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Wednesday, 4 March 2020

The Golden Age: Villainy in the Villages Part Two:

Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, George Bellairs
by Carol Westron

When I started researching Golden Age authors and village mysteries I had anticipated writing one article but I soon discovered that I had enough material for three articles, examining different uses of the village setting and how the village mysteries developed during the Golden Age and in the years just after the Second World War. In Part One of these articles I explored the village mysteries of Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth and Ngaio Marsh. In Part Two I will consider the village mysteries of four other Golden Age writers and how they adapted the village setting to their own purposes and style of writing and also helped to develop and expand the genre of the village mystery.

Although Dorothy L. Sayers wrote several books in which Lord Peter Wimsey demonstrated his skill at blending into village life and drawing information from villagers, these village interactions were peripheral to the setting of the main story. Only two of Sayers’ books could be described as village mysteries and to each of them she gives her own unique slant. In The Nine Tailors (1934), Wimsey runs his car off the road in most inhospitable conditions. ‘Right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.’ Wimsey and Bunter set off on foot and eventually discover a solitary signpost. ‘Bunter turned his torch upon the signpost and read upon the single arm: “Fenchurch St. Paul.” There was no other direction; ahead, road and dyke marched on side by side into an eternity of winter.’

When Wimsey and Bunter reach Fenchurch St. Paul, they find that many of the inhabitants have been struck down by influenza and they are unable to obtain accommodation at the inn. However, the Rector of the parish invites them to take shelter at the vicarage. In Fenchurch St. Paul the village is dominated, both spiritually and physically, by the parish church.
‘“Great Heavens!” said Wimsey, “is that your church?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the Rector with pride. “You find it impressive?”
“Impressive!” said Wimsey. “Why, it’s like a young cathedral.”’

The story of The Nine Tailors is set around the church and its bells and the village community, which gives Sayers the opportunity to demonstrate how good Wimsey is at fitting in with men of all degrees, as he helps the Rector and his bell-ringers to set a record by ringing throughout the night. When his car is mended, Wimsey leaves the village but returns to help investigate when a body is discovered at the top of the bell tower. The Nine Tailors is a novel that fulfils Sayers’ determination that the detective novel could be a work of literature, but it is also a village mystery, with the crime and its solution firmly wrapped up in the lives and backstories of the
villagers of Fenchurch St. Paul.

In Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) Wimsey has finally persuaded Harriet Vane to marry him and they intend to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, the house in Hertfordshire that Harriet had always dreamed of living in when she was a child, and which Wimsey has purchased for her as a wedding gift. When they arrive at Talboys, the house is shut up and no preparations have been made for their arrival. The previous owner, William Noakes, was a miserly and unpleasant man and, at first, it is assumed that he has taken himself off to avoid paying his debts. However, when Bunter explores the cellar, he finds Noakes lying there murdered. Sayers’ described Busman’s Honeymoon as ‘A Love Story with Detective interruptions. It is also a village mystery with a large collection of villagers, many of whom have names that indicate their personalities, such as Miss Twitterton, Noakes’ niece, who does indeed twitter on at length. ‘“It’s only a quarter to ten,” replied Miss Twitterton, with a deprecating glance at a little china clock in the shape of a pansy. “Nothing, of course, to you – but you know we keep early hours in the country. I have to be up at five to feed my birds, so I’m rather an early bird myself – except on choir practice nights, you know – Wednesday, such an awkward day for me with Thursday market-day, but then it’s more convenient for the dear Vicar. But, of course, if I’d had the smallest idea that Uncle William would do such an extraordinary thing, I’d have come over and been there to let you in. If you could wait five – or perhaps ten – minutes while I made a more suitable toilet, I could come now – as I see you have your beautiful car, perhaps -”’ 

Although much of the action in the story is centred around Talboys, the solution to the murder lies in the characters and histories of the villagers and this is revealed by their words and actions, although perhaps at greater length than is necessary, with the result that in places the novel loses its pace. It is interesting to note that while that great village sleuth, Miss Marple, notes in her ladylike way that,“Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,”’ (The Tuesday Night Club, The Thirteen Problems, 1932), Peter Wimsey expresses the same sentiments more robustly, ‘“Village or hamlet of this merry land. Stir up the mud of the village pond and the stink will surprise you.”’

