It’s not a question of whodunnit but who started it?


How the genre of detective fiction originated

Hatred, violence and evil frequently lead to murder in the real world. The devastating grief that comes afterwards for the family of the murder victim is often shared by the community in which they live and by a wider, media audience.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing mysteries in the 1880s
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began
writing mysteries in the 1880s
So, how is it possible for these horrible occurrences to be made into entertainment in the form of books or films? And why do people often say: ‘I love a good murder mystery’?

One of the four Golden Age Queens of Crime, Dorothy L Sayers, once wrote: ‘Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.’ She was writing in the preface to a volume of detective stories published in 1934.

By then, ingenious stories of crime and detection had become really popular and she was one of the most well regarded writers of these novels in Britain.

Most people know the name Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective who featured in the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even if they have never read any of the stories themselves.

Sir Arthur began writing mysteries featuring Sherlock Homes and Dr Watson in the early 1880s but they are still popular today and are constantly being reissued and made into new TV and film adaptations.

As someone who loves cosy crime and has even had a go at writing novels in the cosy crime genre, I am fascinated with reading the books that came before.

And so I began to wonder where Sir Arthur got his ideas from. For me, it is not a case of whodunnit, but of who started it?

Did Wilkie Collins write the first English detective story?
Did Wilkie Collins write the
first English detective story?
It has been suggested that the Victorian novels of Dickens and Trollope often contained a central mystery involving a crime that provided the satisfaction of a solution at the end.

The author Wilkie Collins, who was a friend of Dickens, wrote a novel that is often referred to as the first English detective story, The Moonstone. At the time, books by Wilkie Collins were classified as sensation novels, but this category is now thought to be a precursor to detective and suspense fiction.

The Moonstone, published in 1868, was later described by T S Eliot as ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels’.

Dorothy L Sayers has referred to The Moonstone as ‘probably the very finest detective story ever written.’

The Moonstone referred to in the title of the story is an Indian diamond that has been inherited by a young English woman. The diamond is of great religious significance and is highly valuable. The woman wears the Moonstone on her dress for her 18th birthday celebrations, but later that night it is stolen from her bedroom. The complex plot of the book follows the attempts to explain the theft, identify the thief, trace the stone and recover it.

The novel introduces a number of elements that were later were to become essential components of the classic English detective novel, such as an English country house setting, red herrings, a celebrated investigator, bungling police, the least likely suspect and a final twist in the plot.

William Godwin's Caleb Williams
William Godwin's
Caleb Williams
The crime writer P D James once put forward the idea that the first English crime novel could have been Caleb Williams, which was published in 1794 by William Godwin, the father in law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Also known as Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, Godwin’s story was published in the form of a three volume novel. It was written as a call to end the abuse of power by what he saw as a tyrannical government. But it involves a man being falsely accused of crimes and desperately trying to seek justice. The novel has an amateur detective as a character and, at its core, is a murder, for which two innocent men have been hanged.

However, P D James concludes in her 2009 book, Talking About Detective Fiction, that if she had to award the distinction of being the first English detective novel, her final choice would be The Moonstone, as it most clearly demonstrates what were to become some of  the main characteristics of the genre. Also, in the rose growing detective, Sergeant Cuff, Wilkie Collins created one of the earliest, fictional professional detectives.

Both Caleb Williams and The Moonstone are available in a variety of formats. 

Buy Caleb Williams from or 

Buy The Moonstone from or



Whose Body?

Dorothy’s dazzling debut detective novel

Having read the first crime novel by Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920, and the first by Margery Allingham, The Crime at Black Dudley, published in 1929, I thought it was only fair to turn my attention to the first novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the third Englishwoman who was dubbed a Queen of Crime.

Dorothy began writing her first crime novel, Whose Body? in 1920, at the beginning of what has been called the Golden Age of detective fiction, which lasted from 1920 until the start of World War II. 

A 2016 copy of the 1923 novel.
The book was published in 1923 and introduced her most famous character, the gifted amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

I am a big fan of Dorothy L Sayers and I have read and enjoyed most of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories. Or, at least I thought I had. But reading her novels purely for pleasure many years ago meant that I had not read them in any particular order and therefore I had somehow missed out on Whose Body?, her first novel.

