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Murder, She Wrote.

March 28, 2014

I do love a good murder mystery, but the emphasis has to be on ‘mystery’ I’m more of an Agatha Christie fan than a P. D. James one, more Elizabeth Peters than Stieg Larsson. Psychopaths, serial killers, graphic descriptions of pain and gore have me shutting the book super fast and going in search of something more peaceful. No, I like the puzzle element, I like to ponder who the villain might be, and I like my murders to happen off stage with the minimum of description. Locked rooms, obscure poisons, overly complicated murder methods, esoteric facts and implausible plots? Fine by me. As far as I’m concerned the period from the 1920s to the 1950s was the golden age of crime; Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Freeman Wills Croft, Patricia Wentworth and particularly Margery Allingham are the authors I return to time after time.

Being an aficionado of crime writing of the gentler variety has led to much mockery over the years. However, I have honed my justification to a fine art. Crime writing like this largely relies on stereotypical characters, motives and scenes, it’s the plot, the clues – false and real – and denouement that matter, I tell my critics, therefore these stereotypes give an indication of the views and attitudes of the time in which it was written. Murder mysteries are a microcosm of contemporary beliefs and prejudice, I say. Or, at least, a microcosm of the writer’s attitudes. Or a microcosm of the beliefs and prejudices of the writer’s perceived audience. Look at the way these worlds unfold, I ask their retreating backs, are we seeing an encapsulation of British/American/Whatever society in a given time and place, or are we reading Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave?

If anyone is still listening at this point I can move on to the sub-genre of crime and archaeology. Archaeologists and archaeological sites feature in a fair number of modern murder mysteries, as noted elsewhere on the internet And, this is also true for crime books published in the first half of the twentieth century. These, I remember asserting to my PhD supervisor*, are particularly useful for seeing how archaeologists and archaeology were portrayed in the first half of the twentieth century. Agatha Christie, who of course had extensive experience of archaeology**, used both famous archaeologists (REM Wheeler and Leonard Woolley) as characters and excavations as locations in Murder in Mesopotamia and, to a lesser extent, They Came to Baghdad.  G. K Chesterton, Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, Josephine Bell and John Trench, amongst others, used archaeology and archaeologists in their mysteries.

Even more usefully, archaeologists occasionally write crime novels. I managed to incorporate fiction by Glyn Daniel and Stanley Casson into my PhD. In Some Small Harvest Daniel explained his decision to write a murder mystery: “I had been reading a detective story and thought it badly written and badly constructed; I threw it out through the bedroom window with snorts of rage. ‘Surely anyone could do better than that?’ I said. ‘Why not have a try?’ said Stuart Piggott, and when I got back to Delhi I did, and that is how The Cambridge Murders came into existence” (Daniel 1986: 160).

I’ve always wondered who wrote the book Daniel threw out of the window because his own two attempts are pretty bad. Daniel relied heavily on literary stereotypes, there’s an absent minded professor, an unworldly cleric, the Chief Constable is a blustering upper-class ex-Indian Army Colonel who, in case we forget this bit of characterisation, refers to hill stations, rope tricks and his curios each time he appears, we have a slow witted local detective, the more alert ‘varsity’ Scotland Yard man and the brilliant amateur who solves the case – Sir Richard Cherrington, Professor of Prehistory. Daniel obviously believed the myth that the methods used in detection and archaeology were closely linked: from the first time we meet him Sir Richard (and others) repeatedly mention his powers of observation “I’m an archaeologist, you know. It puts a premium on visual memory” (Daniel 1954: 11 ) and he decides to try and solve the crime as an intellectual exercise using his training as an archaeologist. Despite this assertion of an archaeologist’s abilities, we never see Sir Richard archeologising, he doesn’t excavate or visit sites; for all the talk of pottery and artefacts the closest we get to archaeology is the mention of an article for Antiquity and checking details in Archaeologia – neither of which have anything to do with the plot. Given Daniel’s renowned dislike of excavation, this inactivity is perhaps unsurprising. Equally predictable, given Daniel’s interests, is the emphasis on food and drink; you may not learn much about archaeology from this book but you do learn about wine vintages and drinking etiquette!

All of which is very jolly but doesn’t really help my contention that such lowbrow froth is useful for historians, however, there are a couple of very useful bits of information which reinforce the impression gained from contemporary archaeological literature, namely that class, gender and race dictate character.

The working classes in The Cambridge Murders are largely university servants, one of whom is shot and although the Scotland Yard detective declares that it is this murder which is particularly unforgivable (Daniel 1954:-162), it is soon forgotten in favour of the murder of Dean. While we are told that the college porters are ‘salt of the earth’ (ibid) they are even more stereotyped than the other characters. They are uneducated, speak ungrammatically and are considered to be unintelligent. Additionally they are noticeably less stoic than their upper class counterparts. Pick up any excavation manual, or site notebook, written before the 1970s and you will find similar views being expressed.

Women, in Daniel’s books, are largely absent; the few we meet are either working class – see above – or femme fatales, emotional, misguided and untruthful. The one female student we meet is more concerned with her love-life than her degree. There are no female dons, no women archaeologists, just as, apparently, there were no women in the past.

Race, one of the suspects – Evan Fothergill – is a Welshman and we are told of “His hot, tempestuous, Celtic nature”. This could be Daniel romanticising his own Welsh roots, but I would argue it’s an extension of the way that Droop, Wheeler and Petrie all defined the abilities of their workforce by their race and Peake and Fleure, along with many other archaeologists, described past peoples in terms of contemporary racial stereotypes.

Casson by contrast did set his murder on an excavation, rather tastelessly the murder method he used was the real life event that severely injured Bushe Fox at Colchester in 1931. And, from Casson we learn far more about the process of excavation in the 1930s as well as attitudes to archaeology and archaeologists.

To be continued . . .

*I don’t think I ever convinced him, but given I once caught him reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at a wedding reception I feel we’re quits.

** Interestingly Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit was published in 1924 – long before she met Mallowan – and features an archaeologist and the crime being solved, partially, by the difference between dolichocephalic and brachycephalic skulls, a concept very much in vogue with early 20th century prehistorians.



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