Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: What did the Beresfords read?

We know quite a lot about the Beresfords' taste in reading. As late as Postern in Fate when they inexplicably decide to move to the country on Tommy's supposedly final retirement from the Service (do they ever retire?) that many of the books they take with them are adventure stories from their adolescence or even later. It is Tuppence's entirely understandable desire to re-read some of her old friends that launches them on the adventure. In the much earlier and much more readable Partners in Crime, Tommy explains that he sees no problems about running a detective agency, which is, in any case, just a front for the real work and that is the catching of Soviet spies, because they have both read every single detective story that had come out in recent years. Later on, in The Ambassador's Boots, which Tuppence starts by wanting to be Roger Sheringham, Tommy is seen in the austere office, "improving his mind by reading the latest sensational thriller". Indeed, a number of the writers and characters they invoke in the various adventures are not really detectives but heroes of shockers.

According to John Curran, Agatha Christie seems to have read an enormous number of detective stories and shockers as well as serious literature. Unfortunately, she had not started making extensive notes of plans when she wrote Partners in Crime so we do not know what her real opinion was of the writers to whom she referred in the stories though there is a great deal of affection for the various characters, even Hercule Poirot, whose "little grey cells" are mentioned throughout the book almost as often as "Watson" is told that he sees but does not observe.

The last adventure, at the end of which Tuppence announces that she has something far more exciting to do in future, as she is expecting a baby, is The Man Who Was No. 16, a hilariously funny destruction of The Big Four, probably Christie's worst book (even allowing for Postern of Fate and Passenger to Frankfurt), written as a kind of Bulldog Drummond-type shocker soon after her notorious disappearance and reappearance. She never liked the book. (It should be noted that Christie's opinion about her own books was usually accurate - the ones she liked best were very good and the ones she disliked were rather poor.)

So what about the Beresfords' reading matter? They were obviously fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and kept up with his career. In the introductory chapter, A Fairy in the Flat, Tommy tries to cheer up the seriously and understandably bored Tuppence with the idea that one of the little people might be in their flat and he might have taken a photograph of it. Just to make sure that the reference is not lost, Tuppence wonders whether they should write to Conan Doyle about it. Fortunately, the Chief turns up with his proposition that they should run Blunt's Brilliant Detectives, solve whatever cases come their way and, incidentally, catch an important spy as well as his minions. When they take over the office and "solve" the first case, which involves a bit of cheating on Tuppence's part, they decide to study the classics and, indeed, model themselves on them.

In his The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie Charles Osborne lists all the authors and characters mentioned in the adventures and points out that most of them are "now" completely unknown. The book came out in 2000 and it seems a little cavalier of Mr Osborne to dismiss characters such as Dr Thorndyke, Inspector Hanaud, Roger Sheringham, Reggie Fortune, Inspector French and the Old Man in the Corner as being unknown: there had by then been a number of reprints of stories and many of them had appeared on TV.

We must assume that Charles Osborne was not dismissing Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown as being at all unknown. The Man in the Mist, the "Father Brown" adventure is the only one that is a serious copy of the original works. It is dark in external descriptions and deals with dark matters of the soul. It relies on one of Chesterton's most famous solutions and the murderer is completely unexpected. (The idea was used again by Christie in a later novel.)

As against that, the references to Sherlock Holmes are all entertaining. The first time Tommy tries to use a Holmesian technique he comes a cropper and the "Holmes" adventure is a farcical parody of The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. At the end of it Tommy announces "with dignity":
I believe, Watson, that there is a very good concert at the Queen's Hall to-morrow. We shall be in plenty of time for it. And you will oblige me by not placing this case upon your records. It has absolutely no distinctive features. 
Not all the adventures mention "respectable" detective stories; the Beresfords quite clearly loved reading shockers as well and must have worked their way through the entire works of Edgar Wallace and Sapper as well as Conan Doyle and Chesterton. Curiously enough, given the background of espionage, there is no reference to John Buchan.

Some of the authors have, indeed, fallen into oblivion. Wallace remains well known and some of his works are periodically reprinted or dramatized for TV. I recall watching an excellent series of The Mind of J. G. Reeder though it was only when I read the book that I realized how much of the violence had been toned down. While some of Wallace's works are unlikely to see the light of day because of their racism and anti-Semitism, the thrillers about "busies" and "noses" against villains like the "Crackler" have been occasionally reprinted and may yet be again. At any rate, Wallace has not disappeared down the memory hole completely and a memorial to him can still be seen in Ludgate Circus though Fleet Street has not been the home of British journalism for many years.

