Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Will you honour the King’s English?
(Rules of the Detection Club (circa 1929))
As a long-time love of detective stories in all shapes and sizes, I am eternally indebted to Detection Club and the rules it lay down for its members. How many of us have shaken our fists at the television screen in consternation for having concealed a vital clue or for using “mumbo-jumbo and jiggery-pokery” to explain away the inexplicable? I do find the inclusion of “feminine intuition” as a no-no a slightly ironic measure, considering how many prominent female detective-novel writers were members of the club. What does “feminine intuition” actually mean? I’ve always thought one of the reasons women make such good detective writers is because of their reliance on good common sense and logic, rather than romance, to create and solve crime.
The Detection Club, sometimes called the London Detection Club, was founded by Anthony Berkeley in 1928 and would become the social center for England’s crime writers from the 1930s onward. The club met regularly for dinners, as a forum for discussing their work and as a means of establishing a set of standards for their field. It was not dissimilar to the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker’s 1920s New York, except that the Detection Club had a more specified role in the lives of its members. Mostly, the group served as a support group – the dry British wit is evidenced in the guidlines and this tongue-in-cheek threat to those who broke their oath to the club. This oath, by the way, was made placing one hand on Eric the Skull. What the heck, people?
“If you fail to keep your promises may other writers anticipate your plots, may your publishers do you down in your contracts, may total strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and may your sales continually diminish. Amen.”
The Detection Club is responsible for producing two successful collaborative serials, The Scoop and Behind the Screen. Each episode was broadcast weekly by its respective author on the BBC National Programme (1930-31). The scripts would be published in The Listener the following week. Eventually all episodes were published together in one volume in 1983 with this introduction by then-president Julian Symons:
“The present volume was written to provide funds so that club premises might be acquired. Other books with the same purpose, also the product of several hands, were The Floating Admiral (1931), Ask A Policeman (1933), and Verdict of Thirteen.”
Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
Perhaps the most celebrated detective novelist of all time, male or female, Agatha Christie joined the detective club in 1930 and served as its honorary president from 195601978. Apparently, Christie was shy of giving speeches and toasts, so she appointed a co-president, Lord Gorell, to perform these tasks for her (1958-63).
Agatha Christie’s characters and plots have been featured in dozens of films and television shows, many during the author’s lifetime. It is not at all surprising that so many of Christie’s works should adapt well to the screen. Not only did Christie write in a style that was well-suited to stage and screen, but the richness of her characters give actors some good meaty material to get their teeth into. Apparently MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) was the only film adaptation of her novels she was ever satisfied with. The premier of that movie would be her final public appearance.
Margaret Rutherford is best remembered in the classic film community as being the first to portray Christie’s Miss Marple, though two of the Rutherford films, MURDER AT THE GALLOP (1963) and MURDER MOST FOUL (1964), were actually based on Poirot plots. Although Christie displayed little enthusiasm for the four Marple films by Rutherford, she dedicated “The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” to Margaret Rutherford “in admiration.”
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
Sayers was president of the Detection Club immediately preceding Agatha Christie, from 1949-1957. An informal Dorothy L. Sayers Society was formed in 1976 to promote the study of the life, works, and thoughts of the noted author.
Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey first appeared on the silver screen in the form of Robert Montgomery in HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1940). Constance Cummings was the husky-voiced, dark-eyed” Harriet Vane. Ian Carmichael would bring new life to the role (as Wimsey, I mean) in the 1970s, followed by my personal favorites Edward Petherbridge and the divinely talented Harriet Walter in the late 80s.
That’s all very well and good – hurray hurray the women can write. But what fascinates me about Dorothy L. Sayers is that she was a major feminist. Who knew?! I’ve always loved Harriet Vane for speaking her mind and standing up for her right, as a woman and a human being, to make observations and act on them – to the point of solving some of Wimsey’s toughest conundrums. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford – she finished her studies before women were even awarded degrees, though she did rightfully receive her MA in 1920. As the feminist liberation movement got under way in the 1970s, Sayers wrote a book entitled Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (1971). She is awesome. These quotes come from Are Women Human? at Goodreads.
“In fact, there is perhaps only one human being in a thousand who is passionately interested in his job for the job’s sake. The difference is that if that one person in a thousand is a man, we say, simply, that he is passionately keen on his job; if she is a woman, we say she is a freak.”
“What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is no good saying: ‘You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls’; if the answer is, ‘But I don’t,’ there is no more to be said.”
“What woman really prefers a job to a home and family? Very few, I admit. It is unfortunate that they should so often have to make the choice. A man does not, as a rule, have to choose. He gets both. Nevertheless, there have been women … who had the choice, and chose the job and made a success of it. And there have been and are many men who have sacrificed their careers for women … When it comes to a choice, then every man or woman has to choose as an individual human being, and, like a human being, take the consequences.”
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’… There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.”
“Once lay down the rule that the job comes first and you throw that job open to every individual, man or woman, fat or thin, tall or short, ugly or beautiful, who is able to do that job better than the rest of the world.”
Gladys Mitchell (1901-83), author of the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. Dame Diana Rigg played sassy liberated woman and detective extraordinaire Adela Bradley in the 1998 series for Mystery! on PBS. Mitchell wrote 66 Mrs. Bradley novels, in adition to the several other mysteries and historical novels she published under a male pen name.
Clemence Dane (1888-1965) I saw this name in a list of Detection Club members and thought it looked familiar – Dane wrote A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932), Katharine Hepburn’s first ever movie! After receiving immense acclaim for this achievement, Dane went on to write the screenplay for ANNA KARENINA (1935), starring Greta Garbo. Before Alfred Hitchcock found fame as Hollywood’s leading mystery/thriller director, he made MURDER! (1930), a film based on Dane’s “Enter Sir John.” Like many of her colleagues, Dane wrote under a male pseudonym – her real name was actually Winifred Ashton.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) was an impoverished exiled Hungarian noblewomen who started to pen detective stories to raise money to supplement her husband’s meagre income. Her most famous work was a racy historical play entitled “The Scarlett Pimpernel” (1903). The play was a huge success and has been adapted several times for both the movies and television. Several of Baroness Orczy’s stories were produced as shorts throughout the ‘teens and 1920s, but it was the production of THE SCARLETT PIMPERNEL (1934) that solidified her name in the annuls of Hollywood history. The film was directed by Harold Young and stars Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey.
Helen Simpson (1897-1940) worked with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock on three separate occasions. She wrote some dialogue for SABOTAGE (1936) and had worked with Clemence Dane on the “Enter Sir John” stories which MURDER! (1930) was based on. She also wrote the novel upon which UNDER CAPRICORN (1949) starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton was based.
(From left: Gladys Mitchell, Clemence Dane, Baroness Orczy, and Helen Simpson)
Something all of these women have in common is that they were highly educated. Some of them were among the first of their sex to earn university degrees. Many of them taught in schools before turning to writing as a profession. Some of these women found that writing under a male nom de plume increased the chances of their work finding success and popularity in a highly patriarchal society. However, whatever the pressures and problems these women may have faced during their illustrious careers, they were each able to find tremendous success and popularity among their readership. Less formal societies like the Detection Club provided an arena for these writers to experiment. It is in creative communities like the Detective Club, the Algonquin Round Table, and in the salons of Enlightenment Paris that history often finds women actively participating in the intellectual activities of the day. The quality of their work endures in their characters and plots on film.