|Setting The Scene In Wessex: The Crime Novel & Drama, Part One: 1745-1945|
|The crime-mystery/thriller genre remains today the most popular of all, its roots going back two centuries.|
|The Roots Of The Genre
It’s customary to speak of the crime genre’s roots being in 18-19th C. novels dealing with social injustice or famous criminal cases. This region had several local-interest examples of this phenomenon.
|The Elizabeth Canning Abduction Case
- The Franchise Affair
One was the Elizabeth Canning abduction case, a sensation of its time, and a mystery ever since. In 1753, servant girl Elizabeth Canning, described as of good character, claimed she had been held incommunicado for a month by two gypsy women who wanted her to turn prostitute. The women said they had been tramping around villages in Dorset and Wilts, between Abbotsbury and Coombe Bissett, and produced alibis. This is the simple outline of a case that fiercely divided public opinion, prompted mobs, public rows, and (our interest here) a series of books. Originally these were nonfiction works. The first was by Henry Fielding, the former North-Dorset resident and author of the scathing social satire Tom Jones [set mainly in 1745], which was the start of a longstanding literary focus (in the crime novel and elsewhere) on the hypocrisies and meanness of the aristocracy as cause of so many problems. As a follow-up re his beliefs in social justice, Fielding became a pioneering London magistrate, in which capacity he examined Canning as a crime victim. The principal accused, Mary Squires, was sentenced to hang, but was granted a stay of execution by the king due to disquiet over conflicting testimony. Later Canning herself was convicted of perjury when defence witnesses from the Dorset villages multiplied. (Darton's early travel book The Marches Of Wessex casts doubt on these alibis, due to the garbled Dorset place names and the state of the roads back then, suggesting another explanation entirely. The case can be considered still very much open. Canning herself was transported to America as punishment, married there, and as far as we know never said another word about the case.) Other influential public figures of the day (including Voltaire, who regarded the turnaround as a triumph of British justice) wrote tracts about the controversial case, and these became the research sources for later fiction works.
The definitive dramatisation is actually an updated one set in the modern era, but with the same basic story: The Franchise Affair (1948) by Scots author Josephine Tey (=Elizabeth Mackintosh, 1896–1952), which some consider her finest mystery novel. The Penguin cover blurb describes it as “an up-to-date version, in all essentials, of a notorious eighteenth-century cause celebre.” Though there are references to characters from Weymouth and Swanage, it has a vague provincial setting, with fictitious and fairly generic place names: ‘Milford,’ ‘Ham Green’ and the alleged kidnapping-scene country house, ‘The Franchise’ (‘Franchise’ is a New Forest property name). The novel was filmed in 1950 and subsequently adapted for tv at least twice, and in 1990 was named by the UK Crime Writers' Association as one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
The Franchise Affair is a useful example of the roots of the modern crime novel being in the observation of famous criminal cases from the past. The 1948 novel by Josephine Tey is set in contemporary i.e. post-WWII Britain, but was inspired by a case from two centuries before. (The real-life Elizabeth Canning becomes the schoolgirl 'Elisabeth Kane'.) The themes remain the same – the friends and neighbours who choose sides and decide guilt or innocence in advance, the role of the popular press, the twists and turns of the legal process as an ordeal. In the novel, it is one of those cases where innocents are the victims of allegations of abuse, and only a talented lawyer can help them; it is thus also an early example of the now-familiar courtroom drama where a prosecution case suddenly falls apart after a last minute revelation. The still is from the 1950 film version of the novel.
The Victorian Era saw a vogue for things ‘Gothick’, expressed in a literary fad for Gothic novels etc, which hark back to earlier and darker times. Here, this led to a classic work, set in England’s pre-Victorian ‘frontier’ period when nearly all major crime was smuggling-related. Moonfleet was written in 1898 by J. Meade Falkner (1858–1932), an educator who (like his friend Hardy) had a fascination with the past. He grew up in Dorset and set the story here a hundred years before his birth, when it was a smugglers’ haven. Moonfleet (a conflation of the old family name Mohune and the village of Fleet, on Chesil Bank) is the classic smuggling story, long a set text in schools and still in print (as well as available online), and the story really needs no introduction here. Set in 1750s Dorset and Wight, the scene shifts eastward during the story, from Fleet village, to the Zig Zag path up White Nothe, across Poole Heath, to Carisbrooke Castle on Wight. Below is the setting of the scene where the smugglers are ambushed by the redcoats and the pair flee up the Zig Zag path at White Nothe. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)
Moonfleet On Screen
Fritz Lang was German, a graduate of the
Expressionist school of cinema, and the film’s Gothic mood is captured by its opening titles
"Two hundred years ago, the great heath of Dorsetshire ran wild and bleak down to the sea.
