Marital and Domestic Abuse in
Golden Age Crime Fiction.
by Carol Westron
However, several Golden Age authors, including those who wrote the traditional Whodunnit, used the medium to explore psychologically based detection, including the use of coercive power and isolation within a domestic setting, and ‘gaslighting’ or other forms of physical or emotional bullying.
wrote under many pseudonyms but predominantly as Anthony Berkeley and later as Francis Iles. As Anthony Berkeley, between 1925-1934, he wrote 10 novels featuring Roger Sheringham, who, as Martin Edwards observes, ‘bears an uncanny resemblance to his creator. The son of a doctor, from whom he has inherited a love of puzzles, he is educated at public school and Oxford before military service. He writes successful novels and also for the newspapers.’’ (The Golden Age of Murder 2015)
Jumping Jenny (1933) where an irritating wife has been brutally murdered: ‘It was a fact, if a regrettable one, that Mrs Ena Stratton meant nothing at all to him as a person dead or alive. It was no less a fact that as a human being she had herself thrown away any sympathy in her fate; more she had pulled that fate upon her with both hands. Roger could not feel any drivings of conscience to help the police towards avenging her.’
‘tried to write what might be described as a psychological detective tory.’ Curtis Evans counters these claims in Sophisticated Murder, (Mystery File blog, March 2011) in which he states: ‘Moreover, although Roger (and Cox) love to prate about psychology, the “psychological” solution of the four murders in Silk Stocking is laboured and unconvincing, an indication that, despite all the talk, Roger and his creator are mere dabblers in the psychological arts, often shamelessly winging it when it comes to expository solutions of crimes... With this surfeit of muddled motivations on the part of one mad murderer, the brilliant clarity of Agatha Christie’s solution to a series of killings in The ABC Murders is utterly lacking in The Silk Stocking Murders.’
In 1931 Berkeley adopted a new pseudonym, Francis Iles and for the first time achieved the psychological crime novels that had always been his ambition.
owes a great deal to the author’s interest in real-life crime. It is an inverted novel, which follows the killer from the conception of the crime. In Malice Aforethought, quiet little Dr Bickerleigh murders his wife by dosing her with a chemical that causes severe headaches, this causes her to take opium for relief and it is easy for this to result in an ‘accidental’ overdose. As in this author’s earlier detective novels, it is regarded as completely appropriate for an inconvenient wife to be murdered.
In Before the Fact (1932) the novel follows the viewpoint of Lina, a lonely, young woman who marries Johnnie Aysgarth. The book follows the ten years of their marriage, during which she discovers that Johnnie is a thief, embezzler, forger and adulterer, and is responsible for two deaths that enriched him, one of which was of Lina’s father. Now he plans to kill Lina for her money, using the expertise of crime writer, Isobel Sedbusk, who claims to know of a chemical that is tasteless and kills instantly. The novel follows Lina’s thought processes as she realises her husband is going to kill her and, even though she is pregnant, she acts the part of ‘a born victim’ as she accepts her fate and the poisoned milk he hands her.
Alfred Hitchcock used the book as the basis for his 1941 psychological thriller Suspicion. However Hitchcock changed the whole slant of the narrative and altered the ending. It is unclear whether this was because the film studio did not wish their star, Cary Grant, to play a vicious psychopath or whether Hitchcock was wedded to his vision of a film about a disturbed woman’s fantasy. Whatever the reason, the original book is darker and more disturbing than the film.
More than one female author has turned the tables regarding murder victims. In the first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and Georgette Heyer’s early detective story The Unfinished Clue (1934)
domestic abuse by the husband provides a motive for murder. Both victims are retired military men, both are once divorced, and both bully their much younger second wives, their children and their acquaintances. Their families do not regret their deaths, but unlike Berkeley’s books, their murders are not condoned.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story, The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey (1933) a doctor encountered a young girl and recognised the symptoms of thyroid deficiency, he medicated her, educated her and married her, when she was seventeen and he was forty. (An advantage in age, experience and social status is a frequent factor in marital and domestic abuse.) Soon, the husband became consumed by bitter jealousy and carried his wife away to a remote Basque region and kept her isolated there. He then withdrew her thyroid medication, so that he could have the satisfaction of ‘seeing her skin thicken, her body coarsen, her hair fall out, her eyes grow vacant, her speech die away into mere animal noises, her brain go to mush...’ To add a final touch of evil, ‘every so often, he would feed her the thyroid again and bring her back sufficiently to realise her own degradation.’ He would then remove the medicine again.
