Murder in the Manor

When I was about twenty, I spent part of a summer tutoring the youngest son of a Scots earl. The boy was about fifteen and due to take a sort of milestone examination in the autumn — we all went through it. His schoolmasters at Eton had said that he was not likely to pass a single paper, and I was there to see that they were wrong. The arrangement was that, if I were satisfied with his work in the morning, he would be allowed to go out and shoot in the afternoon. The grouse season had just started. The house was an enormous pink castle. Parts of it were very old, and no doubt blood-soaked in that brutal fashion peculiar to the Scots clan history. Later, the Victorians had tripled its size and various turrets and crenellations and bastions and other baronial fal-lals.

One lunchtime, after an unusually trying session with James and quadratic equations, the butler whispered in my ear as he handed me my plate. “Ah, sir,” he said. “It’s a very long time since we heard screams coming from the West Wing.” The screams had been mine, and were not wasted, as James in the end passed three of his papers out of five.

It was the butler’s joke, of course. He was playing his role, and enjoying it. My first morning in the castle, he had woken me with the question: what temperature would I prefer my bath? He was absolutely straight-faced, with not a hint of satire, but he knew perfectly well I had no idea. My bathroom had a superb brass-bound thermometer in it, for him to use. But at the same time, he completely understood my uncertainty about how I ought to conduct myself in such a milieu. When he laid out my evening clothes so that I could dress for dinner, he would step a little out of his role and tell me what to expect — whether I should leave with the ladies before the port came round, and so on.

That was in 1951, I think, right at the end of the true country-house era. It was Scotland, not England, and Cortachy Castle was very much at the upper end of the grandeur range, but still it was true to form. My experiences there conformed to the myth — and especially the butler’s awareness that the West Wing was the proper place for screams to come from. It is this myth, and the realities behind it, that I wish to explore a bit with you. Why country houses? Why the British literary preoccupation with them? And, in particular, why did they become the classic setting for imaginary murders?

All the clichés refer to this particular world. The butler did it. The body in the library, the watcher lurking in the shrubbery, and so on. One obvious point is that a country house is isolated, which limits the number of possible murderers (always one of the main technical difficulties of the classical whodunit), but that is, I think, superficial. It does not account for the sense of rightness. For that we have to turn to the myth, and the reasons why it is so deeply rooted in the English psyche.

I now live in a country house, a great deal smaller than Cortachy, thank heavens, but still recognizably the real thing. It has a servants’ wing (rented, appropriately, to a Mr Butler), and a stable block, and a walled garden, and so on. There are a number of interesting cavities, both inside and out, where it would be easy to conceal a body, one of which might even elude a police search. The house appears to have begun as an eighteenth-century box, four rooms down and four up, with immense chimneys on the outer walls. But, about 1870, two imposing wings were added, with Gothic and Tudor decorations, a crenellated porch, and six-foot, decorative chimney pots, to which I now sometimes have to teeter up to remove the jackdaws’ nests. Last winter, I went into Winchester to look up the census reports from 1871 and 1881, on either side of the date of the alterations.

In 1871, the householder was Thomas Barnard, who lived there with his wife Sarah and two daughters and two sons, but no living-in servants. In 1881, the householder was a Mrs Coles, a widow, and living with her were a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen-maid, a housemaid, a butler, and a groom. Six servants to look after one woman. She would probably have had a couple more maids coming in from the village, and at least three gardeners living in cottages up the road. Mrs Coles was the widow of a retired Army general, the younger son of a neighbouring family and so not himself immensely rich. She appears to have moved here after her husband’s death to be near her sister, who lived in a larger house a hundred yards along the main road. The sister was married to the rector of the village, a Mr Bishop, and they had nine servants living in the house, including an upper- and an under-housemaid, a footman, and a page.

This is part of the reality which tends to get forgotten. You find it in the television series Upstairs, Downstairs, except that that depicted a very grand establishment. In fact, there were, right up until the Second World War, an enormous number of not particularly special houses which employed what now seems an astonishing number of servants, and at astonishingly low wages. It was upon their work and their lives that the whole myth is founded. That world could not exist without them.

