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Wednesday 8 June 2022

The Golden Age: Were are they now? Early Detectives - Forgotten – Remembered or Made Different

 Part 6: Thomas LittleJohn; Gervase Fen.
by  Carol Westron

In Parts 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 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, Alan Grant, Robert Macdonald, Bobby Owen, Roderick Alleyn, Hannasyde & Hemingway, and Sir John Appleby. All of these detectives were well-known and widely read in their time, although only a few of them have achieved fame that has endured  into the 21st Century.

It is usually accepted that the Golden Age of Detective Fiction runs between the interwar years, roughly 1920 to 1939. However, in this final article, we will consider two detectives who just miss this time frame because they were first published during the Second World War. In their very different ways, both of these detectives embody many of the characteristics of the Golden Age, one the solid, hard-working Scotland Yard detective, the other the eccentric but brilliant amateur.

Detective Inspector (later Superintendent) Thomas Littlejohn (1941-1982) by
George Bellairs
Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn first appeared in Littlejohn on Leave in 1941. He is a Scotland Yard detective who, in the course of over fifty books, moves steadily up the promotion ladder to become a Superintendent. Littlejohn is not a showy detective who glories in his eccentricities, on the contrary he is steady, reliable and hard-working. He is a large, strong man, happily married to Letty, an attractive and intelligent woman, who is consistently supportive of her husband and his career. Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of Littlejohn’s character is that when he is away from home, he makes a habit of phoning Letty, both to check that she is all right and because talking to her provides comfort and stability in his life. The Littlejohns have a much loved dog, Meg. They have no children but, in one book it is mentioned that they had a daughter who died while still a child. One objectionable witness boasts that he knows about Littlejohn’s background and provides a lot of background information about the Inspector: ‘“You’re fifty, live in Hampstead, near the Heath, married, no children, born near the Lakes, in Lancashire, educated local grammar school and Manchester Police Force...”’
(Death in Dark Glasses, 1952)

For a Scotland Yard detective Littlejohn investigates remarkably few cases in London. He is frequently sent to investigate country crimes, often in the north of England, the area in which Littlejohn is reported to have been born and brought up (as was the case for his creator, Bellairs). Littlejohn usually has a good working relationship with his colleagues and, although Littlejohn sometimes encounters jealousy and obstruction from the local police officers when Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, more often than not they are intelligent, co-operative and welcome his help. Also, many of the simple, village constables that Littlejohn meets are portrayed as honest, hard-working and intelligent within their own sphere, although they know little of the wider world.

Littlejohn is usually accompanied by his colleague and friend Sergeant Cromwell, who later becomes an Inspector. Cromwell is an amusing, quirky character, with an interest in Health Foods and dietary supplements, who has, on occasion, disturbed the other residents of the hotel in which they are staying with the crashes of his weight training. Even when travelling on an over-night sleeper train he does not miss out on his morning exercises: ‘Littlejohn... tapped on the communicating door to the next compartment and thrust in his head. Cromwell was on the floor, his body raised on hands and tiptoes, performing with difficulty in the narrow space, his morning exercises.’ (Death Drops the Pilot, 1955.) Nor will he miss out on the patent health food that he always carries with him when leaving London. At the start of the series Cromwell is a bachelor but, in due course, he marries and becomes an attentive husband and doting father.

Littlejohn and Cromwell work well together and share a mutual respect and Cromwell’s admiration for his senior is very obvious. Occasionally, Cromwell will accompany Littlejohn on his investigations in France and Cromwell’s bemusement at the strange ways of his foreign counterparts and his amazement at Littlejohn’s more cosmopolitan attitude adds freshness and humour to the descriptions of the characters of both officers.

Littlejohn is a quiet, professional man, who is adamant that he is no Sherlock Holmes, He does not creep around in disguise, nor does he deduce the identity of the murderer from a tiny physical clue. This sometimes disappoints those who do not know his methods. ‘Mr Walker looked disappointed. Sherlock Holmes would have had it in a crack. Probably gone off and arrested the murderer right off. This chap, however...’ (The Case of the Demented Spiv 1949)

Although Littlejohn would deny that his methods were ‘psychological’ he cannot solve a case until he feels confident he knows all the people involved and their backgrounds. In fact, in Death In Room Five (1952), which involves a crime concerning a party of English tourists in Nice, Littlejohn cannot get to grips with the case until he has travelled to the tourists’ home town and probed into their backgrounds.

Littlejohn’s clearest explanation of his methods is given to his good friend the Reverend Caesar Kinrade, Archdeacon of Man, in The Cursing Stones Murder (1954.)

‘“I’m not Sherlock Holmes, an intellectual detective, who sits in an armchair and solves his cases. Neither am I a scientific one, hunting for clues, fingerprints, cracking alibis. I’ve always depended on my simple knowledge of human nature. I’ve tried to get background, the feel of cases, to soak myself in the environment of crimes and those who commit them. I’ve grown to depend on the solution coming almost instinctively, or subconsciously, after I’ve got to know all the parties and their homes and their circumstances in a case. Now... If *** has done this, I shall lose confidence in myself. I shall lose, so to speak, the password which has opened so many doors. Better pack up when that happens...”’