Here, in hidden coves and lonely villages, the smuggling bands plied their violent trade..."
|The Smuggling Novel
Moonfleet is merely the best known example today of a subgenre which flourished throughout the 19th century, the smuggling novel. Because the Wessex region with its undeveloped coastline was a centre of this activity from the 18th C on through to the start of the Victorian Era, there were a series of these smuggling tales.
One particular event, described in every smuggling history, that caused national outrage and set the scene for a more organised official response was in 1747-8. A large smuggling gang (some accounts say 60+ riders) brazenly stole back a confiscated consignment of contraband tea and spirits stored in Poole Custom House, while officials and an RN sloop stood by helpless, and locals turned out en route to cheer them on. The Hawkhurst gang, as they were known, then kidnapped, mutilated and murdered a prosecution witness and the official escorting him. The gang were making an example of informers via deliberate public intimidation, called in court `the most unheard-of act of villany and impudence ever known.' The incident later inspired several novels: GPR James’s 1845 The Smuggler, Emily J Climenson's 1906 Strange Adventures In The County Of Dorset AD 1747, and the 1958 Smugglers' Buoy by the WWI hero Captain A. O. Pollard VC (1983-1960), who became a Bournemouth resident and prolific author. (There seem to be no screen versions of the incident, perhaps due to the sheer gruesomeness of the men’s fates.)
In terms of smuggling novels, the earliest examples were actually written from
the viewpoint of the then-new “Preventive” forces, and were set within living memory
of this ‘wild west’ period of local history.
So-called Regency Romances often have crime story elements such as smuggling or spying as part of their who-do-you-trust mystery aspect. A local-interest example is Alice Chetwynd Ley's 1977 At Dark Of The Moon, set on Dorset in the 1800s, when it was in the front line of the anticipated Napoleonic invasion. Crime may not figure in the works of Jane Austen, but her modern followers have remedied that. Jane And The Man Of The Cloth (1998), part of a modern 'fanfic' [fan fiction] 'Jane Austen Mystery' series by American author Stephanie Barron (1963-), also has a smuggling background. Here, crime-solving Regency sleuth Jane and her family visit a manor just outside Lyme Regis in 1804 (when the real JA visited), owned by a man she suspects is a murderous smuggler rather than the pious 'Preventive' man he purports to be. Another such work, evidently set in the 1810s-20s, Carrie Bebris's 2011 The Deception At Lyme (Or, The Peril of Persuasion) features not Jane but her now-married lead Pride & Prejudice characters. Mr and Mrs Darcy stumble across the body of a local woman at the foot of the Cobb and investigate with the help of Capt Frederick Wentworth (from Austen's Persuasion). Did she fall or was she pushed?
|The Victorian Era [1837-1901]|
Histories of the crime novel often outline
it as deriving in the popular Victorian domestic-crime/Dickensian social melodrama genre known
as the ‘sensation’ novel, and here we also have several local-interest examples.
The notorious lengthy case of the Tichborne Claimant (18??-98), a cause celebre taken up by various supporters on both sides, dramatised for TV in the 1975 The Tichborne Affair, has a local connection in that the legal costs led to the Tichbornes giving up Upton House, now run by Poole Council as a public amenity.
A modern (told from alternating viewpoints) revisiting of the social intrigues of the Victorian era is #2 in Ann Granger’s Lizzie Martin Mysteries series, A Mortal Curiosity (2008), set largely in the New Forest in 1864. After a suspicious death at ‘Shore House’ on the Solent where she is staying as a ladies companion, the heroine invites her beau, Scotland Yard Inspector Ben Ross, down to solve the case.
