Saturday 22 May 2010

Where do crime writers come from?

My researches into the history of the Detection Club have been helped by a friend who supplied me with a list of club members dating back to 1932, not long after the august institution was founded. The committee members, led by G.K.Chesterton as President, were E.C.Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, G.D.H. and M. Cole, Edgar Jepson, Milward Kennedy, John Rhode and Dorothy L. Sayers.

But what really caught my eye was the addresses of the members. A very high proportion of them lived in London and nearby counties. Only J.J. Connington (Belfast), Robert Eustace (Cornwall), Baroness Orczy (Monte Carlo – at the Villa Bijou!), John Rhode (Somerset) and Hugh Walpole (Keswick) came from further afield.

Was this representative of where British crime writers lived during the Golden Age? To a large extent, I think it was. Of course, the Club membership was self-selecting and this may have resulted in fewer writers from other parts of the Kingdom being elected, but by and large, I think that one of the changes in the crime genre over the past 80 years is not only that more stories are written with a regional backdrop, but more of the people who are writing them come from different places in Britain. I guess that there may have been a broadly similar trend in the US over a similar time-frame.

The crime writing community seems, therefore, to be much less enclosed than it used to be. And websites, social networking and – yes! – blogs are surely bound to strengthen this development. Of course, I think it’s healthy, and I can recall that even in my teens, my parents felt that writing novels was not really something that ordinary people like us did, which was why they encouraged me to get a proper job. So the changes are for the better, but I remain fascinated by the cliquey yet intriguing world of the 1930s detective-writing community.


Unknown said...

It fascinates me to. I've been doing a lot of research into Virginia Woolf and another writer in a similar genre named, Elizabeth Bowen. They came from the same time period, similar local, and when I read their novels, they're similar.


vegetableduck said...

Martin, for this second project of mine, a more survey-oriented book, I wanted to have a sample of 100 Golden Age era writers, their birth regions and social origins. My last compilation had 86 people (need to update), I divided regions into:

London, South England (below the Thames), Central England, North England and the "Outlands" (a catch-all of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, you name it). Anyway, here are the percentages:


Middlesex (naturally) was the leading birth county by far, followed by Devon and Sussex, Yorkshire, Hampshire and Surrey.

So in this sample, nearly three in four of the writers came from London, South and Central England. This may not be so different from British writers overall in that era. What percentage of the overall population was found in those regions, I wonder?

One thing about the Detection Club, only a small number of British mystery writers were members in the 1930s and I think there are cases, like Ngaio MArsh, where people didn't join because realistically it wasn't convenient to attend meetings. Connington, who you mention, taught in Belfast and as far as I know never attended a meeting of the Club, unless it was the one when we he became a member (but did the founding members ever go through an initiation?). I think some writers in Conningtons shoes would not have joined, were they asked.

But you're right, it was a very much a social club and, like any such club, it helped if you knew someone! So that would tend to promote insularity. Only ten people became new members in the 1930s, after the initial lot. Probably less than twenty people regularly attended meetings.

You should tell us what it's like these days! Who is the oldest member, I wonder? Among those who have died this decade, Michael Gilbert went back to 1946, Andrew Garve to 1952 and Celia Fremlin to 1963. H. R. F Keating made it in 1966, P. D. James not till 1972 (just two years before Peter Lovesey!), and Ruth Rendell, rather shockingly, in my opinion, not until 1977 (a year after Margarey Yorke and a year before Simon Brett).

Martin Edwards said...

Clarissa - interesting observation, thanks.
Curt - I imagine that P.D. is the oldest member. I find your stats fascinating if not unexpected. Interesting that the good old North was then so poorly represented - I'm pleased that things have changed!

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I was thinking "oldest" in terms of longest membership? The longest I was aware of was Keating, who has been in for 44 years now.

Anthony Lejeune joined in 1963--isn't he a critic?

John Fleming, 1963--have no idea who he is?

Mary Kelly, 1962--she wrote The Spoilt Kill, which won a gold dagger. She appears to still be living, at age 83? I had no idea. Have you ever met her?

Sorry, I know I'm rather straying from your post here!

What percentage of crime writers do you think come from northern England today (I guess the two biggest more modern names now are from Scotland)? In the old days, you used to be considered a "regionalist" is you were north England, or Devon/Cornwall, like J. S. Fletcher and Eden Phillpotts.

J. J. Connington, like Rankin and Mcdermid, was from Scotland, but he is quite abit removed from them, I think!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt.
Lejeune has written a few novels, as well as being a critic.
It was Joan Fleming, and she died a long time back. A very variable but occasionally excellent writer.
Mary Kelly is I think also long deceased. The Spoilt Kill is good.
Today's leading northern writers include Reg Hill, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid (who hasn't lived in Scotland for a long time), Robert Barnard, Cath Staincliffe, Kate Ellis etc etc.

vegetableduck said...

Joan Fleming, right! I do know her! She died thirty years ago. The GA wiki has her listed as "John." I didn't see a death year for Mary Kelly, but her last book appeared in 1974, apparently.

Probably no one who joined in the 1950s is still alive, I would guess (I wonder if this means Anthony Lejeune is the earliest surviving member?). John Trench, who I see joined in 1958, died in 2003. Any idea who E. H. Clements was? He (she?) was another of the 1958 inductees.

Martin Edwards said...

No, E.H.Clements isn't someone I've heard of, Curt. I will investigate!

Anonymous said...

Mary Kelly died on the 12th of December 2017.