by Carol Westron
There is some debate over where the Golden Age of Detective Fiction ends, with many people cutting it off at 1939 while others extend it to include the Second World War. Edwin and Mona Radford were a husband and wife writing team who, according to the first-time scale, do not belong to the Golden Age, as their first detective book was published towards the end of the war in 1944. However, in my opinion, the style of their books places their work in a far earlier period.
Edwin Isaac Radford was born in West Bromwich, London and gained an MA at Cambridge University. He spent his entire working life in journalism and held many editorial roles, the last and most prestigious of which was as Arts Editor-in-Chief and Columnist for the Daily Mirror in 1937. Edwin was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Author’s Club, and also of the Savage Club, a gentlemen-only club in London, which was popular with journalists.
Mona’s early life was more unconventional. She was the daughter of James Mangan, an Irish poet and actor, and his actress wife, Lily Johnson. Mona toured with her mother from the time she was a small child and, under the name Mona Magnet, became a stage performer at a young age. Later she became a leading lady in musical comedy and revues. She also wrote short plays and sketches for the stage, and verse, mainly for children. Edwin and Mona were already in their forties when they married in 1939.
In 1944 Edwin and Mona started their collaboration of detective story writing, which lasted until they were both in their eighties. They were also amateur artists, using both watercolours and oils. They enjoyed travelling and always spent the winter in warmer climates abroad. They spent their last few years living in Worthing, a West
Sussex seaside town.
Books & Bookmen in 1959, the Radfords became detective fiction writers by accident. Edwin was suffering from lumbago and Mona went out in unpleasant winter weather to the library to get some books to entertain him. She managed to get three Dr Thorndyke mysteries by R. Austin Freeman but when she trudged home, Edwin announced that he had already read all of them. Mona was so annoyed by his complaints that she presented him with a pad of paper and a pencil and told him to write a story of his own. Within a month, Edwin had completed six long short stories and, after Mona had helped to revise and edit them, submitted them to a leading publisher. They were informed that each story had enough material in it to make a full-length novel and adapted the first short story, Inspector Manson’s Success (1944), which was accepted for publication by Andrew Melrose Ltd, part of the Hutchinson group. The next Inspector Manson story, Murder Jigsaw was also published in 1944, and over the next twenty-eight years they published thirty-four novels featuring Doctor Harry Manson. Their output was a remarkably steady and between 1944 and 1950 they produced eight Manson books. This halted from 1950 to 1956, when Mona’s mother was in ill-health and living with the couple until she died in 1953.
The Radfords wrote in collaboration at most stages of the creative process, but the plot was usually developed by Mona and the deductions and scientific input tended to be Edwin’s, who described their creative partnership as: ‘She kills them off, and I find out how she done it.’
The early titles in the Manson series were produced under the regulations that met the War Economy Standards and none of them were very long. The readership these books were aimed at was indicated by the front cover dust wrapper, which showed Manson’s head superimposed against a black silhouette depicting Sherlock Holmes, with the title ‘a Manson Mystery.’
In these early books, a great deal of emphasis is placed on how the authors are providing the reader with all the clues to solve the mystery and they interspersed the description of the investigations with ‘Challenges to the Reader’, a device that now seems old-fashioned and rather irritating, as it takes the reader out of the narrative flow. As they claim, the authors play fair when it comes to supplying all the relevant clues. However, it ought to be said that they supply all the clues eventually. The fairness slips a little when a detective forgets to ask an obvious question or report a useful fact until it is convenient to the plot for the answer to be revealed, or even occasionally fails to notice a clue when it’s in plain sight. In fact, even with these convenient lapses of memory, because the authors are depending only on Doctor Manson’s scientific expertise, augmented by the occasional alibi, it is quite easy for the experienced crime fiction reader to spot the culprit. This could well have been one of the main reasons why R. Austin Freeman invented and so frequently used the ‘inverted’ detective story, an example that the Radfords might have been wise to follow. In the 1940s, Edwin Radford was also publishing non-fiction books, such as Crowther’s
Encyclopedia of Phrases and Origins (1945); To Coin a Phrase, Unusual Words and How They Came About (1946); and The Encyclopedia of Superstitions: An Improved System of Phrenology, Mesmerism, Trance and
Mind-Reading (1948), some of these were written in collaboration with his wife.
When the Radfords returned to producing detective books, the Melrose imprint had
ceased to exist and they moved to another Hutchinson company, John Long. In 1958 they moved to the publisher Robert Hale, whose main sales outlet was public libraries. Their first publications with Hale were non-series titles, The Six Men (1958) and Married to Murder (1959). The Six Men is particularly interesting as it is the novelisation of a 1951 detective film of the same name, which was based on an original story idea by the Radfords, and featured Superintendent Holroyd, who appears as Manson’s assistant in many of the Radfords’ later books.
Following this they returned to novels featuring Doctor Manson, all of which were published by Robert Hale. After 1959, only one novel by the Radfords did not feature Manson, although they did manage to squeeze into it the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, a regular in the Manson books. Death and the Professor (1961) features Professor Marcus Stubbs, who meets with other members of the Dilettantes’ Club to dine and discuss unsolved crimes. Professor Stubbs uses his skill in logic to solve the most apparently impossible of ‘locked room’ crimes. The device of a group of amateur detectives who gather together in a social way and solve crimes that have baffled the experts had been used almost thirty years before in Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (1932), and, twenty-five years earlier, in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1937).