The local peasants believe she is suffering from a black magic curse and Peter Wimsey poses as a magician to counter this. The description of marital abuse is agonisingly cruel but Sayers appears to have had rather too much fun writing Wimsey’s theatrical antics, which dilutes the intrinsic horror of the abuse.Apart from this short story, Sayers’ interest in psychology doesn’t lead her far into the realms of marital abuse, although she touches upon it in Clouds of Witness (1926) in the violent jealousy exhibited by the brutal farmer, Grimethorpe, against anyone who approached his beautiful wife.
Unnatural Death (1927) domestic abuse rears its ugly head with Sayers’ most evil killer, the sociopathic Mary Whittaker, who begins her murderous career by isolating her invalid aunt, dismissing her familiar servants and nurse, in an attempt to trick her into signing a will. Later, Whittaker preys upon and murders the younger, naive woman with whom she is in a relationship that is often interpreted as lesbian. There are few areas of depravity that Agatha Christie hasn’t covered during her incredible career.
In the Poirot novel Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) Agatha Christie uses gas lighting techniques when a man obsessed by his wife isolates her within a group of his own friends on an archaeological dig while he uses subtle mind games to make her appear neurotic. In the Miss Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery (1964) drugs and other gas lighting methods are used by a man, motivated by greed, to kill his wife in order to marry a potentially wealthy woman.
In Christie’s books a frequent motive for spousal abuse is material gain. However, it often happens that the husband attempts to obscure the truth and avoid detection by setting up a scenario that torments his wife, often in collusion with another woman. This is the case in the Hercule Poirot novel, Death on the Nile (1937) and, thirty years later, the stand-alone, Endless Night (1967), which is narrated in the First Person by the murderer.
The stereotypes are turned round in Dumb Witness (1937) in which a woman plays on the intrinsic British suspicion of foreigners and acts the part of a wife terrorised by a brutal, dictatorial, foreign husband in order to escape from her marriage and, she hopes, inherit a fortune from an elderly relation.
Perverted obsession is the motive behind the plot in Towards Zero (1944) in which Superintendent Battle uses personal experience to solve not just an obvious murder but a subtle attempted murder, in which a man who could not cope with rejection lays a complex plot to cause his ex-wife to be executed for the murder he has committed. In a psychological tour de force, Christie describes the emotions of both ex-husband and his ex-wife.
After the crime has been discovered, the ex-wife recounts how the marriage began with subtle gas lighting:
‘I began to be afraid of him soon after we were married. But the awful thing is, you see, that I didn’t know why. I began to think I was mad’.
Then when the marriage has ended and fear has taken hold: ‘you don’t know what it does to you being so afraid for so long. it paralyses you - you can’t think - you can’t plan - you just wait for something awful to happen. And then, when it does happen you’d be surprised at the relief. No more waiting and fearing - it’s come.’
And the reaction of the ex-husband when his facade has been stripped away and his plot revealed: ‘I thought out every detail. I worked it out so that she would die. You’ve got to hang her. I want her to die paralysed with fear - to die - to die. I want her to die...’
(1941) is arguably Georgette Heyer’s finest detective novel, especially in the subtle characterisation of the villain and of his wife, Maud, her vivacity destroyed by many years as the wife of a manipulative sociopath.‘Maud’s idea of human bliss seemed to consist of eating, sleeping, playing interminable games of Patience, and reading, in a desultory fashion, chatty biographies of royal personages or other celebrities.’
Maud is not surprised that her husband should prove to be a murderer:
“You see, I have lived with Joseph for nearly thirty years. You none of you understood him.”
Mathilda looked at her in blank astonishment. “Didn’t you - didn’t you like him?” she asked.
“I liked him when I married him, naturally,” Maud answered. “I have disliked him very much for many years now, however.”’
Patricia Wentworth there are several examples of marital abuse. In Danger Point (1941), Lisle Jerningham has heard rumours that her husband’s first wife did not die a natural death and fears the same thing could happen to her. Isolated within her husband family, whom she feels regard her with hostility, she is trapped between fear and her reluctance to believe the truth. Such isolation, even when surrounded by people, is a key factor in abusive control. This is demonstrated in The Gazebo (1958) in which Mr Blount has inherited money from the deaths of his first wife and father and is now threatening the life of his second wife. Similar emotional control, along with physical violence is also present in The Catherine Wheel (1951) and The Case is Closed (1937.)
In Anna, Where Are You? (1953) the domineering, hypocritical leader of a Colony browbeats his wife whose ‘spirit was more or less broken’. He isolates her and uses his manipulative charm, so that other members of the Colony think he is the one to be pitied. As well as this, he bullies his step-children who, since his arrival in their lives, have survived several accidents that could have proved fatal.