Sayers has great fun with the village mystery when she revisits Talboys in the short story of that name, written in 1942 and published in the collection Striding Folly (1972). Some characters who appeared in Busman’s
are featured here, notably the estimable Mr Puffett. Wimsey, now the father of three young sons, investigates a crime of great importance in the village, the theft of Mr Puffett’s peaches on the day before the annual Flower Show. Talboys is a delightful, cosy, village mini-mystery, which shows Wimsey as a happily married man.

Margery Allingham uses a variety of settings in her books and villages are often at the periphery of her work, but possibly the only Campion book, totally written by her, that can be considered to be a village mystery is Sweet Danger (1933), in which Albert Campion and his helpers are employed to prove British rights to a small European territory, Averna, that is rich in oil and has recently been turned into a port by an earthquake.

Campion and his friends travel to the Suffolk village of Pontisbright to seek out Mary, Amanda and Hal Fitton, the family that may be the hereditary rulers of Averna, and also heirs to the Earldom of Pontisbright, if they can establish their legitimacy. To make their task even more difficult, Brett Savernake, a ruthless and powerful financier, is determined to gain control of the wealth of Averna for himself.

Sweet Danger has many of the ingredients of the village mystery, including villagers loyal to the young Fitton family and one of the most sinister vicars in detective fiction, but, in my opinion, the international, adventure thriller nature of the book makes it harder to classify this as a pure village mystery.

Georgette Heyer is remembered for her Georgian and Regency romances, many of which have a strong theme of crime and adventure, but she also wrote several contemporary detective novels, mainly set in the 1930s, although a few spanned the 1940s and early 1950s. In many of her detective novels it is hard to separate the country house mystery from the village mystery but there are a few that can be classified as village mysteries.

Heyer’s last contemporary novel, Detection Unlimited (1953), makes its village credentials clear by the inclusion of a sketch map showing the relevant landmarks and houses of the village of Thornden. This is confirmed by the opening chapter, in which long-term resident, Mr Thaddeus Drybeck, walks through the village on his way to an afternoon of tennis at one of the more affluent houses. This, frequently used device allows Heyer to introduce and describe several of the village residents and establish their status in the village.
‘“No, before my time,” agreed the Major, realizing that he had been put in his place by the Second Oldest Inhabitant, and submitting to it. “I’m a comparative newcomer, of course.”
“Hardly that, Midgeholme,” said Mr Dryden, rewarding this humility as it deserved. “Compared to the squire and me, and, I suppose I should add, Plenmeller, perhaps you might be considered a newcomer. But the place has seen many changes of late years.”
As well as establishing the pecking order of various inhabitants, this last sentence leads to a common theme of Post-Second World War village mysteries, the deterioration of standards in the village by new building work and insolent, unwanted newcomers.
‘Mr Drybeck looked pleased, but only said, in a mild voice: “Rather a fish out of water, poor Warrenby.”
“I can’t think what induced him to move out of the town,” said the Major. “I should have said he was a good deal more in his element in the Melkinton Road than he’ll ever be at Fox House. Not by any means a pukka sahib, as we used to say in the good old days. Ah, well! It takes all sorts to make a world, I suppose.”
Mr Dryden agreed to this, but as though he found it a regrettable thing.’
Readers of village mysteries will not be surprised when, soon after this conversation, the objectionable newcomer is murdered and a large proportion of the village inhabitants have reasons to wish him dead.

Several of Heyer’s books are divided between the country house mystery and the village mystery. In Behold, Here’s Poison (1936), A Blunt Instrument (1938), and The Unfinished Clue (1934) a large part of the story is set in a country house but many clues and the solution to the crime is bound up with the village and its inhabitants.

It is generally accepted that Heyer’s contemporary detective books are not on a par with her historical novels. Indeed, much of her characterisation seems to have been based on transposing the same character types she used in the early 19th Century to the 20th, often with indifferent success. However, some of her village characters add a great deal of liveliness to the story and their humorous dialogue cleverly conceals various clues. An interesting example of this is A Blunt Instrument (1938), where the local policeman, PC Malachi Glass, is a religious fanatic who constantly quotes the Bible, as the local Inspector explains to Heyer’s Scotland Yard detectives, Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway.
‘The Inspector coughed. “Only perhaps I’d better just warn you, sir, that he’s got a tiresome habit of coming out with bits of the Bible. One of these blood-and-thunder merchants, if you know what I mean. You can’t break him of it. He gets moved by the spirit.”
“I daresay Hemingway will be able to deal with him,” said Hannasyde, rather amused.
“I knew I wasn’t going to like this case,” said Hemingway gloomily.
Half an hour later, having made a tour of the grounds of Greystones, inspected the footprints behind the flowering currant bush, and cast a jaundiced eye over P.C. Glass, he reiterated this statement.
“If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small,” said Glass reprovingly.
The Sergeant surveyed him with acute dislike. “If you get fresh with me, my lad, we’re going to fall out,” he said.
“The words are none of mine, but set down in Holy Writ, Sergeant, explained Glass.
“There’s a time and place for everything,” replied the Sergeant, “and this isn’t the place nor the time for the Holy Writ.”’