Crime And Punishment, Victorian
Men were sentenced to years of hard labour
for trivial crimes like petty theft. Others were transported to Australia, in one famous case,
that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834, for swearing a secret oath to join a labour union. The
6 Dorset labourers were pardoned after a national outcry, and their case became the foundation
of the Trade Union Movement in Britain, right at the start of the Victorian Era. This incident
was dramatised in Bill Douglas's 1986 film Comrades, with the first
half filmed authentically in Dorset (in and around Tyneham in the Purbecks) before the scene
shifts to Australia.
The first crime thriller in English is sometimes
said to be the 1794 Caleb Williams, by radical freethinker William Godwin, who is buried
in Bournemouth town-centre graveyard, in a tomb along with his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft and
their daughter Mary Shelley, widow of the poet Shelley and the author of Frankenstein.
The Ripper case led to a focus on the realities of Victorian police work. A modern police-procedural series which attempts to recreate Victorian police work is the ‘Sergeant Bragg and Constable Morton’ series of 16 novels [1983-98] about a City of London police duo, by former tax inspector Ray Harrison (1928-). Like Abberline, Bragg is from Dorset and working in London, but at least two of the novels have Dorset settings. A Harvest Of Death (1988) is set in a village near Dorchester in 1893 and has Bragg on leave recovering from an injury and making inquiries on behalf of a cousin accused of murdering a business rival. In Akin To Murder (1992), set in 1894, Bragg returns to his home county and with the help of his posh young assistant Constable Morton investigates the murder of a wealthy surveyor, despite local police hostility and what the Sunday Times described as “the resounding echoes of an old feud and black magic on the Isle of Purbeck.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
The ‘wrong box’ in question is a shipping crate which actually contains the ‘Bournemouth Strangler’. A train wreck in the New Forest causes crates to be mixed up.
Some have also theorized that RLS’s 1885 classic novella Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was inspired by the fact the Shelley family based in Bournemouth lent him a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when he visited Shelley Manor. The novel was prompted by a nightmare he had in Bournemouth, and a few have even argued it somehow psychically foreshadows the impending Ripper phenomenon.
“Did Sherlock Holmes Ever
Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited friends in Dorset from time to time and is buried in the New Forest, his great detective evidently never attended a crime in this area. However, an article with the above title in Dorset The County Magazine #37 [Ju1y 1974] by Ian McQueen (author of Sherlock Holmes Detected) suggested that “The Hidden Pince-Nez,” which hinges on the contents of a prehistoric mound at “Addleton” (which the story itself puts in Kent) is probably inspired by Allington near Bridport. And, no doubt inspired by this, a brief anonymous short story, “The Addleton Tragedy: Sherlock Holmes’s Only Dorset Case” (whose manuscript was found in best mystery tradition by a 2nd-hand dealer) was printed in the magazine in July 1989.
Rodney Legg’s Literary Dorset adds The Hound Of The Baskervilles may have several possible local sources of inspiration. Conan Doyle was staying at Parnham House in west Dorset when he first heard a mysterious hound baying in the night. John Fowles in his Hound Of The Baskervilles Pan-edition preface mentions the Black Dog Of Uplyme, and there is a spectral Portland ‘Row Dog’ reported. Hardy, drawing on local belief the black hound is a protector of vulnerable young women, had given the doomed Fanny Robin such a companion in Far From The Madding Crowd; it is of course the idea that the ghostly hound first appeared as protector of a persecuted maid which forms the basis of the Baskerville curse.
And the odd fact, compared to the clue of the dog who did not bark in the night, that Doyle never had Holmes tackle the Ripper is said (by a representative of the Dorset-based Sherlock Holmes Society) to be that Holmes went to the same school (Winchester) as a prime suspect (or scapegoat), who committed suicide after the last Ripper murder, the cricketer Montague Druitt of Wimborne...
Conan Doyle's grave, Minstead churchyard. The author is buried in the New Forest, where he had a house late in life nearby, but evidently never set a Holmes story locally, despite the ITV Jeremy Brett series credits sequence showing a newspaper billboard about the 'New Forest Murders.'
|The Pre-WWI Era|
The turn of
the century brought a new villain to the espionage thriller branch of the genre: the Hun. (Germany
supported the Boer cause during the Boer War, 1899-1902).