One of the reasons why one is not instantly aware of this fact is that there was a convention whereby servants were invisible. Just after the war, my mother moved to a modest-sized house at the centre of a village. It had an awkward-shaped triangular garden, with the house at the base and the various sheds up at the apex. A six-foot wall ran from the house to the sheds, making the awkward triangle into two thin and almost impossible further triangles. The sole function of the wall seems to have been to allow the servants to come and go, fetching coal in for the fires and so on, without being seen by the guests sitting in their deck-chairs on the long thin lawn. You can still work out how my own house was organized internally, with separate channels of communication, front and back, so that the servants could do their work without impinging on the nobs in the front rooms. Dolly Baker, who lived in the village all her life and died only last year, had worked in the house as scullery-maid in the 1920s, coming in by the day from her mother’s cottage. I once asked her to walk round the house with me and tell me what the rooms had looked like back in those days. “Oh, no,” she said. “I was never let set foot beyond the kitchen. I couldn’t tell you about the front.”

The artist Mrs Edward Ward wrote that, when she stayed at Crewe Hall, no housemaids were ever to be seen, except in chapel, when a great number would suddenly appear, and disappear as soon as the service was over. One morning she needed the help of a housemaid and went out to look for one. As she came through her door she saw a black dress dash along the passage and vanish. She hunted around and eventually found the housekeeper. Lord Crewe’s orders, she was told, were that none of the servants should be seen by visitors. If they broke the rule, they were dismissed on the spot.

That was an extreme case, but not unique. The tenth Duke of Bedford enforced a similar rule, applying it only in the afternoon. But, in very many houses, a servant who chose to take a shortcut down the main stairs rather than using the steep and carpetless servants’ stairs would be regarded as highly impertinent and might well be dismissed if he repeated the offense. The stairs were for some reason especially sacrosanct.

The servants should never be seen on the main stairs, except on hands and knees to clean them, of course at a time when the gentry were unlikely to be about. I believe you could say that the definitive criterion of whether a building counted as a country house was whether it contained a separate set of servants’ stairs. Sometimes, with great ingenuity, the architects would arrange that the well into which the grand flights of main stairs fitted also contained, coiling in and out of the magnificent windings, the steep, narrow flights of the servants’ steps. As a result, ladies of the house could sweep down to breakfast, kempt and exquisite in their morning dresses, creatures so ethereal that it was difficult to imagine them ever needing to do anything so earthy as to evacuate their bowels, while on the other side of the panelling, girls of fourteen or fifteen were toting down the stinking slop-pails they had filled during the night.

That was, of course, a practical enough reason for the two sets of stairs, at least until the arrival of the water-closet made it possible to empty slops on the same floor as the bedrooms.

(A footnote on country house loos, though as far as I know none has yet featured in a murder mystery. They were — at any rate from a child’s viewpoint — almost the most memorable feature of such establishments. They arrived remarkably late. Apparently, my great-great-grandmother used to describe what is now my brother’s house as being “extremely inconvenient” until my great-great-grandfather had the wings added. One wing contained nothing but a grand dining-room. My great-great-grandfather told the architect that he wanted the largest dining-room in Gloucestershire — and it still is, by six inches in each direction. Alas, in old age, he was found pacing up and down its magnificence, murmuring to himself, “I was a fool when I built this room.” The other wing contained all three loos, so there must have been none before it was built. Anyway, each consisted of a room as big as a small bedroom. Across the end in two cases, and all down one side of the third, ran a shining mahogany shelf about three feet deep. A flap of the shelf could be raised to reveal an inner shelf, pierced with the hole upon which you sat. Beneath was the bowl, patterned as intricately as a teapot in blue and white and bearing its maker’s name and its own name, intended to convey the notion of a rush of cleansing waters, like the “Tornado” or the “Niagara.” Beside you in the seat was the big brass handle of a sort of plunger, which you had to operate to achieve the Niagara effect. There was often also a handwritten notice pinned to the wall, detailing the exact procedure needed to make the thing work the way it was supposed to. “Pull handle half up and release slowly. Then pull fully up with a single firm stroke. If cistern fails to operate, ring for housemaid and tell her to fetch Mr Sysum.”

