Early Detectives– Forgotten, Remembered,
or Made different
Part 4: Detective Inspector Robert MacDonald, Bobby Owen,
Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
by Carol Westron
In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this exploration of the fate of early detectives, all of which were popular and widely read in the Golden Age, we considered Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Thorndyke, Father Brown, Detective Inspectors Furnival & Stoddard, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector French, Roger Sheringham, Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Simon Templar, Albert Campion and Alan Grant. In this section we will look at three more Golden Age detectives, all well-known in their time, and assess whether their fame has endured.
Robert MacDonald (1931-1958) by E.C.R. Lorac
E.C.R. Lorac was the main pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who was known to her family and friends as Carol and, as is obvious, used an anagram of her name as her pseudonym. Lorac was an author that avoided publicity and little is known about her life until 1931, when at the age of thirty-seven she published her first crime novel, The Murder on the Burrows. This book introduced Chief Inspector Macdonald, a Scotland Yard detective, who featured as the Senior Investigating Officer in forty-nine books, which ended with Lorac’s death in 1958. Macdonald’s first name is very rarely used, so much so that it seems even his author forgot what it was; in his debut in The Murder on the Burrows it is given as James, but in later books he becomes Robert.
Macdonald is a Scot and, although he lives in London, he is fond of the countryside and country walks,
preferring the starker scenery of the North of England to the lusher vegetation of Devon. He is a bachelor with very little personal life. His investigations take him to major cities and rural areas, but because Lorac always spends some time introducing the stand-alone characters and setting up the crime, MacDonald usually doesn’t appear until the story is well underway and often has to deal with a community that has drawn together to keep its secrets. This isevident in one of the finest and most atmospheric of
Lorac’s novels were out of print for many years but are now being republished by the British Library, which means that MacDonald is again in the public eye. Lorac is a superb writer, who received glowing reviews from critics as eminent as Dorothy L. Sayers, and MacDonald is a very worthy, clever detective, but it seems possible that he lacks the power to capture the imagination and interest that other, more lively and eccentric Golden Age Detectives possess. This may be because his private life and interests never intrude into the investigation, which gives readers who are used to the idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities of Poirot, Wimsey or Campion little to engage with.
However, this is obviously a matter of personal preference and many warmer, more fully rounded fictional detectives have also disappeared from the public consciousness, such as the detective who first appeared a year later, and whom we will consider next.
Bobby Owen (1933-1956) by E.R. Punshon
E.R. Punshon had enjoyed a life of travel and adventure and had already written several books, including five police procedurals, when he became ‘an overnight success’ at the age of sixty with the publication of the first book featuring Bobby Owen, Information Received (1933), which received a superb review from Dorothy L. Sayers, which is still quoted at the start of republications of Punshon’s books. (‘What is distinction?... in the works of Mr, E.R. Punshon we salute it every time.’).
It is hard to assign a rank to Bobby Owen because, in the thirty-five books featuring him, his career moves from constable on the beat to Commander at Scotland Yard. In Information Received (1933) he is a constable in the Metropolitan Police and is beginning to wonder if he would have been better suited to joining the army 'even though an army in peace time had always seemed to him the last word in futility.' Bobby is well born and well educated but unfortunately he lacked the academic distinction achieved by Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn and, when he left Oxford University, he discovered that he inhabited 'a world with but scanty openings to offer young university graduates with only pass degrees.' One of the reasons that Bobby has failed to advance his police career is his distaste for night clubs. One of the main duties assigned to young, well-born, university educated police officers is to go undercover at night clubs and 'wear evening dress as though midnight had never seen them in any other attire, and who are perfectly prepared to spend a fiver of their country's money on bad champagne and worse whisky.' Having gained the reputation of being 'difficult', Bobby has been posted to walking a beat in Hampstead where all serious crime and excitement has passed him by: 'stifling a yawn, Bobby Owen reflected that a policeman's lot, whether happy or not, was at any rate sufficiently dull. During the three years he had spent in the force his most exciting experiences had been escorting old ladies across the road and satisfying the insatiable thirst of children for the right time.' However, that is about to change, with the murder of the wealthy, powerful and ruthless Sir Christopher Clarke.