Because Heyer’s books are very easy to read, she is often underestimated as a writer, but her light touch often conceals her intrinsic skill. This is particularly evident when her well-born central characters are in contact with humbler village people, and is often achieved with such subtlety that the reader is unaware of the way in which their attitude to a character has been gently manipulated. In Behold, Here’s Poison (1936), frivolous, extravagant Stella Matthews urges her doctor fiancĂ© not to delay going on his rounds. ‘“If it’s Mrs Thomas from North End Cottages I do wish you’d go. She told Aunt Harriet that Minnie dreads having her leg dressed, and I must say I’m not surprised. I hate kids to be scared, don’t you? I used to be at the dentist’s, and he always kept me waiting, which made it worse.”’ In this one short speech, Heyer reveals that beneath her pose of sophisticated flippancy, Stella is a young woman with imagination and empathy.

George Bellairs started writing at the very end of the Golden Age but, even when he is writing after the Second World War, his books have the ambience and structure of books written before that time. His books feature Detective Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard and are classified as police procedurals, but they are also village mysteries in the classic form where a member of the village is murdered and secrets of the whole community have to be probed and sifted for the detective to discover the true motive. As so often happens in village mysteries, the victim, if not actually a blackmailer, will know far too much about the lives of the villagers and will have sealed their own fate. Like many other writers of village mysteries, Bellairs provides detailed descriptions of the physical features of the village as well as the inhabitants.

In Death of a Busybody (1942) Bellairs paints an idyllic picture of the village of Hilary Magna. ‘All around nature spread her rich cloak of autumn colour. Viewed from the vicar’s bedroom, the trees of his garden and the adjacent churchyard framed a magnificent view of the flat fields surrounding the ancient church with its square tower and crooked weathercock; the trim lawns around the old house; cattle standing mutely chewing in the field beyond the hedge; a few rabbits sporting among the laden apple trees in the orchard...’
However, not all the inhabitants of Hilary Magna are as benign as its scenery.
‘Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth”, as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for the domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against vice and sin with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her... Miss Tither was a campaigner, as well. Her weapon was her tongue, which she used like a pair of bellows, fanning a spark of a whisper into a consuming fire of chatter, a holocaust of pursuing flame.’

It is not surprising that, by the end of the first chapter, Miss Tither has come to a most unpleasant end and, when Littlejohn is called in to investigate, he discovers that he has to deal with a village full of people who are rejoicing that Miss Tither is dead.

Bellairs provides another excellent description of a traditional village in Murder of a Quack (1943), in which he also skilfully captures the curiosity of the villagers, as he illustrates how they know each other’s habits and are swiftly aware of any deviation in routine. ‘As the constable hurried heavily down the village street to his destination, heads bobbed over garden walls and hedges following his progress with inquisitive eyes. Women seeing the bobby pass, peeped round curtains or came to the doors of their cottages and then compared notes with their neighbours, for it was unusual to see Melalieu hurrying, especially at this time of the evening. The village main street was a secondary road, macadammed, with causeways of moss-grown cobblestones. Houses lined it, small dwellings for the most part, until eventually it widened into a small square, bordered by a few shops and several large, old houses, sedate and well preserved. There also stood the village inn, The Mortal Man, the doctor’s house, and the village hall. Behind the latter and well off the main thoroughfare, were the village green, the market-cross, the vicarage and finally the church.’

In Murder of a Quack the victim is Nathaniel Wall, a man in his seventies who is a ‘bonesetter’ and homeopath. Wall does have enemies, not least the local doctor, who resents his success as a healer, but, unlike the death of Miss Tither in Death of a Busybody (1942), there are fewer people that had an apparent motive to murder him. Nevertheless, Littlejohn still has to investigate the lives of people in the village to reach the truth.