Ah, yes, the business of ringing for people. In a more obvious manner than the interlocking stairs, the bell system in country houses was just as expressive of the sheer mad ingenuity needed to make such a social unit function. Even now, crawling round among my rafters, looking for the source of leaks in my roof, I tend to snag my trousers on strange protuberances. As often as not, these are the remains of a little L-shaped lever, pivoted at the corner and with rusted strands of wire attached to the two arms. This was a point at which some part of the bell system needed to turn a corner. It worked like this: In the drawn-room, Mrs Coles (or some other previous owner) would have seen her brother-in-law the rector coming up the front drive. She would go to the bell-pull beside the fireplace and give it a tug. The bell-pull was an embroidered strip about two inches wide, hanging from the ceiling and ending a few feet from the floor in a tassel. The bell-pull would transmit the tug to a wire running up through the cavity of the wall of the master-bedroom above and on into the attics, where its vertical energy would be converted into horizontal energy via one of the L-shaped levers, and then on across that room-space, down half a level, on across the width of the house, round at least two more corners, and down to a panel in the short passage between the servants’ hall and the kitchen, causing a bell on a curving spiral spring to jangle. The housemaid — Alice Loveday, according to the census — would go and look at the panel and see that it was the drawing-room bell which was still bobbing on its spring. It had been a single ring, for the butler. “Looks like Rector’s early again for tea, Mr Ward,” she would call. Walter Ward, the butler in the census, would put his paper down and take off his green baize apron, put on his tailcoat, and go off to answer the summons, while the cook, Julia Sprigg, would heave herself out of her creaking wicker chair to put the scones in the range and get the kettle to a good fast boil for the tea.

My house is not enormous, so there might have been as few as ten such sets of pulleys and wires running from the various living-rooms and bedrooms to the panel. The intricacy of the system in a really large house, and the frequency with which it must have gone wrong, can only be imagined.

Another thing that is hard to imagine is the tone of voice in which servants should be spoken to: not necessarily unkindly, but as if they were potentially criminal idiots. Here are some lines which Kipling put into the mouth of a soldier discharged after the Boer War — about 1903, that makes it — and now employed as an undergardener by the local squire:

Me that ‘ave rode through the dark

Forty mile, often, on end,

Along the Ma’ollisberg Range,

With only the stars for my mark

An’ only the night for my friend,

An’ things runnin’ off as you pass,

An’ things jumpin’ up in the grass,

An’ the silence, the shine an’ the size

Of the ‘igh, unexpressible skies —

I am takin’ some letters almost

As much as a mile to the post,

An’ “Mind you come back with the change!”

Me! 

This is no exaggeration. Dolly Baker told me that when she was sent with letters to the post — and the mailbox is less than fifty yards from our gate — she had to come back and report that she had done what she had been told.

Why am I telling you all this? What has this got to do with murders? It emphasizes the ritual nature of the life of the owners of such houses, the almost priest-like implacability of the idyll. We know when we read about Blandings or Brideshead that P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh are to a great extent mythicizing for their own purposes the real life they purport to describe. They flood their scenes with nostalgia, the low golden October light of that world before reality froze it dead.

The metaphor of frost was all too real in such houses. A number of country house murders were supposed to have taken place in winter because the lack of footprints in the snow was a way of limiting the suspects — but you simply cannot believe the sheer bloody cold of a big English house in winter. They have huge rooms, and great thick stone walls, and, once the cold got into your bones, no heating system then available could have driven it out. The room where the family sat in my brother’s house has a sixteen-foot ceiling and three tall windows facing the prevailing wind. It is not quite as big as the dining-room, but you could still get a perfectly good two-story, three-bedroom modern house into it. There are radiators beneath two of the windows, encased behind grills so that their shapes should not obtrude, and a fireplace you can stand up in. The chimney has iron rungs set into the side of the chimney-sweeps to climb up. (I have actually done that, as a boy. My mother was not pleased when she saw my clothes.) You can imagine the draft up that chimney when the fire was lit, sucking fresh cold in under the immense doors. Mr Sysum told me that before the war the central heating boiler used a ton of coke a week. As you can imagine, they used to light it early in the fall and keep it going long into the spring. But, even with its two radiators going full blast and a log fire roaring on the hearth, all you got was three pockets of perceptible warmth around the heat centres, with a whistling draught round your ankles. This is a reality that tends to be forgotten as we enjoy the golden October glow.