Freshwater on Wight - The 'Riddle Of The Sands' genre convinced many that German spies were watching coastal waters like the Solent so their navy could infiltrate them as soon as war broke out.
|The Crippen Case
The rise of the popular press, with its appetite for sensational murder cases, also made the figures in domestic murder trials into household names, and this in turn would often become the inspiration for plays and novels. The 1910 ‘media sensation’ case of Dr Crippen, apprehended on a transatlantic liner after his wife vanished and human remains were found in his London cellar, has a local link. One of the young barristers at the trial was Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960), who later drew on his professional background as a lawyer when writing his popular New Forest-set “Berry & Co.” high-society novels and short stories as 'Dornford Yates.' In this case, he noticed that Crippen had failed to understand that adding quicklime to destroy a corpse will backfire if you add water, which turns it into a preservative. Yates used this as the pivot of the background crime plot in a later novel, The House That Berry Built.
The 'Berry' stories often have some crime element, treated as high jinks. To quote Berry himself (in The Berry Scene, 1947): "I've watched as my companions bought a stolen caravan, put one over on a jumped-up, nouveau landowner, and thwarted the plans of a German spy. .... And we've seen off Communist trouble-makers and wealthy Americans! What fun!"
There’s also a local legend Crippen’s co-arrestee, his fiancee Ethel le Neve, who fled with him dressed as a boy, but was acquitted, later ran a teahouse outside Christchurch, where the Crooked Beam Restaurant stood for forty years [see Bournemouth Then & Now, p167]. However the 'Miss de Vere' whose body was found at her Christchurch cafe and was claimed by local police to be le Neve died in WW2, whereas le Neve lived another 25 years.
Crippen is the subject of one of American writer Erik Larsen’s novelisations of 20C history, his 2006 Thunderstruck, which also covers another local interest figure, Marconi, who ran early wireless telegraphy tests from Wiltshire, Wight, Poole and Dorset from the turn of the century on. Crippen’s arrest was an early success for transatlantic wireless telegraphy, pioneered largely by Marconi. Ironically, with advances in forensics, there is now some doubt the remains found in the cellar were those of Crippen's wife (other victims?), and media coverage continues.
Another 'press sensation' of the era was the 'Brides In The Bath' multiple murders case. One of the unlucky 3 brides of the 'Brides in the Bath Murderer', the serial bigamist George Joseph Smith, was local. In 1910, he married Beatrice "Bessie" Munday in Weymouth, and drowned her in her bath 8 weeks later, when he had got her to make out a will in his favour. His repeating the same crime eventually got him hanged in 1915, with the prosecution evidence an early example of forensics. This 'British Bluebeard' case was one of those press sensations that subsequently had an impact on crime writing, as it offered an ideal old-fashioned plot template. The original case was dramatised on stage, radio and tv, including a 2003 Yorkshire-TV movie starring Martin Kemp, The Brides In The Bath, with 1910 Weymouth portrayed by Scarborough.
There was a local connection with another famous serial-wife murderer of the time, whose story was told in the 1994 ITV 4-part mini-series Dandelion Dead, written by Michael Chaplin and directed by Dorset resident Mike Hodges. Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor based in Wales, who was hanged in 1922 for the arsenic murder of his wife and other attempted murders, visited Bournemouth and Christchurch during WWI, and as soon as he had poisoned his wife returned to propose marriage to a local woman, referred to during a sensational murder trial as Madame X. (She declined his offer and he was arrested soon after, when an associate developed the same mystery illness as his late wife.)
|Trent's Last Case
There was inevitably the odd satiric work which questioned the glib story setup whereby a gentleman-amateur private detective was able to step in and solve a fiendishly clever murder. One famous early work in this regard was Trent's Last Case  by E.C. Bentley (1875-1956), who was a humorist as well as a novelist, and had a certain sense of the absurd, in this case the absurdity of the genre with its reliance on the amateur detective who is never wrong. Regarded as an early classic of the country-house-murder whodunit for its plot twist eluding the amateur-sleuth hero, it originally had an unlocated fictional setting, later given some geographic reference point (a “quiet corner of Hampshire” near Bournemouth) when the stage version was adapted for the screen in 1952. (There had already been two film versions, but both were 1920s silents.) A tv version was also made in 1964, for the BBC’s 1964-69 anthology series Detective.