Bellairs did not confine himself to descriptions of English villages. He was a Francophile and set several of his Littlejohn books in France. In Death in High Provence (1957) Littlejohn is travelling through France with his wife.
‘A compact village of medium size. The secondary road, fringed with trees, ran right through it, widened to hold a main street of about twenty houses, and then narrowed again. Another by-road crossed the main highway in the middle of the village. Thence a number of narrow alleys, like strands of a great spider’s web, radiated uphill on either side, and to these clung ancient cottages, roofed in old, golden, moss-covered tiles. They seemed to cling with precarious tenacity to the stony earth, huddled and lurching close together for protection. And one of the side lanes on the left suddenly broke away like a long thread, to climb uphill to an eyrie on which a citadel of ruined stone thrust itself skyward from the living rock. To the right, near the crossroads, a church with a squat ower hid in a thick mass of trees and beside it, a vicarage, badly in need of repair, like most of the other property in the place.’

The Littlejohns decide to spend the night at the modest village hotel. Despite the eagerness of the hotel owner to please her guests, throughout the village there is the lingering sadness of a country that has recently been occupied by a foreign power and devastated by war.
‘“You own this place?” Mrs Littlejohn was obviously charmed by the bright room, the old, well-polished furniture, the atmosphere of decency and cleanliness. The solitary round table was set ready for a meal, with a
snow-white cloth and glistening glasses.
“Yes... My husband died in the war. His name was Gaston Thomasini. I keep my maiden name because it goes with the business. They shot him as a hostage.”
She said it in a matter-of-fact tone, as though sorrow had grown bearable with the years and had been lived through.’
When violence occurs in the village, Littlejohn discovers that the villagers of St. Marcellin harbour many long-held, dark and deadly secrets and finds himself in sensitive and dangerous territory.

As well as France, Bellairs’ other love was the Isle of Man and it was here that he and his wife retired after he left his job as a bank manager. Bellairs wrote many books set on The Isle of Man but the village mystery is very different on this small island, where there is a whole community in tune with the inhabitants’ past history, despite the fact that many of the houses are quite solitary. ‘Here it was that the two valleys, East and West
Baldwin converged amid soft rolling hills, their feet lost in a rich mass of trees, their slopes covered in pines, heather and gorse, until their tops showed dark where only moss and blaeberries grew. They took the East
Baldwin fork, passed a cluster of cottages and a school, and then, driving through an avenue of beeches, came to the home of the Quantrells. It was known as a mansion, the Manx term for a large family house in the country.’
(Half-Mast for the Deemster, 1953.)

In his prolific and unassuming writing career, Bellairs wrote too many village mysteries to name them all in a short article. His narrative style, with short descriptions of characters and settings from an omnipotent but quite intimate viewpoint, was particularly suitable for these mysteries. One of his finest village mysteries is Outrage on Gallows Hill (1949) where the murder not only occurs in the village but is part of the village in every way. Something that is not always realised about Bellairs’ writing is the sly humour that he weaves throughout his work. This is evident in the opening chapter of Outrage on Gallows Hill, as he introduces the reader to the village.

‘The night of Tuesday, September 25th, 1945, was as black as pitch in the village of Ravelstone. The rural council, jealous of the beauty of the place, would have nothing to do with street lamps. Most of the houses had their curtains or blinds drawn and you could not see an inch before your nose.
Lovers who had not made a precise rendezvous were hunting about for one another like participants in a game of blind-man’s-buff... and many of them returned home very late and in an exhausted condition after fruitlessly prowling in the dark for hours.’

Bellairs leads the reader through the darkened village, past musical soirĂ©es, bell ringing practice and a particularly boring meeting of the Women’s Institute dominated by a stand-in speaker. The journey continues, touching lightly on the activities of many villagers, including Ronald Free, who is ecstatically happy because he has just persuaded the girl he adores to marry him. And then, as Ronald heads home translating French poetry to honour his love, Bellairs alters the mood, as swiftly and cruelly as violence often occurs in real life. ‘Laura never knew about the poem Free had translated and mangled in her honour. Death was upon him before he could recite another word to the darkness around. P.C. Costain stumbled over his body as it lay in the gutter. He had been garotted with a piece of binder twine.’

The village mystery genre fits comfortably with the classic detective story, whether featuring an amateur sleuth, private investigator or police detective. There are a remarkable number of books in the village mystery genre, far too many to consider all of them, but, in my opinion, if Agatha Christie is the putative Queen of the village mystery, Bellairs has an excellent claim to be regarded as its Crown Prince.

All of the books mentioned in this article are available, although the books by George Bellairs may only be available on Kindle or second-hand.

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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