The Women of the London Detection Club of the 1930s: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Company


Banner i

???????????????????????????????????????????????????

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?
I do.
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
I do.
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?
I do.
Will you honour the King’s English?
I will.
(Rules of the Detection Club (circa 1929))

1932 dinner

The 1932 Detection Club dinner

???????????????????????????????????????????????????

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?

the scoop“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.”

???????????????????????????????????????????????????

Christie

Christie

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.”

???????????????????????????????????????????????????

Sayers

Sayers with Eric the Skull

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.

are women human“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.”

???????????????????????????????????????????????????Other Notable Female Members of the Detection Club During Its Golden Age

fingerprint iiGladys 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.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????

                           mitchelldaneNPG x19482,Baroness Orczy,by Bassanosimpson

(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.

This post is written in conjunction with the Sleuthathon: A Blogathon of Gumshoes hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????


17 thoughts on “The Women of the London Detection Club of the 1930s: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Company

  • Fritzi Kramer

    I rather enjoyed that oath. If only more network television writers would take heed, I might actually tune in!

    I am rather partial to Sayers and her howdunnits myself. I enjoyed both Carmichael and Petherbridge but feel that they each took half of the character (witty aristocrat for Carmichael, broody lover for Petherbridge). I would love to see a new version that melds those two halves together. For the rest, I am torn. Harriet Walter is a divine Ms. Vane but Glyn Houston is clearly the best Bunter.

    I do confess that Orczy’s stories are a guilty pleasure for me. Her pro-aristocracy views are a bit maddening but that’s part of the fun.

    In any case, enjoyed the post immensely!

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      You are so right about the Wimseys! Who should we cast as Wimsey today? Hm. Leo?
      Glad you liked the post! This was such a fun idea for a blogathon. You’re a genius. I can’t wait to read all the other contributions tomorrow!

      • Fritzi Kramer

        Glad you’re enjoying it!

        Hmm, hard to say who would be able to play Wimsey today. I almost tend to think a comedian like Robert Webb from That Mitchell and Webb Look or Ben Willbond from Horrible Histories would be the best call. Someone who could pull off the light stuff and (hopefully) also bring in the heavy brooding and shellshock.

        For serious players, I would have said Michael Fassbender but I think he is too famous now.

  • Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    It’s fascinating to examine the background of these writers, especially their pioneering status. As a fan, I simply accept their ability and success, but they genuinely paved the way for the female authors of today, and highlight that feminism is still a worthy and necessary cause.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      You said it. I never realized how involved Dorothy L. Sayers was in the feminist movement, in addition to just being an amazing female author.

  • Jeff Flugel

    Great idea for a post! Those Detection Club rules are very funny, in that dry British manner. My favorite “Golden Age” detective novelists are nearly all women…only one man makes the cut, and that’s John Dickson Carr. Glad to see you mention Gladys Mitchell, I’ve become a great admirer of hers in recent years (though I was very much disappointed in the Diana Rigg adaptation). As much as I love Agatha Christie (for me, Joan Hickson will always be the definitive Miss Marple) and Dorothy L. Sayers, my favorite is Margery Allingham and her Mr. Campion novels (though I’m not sure if she was ever a member of the Club). I also have a lot of time for Josephine Tey as well.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      Allingham was indeed a member of the club. The only reason I didn’t mention her in this post is because none of her plays/novels were made into classic films, though obviously plenty of them made it to television.
      My favorite Agatha Christie is Geraldine McEwan, because she’s so very unlike the others.
      I’m glad you enjoyed this post – thanks for commenting!

  • Vicki

    I love this post. I wish I could have been part of The Detection Club, and used all my feminine intuition to solve mysteries 😉
    Although I knew about the existence of the club, I didn’t know a great deal about it. It’s funny that despite all the oaths and rules that were a part of it, the authors still managed to come up with such varied plots, characters, scenarios…I agree that they paved the way for contemporary authors, but I do sometimes find it hard to relate to some the female characters the created, even discounting that they come from a totally different era.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I think the female characters I relate to most are those who were very modern for their time, like Adela Bradley. But I also think that’s why these female authors wrote such varied male characters, because in that day and age men really had more interesting fictional possibilities for the readers than the women would have.

  • Leah

    Last year at the AWP conference in Boston there was a great session on women and crime writing in which the panelists pointed out that in the wake of the VIDA count about the scarcity of women’s writing in literary publications today, it was important to note that from the beginning of crime fiction, women have held an equal place to men.

    What a truly fascinating and wonderful club! I like Sayers (though I prefer Du Maurier and Tey); I like her so much more now. Thank you for such an enlightening, inspiring post. Leah

  • Silver Screenings

    Oh dear. I had NO IDEA this club existed, let alone it’s list of distinguished members. I’m going to do some more online research – fascinating!

    I LOVE the fact they included a promise to honour the King’s English. It reminds me of a film review from the New York Times when “The DaVinci Code” movie was first released… I’m paraphrasing, but the critic said, “I never read The DaVinci Code because it was a violation of my faith. Not my faith in the church, but my faith in the English language.”

  • Marta

    Very thought-provoking post, well done!
    I agree with Fritzi and Silver Screenings about the oath, a very good guideline for modern screenwriters.

  • Joe Thompson

    I have learned things from all the posts in this blogathon, but I have learned the most from this one. I am a lifelong opponent of jiggery-pokery. I am an almost-lifelong fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, jiggery-pokery is definitely a no-no and Lord Peter Wimsey a yes-yes. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Pietro

    Very beautiful article! Very interesting ! Congratulations.
    I knew little about these aspects of Detection Club. This article sheds some light, even humorous, about common activities and entertainments of the Detection Club.
    Now I know better.
    Thank you.

  • Pietro

    I would like to know something about other writers women, also. Ngaio Marsh, for example, as member of Detection Club. Thank You

Comments are closed.