Similarly with the reality of servants. You think of Walter Ward and Alice Loveday, he in his tailcoat and pinstripes, she in black frock, lace-fringed apron and white lace cap, carrying out the tea-tray and the wafer-cut cucumber sandwiches into the sunlight while Mr Bishop and the Admiral took practice shots on the croquet lawn, but you do not think of the sheer strain of living with servants, their feuds, their failings, their sulks, their illnesses, their bloody-mindedness. I had a couple of really powerful aunts, who could have gone ten rounds with any number of Bertie Woosters. I remember as if it were yesterday Aunt Mimi trying to persuade Mrs Hoppen not to put soda into the water for boiling the Brussels sprouts. Cooks used to do this because it turned the sprouts a violent bright green, which they thought pleasing, and the hell with the taste. Hoppy was a slab of a woman, stone-faced and fairly deaf. Aunt Mimi was slight and red-haired, but with a voice that could hail taxis across Piccadilly. She would stand tiptoe and crow to Hoppy, nose to nose: “Now, Mrs Hop, you are absolutely not to do it. Do you understand? No soda. Lord Baldwin is coming to luncheon. He doesn’t like it.” And Hoppy would nod back at her, impassive. You could see her wrapping her deafness round her like a force-field against the onslaught. You could sense her large, chapped hands twitching toward the soda-jar. “Yes, my lady, whatever you say. Don’t you worry, now, dearie.” What, send yellow sprouts to the table from her kitchen, with an ex-Prime Minister expected!

I see from the census records of the larger establishment next door to ours that only one of the nine servants that the owners, the Bishops, and employed in 1871 was still employed there in 1881. That is a big turnover in the static world of the English countryside, and it must demonstrate how unsatisfactory the life had been to either employer or employed. But what about the faithful retainer, the one who stayed, in this case the butler, John Jeffreys? Loyalty can be just as difficult as high turnover. Mrs Hoppen was a faithful retainer, and so was Aunt Mimi’s butler Mr Francis, with his migraines, and the housemaid Alice Francis with her stage-whispers, audible down several corridors, about what she thought of visitors’ standards of dress. Faithful retainers accumulated power. Things got done more and more their way. My grandmother had two faithful retainers, her cook and the nanny, who were not on speaking terms with each other. Mostly this did not trouble my grandmother, as there were no children in the house and the nanny had stayed on after rearing my aunts and my father because… well, I don’t quite know why — because she was a faithful retainer, I suppose. Anyway, there was a nursery and a nanny waiting for us when my parents came home on leave from the colonies, and then the feud really blossomed. The cook was in a position of great power, and she exploited it by sending up barely edible food to the nursery. This was in the days when children had to finish up what was put in front of them. I have sat from lunch-time to tea-time over a Peter Rabbit bowl with sago pudding. My brothers must have been less obstinate than me and got it down somehow. It is a very strong memory, one of the elements that shaped my childhood. Maybe it has helped make me what I am. But for sago pudding, I shouldn’t be a mystery writer today. Think of that!

Before I move on to the question of why country houses were suitable milieux for fictional murders, I had better make the connection between the sort of ultra-grand establishments from which I have taken most of my examples and the much smaller and cosier houses that you find in mystery stories. The point is that the smaller houses, such as the one in which I live, were set up and run as far as possible in imitation of the larger ones. The further down the scale you were, the more important it was to maintain the symbols of country-house life. Even now, as you mill round great country houses open to the public, you will hear a remarkable number of conversations in which other visitors are busy suggesting (by little cries of recognition when they spot a boot-jack or a pair of library steps) that they too, in the old days, were at home in places like this. If the world of the great country house seems to us wholly unreal, the world of the smaller country house was an imitation of that unreality.

