The first in my new “Monday Musings” series, in which I’ll write about whatever’s top of mind at the start of each week
This weekend while reading a classic mystery story from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Georgette Heyer‘s Footsteps in the Dark, I was startled by the irresponsible behaviour of some of the key characters:
- copious cigarette smoking (the ashtrays are always full, and the cover of the edition I read shows a man chivalrously lighting a lady’s gasper)
- casual attitude to alcohol (the butler brings in a tray of whisky and soda at 10pm as a nightcap, to round off the day’s drinking )
- reckless driving (or rather, wreckful – when Margaret takes a corner too fast and puts her car in a ditch, she acts like its par for the course)
- dangerous attitude to firearms (just about all the characters have easy access to a handgun at will and are ready to use them if crossed)
A Product of Heyer’s Age
The last of these points especially surprised me. I had never before associated such general ownership of handguns with English society.
And then the penny dropped. The guns are mostly old service revolvers, and when the book was published, in 1932, many adults would have firsthand experience of using them during the First World War, as did many of the characters in this novel.
To anyone spending any time in the trenches of the First World War, carrying a pistol in your pocket would seem relatively low-risk.
The conflict’s influence was long sustained. Heyer’s contemporary Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons as a means to murder was learned while she worked as a pharmacy assistant during the First World War. Dorothy L Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who appointed his military batman as his butler, suffers from shell-shock well into the series.
The Modern Obsession with Health and Safety
This realisation makes my fretting about health and safety issues in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series seem over-cautious:
- In Best Murder in Show, the murder victim is wired to the safety barrier that surrounds the carnival float on which she’s travelling to stop her falling off, and Sophie worries about the profusion of dangerous implements at the Village Show
- In Trick or Murder?, the Headmistress give out health and safety instructions to the children playing with sparklers on Guy Fawkes Night, while Bob, the village policeman, patrols around the bonfire on the look-out for hazards to the public
- In both books, I’ve been slightly concerned that too much alcohol is flowing, (the village bookshop serves its teas with illicit hooch for those who want it), and I’ve been thinking of making Sophie go on the wagon in a future book
My health and safety allusions are largely tongue in cheek, but the fact that I’m even thinking about them makes me realise how much more nervous we as a society have become.
It’s ironic then that one of the reasons that classic crime novels are still so popular is that they offer us the chance to be nostalgic for a bygone age. Yet behind Heyer’s facade of witty banter and genteel behaviour lies significant scars still healing.
We may still call hers a Golden Age of Detective Fiction, compared to ours, but I know which one I’d rather live in, even if a late-night Scotch and soda does have a certain appeal.
How different would the novels of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L Sayers be if they were writing today? And will modern crime novels age as gracefully? I wonder…
Best Murder in Show is now available as an ebook and in paperback.
- Trick or Murder? will be launched on 26th August at the Hawkesbury Village Show, which I hope will be free of murders.