Tuesday, November 15, 2011

...And not placing reliance on ... Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God...

The Detection Club was officially formed in 1930, and to become a member, you had to honour its core principle of “fair play”, i.e. giving readers the chance to arrive at the truth before the detective does by presenting all the clues. However, once admitted to the Club, it essentially became a social gathering.

Curt Evans takes a close look at the Detection Club in his essay Was Corinne’s Murder Clued?: The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953, which has been released as CADS supplement #14 and can be bought by contacting Geoff Bradley at Geoffcads@aol.com. It takes a look at The Detection Club and how it treated the concept of fair-play… and how the eventual death blows were self-inflicted.

It really is a tragic tale— although The Detection Club is seen as a pillar of convention and conservatism in the mystery genre, many of its members tested the genre’s boundaries. Anthony Berkeley, for instance, wrote books like Jumping Jenny and The Poisoned Chocolates Case… and then, under his pseudonym of Francis Iles, he released Malice Aforethought, an inverted murder story, and Before the Fact, which would be turned into Hitchcock’s film Suspicion. Dorothy L. Sayers began to get more serious and literary in her detective novels, culminating in that masterpiece, Gaudy Night. Henry Wade produced one of the finest books I’ve ever read in Heir Presumptive.

These authors wanted to be taken seriously as writers and thus kept pushing the boundaries more and more, although the rule of “fair play” was still taken seriously when someone was nominated for membership in the club. Through the essay, Curt takes a look at how these rules were bent and distorted until eventually the stricture for fair play was removed from The Detection Club’s oath.

This essay is superb, as Curt does a marvellous job of portraying the club’s various members. We find out thanks to his work just what a sly and cantankerous curmudgeon Anthony Berkeley was, causing many headaches for poor Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Gilbert! Interestingly, this essay talks a lot about Anthony Gilbert and her active involvement in the club, particularly her heroic efforts during the wartime years to keep the club from falling apart. She emerges as a particularly fascinating figure in the Club’s history.

The best photo I could find of Anthony Gilbert
And then, of course, Curt is careful to discuss how the authors regarded “fair play” without spoiling novels— with just one exception, and that is about the death of the titular Corinne. She is a character from largely-forgotten author Douglas G. Browne’s book What Beckoning Ghost, and as the Detection Club members pondered whether to accept Browne into the club, the question came up whether her murder was fairly clued. Though some members, like Dorothy L. Sayers, though it was fair, many others expressed concerns over the fairness of the clueing, and as Curt discloses the surviving correspondence, you get a pretty good idea of what the solution to the book is (though you never get a full plot summary or disclosure of the solution). Some members, like Christianna Brand (who got the best line in), pointed out the solution’s shortcomings with gentle mockery. However, despite the reservations, Browne was asked to join the club after all.

Other members who were asked to join included Julian Symons (who experienced a Road-to-Damascus conversion and started churning out tales that were against the club’s sacred rule), Eric Ambler (primarily known for his spy fiction), and other authors who were not necessarily known for their contributions to the mystery field. Curt manages to make all this fascinating, and the essay is immensely readable.

This merely whets my appetite for Curt’s upcoming book on the “Humdrum” school of mystery writers, which is due for release next year. This is an excellently written piece— the only flaw I can see in it is its all-too-short length. Everyone who admires the Golden Age of Detective Fiction should read this.

Note: How much does it cost? A mere $12 USD with shipping included. A veritable bargain for possibly the most detailed piece ever written on The Detection Club.


  1. I swear I saw a guy who looks just like Anthony Gilbert on the street today.

    Seriously, is there anything on G.K. Chesterton's tenure as president, and the making of The Floating Admiral, Scoop, and Behind the Screen? Thanks!

  2. Not really, but it's fifty-four pages--you're bound to find something interesting in there! ;)