Country houses were isolated from the world around them, and not just by their actual location. There was another sort of isolation, which is relevant at a deeper level. Sir Oswald Sitwell records that his father took a visitor to the great house of Renishaw up the hill above it, and pointed over the teeming industrial valleys below to a further range of hills where another landed family lived in their own great house. “Just think,” he said, “there is absolutely nobody between us and the Delmores at Foxton forty miles away!”

That was commonplace. I can remember my grandmother making a different version of the same remark when I brought her to the house my wife and I had scraped up enough money to buy. It was only about three miles west of Marble Arch, and London spreads on for miles and miles beyond, but she got out of the car and stared at our perfectly respectable street in disbelief. “My dear,” she said, “I didn’t know anybody lived this far west!”

They were both giving expression to the notion that they lived in a world which was separate from the world in which most people lived — and to a great extent this was true. Even in my day, we were not allowed to play with what were called “the village children,” and this was normal. We were separately educated in boarding schools from the age of eight. We wore different clothes and spoke with a different voice — I have quite a marked version of it still. Of course, in most cultures and countries, the privileged lived differently from the less privileged and defended their lifestyles with barriers, visible and invisible, but the thing which distinguished our version was the considerable size of this other world. I do not know the figures, but, for argument’s sake, suppose there were forty major public (i.e., private) schools, and twice as many minor ones, and suppose they each contained three hundred boys who stayed there five years, i.e., roughly one-twelfth of their lives. Then at any one time there would have been about 600,000 males who would attend, were attending, or had attended public schools. Double that for the females of the same class — even though they would have been much more erratically educated — and you have just over a million people whose identity hinges on the fact that somehow they belong inside an invisible wall which encloses a loose-knit body of people who, when asked what image captured the meaning of civilized life, would have told you that it was a Georgian country house set in its own park and surrounded by inherited acres of woodland and farmland.

Of course, once inside the invisible wall, you would find that there were a whole series of concentric barriers enclosing smaller and smaller worlds of greater and greater exclusivity, but the containing wall was the real test. Inside it you belonged. It was not always that you knew what it was like to live the country-house life, even though that was more likely than you might imagine. In my small village alone, there are seven houses that would qualify, two of them with a pretty grand rating, plus areally big one just down the road. And in Hampshire, and much of England, you come to a village much like ours every three or four miles.

So what we have as our classic setting is a house that is a microcosm of a particular world, which in one sense was almost totally unreal yet really existed, and in quite a big way. The houses were there, and the wealth and leisure, not to mention all the useful plot elements of social envy and fortunes to inherit and so on. Most of the privately educated classes, and so most of the natural writers of middlebrow fiction, had at least some experience of this life, though of course they would tend to enhance the prestige of their setting a rung or two over the level with which they were actually acquainted. You can’t blame them. Proust, after all, did much the same. I do it too, still.

And not only were the writers there, but so were the readers. There were enough people, more than enough, to whom either the world described was familiar or who would be prepared to pretend to themselves and others that it was. The producers were there, and so was the market. But that does not account in itself for the continuing appeal of the product.

For that, I think we have to turn to what I have called the unreality of the country house world. Even in its heyday, I believe, they all felt in their bones that it did not make sense. Why was Lord Crewe so determined that his guests should not see the servants? The explanation given at the time was that he was terrified of women, and most of the servants would have been women. He was a bachelor, it is pointed out. But there were plenty of bachelors who regarded having several young women in the house, dependent on the master for their livelihood, as a great convenience, and they too would have expected their servants to keep out of sight when there were visitors around. Lord Crewe’s eccentricity was only an extreme version of a norm. In my own house, six people spent their lives looking after one woman, and she and they and her visitors conspired to ignore their existence, and very likely spoke to them in a tone which implied that they were robots, not humans with minds as good as one’s own.

