The Not-So-Golden Age:
Joan Lock in conversation with Peter Lovesey
After qualifying as a nurse in Newcastle Joan Lock made a remarkably brave career move to the Metropolitan Police and served in the London’s West End for six years during the 1950s.
She is the author of Lady Policeman, published in 1969, based on her experience in the police force.
She is also the author of British Policewoman, published in 1979.
She wrote her story and several authoritative books about Scotland Yard detectives of the past.
She moved into fiction with the Inspector Best series set in the Victorian era.
Her latest publication is The Real Golden Age of Murder:
Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits.
Peter: Wasn’t there a van like that in Dad’s Army?
Joan: But we’re talking twenty years before the Home Guard existed. The IRA simmered away in the background and the Communist Party of Great Britain were busy urging the proletariat to revolt, so they had to be locked up; the coal miners were about to strike, and uniformed police were in danger from motorists so unused to driving that, even by 1929, they were still knocking over a policeman every other day. As for the detectives, not for them the delight of solving cases by use of their little grey cells.
Ah, Hercule Poirot. But was there a real-life detective who stood out?
Joan: Yes, he was Frederick Porter Wensley, an officer who had acquired much experience in the crime-ridden East End at the time of the Ripper murders and the Siege of Sidney Street but came late to the Yard out of choice. He had no patience with this idea of solving murders with flashes of brilliance. He knew that they needed to bring together lots of different facts and work very hard and he also knew what would help make their system work better.
Peter: A major reorganisation?
Joan: They were functioning ineffectively with a Divisional Detective Inspector on each division and a uniform chief in charge. That way, Wensley realised, they didn’t see further than their own division and there was no co-operation. So, he and three other senior detectives – the ‘Big Four’ - divided London up, each getting a section to control. Eventually Wensley was put in charge of the lot. Wensley also noticed that the detecting talents of his men were varied. Some were extremely clever at getting swift and reliable information but knew that they made bad witnesses in court, so they were seldom seen in the witness box. Others were particularly good at shadowing and so forth. Some were reluctant to mix too much with professional criminals, preferring such offences as fraud. He observed the villains too, noticing that they would confess to a killing but objected to being called murderers.
Peter: Did real crime have its own Golden Age?Joan: In terms of the variety of the victims one could say yes it was a golden, but sad age. From a murdered London Zoo elephant trainer to a Great War Field Marshal shot to death on his own doorstep by two ex-soldiers whilst he was returning from unveiling a memorial to the Fallen; a messenger boy killed by a young servant who had lured him in to keep him company whilst he committed suicide - the messenger lad died but the servant didn’t; the mother whose son checked the expiry date of her insurance before doing the deed; the women whose bodies ended cut up and left in trunks in railway Left Luggage departments and the elderly dying shopkeeper who refused to divulge who had attacked her. Turning back to the writers, I was interested that Freeman Wills Crofts had a Scotland Yard detective and outsold Agatha Christie at the start, with sales of 100,000 by 1929.
Peter: Weren’t the public ready for Poirot?
Joan: It might have been that he was a little too unusual to catch on and needed to grow on the reader, who would then enjoy recognising his fussy little habits. However, while Wills Crofts was criticised by some for his
ponderous writing, he was appreciated by many others for introducing them into the hitherto unknown world of the police detective. Also, his plots were full of incident and movement; Paris/London/New York. One of his
murders even takes place on a plane: The 12.30 from Croydon. He was admired by Chandler, was among the first in the Realist School and as an early writer of the police procedural. His work is even credited with influencing the Inspector Maigret novels. So, Marmite really.
Peter: As a former police officer and police historian, how do you feel about fictional amateur sleuths who always outwit the professionals?
Joan: Yes, it often irritated me. From Victorian times onwards there was always someone bleating on about giving direct entry to the detective department to intelligent and educated men. What was silly about this is that the best education for the job is basic police work – out on the streets learning about people of all kinds, in all sorts of situations. I joined after several years’ nursing training, during which I reckoned I had learned a great deal about people under stress. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was all the lies I was going to be told as a police officer and how good many people are at telling them. Mind you, being new to London and coming from Newcastle on Tyne, I wasn’t that good at helping people catch the right bus from Piccadilly Circus to Newington Green.
Peter: Did you find any hidden gems while researching?
Joan: Not exactly hidden gems but something that surprised and shocked me was that at a certain period British men effectively had a licence to kill. Up until 1919 juries were all male and they were reluctant to find men guilty of murder, the penalty being death. Quite often, the jury would bring in a manslaughter verdict instead and somehow that would get whittled down to GBH or even not guilty verdicts, such as the man who shot his wife in the eye because she was leaving him. She died the next day, but the jury declared that he didn’t really mean to kill her, did he? And the case was dismissed. Incredible.