As well as investigating a large number of cases set in England and several set in France, Littlejohn also frequently visits the Isle of Man and clearly loves the island, its culture, legends, and people, although he sometimes struggles to overcome the different, more lackadaisical, attitude to time that the islanders express.

 Littlejohn is, on the whole, a civilised and decent policeman. He tends to make snap judgements based on appearance and intuition and, although often right, he is honest enough to admit his error when he reads somebody wrong. He is usually kind and considerate to the vulnerable, no matter what their class, however, he is far from perfect and, on more than one occasion, mirrors the society and police force of his time by bending the rules and manhandling and even assaulting suspects.

The Littlejohn stories enjoyed early success in Britain and the United States, however they have never been dramatised for film, television or radio and, after a while, Littlejohn lost popularity and he has been forgotten by the general public. However, recently, many books featuring Littlejohn are being republished both in paperback and Kindle.

 Gervase Fen (1944-1953) by
Edmund Crispin
I AM AT TOLNBRIDGE STAYING AT THE CLERGY HOUSE... COME AND PLAY THE CATHEDRAL SERVICES ALL THE ORGANISTS HAVE BEEN SHOT UP DISMAL BUSINESS THE MUSIC WASN'T AS BAD AS ALL THAT EITHER... BRING ME A BUTTERFLY NET I NEED ONE.' This callously cheerful telegram, sent near the beginning of Holy Disorders (1945), encapsulates the quirky humour of Gervase Fen and the investigations he takes part in. Only Fen would demand that a friend should undertake the dangers of travel in the midst of the Second World War to assist with a potentially perilous situation, let alone struggle through the overcrowded, disrupted rail system, burdened with a most inconvenient extra piece of luggage.

There can be no greater contrast to Littlejohn, and most of the other hard working, professional detectives of the Golden Age, than the inimitable amateur detective, Gervase Fen, professor of English at St Christopher's College, Oxford. In The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) we are first introduced to Gervase Fen as the train he is travelling on is delayed just outside Oxford: 'At no time a patient man, the delays drove him to distraction. He coughed and groaned and yawned and shuffled his feet and agitated his long, lanky body about in the corner where he sat. His cheerful, ruddy, clean-shaven face grew even ruddier than usual; his dark hair, sedulously plastered down with water, broke out into disaffected fragments towards the crown.' A few years later, his  physical appearance has changed very little but we are given more information about his unconventional taste in clothes: 'His face was cheerful, ruddy and clean-shaven, with shrewd and humorous ice-blue eyes, and he had on a grey suit, a green tie embellished with mermaids, and an extraordinary hat.' (Love Lies Bleeding, 1948.)

The most attractive description of Fen is in Buried For Pleasure (1948) when a young woman, meeting him for the first time, sees him as 'a tall, lean man with a ruddy, cheerful, clean-shaven face and brown hair which stood up mutinously in spikes at the crown of his head. In particular, she liked his eyes; they showed charity and understanding as well as a taste for mischief.'

Fen is in his early forties, a man of great academic distinction, boundless energy and insatiable curiosity about all manner of things. His passion is for detecting crime, just as the favourite hobby of his friend, Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable of Oxford, is English literature. Like many of his amateur detective predecessors, Fen is clever, vain and boastful. It is typical of him that he makes a lot of fuss about an insect sting on his finger but when he is in real danger he is courageous, as when he is tied up and at the mercy of an enemy agent who: 'stepped forward and kicked Fen in the face.

After a minute: “That hurt,” said Fen mildly, “and you've knocked out one of my teeth.” He spat it on to the floor. “Why do you conspire against your country?”' (Holy Disorders, 1945.)

It seems probable that he learned this stoicism while serving in the First World War, and he has also learned to react with speed when threatened, as when a villain tries to shoot at him and his companion, 'Fen, who had fought in the Great War, fell flat on his face, with well-drilled precision. Geoffrey, who had not, remained immobile, gaping in frank  stupefaction.' (Holy Disorders, 1945.)

Fen is abrasive and often offensive, but he is also courageous and honourable, as when Fen and the young woman he is attempting to rescue are being stalked by by an enemy who intends to kill them and is holding a gun on them: '… it was held in a very steady hand – the shadows which it threw were motionless, with the sharp, unreal contours of shadows in a stage set. Of the figure behind it nothing could be seen except the slim, well-cared-for hand which held the revolver. Fen checked the instinct to flight, swiftly turning his back on the light to shield Brenda with his body. Futile enough, he knew; one bullet for him, one for her, and so an end.' (Love Lies Bleeding, 1948.)