Trent's Last Case: The 1952 film version, starring Orson Welles and Michael Wilding, was set at a Hampshire mansion near Bournemouth. “When international financier Siggsbee Manderson (Welles) is found dead in the flowerbed, the police are quick to declare it suicide. Ace reporter Philip Trent (Wilding) is not so sure: he suspects foul play and sets to work finding the killer. Is the grieving widow genuinely distraught? Was the private secretary really in Southampton? And who is the mysterious ‘George Harrison’? (Movie Mail blurb)
|The Interwar “Golden Age”|
|In the period between the World
Wars, 1920-39, the genre was dominated what literary historians call the Golden Age of the Detective
Story. This refers to the change of narrative focus, where the hero is the detective (amateur or
Scotland Yard) and the murders simply a mystery for him (or her) to solve as an intellectual-puzzle
style adventure. These ‘whodunit’ mysteries usually had a provincial setting, with
the action often set at a large country house over a weekend where diverse guests had been invited.
The first murder would be followed by at least one other, and the motive would be a long-standing
grudge of some sort, perhaps to do with genealogy and clauses in someone’s will. The murders
are always committed in complicated and colourful ways. The murderer would be clever with clues
etc, but of course not as clever as the detective.
For instance, the murderer’s alibi might fall apart over an imperfect reading of the railway timetables. (This became a well-established enough genre ‘trope’ to be spoofed in a 1970s Monty Python skit.) The writer who made a specialty of breaking the murderer’s “cast-iron” alibi by clever re-interpretation of railway timetables was Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) with his Scotland Yard “Inspector ‘Soapy Joe’ French” series [1920-57]. Crofts, who had worked as a railway engineer, is classed as one of the 'Big Four' of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and was called by leading American crime writer Raymond Chandler (who famously in a 1944 essay criticized the cosy English detective story for its illogical plotting) “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.” T J Binyon’s genre study Murder Will Out says Crofts’s work established the “police procedural” novel. Crofts’s 1932 Death On The Way (US title Double Death) is set in Dorset, as is part of the 1931 The Floating Admiral which he wrote with 13 other Detection Club members as an exercise in plotting. Also set in the region was his 1934 Mystery On Southampton Water aka Crime On The Solent, and there may be others (his work is mostly out of print now).
The ‘King of Thrillers’
Some mystery writers used thinly-disguised
settings by layering fictional place names atop a real landscape, with keen readers working out
clues as to the real location. One who did this was Agatha Christie (1891-1976),
with her ‘Miss Marple’ series [12 novels + 20 stories, 1927-71]. According to her
1930 Murder At The Vicarage, the first Miss Marple novel, Christie’s
sleuth lived in ‘St Mary Mead,’ a cosy one-constable village (where murder was nonetheless
a quaint regular pastime), in the county of “Downshire, with the name possibly taken from
the real Hampshire village of St Mary Bourne near Andover; ‘St Mary Mead’ is given
as 12-15 miles north of the south coast at ‘Looemouth’ and ‘Danemouth,’
referred to by her (emulating Hardy’s description of Bournemouth), as “a fashionable
watering place.” The resort figures largely in her 1942 The Body In The
Library. (The ‘Looe’ root probably come from the East Looe channel
in Poole Harbour, with the ‘Dane-’ reference based on Bournemouth’s eastern
promontory, Hengistbury being named after the “Danish” leader of the English conquest.)
I hope you never realize just how wicked small villages can be. - Miss Marple
A key trend was to have the detective a
gentleman of independent means. Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) made her
gentleman-detective hero a peer: Lord Peter Wimsey. DLS was educated at Salisbury’s Godolphin
boarding school, and in her 1923 Whose Body? she first introduces her
hero lunching at Salisbury’s ‘Minster Hotel’ (based on the town’s Cathedral
Hotel). Her 3rd ‘Wimsey’ novel, the 1927 Unnatural Death
(US title The Dawson Pedigree), has her WWI-veteran-turned-sleuth investigating a death
at a country house in the area. (A 1983 Sayers Society publication suggested Dorset was the likely
Another pioneer of the old-style gentleman-detective
story was a future Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis (1904–72), writing as “Nicholas
Blake”. (His son, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, was given the middle name Blake, after
this pen name.) As Blake, he wrote a long-running series of 16 novels and 3 stories [1935-66]
starring ‘Nigel Strangeways,’ a would-be poet (the character was based in part on
his friend poet WH Auden) turned ‘private enquiry agent.’ Investigative doors open
for him as he happens to be nephew to a Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner, Sir John Strangeways.
