The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Crime Writing in Interwar Britain:  Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age

Crime Writing in Interwar Britain: Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age. By Victoria Stewart. Cambridge University Press, 2017. viii + 207 pp.  $99.99 (cloth). 

Reviewed by Debra Rae Cohen, University of South Carolina


Until I read Victoria Stewart’s intriguing Crime Writing in Interwar Britain I had no idea that when Lord Peter Wimsey reached out his fine patrician hand to his bookcase to select one of the “bright scarlet volumes of the Notable British Trials he was literalizing the negotiation between fiction and nonfiction that helped define the crime novel’s “Golden Age.” 

Stewart explores the ways in which writers of the interwar period derived inspiration from, commented on, and deployed the recognizable contours of famous real-life cases, and how their interventions into the discourse of crime served also to model divergent views of how one properly depicts it: as ontological aberrancy, or as a “desperate response to social circumstances” (14). Juxtaposing the fiction of writers like Dorothy Sayers, F. Tennyson Jesse and Marie Belloc Lowndes with their less-known writings on true crime, her stunningly researched book traces the versioning of particular notorious cases through their many interwar iterations.  

Such crimes, however—whether unresolved Victorian mysteries like the Whitechapel murders or contemporary controversial trials, like that of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters in 1922—served, Stewart demonstrates, not just as source material, but as a mechanism for construing the ethics and purpose of crime writing. At the very time when crime fiction was routinely strictly codified as a genre (as in the famous “Detection Club Oath,” which mandated “fair play” from its members), its left-brain hermeticism was in fact simultaneously being challenged. Placing interwar writings in a genealogy that traces back to Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Stewart explains contemporary ambivalence about the genre’s roots in sensation fiction; Sayers herself, surveying a field dominated by the “clue-puzzle” model of detection, decried the “deep and wide gulf extending today between the mystery-story of sensation and the mystery-story of pure intellect....we need a great new popular genius to fuse once more those two widely separated elements and give us a new Moonstone” (29).

Reworking real-life cases, in Stewart’s account, provided some of the fodder for what we can read as a loose trajectory from puzzle to psychology—most clearly dramatized in the struggles of Harriet Vane in Sayers’s Gaudy Night to humanize her own protagonist, the hapless Wilfred. Narratives of trials, particularly those that took part before the liberalization of evidence laws in 1898, testify, Stewart says, to “the relative opacity of ‘character’” (13), with public scrutiny of trial defendants—often silent blank slates for the projection of “criminality”—producing radically divergent narratives of guilt, innocence, motivation, that attempted to “explain and control crime, with the incorporation of a greater or lesser degree of social critique” (14).

Stewart recognizes this, insightfully, as a gendered story. Public fascination with true crime, and especially with the accounts of trials, largely revolved around the lurid tales exposed therein of extra-marital passion and revelations of the inner workings of domestic lives. Such cases therefore become sites for investigating and restaging the changes—and the limits of such changes—in women’s roles through the early part of the century, particularly in reference to the regulation of sexual desire. Jesse wrote about, and Lowndes and Jessie (Mrs. Victor) Rickard restaged in fiction, for example, the Madeleine Smith case from 1857, in which her epistolary outpourings to her secret lover helped serve to bring her to trial for his murder, ending in an equivocal verdict of “not proven.” The open-endedness of the verdict left room for divergent explications. Where Jesse saw Smith as “displaying a vitality which can find expression, at that time, only through an illicit affair”—claiming that “Madeleine was born before her time” (36), Lowndes provides in her fictional reworking a punitive humiliation for the social sin that compensates for the lack of judicial punishment. As Stewart indicates, even though she relocates the events of this murder into her present, Lowndes also implies that Victorian “social policing” of women’s behavior is still operative; in contrast to Jesse’s treatment, here “the reader is alerted to the possibility that social appearances may hide the workings of a punitive regime, but are not explicitly invited to critique the patriarchal structures that make this possible” (40).

Indeed, Stewart is especially adept at charting the means by which her authors, through encouraging or discouraging identification with criminal protagonists, prompt conclusions as to the causes of crime and its relation to the social order. (Her extended reading of Jesse’s 1934 reworking of the Thompson/Bywaters case, A Pin to See the Peepshow, is especially fine in this regard.) But she also demonstrates—most notably in relation to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the stories of Elizabeth Bowen—that writers could construct such (dis)identifications to exemplify, metafictionally, the interplay of different discourses about crime. By generic manipulation, in these tales, romance plot becomes crime plot: part of the intrigue becomes the reader’s, as the warring discourses highlight the difficulty of interpretation, both within the text and without. 

Though Crime Writing in Interwar Britain is packed with fascinating detail (and a kaleidoscopic, at times overwhelming, array of names of characters and their real-life counterparts), it’s at its best in these moments when the argument about discourse comes to the fore. At times I found myself wishing for an even fuller articulation of other formal elements—a closer look, for instance, at the complex way in which trial transcript and “case notes” language works in some of the texts of the period—and perhaps some speculation about how film and radio adaptation affected the discourses on crime that Stewart describes. But to wish this is only to recognize the profound implications of what Stewart already gives us: beyond the fascinating view she provides of the interwar fascination with crimes, old and new, fictional and non-fictional, her argument has broader application. It suggests that charting their chronicling, and the mingling of the discourses involved, can flesh out our understanding of the documentary impulse so crucial to the space between.

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