Of course, there are other sorts of domestic abuse than marital, and here the scales turn from men abusing their wives to mainly female perpetrators. The exception to this, as might be expected, is the ever inventive Agatha Christie, who in the Miss Marple story Sleeping Murder (1976) tells a story that has its roots in the past, when a doctor had become obsessed with Helen, his much younger half-sister and ward. He tried various stratagems to prevent her socialising, like putting an infected dressing on a minor injury on her foot. Eventually, when this failed and she married, he drugged his unwitting brother-in-law with hallucinogenics and killed his sister, concealing her body and spreading lies about her so that everybody believed she had run away. Before her death, Helen expressed the views of many victims of abuse: ‘“I think I’ve always been afraid of you.”’
Nemesis (1971), another Miss Marple novel, where a cold case again results in an escalation of crime in the present day. The ruthless obsession of a woman for her young ward, Verity, resulted in Verity’s murder when she wished ‘to escape from the burden of the bondage of love’ her guardian felt for her. Also, it involved the brutal murder of another girl, to provide a body to disfigure beyond recognition, and the imprisonment for murder of the young man Verity wished to marry.
One of Christie’s most powerful novels, in which the murder
is rooted in tyrannical domestic abuse, is Appointment With Death (1938). Hercule Poirot is amongst the travellers in the Middle East who encounter the American Boynton family. The family is dominated by Mrs Boynton, an elderly matriarch who is in poor health, and consists of her elder stepson, Lennox, and his wife, Nadine, and Lennox’s slightly younger siblings, twins Carol and Raymond, and Mrs Boynton’s own young daughter, Ginevra (Jinny). Mrs Boynton had exerted the same ruthless control over her late husband and had inherited his money and control of his business, but her power over her step-children and daughter is more than just financial, it is the power of utter emotional control.
It is Poirot who deduces the reason for a woman in such a fragile state of health deciding to endure the rigours of foreign travel and that is to alleviate her boredom. Having established ultimate control over her family at home, she wishes to try out her power while subjecting them to the excitement of new experiences and new acquaintances, confident that if she allows them a little time on a looser leash she can always jerk it back and re-establish her stranglehold on them.
However, it seems that the old tyrant may have miscalculated. Nadine, the poor relation that Mrs Boynton had provided to marry Lennox, in order to appease his natural desire for a sexual and emotional partner, is planning to leave and is trying to persuade her husband to accompany her; and on their travels, both Raymond and Carol have met people with whom they wish to develop relationships. The one thing Mrs Boynton cannot totally subdue in those she has enslaved is the power of sexual attraction, made more acute by new experiences and meeting new people, which brings home to two of her victims how strange and undesirable their lives are. Poirot overhears Carol and Raymond discussing their situation. They are well aware that other people ‘“Would say we were crazy - not to be able to just walk out”’, and they plan to kill their stepmother, not just for their own sakes but to save their brother and sister-in-law and especially their half-sister, Jinny, who is getting more strange and out-of-step with reality every day. They feel that they are justified in killing their stepmother because ‘“it’s just like killing a mad dog - something that’s doing harm in the world and must be stopped”’ but they know that if they were discovered they’d be tried and executed as murderers. ‘Carol murmured, “But they’d - send us to the chair just the same … I mean we couldn’t explain what she’s like … It would sound fantastic … In a way, you know, it’s all in our own minds!”’
From the start of Appointment With Death, Christie vividly demonstrates the power the old woman has over those who she has controlled since their childhood. Mrs Boynton has a sadistic personality and an overwhelming love of power, demonstrated by her previous employment as a prison warder. As Dr Gerard, an eminent doctor specialising in psychology observes of Mrs Boynton: ‘I do not believe that when once the mania for power (and the lust for cruelty) has taken possession of a human being it can spare anybody - not even its nearest and dearest.’ Christie captures with sympathy and insight the reasons why her unfortunate family cannot just ‘man up’ and walk away. The only doubtful factor is whether any of them would actually have the resolution to kill her. However, on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra, Mrs Boynton does die, and Poirot leads the investigation into her death.
Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books have domestic abuse at their heart, usually the bullying of a young woman by an older relation. Often the girl has been brought up to believe that subservience is her duty. In The Gazebo (1958) Althea Graham is enslaved by her self-centred mother, who ensures her subservience by feigning illness. In Miss Silver Intervenes (1944) a similar relationship is a subplot in which Agnes Lemming is ‘the drudge of a selfish mother. She wouldn’t be so plain if she took any trouble over herself. But it was Mrs Lemming who had the new clothes, the permanent waves, the facial treatments, and who still carried herself with the air of a beauty and got away with it.’ In Vanishing Point the exploitation is more overt because Rosamond Maxwell’s parents are dead and her twelve-year-old sister was crippled in a car accident and needs constant care. The only way Rosamond can provide this is by living with their great-aunt and slaving in the large decrepit house to run errands for a thankless taskmaster. ‘Rosamond walked in the dark wood … she had somehow found the means to hoard or snatch these moments of escape. She had realized long ago that if she did not have them she would not be able to go on ... She must be able to get away.’
