Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Clouds of Witness

Dorothy turns Lord Peter into a man of action as well as words

The second Dorothy L Sayers novel featuring amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey was nothing if not ambitious.


The second Lord Peter Wimsey novel
by Dorothy L Sayers

The action took place in Yorkshire, London, Paris and the US and the denouement sees a Duke being tried for murder by his peers in the House of Lords.

This is a far cry from the country house murder with a closed circle of suspects that was all the rage in 1926, the year Clouds of Witness was published.

Reading it for the second time, many years after I had first read the novel, I was more impressed with it than ever.

The plot is brilliant and intricately worked out, considering that the action takes place over such a large canvas.

Peter’s brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver is hosting a shooting party at a lodge in Yorkshire. His sister, Lady Mary Wimsey, is acting as the hostess for her brother and her fianc√©, Captain Denis Cathcart, is one of the guests.

Denis Cathcart is found just outside the conservatory in the early hours of the morning having been shot dead by a bullet fired from the Duke’s revolver. The Duke is bending over his body when Lady Mary arrives on the scene. An inquest into Cathcart’s death is later told that Lady Mary exclaimed: ‘Oh God, Gerald, you’ve killed him!’

Needless to say, the Duke of Denver is later arrested for the murder of his future brother in law. He refuses to say why he was up and about at the time he discovered the body and Lady Mary feigns illness to avoid have to talk to anyone about it at all.

Lord Peter and his manservant, Bunter, waste no time in returning from their holiday in France to assist the investigation and they set out to try to prove the Duke’s innocence.

And what could be more convenient than Peter’s friend, Inspector Parker, being assigned to the case by Scotland Yard?

Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey
in a BBC TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness
Lord Peter and Parker search the grounds of the shooting lodge and quickly discover footprints belonging to someone who was not a member of the official party, but who had clearly gained access to the property. This makes it possible for someone from outside to have been responsible for the murder. There are two married couples and four single people staying in the lodge, but Lord Peter establishes that they are not the only suspects, which is unusual for detective novels written at this time.

P D James, in her excellent book Talking about Detective Fiction, says she was amused by the plan of the layout of Riddlesdale Lodge that Dorothy provides for the reader, pointing out that just one toilet and one bathroom shared by eight unrelated people must have been rather inconvenient.

The action ranges across the surrounding moorland, a farmhouse inhabited by a violent farmer and his beautiful wife, and a nearby market town. Cathcart also had a life in Paris that has to be investigated.

The Dowager Duchess of Denver arrives at the lodge to deal with Lady Mary. We were introduced to her in Whose Body? but in the second novel she is more entertaining than ever. She has long soliloquies that move from subject to subject as one thought leads her to another, but there is somehow a strange logic in what she says. She also provides what she refers to as her ‘mother wit’ to aid the investigation.

The inquiries in Paris, events in London and further adventures in Yorkshire bring Lord Peter and Parker closer to the truth.

Sayers's second Lord Peter Wimsey novel saw her character become more an action man
Sayers's second Lord Peter Wimsey novel
saw her character become more an action man
But then the Duke’s trial in the House of Lords, brilliantly described by Dorothy, gets under way as we get nearer to the end of the book.

The crime writer Martin Edwards has suggested that Clouds of Witness is the work of a novelist learning her craft but that it displays the storytelling qualities that soon made her famous.

I agree with this in part. I feel that Dorothy made large passages of the dialogue difficult to read by trying to reproduce the Yorkshire accent in print when Lord Peter is interviewing locals such as pub landlords and farmers.

She also allowed Lord Peter to chatter too much at the beginning of the book when he and Parker are sleuthing together. In real life the more ordinary detective inspector would probably have begun to find his inane conversation rather trying.

But she allows Lord Peter to become much more of a man of action than she did in her first novel, more along the lines of Margery Allingham’s Campion than Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Lord Peter is sucked into a bog while roaming over the moors at night and has to be rescued by Bunter with the help of some local labourers and he is shot and injured while chasing a suspect in London.

Near the end Lord Peter has to make a last minute dash to New York to secure a final piece of evidence to exonerate the Duke, which will reveal the truth about Cathcart’s death.

To be in time to present his evidence at the trial in the House of Lords he has to make a daring and dangerous flight back to London.

The Duke’s defence counsel, Sir Impey Biggs, explains to the court how Lord Peter is making a transatlantic dash to return before the end of the trial: ‘My Lords, at this moment this all-important witness is cleaving the air high above the wide Atlantic. In this wintry weather he is braving a peril which would appal any heart but his own and that of the world-famous aviator whose help he has enlisted, so that no moment may be lost in freeing his noble brother from this terrible charge. My lords, the barometer is falling.’