'As for brains, well, I'm not saying Owen has any more than the usual ration, and it's just as well. Too many brains is a fatal thing for any man in any line of life,
although, the Lord be praised, few suffer from it. But Owen has got a kind of natural-born knack of being on the spot when he's wanted.' (Death Among the Sunbathers, 1934.) Fortunately for Bobby, Mitchell is not prejudiced against the new breed of university educated policemen, although he feels that they have disadvantages: 'education just naturally chokes initiative. He's 'Varsity and public school, you know, and you can't expect to have an education like that and initiative as well.' (Death Among the Sunbathers, 1934.) Despite the advantages of his birth and education, Bobby has to earn his own living and work his way up the ranks, and the reader meets him at the start of his journey when he is very far from being the man in charge of the case. He is described as good-looking, with an innocent face and curly hair that he does his best to smooth down. He also has a humorously disingenuous way of looking at things. When he is promoted to Detective Sergeant his significant act of celebration is to buy himself a new umbrella and is annoyed when it begins to rain 'because it might necessitate unrolling the beautifully neat, gold-mounted, brand-new, silk umbrella he had treated himself to that very day, for he knew that a plain-clothes CID man should always make a good impression, and he understood well how universally a man is judged by the umbrella he carries.' (Mystery Villa, 1934.)
Death Among the Sunbathers, Bobby is far less visible and a lot of the story revolves around the point of view of the criminals. Death Comes to Cambers (1935) has much in common with a country house murder mystery when Bobby has to investigate the murder of his aristocratic hostess, who is an old friend of his grandmother, Lady Hirlpool. As he is seconded to help the local police, he is unaided by Mitchell and hampered by an arrogant and stupid chief constable. Other books in the series have a fantasy/dark fairytale aspect, as in Diabolic Candelabra (1942), where Bobby ventures into a wood in search of a woman who makes very special chocolates and discovers a strange mix of characters, including a girl with a pet squirrel, and a murder scene although there is no dead body. This book, like several others in the series, involves Bobby in art investigations, in this case missing El Greco paintings.
Bobby’s personal life is an important feature in the books, especially his relationship with his wife Olive. Like many other Golden Age detectives whose wives feature prominently in their subsequent adventures, Bobby first meets, Olive when she is a suspect in a murder enquiry (Dictator’s Way, 1938). Olive is a strong and determined woman, a businesswoman with her own hat shop, and a political activist who is courageous and determined even under fire. Indeed Bobby first declares his love during a battle at sea, with the enemy closing in on them. Although, after their marriage, Olive’s role is often purely domestic, Bobby discusses his cases with her and occasionally she becomes more actively involved. The dialogue between Bobby and Olive is often crisp and funny, as in this discussion of wartime rationing:
Olive... said, “That’s the week’s meat ration I got today. Will you have it all now, or shall we leave some for
“Let us eat today and be merry,” Bobby answered, “for tomorrow there may be fish.”
“Dreamer,” said Olive.
“Well, anyhow,” Bobby said, “today is here and now, and let tomorrow take care of itself.”
So he spoke, but what he really meant in his carefree, masculine way was that not itself but the woman should look after it. However, on second thoughts he left enough on the dish for the next day. (Night’s Cloak, 1944.)
Bobby Owen has many of the Golden Age requirements for success: he has upper-class birth and education and good looks, he is well-read and cultured, a lover of art and an amateur artist in his own right. However, when he first appeared he was not without his critics: many people felt that a protagonist who had been too young for the First World War had insufficient angst to be a great detective hero; some complained of the lowliness of his rank at the start of the series; others complained that the diminutive ‘Bobby’ was too juvenile. In short, many people felt that he did not have sufficient gravitas.