Used to the Wimsey of the later novels, I found him a bit irritating to begin with, his dialogue making him sound more like Bertie Wooster than the highly intelligent and perceptive amateur sleuth he was to become. However, as the book progresses, he is gradually revealed to be a kind and sensitive person, who has developed an interest in criminal investigation as a hobby, but is still suffering from the trauma of his experiences during the First World War. He experiences flashbacks and hears the terrifying sound of the guns when he is placed under a lot of pressure.

It is his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, who presents him with his first case. Mr Thipps, the architect working on her local church, has just discovered the corpse of a man, completely naked apart from a pair of gold pince-nez, lying in the bath at his Battersea flat.

Wimsey gets round there before the corpse is taken away and, much to the irritation of the police officer in charge of the case, he manages to assess the crime scene for himself.

Thipps is completely shocked by the discovery and is then arrested for the murder of the man, so Wimsey sets out to try to find out who the naked corpse was and who put him in the bath of Mr Thipps, wearing only a handsome pair of gold pince-nez.

By the time I got to the end of the novel I was once again in awe of Dorothy’s writing, her brilliant plotting, her clever use of dialogue to present facts and the skilful way she shows Wimsey unravelling the mystery for the reader.

I was also struck by the differences between Dorothy’s debut novel and the first novels of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham.

Agatha used a country house setting for her murder, with a closed circle of suspects, and the clues involved alibis, overheard conversations and dressing up in disguise.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers created
Lord Peter Wimsey
Margery also used a country house, but her first crime novel was less of a murder mystery with a crime to be solved, but more of a suspense novel, with a criminal gang taking over the country house after an old man is found dead, with the reader left wondering whether the good guys will triumph over the bad guys by the end of the book

Dorothy sets her story in London, with many of the scenes taking place in Wimsey’s Piccadilly flat.

Wimsey, helped by his manservant, Bunter, uses forensic techniques such as finger printing and examining minute pieces of evidence through a magnifying glass, before carefully arriving at his conclusions.

The novel does not involve a closed circle of suspects as the action takes place in various people’s homes, in a hospital, a workhouse, and also involves a trip to Salisbury. When Wimsey finally solves the puzzle he is overcome with revulsion about what will happen to the murderer, revealing another intriguing aspect of his character.

Whose Body? was acclaimed as a stunning first novel by reviewers and Dorothy was described as a new star in the firmament. The only criticism was that she made Lord Peter seem too fatuous, but she soon toned this down.

Sayers herself said of her creation of Wimsey: ‘At the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single, unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly… I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes.’

Whose Body? is available in a variety of formats from Amazon.


Crime fiction comforting during pandemic

Library ‘click and collect’ services are providing a lifeline for readers

Avid readers are braving the snow and the rain during the winter lockdown to go to the door of their local library and collect a bag full of books.

Although the library service is closed for browsing during lockdown, staff are operating a click and collect service, which is being much appreciated by their customers.

Death in the High City, The Shooting in Sorrento
 and The Body Parts in the Library on display
together in a library
Readers can either request books on line, or telephone with their order, and staff will issue the books and put them in a carrier bag for them to collect at the front door of the library.

Customers cannot ask for specific titles, in case the library does not have the book on the shelves, but they can ask for a particular genre, such as crime, or historical, and also mention their favourite authors.

The library staff can also look at their borrowing history to get an idea about what sort of books a customer might enjoy and can check that the customer has not already had a particular book out, before issuing it to the customer’s account and putting it in the bag ready for collection.

The service has been very well received by regular library users. Some have said it has been ‘a real treat’ to have books chosen for them. Others have said that the library staff have helped them discover new authors to enjoy, that they might not otherwise have tried. Many have said the books are a welcome distraction from the bad news about the pandemic, or the many television programmes that they don’t want to watch.

Libraries have large print versions and audiobooks of many of the popular tittles by well known authors to make them more accessible to customers.

The crime, or mystery genre, seems to be the most popular with library users. Maybe the drama and suspense of detective fiction is more palatable than the horrific events currently taking place in the real world. 


Agatha Christie’s amazing legacy

Remembering Agatha’s work on the anniversary of her death

Agatha Christie, the best selling novelist of all time, died 45 years ago today at Winterbrook in Oxfordshire.

She left a legacy of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, as well as numerous romances, plays and volumes of poetry, which together have sold more than two billion copies.

The Pocket Essential Agatha Christie gives
fascinating facts about her work
Agatha was 85 years old when she died and she had been a published author for 56 years. Her last novel, Sleeping Murder, featuring Miss Marple, was published in 1976, after her death.