Fortunately, one judge began taking notice that men were being allowed to commit murder and get away with it. Lord Justice Avory spoke out very loudly and angrily on the subject in court and set about putting it right. In 1919, a law was passed allowing women to become jurors. They generally amounted to two, or at most three, among the twelve but many reasons to disallow them were thought up or they were dissuaded or even forbidden to serve – such as for the trial of murderer Alfred Rouse who was a womaniser. The defence felt this fact might result in their voting against him.
Not exactly a gem but something which shocked me was how a ‘well-spoken young man with an engaging manner’ on his return to London after murdering his mistress got rid of boiled portions of her body out of the train window between Richmond and Waterloo.
Peter: I hope he was convicted. Did you read any detective novels you enjoyed?
Joan: No, I was too busy learning and writing about them and their writers. It was very labour intensive.
Peter: Can you recommend any of the memoirs you researched?
Joan: Well, there is Wensley’s Detective Days from which you get an all overview. But it does tend to include the years before our era. Other writers are also useful in parts. William Rawling’s A Case for The Yard is good for the thumbnail descriptions of The Big Four (Wensley, Hawkins, Carlin and Neil) and a view of the Yard when he was employed in an office there; P J Smith for Con Man and Charles E Leach for On Top of the Underworld for obvious reasons - Confidence Tricksters and professional criminals. And Jack Henry and Robert Fabian for the later years of the Golden Age.
Peter: Your historical novels featuring Inspector Best are set in the Victorian era. Are you tempted now to write a police novel set between the wars?
Peter: Didn’t it work for you?Joan: It was a disaster. Even my agent didn’t want it and it took the kindness of a fellow CWA member to help me get it into reasonable shape so that my publisher agreed to accept Death in Perspective – even though ‘they would have rather had another historic’!
Peter: What advice can you give about making a crime novel true to policing?
Joan: One way is to learn about police procedures but not to get bogged down with the technicalities. Making sure that your lead investigator is a person of some interest and, possibly, giving one or two of the team some particular traits which affect their attitude to the investigation or procedures or relationship with the chief. In other words, personalising it. As you know readers like to latch on to certain characters. I was surprised after I stopped writing my six Victorian novels how some people would say, a little regretfully, ‘So, we’re not getting any more Inspector Best then?’
Peter: Your snappy sub-title for The Real Golden Age of Murder is Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits. Are there other crimes typical of the period?
Joan: People wanting to get in touch with those lost in the war were targets for fraudulent fortune tellers, breach of promise artists, bigamists and confidence tricksters. But the chief targets for the crooks were wealthy tourists flocking in, glad to be back in London. Con men such as Cut Face, Dictionary Harry, Dave the Liar, Chicago Solly and Australian Jack offered can’t-lose bets and sure-fire investments. Scotland Yard formed a squad to
combat the problem as they did later to cope with poison pen letter writers which they took very seriously. D I Henry came to the conclusion that these were the work of women: ‘well reared creatures who have led secluded lives and are repressed’.
Peter: So, to sum up, the typical country house murder plot was some way wide of the truth?
Joan: I’m afraid so. A more typical country house crime was burglary. I’m thinking of two serial villains who systematically looted the rich - in a choosy manner - and would arrive by train and hire bicycles to reach the
stately home. On one occasion they punctured a tyre and the local policeman helped them mend it.
Peter: You couldn’t use that in a crime novel! Thanks, Joan.
Chief Inspector Berrett.
The only bearded male in the CID.
Said to have 'a gentleman farmer look' and a lot of personality.
He, and Sergeant Harris were to make a formidable team handling the difficult Reading Murder.
Inspector Best Books
Dead Image (2000)
Dead Born (2001)
Dead Letters (2003)
Dead End (2004)
Dead Fall (2005)
Dead Loss (2005)
Dead Centre (2008)
Her most recent book is Pistols, Bombs, and Motor Bandits (2021)
Peter Lovesey was born in 1936, and attended Hampton Grammar School before going to Reading University to study fine art. He soon switched to English. National Service followed before Peter qualified as a teacher. Having already published The Kings of Distance, named Sports Book of the Year by World Sports, in 1969 he saw a competition offering £1,000 for a first crime novel and decided to enter. Wobble to Death won, and in 1975 Peter became a full-time crime writer, winning awards including the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2000 in recognition of his career in crime writing. He is most well-known for his Inspector Peter Diamond series. There are twenty books in the series. Peter’s most recent book is Reader, I buried Them.