The last Golden Age author that I wish to consider is different from the well-known and popular writers who are still admired today, although it must be acknowledged that in her main genres of school stories and women’s fiction she had a successful and long-lasting career. E.M. Channon only wrote three crime fiction novels and, in my opinion, she was not a great detective story writer, because her books are too melodramatic and rely far too heavily on coincidence and her solutions are forced and predictable. However, she deserves a place in this article because she excels at wry humour and social commentary, and in two of her books she focuses the crime around the issues of marital and domestic abuse
'His fierce little eyes glared from one guilty face to the other … he walked on and in, driving his womenfolk before him and demanding if tea was ready.“Almost ready, Harbottle--”
“Why not quite?... Where's Adrian?”
Having spent a few minutes berating his son, he is interrupted by his wife's return.“Tea is ready,” Mrs Binns murmured faintly in the background.
“Well what do you bring it in for before I've so much as had time to wash my hands, eh?” said Mr Binns, and stamped upstairs to the bathroom with an alarmingly purple face, while Mrs Binns walked tremblingly into the dining-room and surveyed the table with doubt and misery. This seemed likely to be one of the many occasions when nothing that she provided would give satisfaction, and she was confirmed in this belief before five minutes were over.
Mr Binns quarrels with everyone, including his neighbour, Mr Marley. Mrs Binns and her children are on good terms with Mrs Marley and her son and feel sorry for them because they are so poor that Mrs Marley often deprives herself of food to feed her family. When Mr Marley’s body is discovered, stuffed in the unlikely location of the Binns’ chimney, Mr Binns is arrested and charged with murdering him. Mrs Binns and Mrs Marley support each other and remain friends, and within a few days, the two women, who have been disempowered not only by their husbands but by their children's loving attempts to protect them, break free of their shackles. The second part of the book is a story of empowerment. Mrs Binns stays loyal to her husband and it becomes clear that Binns is a tyrant at home because of his dissatisfaction and humiliation at work, which is not a good excuse for being a domestic bully but a very human one. It can’t be said that Mrs Binns cleverly solves the murder and clears her husband, although he is cleared and becomes a reformed character. This is one of those detective novels where the solution relies on a letter from abroad containing a confession. An interesting extra dimension to the plot is the discovery that Mr Marley was not impoverished but a blackmailer,
moneyle nder and miser, who allowed his wife to go blind rather than providing medical treatment. Ironically, in this socially perceptive novel, the victim was a far more callous domestic abuser than the one the reader had hated from the start.
In Derbyshire Dal encounters various relations, including one he has not met before, his newly-prosperous cousin, Samuel Hooper, who the next day is murdered. Dal has little interest in investigating the crime because he is preoccupied with meeting Ida, whose husband, Hugo Warlingham, is a retired barrister. Everybody in the neighbourhood speaks well of Hugo, although he is a far from impressive man: short, middle-aged, plain and bald, and wearing darkly tinted spectacles. However ‘he had two great assets. He had a round and mellow voice ... and he possessed that most illusive and precious of all gifts that is called charm. Dal, a shy and reticent person who did not easily make friends, felt in three minutes that they had been acquainted for years.'
A bit later, the mask slips when Dal beats Hugo in a friendly tennis match and Hugo becomes far less charming. Ida is young and beautiful but she is not popular with the locals who find her standoffish and withdrawn. Like so many victims of marital abuse, she has been isolated and forced into a foreign environment. In her case this is literal, as she is trapped in a rural and isolated part of a foreign country, under the power of a much older,
successful and manipulative man.
Because of his link to her sister, Ida opens up to Dal and he is shocked by her reaction when her husband returns to the house: 'under his eyes, she had turned again into a mere statue of a woman – this time, not even a tinted statue. The colour had all dropped out of her face. Even her lips were white. She sat rigid, like the Lady spell-bound by Comus, gazing with wide eyes.'
This is a story in which the ‘happy’ ending for Dal and Helga is overshadowed by the tragedy that overwhelms Ida. Indeed, it is obvious from the first time we meet Ida that there is no glib, easy way out for this innocent casualty of abuse who is damaged beyond repair. The Golden Age produced many outstanding writers but, in my opinion, Channon's subtle, sensitive description of the Narcissist and his victim is one of the finest pieces of psychological writing of the time.
*This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper which the author gave at the conference
The Golden Age of Crime: A Reappraisal, which was held at Bournemouth University in June 2022.
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
The Curse of the Concrete Griffin
click on the title