The three writers whom the Beresfords seem to have read avidly but who really are unknown today except to a few cognoscenti are Valentine Williams (also here), the creator, among others, of the Okewood brothers and of the villainous German spy master, Dr Grundt alias the Clubfoot, Clinton H. Stagg, creator of Thornley Colton, the blind Problemist and, most undeservedly, Isabel Ostrander (a more complete list of her works is here), creator, again among many others, of McCarty Incog, that is Timothy McCarty, retired New York cop and his friend Dennis Riordan, still a fireman in the New York Fire Service.

It is not easy to get books by those writers but, luckily for me, London Library has some by Isabel Ostrander and Valentine Williams. I chose Clubfoot The Avenger of the Okewood series. Published in 1924 it would have been the one read by Tommy and Tuppence, who pride themselves on keeping up with detective stories and shockers, not long before the time they took over Blunt's Brilliant Detectives.

Clubfoot, for those who have not come across these books, is the man who had been in charge of the Kaiser's personal secret service before and during the First World War and has been looking for employment ever since. He is a gigantic man, described over and over again, as looking like an ape with bristling hair and eyebrows, a ferocious sneer and a huge clubfoot, which means he is always leaning on a stick. Oddly, the stick is just that, not a gun or a telescope or anything else of that kind. Dr Grundt (his real name) is a German patriot but unlike Erskine Childers and, to some extent, John Buchan, Valentine Williams did not think very highly of that, being on that subject at one with Sapper and Dornford Yates.

Clubfoot is usually very successful and his trail is littered with bodies of people who have somehow upset him or prevented him from carrying out his work, though the stories are not nearly as nasty as Sapper's. Tommy Beresford recognizes that: in The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger he tells said stranger when talk turns to vitriol and other suchlike methods of persuasion that he and Tuppence had made an error in diagnosis as the adventure is not a Clubfoot but a Bulldog Drummond one with the stranger being "the inimitable Carl Peters". The only two people who can and do best Grundt are the Okewood brothers, Desmond and Francis, both, at this stage, retired from the Secret Service but recalled because of the reappearance of Clubfoot in England. The man is out to avenge his past failures and systematically kills everyone who has seriously inconvenienced him, to use Professor Moriarty's term. Eventually, he intends to do away with the Okewoods and the Chief, which must not be allowed to happen.

The stories are well written and quite exciting though one begins to see the pattern fairly early on. However, there is a problem and that is the ability of Desmond Okewood, supposedly the best agent the British Secret Service has ever had. In the Beresford adventure Tuppence warns Tommy when the latter shows signs of not passing on information to Carter and playing a lone hand: whenever Desmond disobeys orders and plays a lone hand he gets into trouble and his brother Francis has to rush to his rescue.

As a matter of fact, that happens even when Desmond does not disobey orders. The man is plain stupid. He cannot walk past a trap without falling into it. He has to be rescued by Francis (who is not that bright himself as he does not think of checking out whether a sudden and inconvenient summons from the Chief is genuine), by the Chief and by a substantial number of police officers. In the last adventure, which allegedly ends with Clubfoot's retirement for good, the situation is saved by a young woman colleague of his, whose attitude amuses him until she turns out to be smarter than he. She it is who realizes that there is something wrong with the pilot, who then decides to take charge of the jewels and hides them and she it is who trounces verbally Clubfoot, using "a little knowledge, a little intuition, a little bluff". To be fair to Okewood and the Chief, they acknowledge her ability and her career in the Service is about to be discussed. But will she be allowed to rise above Major Desmond Okewood or his brother Francis?

There is some discussion as to who was the first blind detective in print, a debate that is made more difficult to resolve by the fact that many of the early stories in every case appeared in various journals and periodicals, which have since disappeared in the physical sense. The best known of all the early blind detectives is Max Carrados, created by Ernest Bramah (here is a fuller but rather facetious piece on Bramah and a better one here and a bibliography here). Carrados stories appeared in magazines in 1913 and the first collection came out in 1914. Isabel Ostrander (of whom more below) created a blind detective, Damon Gaunt, in the novel At One-Thirty, published in 1915 but there might have been stories in magazines before that. Stagg's Thornley Colton seems to have appeared in short stories in People's Ideal Fiction Magazine in 1913 but was not collected in a book till 1915. For some reason the Beresfords preferred the Colton stories to the Carrados ones.