(This is the name of a landed family associated with West Dorset.)
The Nigel Strangeways series
[1935-66] by “Nicholas Blake”
In his memoir The Buried Day, Lewis said he regarded the detective genre as modern folk myth and reading them “a harmless release for the cruelty he believed was present in everyone.” [Ency. Of Mystery & Detection].
|One genre crossover strand already flourishing
was the boys-adventure novel where a few plucky youths would tackle villains, who at this stage
were inevitably foreigners, agents of some dastardly Unspecified Foreign Power (state or private
One author who pursued this strand was Percy F. Westerman (1876-1959), long a Wareham resident, where he wrote 200-plus boys' adventure stories, 1908-59, on a houseboat moored there. The new field of air power was a favourite preoccupation in this era, with its destructive possibilities speculated upon. As well as a Biggles-style ‘Captain Standish of the Air Police’ series, PFW, who had some military experience with the navy and air force, also wrote Winged Might (1937), which is part-set in the Purbecks and deals with this theme. It is an old-fashioned adventure which contemplates a new kind of mechanized aerial warfare being harnessed as a power for good.
The plot concerns the ‘Aerial Research Establishment’ [fictional], at Langton Matravers [real], with the plot McGuffin an aerial torpedo (presaging the V1 flying bomb) which uses (with typical pseudo-science of the time) “atomic radio emissions.” It is designed by British scientists to pre-empt war, in the face of “gathering clouds on the international horizon,” via an unbeatable weapon (shades of HG Wells’s Things To Come). Needless to say, an Unspecified Foreign Power (no need to mention the Huns) wants to get its hands on the prototype guided missile for its own nefarious ends, and has sent in an agent to steal the secret plans. However he is foiled by a pair of plucky youths who happen to be on a cruise (shades of Riddle Of The Sands) from Wareham through the Solent, and the agent is sentenced to 15 years at Dorchester Assizes.
Despite the objections of the Utopian Society, who for some reason want to end the arms race, the torpedo is tested, avoiding not only “the grim spectre of war” but economic depression. (While the novel is childishly optimistic in outlook, the choice of Langton Matravers for a secret radio research base is oddly prescient: the Telecommunications Research Establishment, where Britain’s war-winning weapon, airborne radar, was developed, was built there 3 years later.)
The TE Lawrence Mystery
One novel covering this theory is Matthew
Eden’s The Murder Of Lawrence Of Arabia (1979). This is, in the
author’s own words, “a dramatic reconstruction of the last eleven weeks in the
life of TE Lawrence,” when few believed he had really left the military to retire
to Dorset. Eden posits a fatal involvement with the cause of a Palestine being swamped by refugees
from Nazi Germany. It has to be said the novel has little detail on Dorset, and it seems likely
the Canadian author did not visit the area.
|The Rattenbury Affair
Another of those ‘media sensation’ murder trials George Orwell wrote of in his famous 1946 essay on murder cases like the Crippen and Maybrick cases, as being ideal fodder for the popular press, was the Rattenbury affair. This concerned the killing in his Bournemouth Eastcliff villa of retired architect Sir Francis Rattenbury, the co-accused being his younger wife Alma and her even younger lover, the teenage family chauffeur. Alma drowned herself in Christchurch at the end of the trial, and the teenage George was unable to lead a normal life. The tragic case became a popular cause celebre, with various nonfiction accounts questioning whether justice was done. One was “The Rattenbury Case” (1936) by Francis Iles, author of the recognized crime novel classics Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before The Fact (1932) [see below].