What was in fact happening, I think, was an unspoken agreement that, as far as possible, one should speak and behave as though servants did not exist. It was a major change from the eighteenth century, when one made a parade of the number of one’s servants, but that was in the days when the country house was the centre of a hereditary estate. As such it had a function in society, and was subsidized by land rents. This was the reality on which the unreal ideals and dreams of the dominant social class of England were founded. It was always, of course, at odds with our myth of liberty and the free-born Englishman, but that is one of the functions of myths, to embody deeply felt aspects of a culture which are not at a rational level compatible with each other. (Another footnote: You Americans, for instance, have two contradictory myths: one of the Lone Frontiersman, who is sufficient to himself and whose personal integrity is his own justification — the Philip Marlowe figure; and the other of the Big Machine which will get you to the moon, and the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Poker is the classic Frontiersman game; Contract Bridge — the only sport America has really given the world — is a Big Machine game. It doesn’t do a lot of harm to have contradictory myths, but we non-Americans do sometimes get nervous when you elect a Frontiersman president and then expect him to drive a Big Machine.)

This is why I concentrated in the first part of this talk on servants, because their existence signals for me the complete unreality of the country-house world. And the system which made this world go round, was so elaborate, its conventions so obscure. You could be blackballed from a London club for wearing brown shoes with a blue suit. I learned as soon as I was given my first proper suit that a gentleman does not fasten the bottom button of his waistcoat. Fox-hunting… Oh, I haven’t time to hold forth about the sheer extraordinariness of fox-hunting, which seems to the people who do it seriously the central experience of their lives, more so even than the sex act. And the discomforts — I have written about the cold already, but there were other things almost as grim.

Why did they feel the need to do it? Why did so many others wish to live that life, or at least to pretend they did? It is as though they were a sort of priesthood embodying an ancient cult, in which the power behind the cult had disappeared and all the priests can do is pretend to themselves and the world that it is still there, going through increasingly elaborate and meaningless rituals to demonstrate that this is so, but knowing all the time that it is not.

That is what I mean by the country-house life being unreal, and that is why it is so apt a setting for the mystery tale, which, in its classic form, is about as real as Swan Lake. One of the reasons I am not very good at constructing whodunit plots is that reality will keep breaking in. Take the business of suspects. Not only have you got to have several, but you have to pay equal attention to them all or the reader will spot the murderer by the fact that she is the one in whom you seem specially interested. This is a thoroughly unreal procedure. The best solution, I think, is Agatha Christie’s, of peopling a book not with characters but with caricatures, a few bold strokes and leave it at that. Give Colonel Bostock a foul temper, a bad leg, and a hobby of beekeeping. Remind the reader about him at each entrance by having him limp in in a fury with a dead bee sticking to his sleeve. Use these facets in the plot — that limping step in the passage above, was it really the colonel or someone imitating his limp? And so on. This, incidentally, is why the Christie books have transferred so well to the cinema with all-star casts; instead of reminding the reader about Lady Elspeth by her silly laugh and the smell of gin on her breath, you bring on Angela Lansbury acting her eyeballs out.

But, just as the existence of a large number of country houses, and of people who were a bit familiar with them, did not in itself explain the pull of the country-house detective story, so the fact that we have an unreal setting appropriate to an unreal medium does not in itself explain our feeling that the classic murder mystery involves a corpse in the library of a country house where a number of citizens with secrets to hide have been assembled for some good reason. I do not even know how many mysteries there are that answer to that exact description — not a lot, I suspect. But there must be a reason why that is the central image that comes to our minds. When we sit in Plato’s cave and gaze at the shadows on the wall, the ultimate Real Idea of the detective story, that casts all these dim and varied images of itself onto the rock ahead, is of some beastly upstart millionaire slumped at the desk in the library of his country house with a crooked Oriental dagger sticking out of his back.