The Bobby Owen novels were very popular for many years and then went out of fashion and subsequently went out of print. It is hard to know why they fell out of favour, the writing is excellent, the protagonist is likeable, and the social and political observations are fascinating. However, it must be admitted that the plots are sometimes rather predictable, with extra subplots, which require a lot of attention to unravel, and this makes the books a long read compared to many other Golden Age books. Fortunately, the Bobby Owen books have been reprinted by Dean Street Press and are available in both Kindle and paperback.
Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn (1934-1982) by Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh is the last of the Queens of Golden Age Detective Fiction to present her detective to the world. A great many of the novels featuring him were published after the Golden Age had officially ended, but nevertheless Alleyn is a quintessential Golden Age Detective. He featured in thirty-three detective novels, starting with A Man Lay Dead (1934), which is a classic country house mystery, and ending with Light Thickens (1982), which returns to one of Marsh’s favourite settings, the theatre, and two of her favourite themes, Shakespeare and superstitions, in this case those that surround The Scottish Play, Macbeth.
Roderick Alleyn has many features in common with Peter Wimsey: he is the younger son of an aristocratic family, his father is dead and his older brother has inherited the title and estates; his mother regards him as far more intelligent than his older brother and he appears to be her favourite. Like Wimsey, he graduated from Oxford University and served in the First World War, although without such devastating effects on his mental health. Again like Wimsey, he spent a short time working for the British Foreign Service. Although not as wealthy as Wimsey, Alleyn is well provided for and has sufficient money to indulge his cultural interests in art and the theatre, and is also fond of using quotations, in Alleyn’s case usually Shakespeare. The main difference is that Wimsey is an amateur detective, Alleyn is a Chief Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, who rises higher in rank over the years until he becomes a Chief Superintendent.Alleyn’s physical appearance is often described, especially in the earlier novels: ‘an extremely tall man, thin and wearing good clothes with an air of vague distinction … a grandee turned monk, but retaining some amusing memories’ (Overture to Death, 1939). He is so good-looking that the Press have given him the nickname ‘Handsome Alleyn’, which is not an image that he appreciates. In the first novel featuring Alleyn, A Man Lay Dead (1934), Alleyn meets Nigel Bathgate, a young reporter who, in later novels, likes to describe himself as Alleyn's 'Watson.' Although Alleyn is accompanied by a couple of junior detectives, he allows Bathgate a surprising amount of involvement in the case, especially considering that Bathgate is the victim’s cousin and heir. This gives this introductory novel a rather more amateurish ambience than later books, where Alleyn is in charge of his usual police team, Detective Inspector Fox and Detective Sergeants Bailey and Thompson. Although Bathgate appears in several earlier novels, he is phased out and his place as a civilian that Alleyn confides in is taken, when that role is needed, by Alleyn’s wife, Troy.
Enter a Murderer (1935), his second-in-command is Inspector Fox, a solid and reliable officer, whom Alleyn often refers to as Br’er Fox, from the Uncle Remus folk-tales. Despite this affectionate teasing,
Alleyn holds Fox in great affection and respect, as is obvious when Fox is poisoned in Death at the Bar (1940). Alleyn and Fox are used to working together as a team and Fox is is capable of a subtlety that is surprising in a man of his large, stolid appearance. ‘Mr Fox, using a technique that Alleyn was in the habit of alluding to as his disappearing act, had contrived to make his large person unobservable. He had moved as far away from Alleyn as possible and to a chair behind Dr Schramm. Here he palmed a notebook and his palm was vast. He used a stub of pencil and kept his work on his knee and his eyes respectfully on nothing in particular. Alleyn and Fox made a point of not looking at each other but at this juncture he felt sure Fox contemplated him, probably with that air of bland approval that generally meant they were both thinking the same thing.’ (Grave Mistake, 1978)
(1938) is the sixth book featuring Alleyn and the opening chapter relates how Alleyn first meets Agatha Troy when they are both on board ship.