Playwright Sir Terence Rattigan (1911-77) was interested in real-life cause-celebre crime cases, as he demonstrated with his play [twice-filmed] The Winslow Boy, inspired by a 1910 scandal at the Osborne naval academy on the IOW over a cadet's stolen postal order. He often stayed in Bournemouth, and this led eventually to his final work, his 2-act stage [and radio] play Cause Celebre (1975-6), filmed by ITV in 1987 with Helen Mirren. The drama focuses on the trial in London (using part of the trial transcript], and Bournemouth itself is not shown. (There have been one or two docudrama re-enactments since then for tv ‘true-crime’ series, but with location filming done elsewhere.)
|Another story which broke the mould was Before
The Fact (1932) by "Francis Iles" (= Anthony Berkeley
Cox, 1893-1971), who had attended Dorset’s Sherborne School. This cult crime novel is a psychological
study of victimhood set in Dorset and Bournemouth, told via the first-person viewpoint of the impending
murder victim who regards herself guilty as an accessory ‘before the fact.’ It opens
with the narrator saying in effect that she knows she will be murdered, and that it is her own
fault. Lina is a spinster from a well-off family swept off her feet by Johnnie, a dangerous charmer
whom she comes to suspect is planning on killing her for her inheritance. This was an elaboration
of a school of writing popularised by Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes called the Had-She-But-Known
school of crime fiction; however in this case the narrator is not merely sadder and wiser, having
lost her innocence and perhaps her fortune, but about to die and accepting her fate as natural
It was filmed in 1941 in Hollywood by Hitchcock, retitled Suspicion, but the story proved too strong for the studio. A 1980 joint biography of Hitchcock and his Hollywood producer Selznick says that Selznick cut all references to murder from the film, leaving it only 55 minutes long, too short even for a B-picture, and Hitchcock was able to get restored the scenes which give the film its title. However a changed "upbeat" ending was substituted, a cliff-hanging finale resolved by a confession of intended suicide to explain away the husband’s sinister behaviour. (The IMDB notes, “Hitchcock originally wanted Johnnie to be guilty, but the studio insisted that the public wouldn't accept Cary Grant as a murderer. Hitchcock's original ending had Johnny killing Lina by poisoning her milk, but then convicting himself by mailing a letter that Lina had written.”)
As ‘Anthony Berkeley,’ the author also wrote Not To Be Taken (1938, US title A Puzzle In Poison), about a poisoning case in the village of ‘Anneypenny’ in Dorset. (According to Malcolm J. Turnbull’s Elusion Aforethought: The Life And Writing Of Anthony Berkeley Cox, the story was inspired by the 1880s Florence Maybrick case, a cause celebre of the day.)
Crime fiction was not entirely limited to the racy thriller and the detective story. Francis Iles’s Before The Fact is a recognized genre classic with various reprints, including one with an introduction by Colin Dexter for the Pan Classic Crime series.
Cads and bounders among the county set: The
first film version of Iles’s 1932 Dorset-set Before The Fact, Hitchcock’s
1941 Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine (who won the Oscar) had the original
ending changed, as did the 1987 TV version shot in SW England. However Paramount is now planning
to remake the film, using a script by Veena Sud, the executive producer of the 2010 US TV version
of the cult Danish crime serial The Killing.
|‘The Great Gladys’
Another major figure in the Golden Age was Gladys Mitchell (1901-83), creator of a long-running [1929-81] cult series of 66 novels. These began in 1929 with her rule-breaking Speedy Death, featuring elderly Home Office psychiatric consultant Dame Beatrice Adela LeStrange Bradley (Mrs Bradley for short), who looks ‘like a sinister pterodactyl with a Cheshire Cat smile’. The smile is most likely at the folly of humans, and the series is somewhere between satiric and whimsical in tone. “Eccentric goings on are Mitchell’s hallmark,” says 20th Century Crime & Mystery Writers, with a “special feeling for the mystical nature of things British… illustrating Mitchell’s lifelong fascination with the antiquities of the British Isles and their accompanying superstitions.” In an essay, poet Philip Larkin called her “the great Gladys,” commenting she “stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confreres in total originality, blending eccentricity of subject matter with authoritative common-sense of style.” [HRF Keating’s Bedside Companion To Crime]
Her settings are often fictional, with a few real place names used in the background, but the stories would be anchored in this area. The Dictionary of British Women Writers notes she often “set her stories in or near actual places” while remaining “remarkable among writers for her use of supernatural and folk elements.” She brought to life the quaint setting of small villages and market towns one encounters in English detective novels, while indulging her “special feeling for the mystical nature of things British ... illustrating Mitchell’s lifelong fascination with the antiquities of the British Isles and their accompanying superstitions” (20th Century Crime & Mystery Writers).