She was such a popular and successful novelist that 45 years later her novels are still being purchased and borrowed from libraries and new film and television adaptations of the stories are constantly being made.

The Guinness World Records has listed Agatha as the best selling fiction writer of all time.

Her fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are familiar to people even if they have never read a detective novel.

But Agatha was unsuccessful to begin with and suffered six consecutive rejections. If she’d given up at that point the world wouldn’t have ever had the huge body of work that has entertained so many millions of people over the years.

The turning point came for Agatha when her novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, when she was 30 years of age, and she never looked back.

The lesson to be learned by other writers from Agatha’s life and career is that they should not give up. Success might come eventually, but only if you keep writing.

Just over a year before Agatha died she was asked by an interviewer what she wanted to be remembered for. She replied: ‘Well, I would like it to be said that I was a good writer of detective and thriller stories.’ I think this has been said many times, so she would have been satisfied.

Curtain, Poirot’s last case, which she had written during the Second World War, was published in September 1975 just a few months before her death.

Agatha died on 12 January 1976 and was buried four days later after a service at St Mary’s Church in the village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire.

The inscription on her tombstone is a quotation from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen:

‘Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please.’

The Pocket Essential Agatha Christie by Mark Campbell is packed with facts and information about Agatha Christie’s life and body of work that may help to inspire up and coming crime writers.




The Crime at Black Dudley

Margery Allingham introduces her series detective Albert Campion

Fans of classic crime fiction still enjoy reading the work of authors from the Golden Age, who were writing between 1920 and the beginning of the Second World War.

A measure of the popularity of this genre is the amount of TV and film versions of the books that are still being made.

When people talk about the Queens of Crime from that era, the names Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers will immediately spring to mind, with the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh not too far behind.

You can usually find books by these three talented ladies on the shelves in the crime sections of most public libraries.

Margery Allingham's first
crime novel
But you might struggle to find any of the novels of Margery Allingham, the English writer who was the fourth member of the elite Queens of Crime club.

Margery Allingham was born in 1904 in London and began writing at the age of eight when she had a story published in a magazine.

Her first novel was published when she was 19, but she did not make her breakthrough as a crime writer until her novel The Crime at Black Dudley was published in 1929. This introduced her series detective, the gentleman sleuth Albert Campion, even though he appeared only as a minor character in her first book.

He was at first thought to be a parody of Dorothy L Sayers’ hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, but Campion matured as the series of books progressed showing there was a lot more to him than you see at first glance and he became increasingly popular with readers.

Vintage Books, part of the Penguin Random House Group, have now republished all Margery’s novels featuring her series detective Albert Campion, making it likely that some of them will eventually be stocked by public libraries.

While Agatha wrote an amazing 66 detective novels, Ngaio comes in second with 32, and Margery is third with 18, finishing ahead of Dorothy, who wrote a total of 16 crime novels during her career.

I had never read any of Margery’s books and so, because I like to begin at the beginning, I started with The Crime at Black Dudley.

A group of young people have been invited to a country house party for the weekend, which is being held in a remote mansion in Suffolk. The story is told from the point of view of a young doctor, George Abbershaw, whose book on pathology had made him a minor celebrity. He is a friend of the host, a distinguished scholar named Wyatt Petrie.

Margery Allingham wrote 18 detective novels
Margery Allingham wrote 18
detective novels
When the host’s uncle is murdered, the young people find themselves being held hostage by a small number of armed men, who claim that an important item has been taken from the body of the victim and that the guests must remain at the house until it is found and handed in.

It is a novel full of suspense and there is violence, fighting and many shots are fired. My first thoughts were that it was unlike the Poirot and Miss Marple novels of Agatha Christie or the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L Sayers. The atmosphere of action and danger was more like that of the The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, which was published seven years earlier.

George Abbershaw eventually solves the crime with the help of the other guests, including a strange young man named Albert Campion, who no one seems to know anything about.

It is a satisfying conclusion, and although the society and way of life Margery describes might seem rather dated now, it has left me wanting to read more. Next on my list is Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham, first published in 1930.

Margery died at the age of 62 of breast cancer and her final novel, Cargo of Eagles, was finished by her husband Philip Youngman Carter and published in 1968, two years after her death.

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham is available in a variety of formats from Amazon.