‘“Damn!” said a female voice. “Damn, damn, damn! Oh blast!”
Startled, Alleyn looked up. Sitting on the canvas cover of one of the boats was a woman. She seemed to be dabbing at something. She stood up and he saw that she wore a pair of exceedingly grubby flannel trousers and a short grey overall. In her hand was a long brush. Her face was disfigured by a smudge of green paint, and her short hair stood up in a worried shock, as though she had run her hands through it. She was very thin and dark.’
Troy is a successful artist and Alleyn loves her within moments of meeting her:
‘The light breeze whipped back her short dark hair, revealing the contours of the skull and the delicate bones of the face. The temples were slightly hollow, and the cheek-bones showed, the dark-blue eyes were deep-set under the thin ridge of the brows. The sun caught the olive skin with its smudge of green paint, and gave it warmth. There was a kind of spare gallantry about her. She turned quickly before he had time to look away and their gaze met.
Alleyn was immediately conscious of a clarification of his emotions … It was as though he had thought of her a great deal, but had never met her before...’
Troy’s response to Alleyn takes longer and their relationship is complicated when, back in England, a murder occurs in Troy’s studio and she and the artists she is mentoring are all suspects. Although Troy refuses his proposal of marriage at the end of Artists In Crime, she does not stand out against him for long and they marry at the end of Marsh's next book, Death In a White Tie, also written in 1938. Troy and Alleyn have one son and remain happily married for the rest of the series. Troy appears in many of the subsequent books and sometimes, as in A Clutch of Constables (1968), she has a very prominent role in the story. Their son, Ricky, also appears in a few of the novels, mainly as a child but also as a young man in Last Ditch (1977).
Because of Alleyn’s position in society, the cases he is given are usually those involving the well-born and powerful, or, at least, these are the ones Marsh chooses to chronicle. This means that Alleyn often has an acquaintanceship or friendship with many of the suspects and victims, which gives him a personal stake in the enquiry; especially as Troy’s artistic career seems to lead her into more involvement with crime than is customary, as in Final Curtain (1947) and Clutch of Constables (1968). Most of the Alleyn murder mysteries are set in England, often in a traditional country house setting such as the initial novel A Man Lay Dead (1934), and Tied Up in Tinsel (1972). Others are in Marsh’s favourite theatrical setting, such as Enter A Murderer (1935); Death at the Dolphin (1967) and Light Thickens (1982). However, Alleyn is also thrown into investigations in other countries, such as the superb When In Rome (1970) where the crimes occur in the splendidly evocative setting of a Basilica. Marsh keeps her links to New Zealand and, during the Second World War, Alleyn is seconded there on a mission to combat counter-espionage but ends up also investigating murder in both Colour Scheme (1943) and the fascinating cold case investigation Died in the Wool (1945.)
The most common way for detectives to remain in the public consciousness is through radio and television and
A four-story BBC radio adaptation was made between 2001-2006, starring Jeremy Clyde. The most recent television adaptations were in 1993-94 and starred Patrick Malahide, and these still turn up occasionally on UK Freeview television and are available on DVD. The adaptations featuring Malahide chose to alter certain aspects of the characters’ dynamics, most notably by extending Alleyn’s relationship with Troy into a long drawn-out and quite often pettish courtship, as well as trespassing on Wimsey territory by showing Alleyn as traumatised by his service in the First World War. It is interesting to consider whether an author would prefer her creation to be remembered by a larger audience but in a distorted form, rather than as she created him. Although Alleyn has survived in the public consciousness better than detectives of the same period because of the television and radio
adaptations, it is possible that he is mainly remembered by those who enjoy the Ngaio Marsh books, which are still available in paperback and on Kindle.
Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. 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 This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.