There was a world once, in unreal, golden England, with houses of Georgian purity or Victorian fancy, standing amid a swooping, tall-treed sward where the deer browsed undisturbed. Ladies and gentlemen of breeding and education inhabited this Eden. (Other inhabitants were needed to keep it going, but they were not seen.) They lived a ritual life, governed by great festivals, grouse shooting on the twelfth of August, partridges and cubbing on the first of September, pheasants and fox-hunting on the first of November, rituals of sacrifice and slaughter. Different rituals of sacrifice between Derby Day and Goodwood, when the London Season was at its height and the virgins — and they really were virgins, most of them — were decked and paraded at nightly balls to be chosen as brides by the tall, young warrior-priests. Warrior-priests because that is what, without knowing it, they were. They kept their hair cut short and their clothes as rigidly prescribed as any uniform. They were educated to an ideal little different from the great warrior castes of the past — the Spartans, the Parthians — to keep their bodies fit, to show no fear or weakness, to ride straight and tell the truth.

And then reality broke in. It was not just that in 1914 these make-believe warriors were called on to fight, and die, though many of them did both. There was economic and social reality as well, which even without the war would have broken that world, because its time was over. It had reached a level of unreality which was no longer sustainable. It did not die at once, of course. When I was a child, there were still quite a lot of people managing to live something like that life, but to them and to the other survivors it was a sort of after-life — and, because they were unable or unwilling to recognize social realities, they blamed the change on the war. They created myths about it, and magics, partly lamenting it and partly attempting to make it live again by special rites and charms. This is why the detective story flourished, had its own Golden Age, between the two World Wars, because its underlying power and purpose was a deep-felt need: to bring that world back to life.

That is why the ideal setting for the mystery novel is the imaginary world of the country house. There, supposed balance and harmony is broken by the act of violence, just as in the real world it had been broken by the war. That is why the ideal murderee is the nouveau riche millionaire, the embodiment of the economic upheavals, contrasted with the dwindling resources that had kept the grand old families going. That is even, perhaps, why the dagger is Oriental, because of the underlying tug of guilt about our colonial empire. (No, that’s a bit far-fetched. Don’t believe that unless you want to.) But the library itself, and, even more, that quite extraordinary figure, the gentleman-amateur detective (a creature as farcically distorted from reality as a Pantaloon or Columbine in the commedia dell’ arte), are very believable symbols.

In almost every country house, there was a room called the Library. Often the books stayed undisturbed on their shelves from spring-cleaning to spring-cleaning — I know it took a five-year cycle to get the library in my brother’s house dusted. What is more, though the actual readers in such houses were often the women, the Library would have been thought of as a largely male preserve, a place for cigar-smoke, and port, and what Kipling described as the most beautiful sound in the world, the deep voices of men laughing together. And around them the books, representing the values of their civilization, the great tomes of sermons, the historians, the poets, at least as far as the romantics, Fielding, Richardson, possibly Scott, but no later novelists. And, above all, the classics — Vergil, Livy, Terence, Ovid, Tacitus, Seneca. Because all these men, however intelligent, however brainless, would have spent most of their school days learning Latin and Greek, subjects almost completely useless but still taught in the same mode right up to my day. Almost all the science I know, almost all the history, certainly all the English literature, is self-taught. The theory was that I could teach myself these relatively peripheral subjects because, there at the center, expert in nothing but capable of anything, stood the supposed product of the educational system, the trained mind. (I was terrible at Latin and worse at Greek, so mine may not be a very good specimen.)

And what is the amateur detective but the literary embodiment of the trained mind?

So you have this mythic world — mythic even in its reality but ten times more so in actual reality. It is doubly intruded upon — first by the upstart millionaire, the new and threatening economy of money unrelated to inherited acres, and then by the blood act in the sanctuary. Blood for blood, only a ritual sacrifice can heal the ever-bleeding wound. Who shall it be? Society itself cannot choose (the police are baffled). Then, out of the clouds, steps the hero-figure, the demi-god, the oracle, embodiment of the values of the myth. Like a shaman at a witch-finding, his trained mind re-enacts the dreadful event, dances through the maze, and finds the secret enemy, slayer and victim. And the wound is healed.

I will leave you to work out for yourself why always in Plato’s cave behind us, though practically never in the wavering shadows on the wall before us, that second victim, led away to the altar of the scaffold, turns out to be the butler.

Copyright © Peter Dickinson 1991
Published in the Spring edition of The Armchair Detective 1991. Based on a talk given at Mohonk in 1990