to ramp up the tension in one of her finest short stories, Philomel Cottage, published as part of a collection under the title The Listerdale Mystery (1934).

Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver has a great deal in common with Christie’s Miss Marple regarding age and their Victorian origin, but they do have several pertinent differences. Miss Marple lives in her own cottage, in a village where she has history and social standing. She has a small but steady income and can rely on her nephew, Raymond, who willingly supplies anything else she needs and insists on treating her to luxuries. She has a succession of young maids, whom she often trains until they are capable of giving satisfaction in more lucrative employment and, as times change, a young married home help. Unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver lives in London, in her own flat (apartment) in Montague Mansions and is looked after by her faithful cook-housekeeper, Emma. She was once a governess but now earns her living as a private detective. She is a self-made woman with a career that takes her to cities, towns and villages. 

Miss Silver’s methods of detection are similar to those of Miss Marple, although she does not have the advantage of knowing all of the gossip of her own village and has to start forging bonds with local people and gathering information at the start of each new case. It is usual for Miss Silver to stay with the people who have asked her to investigate or with a friend that lives in the vicinity, but at other times she finds accommodation as a lodger in the village in which the crime occurred. She is skilled at fitting into the household she has joined. ‘By half past eight that evening Miss Silver might have been residing at the Rectory for years. She had placated Mabel, who did not consider that visitors were at all necessary in wartime, she had shown Miss Sophy a new knitting stitch, and satisfied Garth that she could be trusted to behave with discretion and tact.’ (The Key, 1946). 

Unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is sometimes involved in cases that involve espionage, especially in the Second World War, and she has dealings with officers engaged on security and counter-espionage. She has a remarkable talent for gaining people’s trust and encouraging them to talk, as Major Garth Albany discovers when she is helping to investigate the murder of an inventor, a refugee who had fled from Nazi persecution. ‘Garth put down his paper and was edified. It appeared that Miss Silver was now thoroughly conversant with the evidence given at the inquest... He became aware of a thought penetrating and illuminating whatever it touched. The prim, old-maidish manner which was its cloak began by amusing him, but before long the amusement changed to something not unlike discomfort. He felt a little as if he had picked up an old lady’s work-bag and found it to contain a bomb. Aunt Sophy on the contrary was completely happy. It was years since she had had so appreciative an audience. She poured out information about everyone and everything.’

When staying in a village, Miss Silver swiftly becomes part of the household. She spends her time visiting the village shop to buy small articles and hearing lots of gossip while she appears to be concentrating on choosing picture postcards; visiting local invalids who have little occupation other than watching their neighbours; going to tea with her hostess’ friends and helping maids with the washing up. ‘Miss Silver came out to the kitchen with the coffee tray... She carried the tray down the passage, and as she approached the door she became aware of voices on the other side of it. She had no intention of listening, but they forced themselves upon her ear... As a private gentlewoman she would not have dreamed of listening to a conversation not intended for her ears. As a private detective she had not infrequently considered it her duty to do so.’ (Vanishing Point, 1955).

Both Miss Silver’s personality and the fact that she is a guest of a resident in the village means that she is swiftly accepted into village life, which, according to her devoted admirer Detective Sergeant (later Detective Inspector) Abbott, gives her an unfair advantage over the official police officers. Certainly, it is hard to imagine any of those worthy men fitting smoothly into a village Work Party, sewing for those in need, much less enticing well born ladies into incautious gossip. ‘Nora Mallett’s tongue was notoriously indiscreet, but she would not have proceeded any further if it had not been for that something about the quality of Miss Silver’s listening which had caused her to receive so many confidences. And after all, there really wasn’t any secret about the fact that Mattie Eccles had always been devoted to Roger. The words slid off her tongue...’ (Poison in the Pen, 1955.) When disaster strikes, the bereaved and desolate frequently turn to Miss Silver for comfort, even though that does not always meet the approval of the more petty minded residents.
‘Miss Wayne displayed some incredulity. “You are going to stay at the Manor?”
“Miss Repton would like me to do so. It has been a great shock to her.”
Miss Renie’s handkerchief dabbed sketchily at eyes and nose.
“Oh, yes indeed – and to us all. But surely a stranger – one would have thought Lady Mallett, or at any rate a friend -”
“Lady Mallett was herself a good deal distressed. Sometimes it is easier to be with a stranger whose personal feelings are not involved.” Miss Renie sniffed and dabbed.’ (Poison in the Pen, 1955).

Although Miss Silver excels at wringing the truth out of village mysteries, there is one aspect of village life that she deplores, and that is staying in old houses. ‘It was, indeed, her considered opinion that old houses, though of interest to the sight-seer, were by no means comfortable to live in. Recollections of dry-rot, neglected plumbing, a deficiency of modern amenities, and a tendency to rats, arose in her mind.’ (Pilgrim’s Rest, 1948).

Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is in a very different position to Miss Marple and Miss Silver. As a police detective, he comes in as an official investigator, with his team of officers, his faithful second-in-command, Inspector Fox and his fingerprint and photography experts. As a rule there is not a work party or knitting needle in sight. Alleyn’s style of investigation is, of necessity, very different to that of the other sleuths we have considered, because suspects and witnesses are far less likely to chat freely in his presence, although occasionally a sensible and intelligent suspect will decide it is wiser to tell Alleyn the facts however embarrassing. Although there is a difference in the way Alleyn and his team collect their evidence, and the evidence itself may, sometimes, be of a different nature, the way it is used to reach the truth has many similarities. Henry Jernigham, one of the witnesses to murder in Overture to Death (1939) shows an intelligent interest in Alleyn’s investigative process.
”Do you just collect stray bits of evidence,” asked Henry, “and hope they’ll make sense?”
“More or less. You scavenge and then you arrange everything and try and see the pattern.”
“Suppose there’s no pattern?”
“There must be. It’s a question of clearing away the rubbish.” (Overture to Death, 1939).

Alleyn’s aristocratic origins and public-school education has many advantages, especially as the majority of his cases involve upper class or professional victims, and so in village mysteries he is usually dealing with the more influential residents, who are well aware of their local importance. ‘Jocelyn Jernigham was a good name. The seventh Jocelyn thought so as he stood at his study window and looked down the vale of Pen Cuckoo toward that precise spot where the spire of Salisbury Cathedral could be seen through field glasses on a clear day.
“Here I stand,” he said, without turning his head, and here my forebears have stood, generation after generation, and looked over their own tilth and tillage. Seven Jocelyn Jernighams.”’ (Overture to Death, 1939).

However, Alleyn’s background can cause problems when his social acquaintances over-lap into his investigations, especially in the tight-knit situation of a village, as when the elderly and forceful Lady Lacklander phones New Scotland Yard demanding his presence:
‘“Hermione Lacklander speaking. I won’t waste time reminding you about myself. You’re
Helena Alleyn’s boy and I want an assurance from you. A friend of mine has just been murdered,” the voice continued, “and I hear the local police are calling in your people. I would greatly prefer you, personally, to take charge of the whole thing. That can be arranged, I
Alleyn, controlling his astonishment, said: “I’m afraid only if the Assistant Commissioner
happens to give me the job.”
“Who’s he?”
Alleyn told her.
“Put me through to him,” the voice commanded.’ (Scales of Justice, 1955.)
When Lady Lacklander succeeds in having Alleyn assigned to the case, she does her best to control the direction of his questioning.
‘“Now, look here, Occy...” Lady Lacklander in her turn began and in her turn was checked by Alleyn.
“Please, Lady Lacklander,” Alleyn interjected. She glared at him. “Do you mind?” he said.
She clasped her plump hands together and rested the entire system of her chins upon them. “Well,” she said, “I called you in, after all. Go on.” (Scales of Justice, 1955).
However, this set-back does not prevent her from trying to cajole information out of Alleyn a short while later:
‘“Now, tell me,” she said, “tell me, not as a policeman to an octogenarian dowager but as a man of discretion to one of your mother’s oldest friends, what did you think of Occy Phinn’s behaviour just now?”
Alleyn said: “Octogenarian dowagers even if they are my mother’s oldest friend shouldn’t lure me out of doors at night and make improper suggestions.”
“Ah,” she said, “so you’re not going to respond.”’ (Scales of Justice, 1955).

Villages are not always the idyllic places that they may appear at first sight. As has been amply demonstrated, murders occur in them and, at times, danger for the investigators. This may be deliberately courted, as when Miss Silver sets a trap for a killer.
‘“Where are you? Are you all right? For God’s sake!”
He groped where he had seen her fall and heard a familiar and most welcome cough.
“I am rather wet, and I shall be glad of your hand. This clay is extremely slippery.”’ (The Watersplash, 1954). 

At other times the detective is unaware of the danger posed by the pursuit of a desperate killer, as in Death at the Bar (1939), when a poisoned bottle of sherry results in a lucky escape for Alleyn and a close brush with death for Inspector Fox. 

The majority of village mysteries by the three authors that I have considered take several chapters to set the scene, establish the characters and commit the first murder. If the main protagonist is a series detective, and the crime is not committed in the place where they live, a great deal can happen before they even arrive in the village and start to investigate. The village is a fascinating location for a detective story, and in my next article I will be considering village mysteries by several more Golden Age authors.

The books mentioned in this article are available, either in paperback and/or on Kindle.

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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