Lord Peter’s fictional flight was described in a novel published in 1926, a year before Charles Lindbergh was to achieve the same feat in reality.

The amateur detective arrives at the House of Lords looking ‘a very grubby and oily figure’ and presents the vital evidence that will exonerate his brother.

He also provides a satisfying conclusion to the mystery for the reader, which is one of the key ingredients of any crime novel.

Clouds of Witness is available in a variety of formats from or

Home

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ngaio Marsh’s enduring legacy

Talented New Zealander contributed to art, the theatre and crime writing

Ngaio Marsh pictured in 1935,  early in her writing career
Ngaio Marsh pictured in 1935, 
early in her writing career
One of the four Queens of Crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction, Ngaio Marsh, died on this day – 18 February – in 1982 in her native New Zealand.

Her 32nd and final crime novel, Light Thickens, was completed only a few weeks before her death. The story revolves around one of her greatest theatrical passions, Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Ngaio began writing detective novels in 1931 after moving to London to start up an interior decorating business. She has written that the idea for her first crime novel, A Man Lay Dead, came to her when she was living in a basement flat off Sloane Square.

In the preface to my copy of an omnibus edition of her first three novels - A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio Marsh describes how she came up with the character of Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

It was a wet Saturday afternoon and she had been reading a detective story borrowed from a library, although she says she couldn’t remember whether it was a Christie or a Sayers. By four o’clock, as the afternoon became darker and the rain was still coming down relentlessly, she had finished it. She wondered whether she could write something similar and braved the rain to go to a stationer’s shop across the street where she bought six exercise books, a pencil and a pencil sharpener.

She sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of 32 crime novels featuring the gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn.

Along with Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers she was to dominate the genre of crime fiction for the next 50 years with her novels and numerous short stories.

With Marsh, Margery Allingham (left), Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were the Queens of Crime
With Marsh, Margery Allingham (left), Agatha Christie and
Dorothy L Sayers were the Queens of Crime
All her novels feature Alleyn, who works for the Metropolitan Police in London even though he is the younger brother of a baronet, and several are set in the world of the theatre, which Ngaio knew well as an actress, director and playwright.

After leaving school she had studied painting before joining a touring theatre company. She became a member of an art association in New Zealand and continued to exhibit her paintings with them from the 1920s onwards.

Her hero detective Alleyn was named after an Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn, and Ngaio allows him to meet and fall in love with an artist, Agatha Troy, in her 1938 novel, Artists in Crime.

She directed many productions of Shakespeare’s plays in New Zealand and Australia and the 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury is named in her honour.

Patrick Malahide starred in a BBC adaptation of Marsh's Alleyn novels
Patrick Malahide (centre) starred in a BBC
adaptation of Marsh's Alleyn novels
In 1948 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services in connection with drama and literature in New Zealand. She became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the arts in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Ngaio’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965. She was inducted into the Detection Club in 1974 and received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America in 1978.

Ngaio died in her home town of Christchurch and was buried at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Mount Peel.

The Ngaio Marsh Award is given annually to the writer of the best New Zealand mystery, crime or thriller novel. Her home in Christchurch is now a museum and displays her collection of antiques. On her desk lies a fountain pen filled with green ink, which was her long time writing tool.

Ngaio Marsh’s 32 crime novels are available in a variety of formats. You can find many of them at:  or

Home

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction

Roman Catholic Monsignor lays down the ‘fair play’ rules for crime writers

Ronald Knox was a priest as well as a crime writer
Ronald Knox was a priest as
well as a crime writer
Ronald Knox, the crime writer most remembered for writing the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, was born on this day - 17 February - in 1888 in the village of Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire.

Knox became a Roman Catholic priest and produced the Knox Bible, translating the Latin Vulgate bible into English using Hebrew and Greek sources. He was also a theologian, satirical writer and radio broadcaster.

The son of a Church of England clergyman who became a bishop, Knox was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford.

He was ordained an Anglican priest and appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford. During World War 1 he served in military intelligence.

When Knox converted to Roman Catholicism, his father cut him out of his will. Knox explained his conversion, which was partly influenced by the crime writer G K Chesterton, by writing two books about it. When G K Chesterton also became a Catholic he said he had been partly influenced by Ronald Knox.

After Knox became a Catholic priest, he wrote and broadcast about Christianity and other subjects. He became a Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford University in 1926 and in 1936 was elevated to the title of Monsignor. He began writing classic detective stories while a chaplain at Oxford.

This was during what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s and Knox was one of the founding members of the Detection Club.