It is for the Doctor Harry Manson novels that the Radfords are best remembered and he featured in thirty-five of their thirty-eight mystery novels. Manson is a man of many talents: a Doctor of Science, a Doctor of Laws, a Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and the author of several learned works on this subject and also on criminal pathology. When Manson is first introduced he is in his early fifties and holds a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge, two attributes that he shares with his creator, Edwin Radford. In the first novels, Manson is a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard and Head of its Crime Research Laboratory. The resemblance between Manson and Doctor John Thorndyke, the creation of R. Austin Freeman, is clear, and it is known that Edwin Radford was an avid reader of the Dr Thorndyke novels. However, Freeman wrote the Thorndyke novels between 1909 and 1942, and died a year before the Radfords published their first Manson book. There is often a old-fashioned feeling to the narrative and the relationships in the Radford books, but that may not matter when both Thorndyke and Manson were published a long time ago, and readers of Thorndyke and Manson accept, and even enjoy, their somewhat dated style.
In the preface to Inspector Manson’s Success (1944) the Radfords make a point of saying that they were deliberately moving the detective story back to police detectives and away from the amateur detective: ‘We have had the audacity – for which we make no apology – to present here the Almost Incredible: a detective story in which the scientific deduction by a police officer uncovers the crime and the criminal entirely without the aid,
ladies and gentlemen, of any outside assistance!’ This is an interesting assertion when Dr Thorndyke, who is clearly a major inspiration for Manson, was not a police detective, although he often worked in co-operation with the police. And Sherlock Holmes was a private investigator and an early scientific detective without equal. Moreover, the Golden Age boasted several notable police detectives, including Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, both of whom used any psychological, scientific and forensic tools available to them. One can only assume that the Radfords wished to place their emphasis on ‘scientific deduction.’
In the Manson novels there is a cast of recurring characters, all of whom are police officers connected with Scotland Yard. Sergeant Merry is also a science graduate and is the Deputy Lab Head; Superintendent Jones, ‘the fat man of the Yard’, who is there to provide a comic element, and Inspector Kenway, a contrast to Jones in every way. They all defer to Manson’s superior knowledge and abilities. In later books, Inspector Holroyd is Manson’s regular assistant. Manson and the Assistant Commissioner are good friends and on first name terms when not on duty.
In Murder Jigsaw (1944) there is a preface which gives a detailed description of Manson, who is described as over six foot tall but inclined to have a scholarly stoop. His appearance is described in detail, spending a lot of time on his hands. ‘The long, delicate fingers are exceedingly restless – twisting and turning on anything which lies handy to them. While he stands, chatting, they are liable to stray to a waistcoat pocket and emerge with a tiny, yet powerful, magnifying glass, or a two-inch micrometer rule, to occupy their energy.’ Manson’s face is described as, ‘rather on the long side, but is broad in the forehead, which is the only part of any face that matters! The grey eyes are wide-set, though lying deep in their sockets. They have a habit of just passing over a person on introduction; but when that person, after the greeting, chances to turn in the direction of the inspector, he is disconcerted to find that the eyes have returned to his face and are seemingly engaged on long and careful scrutiny. There is left the impression that one’s face is being photographed on the inspector’s mind.’ In the light of this description and the intrusion of the author’s voice in the remark, ‘which is the only part of any face that matters!’ it is interesting to recall that Edwin Radford was interested in phrenology, which is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as: ‘the study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character.’
Three early Manson novels have been republished by Dean Street Press: Murder Jigsaw (1944), Murder Isn’t Cricket (1946); Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947.) I enjoyed reading them, especially Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), which may be because I prefer reading about a show business setting than a fishing trip. Mona Radford had obviously drawn on her own youthful experiences in pantomime and this book is full of lively details and eccentric characters.
Unlike the work of many of the Golden Age authors that I re-read regularly, I would not necessarily wish to revisit the Manson novels. This is partly because I felt that the characters are stereotyped, each allotted their predestined role, and Manson is too much the infallible expert and too revered by his colleagues. However the main reason I would not read them again is that none of the detectives seem to have a personal life. Or, to be accurate, in the three books that I have read, their personal life is confined to gentlemen’s clubs and the occasional fishing trip. I am not a reader who needs to mingle romance and crime, but I found it strange that a series of novels co-authored by a woman and written after the rich tapestry of Golden Age fiction should have no relationships or domestic background, especially when authors such as George Bellairs, who was writing at an almost contemporary time to the Radfords, provides his police detectives with a warm but not intrusive domestic background and interesting psychological insights as well.
The Radfords’ Doctor Manson novels were well received when they were first published and received some encouraging reviews: ‘If these Radfords can keep writing thrillers of this class, they are going to take their rightful place very near the top’ (Liverpool Evening Express.) The Radfords never reached that eminence that review predicts but they did continue writing and publishing readable detective stories for almost thirty years and their books offer an interesting insight into the development of scientific fictional detection after Doctor Thorndyke and Sherlock Holmes.
Three of the Doctor Manson novels have been recently republished by Dean Street Press.
ISBN: 978-1912574711. ASIN: B07MTN5SR9
Murder Isn’t Cricket
Published by Dean Street Press.
ISBN: 978-1912574735. ASIN: B07MTP363J
Who Killed Dick Whittington?
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1912574759.
Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary
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
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.