Introducing| The Golden Girls of Crime Fiction

Jane Marple, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley and Maud Silver would be more accurately described as Golden Girls of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, but that would make for a cumbersome title. All three characters found their way into print at around the same time, yet only one detective remains a well-known name today. Jane Marple (created by Agatha Christie) was first off the blocks, introduced in a short story called ‘The Tuesday Club’ (The Royal Magazine, 1927) and followed by a series of magazine stories (later published as The Thirteen Problems in 1932). Maud Silver’s first appearance in Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth, and Beatrice Bradley’s in Speedy Death, by Gladys Mitchell,  both followed close behind in 1928. Jane Marple’s first full-length appearance came in Murder at the Vicarage in 1930.

The Golden Age of Crime Fiction

As previously stated, these three detective writers and their characters hail from what became known as the Golden Age of detective Fiction. Opinions vary as to the span of the Golden Age, but its heyday was the 1920s and 30s. Golden Age writers were many, but stars of the era were Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. At the time, Gladys Mitchell was also critically acclaimed, dubbed ‘the Great Gladys’ by Philip Larkin. Golden Age detective novels generally followed a certain style and had several conventions in common. In fact in 1929, writer Roland Knox went as far as to establish rules for this type of detective fiction: the novel “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” Knox, one of the founders of The Detection Club (1930) wrote the ‘Ten Commandments’ of crime of fiction. My favourite of which is, ‘No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end’. So, no cheating then…

Of my chosen Golden Age writers, Agatha Christie proved to be the biggest star, but was not the first into print. Wentworth’s debut, a historical novel, Marriage under the Terror was published in 1910. This novel won the 250 guinea Melrose Prize for that year, a fine accolade for a new author. More historical fiction, then mystery novels such as The Dower House Mystery (1925) followed this. By contrast, Gladys Mitchell plunged straight into a life of crime as her first Beatrice Bradley novel Speedy Death was also her first foray into print. Along with Christie, Mitchell was one of the early members of the Detection club, whereas Patricia Wentworth never had the honour of being elected. Agatha Christie began writing detective stories during the First World War, partly in response to a bet with her sister. Jane Marple had to wait in the wings however, as Hercule Poirot was Christie’s first sleuth, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). After rejections from six publishers, Bodley Head published the first Poirot story and contracted five more books. Agatha Christie apparently drew inspiration from her grandmother and her friends for some of the characteristics of Jane Marple, in particular the tendency to think the worst of people.



I write this piece as a Golden Age fan, intrigued by the differences and similarities between these women detectives. Therefore, I have hunted out these early detecting adventures to contrast and compare. I aim to give a brief overview of these enterprising women and their characteristics and foibles. Between them, the female detectives tackled a wide variety of murder, often in quite deceptively benign locations. Indeed, they all fall into what is often termed the ‘cosy crime’ category, due to locations, plots, dramatis personae and a general lack of gore. However, it is important to bear in mind from the start that each of the women had a firm commitment to solving the case, and they always got their man or woman by the final pages.

Criminals could usually expect no mercy from this trio of detectives, though of the three, Beatrice Bradley’s attitude to murder was more ambivalent. It is also reasonable to point out that the death penalty looming in the background of the cases renders the outcome for the perpetrator anything but cosy. Have a read, and decide for yourself the detective to whom you would entrust your case.

(Moreover,  they are undeniably all ladies)…

Two Old Maids and a Widow

A feature of note common to two of our detecting threesome they are elderly spinsters. Beatrice meanwhile has been married and widowed twice, later becoming a fond grandmother. I say married twice, but according to the background information on the Gladys Mitchell website, there are inconsistencies about both the number of spouses and children in later books. In Speedy Death, we meet Mrs Bradley’s son Ferdinand Lestrange, a brilliant barrister. Though the comparison of characters lives with that of their creators isn’t always useful, I was amused to see that the two authors who created spinsters Miss Marple and Miss Silver had been married themselves (twice each, and in Christie’s case divorced very publicly). I was also intrigued that two married women clearly considered that a confirmed ‘old maid’ would be a more credible fictional detective than a married woman would. Gladys Mitchell did cleverly have it both ways however, portraying Beatrice Bradley as a woman, now conveniently unencumbered by domestic responsibilities. She was the only woman to have had a ‘past’ in the parlance of the day. I do have to point out though, domestic responsibilities aside, that none of the women would have had to do much cleaning, all having domestic staff to do the boring stuff.

Golden Age Crime Fiction
Miss Jane Marple, portrayed by Joan Hickson. Source

Can appearances be deceptive?

We should note that Maud Silver is the only professional detective or ‘private enquiry agent’, in her preferred style. Not that anything as vulgar as money is so much as whispered about; but she does have clients, a proper desk and takes neat case notes in copy books. From Grey Mask, the reader learns that Miss Silver has been an inquiry agent for at least five or six years prior to this case. It is made clear that she has had previous success, hence Archie Millar’s suggestion that Charles Moray should engage her services. Even so, the idea that a detective can be female baffles her would-be client,

 

‘Get a trained sleuth to do it,’ said Archie firmly. ‘That’s what they’re for. I can put you on to one if you like.’
‘A good man?’
‘A sleuthess,’ said Archie impressively. ‘A perfect wonder – has old Sherlock boiled.’
Charles frowned.
‘A woman?’
‘Well, a sleuthess. She’s not exactly what you’d call a little bit of fluff, you know’.