Thornley Colton is a man whom everyone notices as the first paragraph of the First Problem, called The Keyboard of Silence, explains:

"Not often did mere man attract attention in the famous dining-room of the " Regal," but men and women alike, who were seated near the East Arch- way, raised their eyes to stare at the man who stood in the doorway, calmly surveying them. The smoke-glass, tortoise-shell library spectacles, which made of his eyes two great circles of dull brown, brought out the whiteness of the face strikingly. The nose, with its delicately sensitive nostrils, was thin and straight ; the lips, now curved in a smile, somehow gave one the impression that, released by the mind, they would suddenly spring back to their accustomed thin, straight line. For a smile seemed out of place on that pale, masterful face, with its lean, cleft chin. The snow-white hair of silky fineness that curled away from the part to show the pink scalp underneath contrasted sharply with the sober black of the faultless dinner-coat that fell in just the proper folds from the broad shoulders and deep chest."

His assistant is black haired and apple cheeked Sydney Thames, whom Colton had picked up on the banks of the eponymous river, a mere bundle of baby clothes and brought up. Thames worships Colton and spends several minutes in every "problem" agonizing over the fact that his idol seems to have made a mistake. Actually, he is wrong every time. When Tommy Beresford pretends to be blind in Blindman's Buff and is accosted by potential clients who turn out to be not quite what they seem, he refers to Tuppence (usually known as Miss Robinson, for reasons that are never explained) as Miss Ganges who had been found on the banks of the Indian river, a mere bundle of baby clothes. The little joke would have appealed to Clinton H. Stagg's readers. One of Sydney Thames's most difficult tasks is to gauge how many steps his master must take in which direction, when he should turn and when he should avoid someone or something. When Tuppence tries to emulate him she fails miserably. It is just as well that Tommy's blindfold is not quite what it seems either.

The other member of Colton's household is the Shrimp of the Fee, a boy with a hoarse voice and a broken nose who was the only thing Colton and Thames got out of a particularly complicated murder case. Astonishingly, they do not have a housekeeper.

The Problemist is not only a man who, having been blind since birth, not only managed to train all his other senses to a superlative level and trained his mind to understand things problems practically as soon as they are presented to him, he is also someone who can read people's moods and characters from their pulse, the famous Keyboard of Silence, that he touches while shaking hands. Again, the Beresfords have some fun with it:
"Give me your hand," said Tommy. He held it, one finger feeling for the pulse. "Ah! The Keyboard of Silence. This woman has not got heart disease."
One cannot help suspecting that of all the writers referred to in the Beresfords' adventures Clinton H. Stagg is the one Christie thought least of.

That leaves Isabel Ostrander and McCarty Incog together with his best friend Dennis Riordan. Ostrander was a prolific writer, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, though some of her books were not published in Britain till after her death. Altogether there were five McCarty and Riordan books with one actually called McCarty Incog, published in Britain in 1925, possibly the last one the Beresfords had read before their adventures. The first, The Clue in the Air, came out in 1917 in the US and 1920 in Britain.

Timothy McCarty a former cop who had been a roundsman, resigned before he could be made sergeant as he inherited money and property from his uncle. His friend, Dennis Riordan, with whom he had grown up as their parents seem to have gone to New York from the old country at the same time, has not inherited anything and has stayed in the fire department. Time hangs heavy on McCarty's or Mac's hands so when a criminal problem comes his way he becomes involved together with his buddy who is simpler and stupider than he is but who usually makes an innocent comment or two that clarify the issues in Mac's brain and lead him to the right solution. Poirot was to maintain that Hastings did the same to him and in Finessing the King and The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper (two parts of the same adventure) Tuppence, as McCarty, solves the problem because of some idle comments of Tommy's.

Ostrander's crimes tend to be domestic, not a given in American novels of that period as these often dealt with crooks in business and politics, and the criminal, in the ones I have read, tends to be a sympathetic figure. The victim, on the other hand is not necessarily so. When Tommy tries to see the same pattern in the adventure he is disabused by Inspector Marriott. The crime was committed for money though, as in the Ostrander novels, the criminal commits suicide rather than surrender.

Partners in Crime ends with the Poirot story; published in 1929 it came a year before Murder at the Vicarage. Tuppence would have enjoyed being Miss Marple. Yes, of course, they would have read it. As soon as it came out.


  1. I loved this book, wish I had read it more slowly. I think I will read it again to really savor it. I don't remember reading Mansfield Park, so now I have to go find that to link them together. I love the way the story reminds of God's faithfulness, even when we feel alone. I also like the way it reminds us that people can change, Tom changed, Erik changed (a couple of times) but God never gives up on us--I love that.

  2. thanks for this Helen - very interesting. I didn't think anything would make me think 'I must re-read Partners in Crime' but you have achieved that, and so interesting to find out so much about the originals. I do remember reading it years ago and the weirdness of finding that half of them have very familiar bases, and half completely unknown to me.

    1. For ages I assumed that the blind detective they imitate must have been Max Carrados. Then I read the story again.