A picture taken at a 1932 meeting of the Detection Club, when G K Chesterton was president
A picture taken at a 1932 meeting of the Detection
Club, when G K Chesterton was president
This elite club was formed in 1930 by a group of British mystery writers that included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many other famous authors. Anthony Berkeley was instrumental in setting up the club and the first president was G K Chesterton.

The members of the Detection Club agreed to adhere to Knox’s Commandments in their writing to give the reader a fair chance of guessing who was the guilty party.

These ‘fair play’ rules were summarised by Knox in the preface to Best Detective Stories 1928-29, which he edited.

Knox’s Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are as follows:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

9. The sidekick of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind, his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

According to Knox, a detective story ‘must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery, a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity, which is gratified at the end.’

The Murder Room's edition of Knox's first detective novel
The Murder Room's edition of
Knox's first detective novel
As a matter of clarification, in the light of modern-day sensitivities, the reasoning behind rule number five is that magazine stories in 1920s so often portrayed criminal masterminds as being of Chinese ethnicity that it had become something of a cliché, one that Knox believed was best avoided.

Knox was a prolific satirical writer and wrote many essays and books about religion.

He also wrote some crime short stories and six detective novels: The Viaduct Murder (1926), The Three Taps (1927), The Footsteps at the Lock (1928), The Body in the Silo (1933), Still Dead (1934), Double Cross Purposes (1937).

Paperback editions of all six detective novels were published by the former Orion imprint The Murder Room in 2013 and are still available from Amazon and Waterstones.

He also contributed to three collaboration works by the Detection Club; Behind the Screen (1930), The Floating Admiral (1931) and Six Against the Yard (1936).


Home

Monday, February 8, 2021

Enter a Queen of Crime from New Zealand

 

How Ngaio Marsh first started writing crime stories

Ngaio Marsh in a picture thought to have been taken in around 1935
Ngaio Marsh in a picture thought to
have been taken in around 1935
Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand writer and theatre director, wrote 32 detective novels featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective working for the Metropolitan Police in London.

She became known as one of the Queens of Crime, sharing the distinction with the English writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

Agatha Christie led the way with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. Then came Dorothy L Sayers with Whose Body? published in 1923, followed by Margery Allingham with The Crime at Black Dudley, published in 1929.

Ngaio Marsh was born and educated in Christchurch New Zealand and studied painting before joining a touring theatre company as an actress. She divided her time between New Zealand and the UK from 1928 onwards, when she started up an interior decorating business in Knightsbridge, London.

The idea for her first crime novel, A Man Lay Dead, came to her in 1931 when she was living in a basement flat off Sloane Square.

In the preface to my copy of an omnibus edition of her first three novels - A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio Marsh writes about how she came up with the character of Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

It was a wet Saturday afternoon in 1931 and she had been reading a detective story borrowed from a library, although she couldn’t remember whether it was a Christie or a Sayers. By four o’clock, as the afternoon became darker and the rain was still coming down relentlessly, she had finished it. She wondered idly whether she had it in her to write something similar.

The Ngaio Marsh Collection, Book 1, published by Harper
The Ngaio Marsh Collection,
Book 1, published by Harper
Then she braved going out in the rain to a stationer’s shop across the street where she bought six exercise books, a pencil and a pencil sharpener. And that is how the writing career of the fourth Queen of Crime from New Zealand began.

With many eccentric detectives already operating at the time, such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, Ngaio decided to opt for a professional policeman, with a background resembling that of some of the friends she had made in England.

Revealing her interest in the theatre, she chose the surname of an Elizabethan actor called Edward Alleyn, gave him the Christian name Roderick, inspired by a recent visit to Scotland, opened an exercise book, sharpened her pencil and began to write.

In A Man Lay Dead, Inspector Alleyn is asked to investigate the murder of a guest during a country house party. The host had suggested they play the Murder Game, which at the time was very popular with guests at weekend parties, but when the lights go up it is discovered that the victim is dead for real.

Alleyn arrives at Frantock ‘a delightful old brick house’, views the corpse, interviews the guests and gathers evidence with his team of police officers,

He enlists the help of one of the guests, a young journalist called Nigel Bathgate, as his ‘Watson’.

Bathgate later becomes a friend of the detective and appears in several of Ngaio’s 32 Inspector Alleyn novels.

The mystery centres round a valuable Russian dagger, which ends up in the back of the corpse, a disappearing Russian butler, a criminal gang of Russians in London and the victim’s unfortunate habit of philandering.

Alleyn picks up on the smallest of clues, such as a button from a glove and a trace of face powder on a man’s suit. He eventually tricks the murderer into giving himself away.