Despite his undoubted courage, Fen never aspires to be a romantic hero. He is married to 'a plain, spectacled, sensible little woman, incongruously called Dolly' (The Case of the Gilded Fly 1944), who is not in the least
perturbed by much of Fen's behaviour, although she is not in favour of Fen’s occasional scientific experiments in the attic, which cause the rest of his household to cower in the basement for fear of explosions. In her very
occasional appearances, Dolly Fen demonstrates intelligence and resilience and Fen’s marriage to her is one of the most attractive things about his personal life. Fen's marriage is a happy, placid affair, which allows him to be on easy terms with attractive young women without being tempted to take the matter any further.
'She wore a light dress of plain black, with white collar and cuffs, which modelled her figure to perfection. Even Fen, who being comfortably married, had some time ago, more from a sense of wasted effort than from any moral scruples, given up looking at girls' figures, was manifestly impressed.' (Holy Disorders, 1945.)

Although Fen is sometimes pictured playing with his children, he is far from a perfect parent and when he feels the case he is working on has become becalmed, 'he went home and spent the remainder of the day eating, sleeping, reading, vilifying his children and practising desultorily on the French horn.' (Frequent Hearses, 1950.)

The character that shares more of Fen's adventures than any other is his small, red sports car, Lily Christine III; a vehicle as eccentric and egocentric as Fen is himself. Lily Christine is an invaluable ally in the numerous comic chases that are scattered throughout Fen's adventures and can always be relied upon to help him to make an entrance that cannot be ignored.  

'A red object shot down the Woodstock Road.  It was an extremely small, vociferous and battered sports car. Across its bonnet were scrawled in large white    letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III. A steatopygic nude in chromium leaned forward at a dangerous angle from the radiator cap.'

Having turned into the private road leading to St Christopher's and narrowly missed demolishing the college buildings and the President, who had been standing looking out of his window, the car traversed the college grounds and, 'thundered across a strip of lawn, buried its nose in a large rhododendron bush, choked, stalled, and stopped. Its driver got out and gazed at it with some severity. While he was doing this it backfired suddenly – a tremendous report, a backfire to end all backfires. He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside. Then he closed the bonnet again and resumed his seat. The engine started and the car went into reverse with a colossal jolt and began racing backwards towards the President's Lodging. The President, who had returned to the window and was gazing at this scene with a horrid fascination, retired again, with scarcely less haste than before. The driver looked over his shoulder and saw the President's Lodging towering above him, like a liner above a motor boat. Without hesitation, he changed into forward gear. The car uttered a terrible shriek, shuddered like a man smitten with the ague , and stopped; after a moment it emitted its inexplicable, valedictory backfire.' (The Moving Toyshop, 1946).

Fen's speech is frequently as eccentric as his manner. His favourite exclamation is, '”Oh my dear paws!”' quoting the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. In keeping with his liking for Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy, the pervading feeling of the fantastic runs through Fen's character and actions, as when let loose in a murdered opera singer's dressing room. '

Fen had been standing in front of the mirror, painting a large black moustache on his face. He now turned and exhibited the result.' And, a little later, '”This becomes interesting,” said Fen. He had applied removing cream to his upper lip, and now looked as if he had been eating blancmange.' And yet, a few moments later, 'Fen had stopped fidgeting, and was sitting on the edge of the dressing-table, his blue eyes intent, his usual fantastic naivety for the moment in abeyance.' (Swan Song, 1947.)

Fen is a highly intelligent man and this enables him to solve the mysteries that come his way. This restless intelligence causes him to explore many avenues to alleviate boredom, including the unwise step of standing for Parliament, unsurprisingly as an Independent candidate (Buried For Pleasure, 1948). As might be expected, he is a persuasive and fluent speaker, and, to his horror, just as he realises how much he would hate being an MP, he becomes the most popular candidate. In an attempt to avoid this fate, Fen makes a final speech to the electorate that still resounds magnificently as a commentary on populist politics: 'Fen got to his feet and stood for a moment surveying the rows of politely expectant faces below him with a satisfaction that he had not experienced in his whole lifetime. And the survey completed, the banquet of consternation savoured in anticipation, he removed the safety pin of his grenade. “It is often asserted,” he said, “that the English are unique amongst the nations for their good sense in political matters. In actual fact, however, the English have no more political good sense than so many polar bears. This I have proved in my own person. For some days past I have been regaling this electorate with projects and ideas so incomparably idiotic as to be, I flatter myself, something of a tour de force.”... “Such dreary fallacies as these, expounded by myself, have been swallowed hook, line and sinker.”

Despite, or perhaps because of this diatribe, Fen is elected and is only saved from the ultimate horror of serving at Westminster by his agent’s incompetence, Gervase Fen featured in nine novels and two books of short stories. None of his books have been recorded for film, television or radio, although The Moving Toyshop (1946) is said to have inspired the Doctor Who novel The Well Mannered War (1997) by Gareth Roberts. Christopher Fowler also pays homage to  The Moving Toyshop in his novel The Victoria Vanishes (2010). Although Fen is not remembered as widely as he deserves to be, all of the novels and short story collections are available as paperbacks 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 6 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

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