Archie was indeed correct; Miss Silver was no fluffy old lady, though on the surface she looked harmless enough. In fact, she appeared as if she would easily melt into the background and pass unnoticed by any criminal elements. She was introduced as, ‘a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head’. However, during her meeting with Charles Moray to discuss his case, a smile brought about an intriguing change, ‘it was just as if an expressionless mask had been lifted and a friendly, pleasant face had looked out from behind it’. Her modus operandi with her clients, explained at the first interview was, ‘I can’t take your case unless you are frank with me. Frankness on your part – discretion on mine’.

Patricia Wentworth clearly established Maud Silver from the beginning as a capable, discrete and efficient private investigator. She was professional and to be taken seriously. Even sceptical men such as Moray soon found themselves trusting her skills and feeling a little afraid of her talents. There were superficial similarities between Miss Silver and Miss Marple; the main difference was that Jane Marple was an elderly lady of private means and appeared to have had no profession. Jane Marple also began with the disadvantage of a reputation in St Mary Mead as one of the village ‘cats’. This we learn from Griselda Clement, the vicar’s wife before a parish ‘tea and scandal’ party. The vicar (either because of his calling or because he can disappear while his wife pours tea and dispenses scones) is inclined to be kinder,

She describes Marple as ‘the worst cat in the village,’ who ‘always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.’

Therefore, Jane Marple begins her sleuthing career under the burdensome reputation of being the worst of the village gossips. Not an auspicious start, but things do improve from there on in, as does her relationship with Griselda. Miss Marple, ‘her cheeks pink with excitement’ is clearly delighted to find herself in the thick of a murder investigation. There is no question but that she is intending to solve the puzzle of the body found in the vicar’s library. The vicar describes Miss Marple as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner’ but despite this, senses that she ‘is much more the dangerous’ of the elderly village ladies. She misses little and thinks the worst of everyone.

As for Mrs Bradley, I was intrigued first by the complete contrast in physical appearance between Mrs B and the two spinster ladies. Beatrice Bradley is anything but cosy, perhaps the term ‘striking’ is the kindest way to put it. Gladys Mitchell seems to have deliberately set out to create a woman who looked anything but harmless, was probably frightening and certainly unnerving. In Speedy Death, this is how Bertie Philipson describes his fellow houseguest to Dorothy Clark as “Little, old, shrivelled, clever, sarcastic sort of dame. Would have been smelt out as a witch in a less tolerant age.”

Gladys Mitchell describes Mrs Bradley is some detail on her first appearance on the first evening of the house party. If you wanted a contrast to the appearance of the previous two women, you could not easily imagine a more complete one. Mrs Bradley does not blend into the background as the other women might:  

Mrs Bradley was dry without being shrivelled, and birdlike without being pretty. She reminded Alastair Bing, who was afraid of her, of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum. There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose. She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl.

Mrs Bradley is a professional woman, being an experienced psychoanalyst and an intellectual with a wide range of interests. Without giving too much way, in her first case she does in fact find herself suspected of the murder even as she is attempting to unravel the motives of the murderer. Like Miss Silver, she comes to us with a successful case record, having previously dug Dorothy Clark’s fiancé out of a youthful scrape. She also has a penchant for wearing eye watering colour combinations with a complete indifference to good taste.  

Golden Age Crime Fiction
The Continental Knit Stitch, perfect for eavesdropping. Source

The knitting ploy

Moving on to an apparently vital fictional detective skill, the gentle art of knitting is an attribute that all of the detectives share. However, there are subtleties at work here. The knitting device is an interesting one, as fingers can be busy with work while the detective’s attention focuses on a conversation. It is a cosy scene designed to create a certain impression and encourage confidence. She may also use it deceptively; a an undercover technique for instance. Imagine an old lady sitting in a corner being apparently absorbed in her pattern, while avidly listening out for clues. All three of the ladies are knitters, though their skills and output varies a great deal. Both Maud Silver and Jane Marple knit a wide range of baby clothes for the offspring of various nieces and nephews in the predictable shades of blue, white, lemon and pink. They are both deft turners of heels (no mean skill). Miss Silver however, gets extra points for knitting in the faster continental or German style, where the knitter holds the work low, thus enabling better observation of prospective murderers. The knitting is almost an extension of her; when she first interviews Charles Moray, he is not even aware that she has a half-knitted stocking on her lap. The ‘still needles bristling’ are a nice touch, a hint that Miss Silver is no pushover. Due to her technique, she is also very speedy, managing to produce a set of three pink vests, complete with crochet edging, during the enquiries for The Ivory dagger case.

If you want your garments a little more adventurous, you have to go to Beatrice Bradley whose knitting productions tend to be of the many hued and rather strange variety. In the Gladys Mitchell novels that I have read, it is not clear for whom Mrs Bradley is knitting or whether she even knows what she is knitting. She lacks the skill of Marple and Silver and appears to be a very slow knitter. In St Peter’s Finger, at one point she is seen ‘taking up her knitting again and doing some rather rapid decreasing which she felt she would regret later on’. You would not want to be on the receiving end of one of Mrs Bradley’s woollen creations. Perhaps this is Mitchell’s mischievous poke at the trope of the elderly knitting detective. Of course, it could have been a strategic move on the part of Mrs Bradley; a suspect potentially distracted by the ‘mangled length of knitting’ or fascinated by the ‘shapeless garment’ might talk more freely as a result.

Which one would you choose?

You still might not be sure which would be the best woman for your particular enquiry. However, perhaps the ladies might be persuaded to pool their remarkable talents to solve the case. Now that would be a fascinating crossover…

Featured Image Source

You might also like More from author