A Man Lay Dead was first published in 1934. It is now available in a variety of formats.

Buy from:    


Home

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Setting the Scene

Use your memories to help you write with assurance

Many crime writers believe the setting is one of the most important elements in a novel and that it almost becomes an additional character in the story.

The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me
the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
Whether it is a country house in the case of Golden Age novels, a big city such as London or Edinburgh, or the island of Sicily, as in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, where the crime takes place has a big impact on the story and the investigation that follows.

A lot of writers become inspired by a particular place they have visited and their minds immediately start inventing a mystery to happen there.

When I interviewed the crime writer P D James in the 1990s she told me that her novels were almost always inspired by somewhere she had visited.

If you are a new writer you should try to set a story in a place you know well so that you can describe it convincingly and be accurate with the geography. Your murderer should be able to get from one place to another in a realistic amount of time, otherwise readers who also know the location will feel let down.

It is tempting to choose a glamorous setting for your book so that readers can become armchair travellers and enjoy visiting the sights along with your detective.

I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some caves just outside Marina di Puolo
I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some
caves just outside Marina di Puolo
But many writers have picked abattoirs, factories, power stations and crime ridden inner city housing estates. As long as they have really known and understood their location, they have been able to use it effectively.

Wherever you decide to set your novel, you must visit it and get to know it well so that you can present it authentically.

There are exceptions, of course. I have read that H R F Keating wrote an entire series of books set in India, featuring his character, Inspector Ghote, an Indian police officer, and yet the writer himself had never been to the country, but had done all his research from maps and books.

But on the whole, it is better to know a setting well to be able to describe it accurately. After all, it is one of the perks of being an author to have a good excuse for frequent days out or holidays abroad.

For years, I enjoyed holidays in Sorrento in southern Italy, vaguely thinking it would make a beautiful setting for a detective novel or film and that no British crime writer had ever used it.

But it was only when I discovered some caves, while walking along the beach of a small fishing village just outside Sorrento, that I got the beginnings of an idea for a plot.

The caves were at sea level and would have been below what was once a Roman villa, providing the owners and their guests with access from the sea thousands of years ago.

The caves looked the perfect place to hide a kidnap victim
The caves looked the perfect place
to hide a kidnap victim
There were some kayaks, paddles and some old fishing nets being stored in the caves now, behind locked metal gates, but it occurred to me that a body could also be hidden there, or a kidnap victim could be kept there. People could bring in contraband items by sea and hide them in there. Or, a character could be imprisoned there by someone who wanted to keep them out of circulation for a while.

When I visited Positano by boat I saw that the coastline of Sorrento had many such recesses at sea level that could be used in this way. They were places that were inaccessible by car and even difficult to get to on foot, but were perfectly accessible by boat if you knew the area well. That’s when the plot of The Shooting in Sorrento occurred to me.

The book, my second Butler and Bartorelli mystery, starts with a bridegroom being shot, seemingly at random by a sniper, while posing for pictures in Piazza Tasso with his bride after his wedding in Sorrento. 

It was a sight I had often seen over the years while on holiday in Sorrento, although, of course, I had never seen anyone actually shot.

Journalist Kate Butler and her partner, retired detective Steve Bartorelli, are staying at the same hotel as the wedding party and Kate feels she has to help the family, who speak no Italian and are traumatised by what has happened.

The years I had spent sightseeing and shopping in the historic centre of Sorrento  helped me enormously in devising my plot as I was able to easily recall how quickly you could get from one location, such as the Franciscan cloisters, to another, Chiesa del Carmine, a baroque church that overlooks the main square, Piazza Tasso.

The cover of my mystery novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The cover of my mystery novel,
The Shooting in Sorrento
With my family I had regularly visited the beach of Marina di Puolo, which is out of town on the Sorrentine peninsula, and I had great fun inventing an historic villa with a terrace that overlooked the seafront as the home of one of my characters.

Most people will have a favourite city or holiday resort in their memory bank that they can use as a location in a book and they will find it is a big help to be able to know instinctively whether a character has to turn left, or turn right, to reach a particular place. Also, they will know whether or not it is practical to allow a character to run up a steep hill quickly to reach a place in time for the murder.

If you don’t want to use a real town or village as a setting, you can imagine one of your favourite places that you already know well and move it to another part of the country, or to a different country, and give it another name, but you will still be able to rely on your memories of it to write about it with assurance.

Readers frequently say they will put up with a lot provided a novel has a strong sense of place, so the best settings to choose are the ones you know well and for which you have genuine feelings.

The Shooting in Sorrento is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook on Amazon.


Home