The author would later retire here in 1961, spending her final two decades at Corfe Mullen near Wimborne, but some of the earlier novels seem to have a local inspiration in this region. GM may have found its combination of prehistoric sites, forest and seaside attractive for story purposes, as she could have such sources of inspiration all around Mrs Bradley’s home village of ‘Wandles Parva’, cf this description from a blurb for her 2nd in the series The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, 1929:
Many of the stories (others have an ‘away’ setting) are set around the sleuth’s home village of ‘Wandles Parva’ where she lives at Stone House. ‘Wandles Parva’ is described as on “the New Forest road which linked Ringwood with Burley”, near the upper ‘shallows’ of the Lymington River. ‘Saltmarsh’ in her 1932 The Saltmarsh Murders (classed as one of her several parodies of Agatha Christie) sounds like one of the villages near Lymington, where salt-marshes were long a major part of the economy. Many of the stories have a background of country rites and superstitions and witchcraft, something with which the New Forest was associated (with rumours the modern Wiccan movement was founded there in the 1930s). The Devil At Saxon Wall (1935) is set in Hampshire, but ‘Saxon Wall’ sounds like Wareham, whose road-sign proclaims it ‘Saxon Walled Town.’ We also have the titular pun of Saint Peter's Finger (1938) [the name of a well-known local inn on Dorset’s main E-W highway]. Once in a while we get real place names, cf from When Last I Died (1941):
The Mrs Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell a cult contribution to the genre, eventually ran to 66 novels, 1929-83.
| The Anti-Fascist Thriller
In the runup to World War II, as the Great
Depression led to political extremism at both ends, the mystery-thriller genre developed a new
variant subgenre, the anti-Fascist thriller, wherein the hero exhibits Britain’s “bulldog-breed”
qualities by not being cowed by threats and even beatings from omnipresent fascist henchmen before
meting out his own rough justice. The 1938 Nigel Strangeways mystery The Smiler With The
Knife already mentioned was a mild forerunner in this cycle - the genre soon became more
violent just as the real world did. In the “the publishing sensation of 1939”, Geoffrey
Household (1900-88) used a real West Dorset landscape for the final section of his thriller,
Rogue Male, where the hero literally ‘goes to ground’ near
Lyme Regis. In this “warning” thriller, reminiscent of The 39 Steps, the
narrator-hero after failing to assassinate a Fascist leader (read Hitler), tells how he goes
to ground here to avoid his Fascist pursuers as it is “a remote country, lying as it
does between Hampshire, which is becoming an outer suburb, and Devon, which is a playground.”
(The author lived in Dorset for a while, trying to live the lifestyle of a country gentleman
on a limited budget.)
With the arrival of hostilities in 1939-40, Fascist countries and leaders were no longer given pseudonymous names or left diplomatically unnamed (as in Rogue Male). The antifascist thriller was able to flourish with real enemies, foreshadowing wartime secret-agent tales to come, while the appeal of the old-fashioned detective story was now enhanced by its harking back to the happier days of peacetime, when there were only isolated killings - which apparently only took place in large country houses, to wealthy, unsympathetic victims who had made themselves targets by their selfishness.
With the rise of fascism, it seemed credible such types would also be fascist supporters, and in works like Rogue Male, English fascists seem to be everywhere in the countryside, helping to hunt the hero down. (The chief Nazi collaborator is likely to be the local squire.)
Rogue Male / Man Hunt On Screen
The novel was filmed twice, once in Hollywood
by Fritz Lang in 1941 as a film noir set mainly in Germany and London, and once in Germany and
Dorset by director Clive Donner for the BBC from a script by Frederic Raphael. In the 1941 b&w
Hollywood version pictured here, the Dorset countryside is merely a soundstage set. (Halliwell’s
Film Guide: ‘hilariously inaccurate English backgrounds’.) This 1941 screen version
was directed by the great Fritz Lang in Hollywood in the Germanic Expressionist style he helped
develop into the American Forties film noir, and shot entirely on soundstages. Though this war-propaganda
film is critically well-regarded, it is only of local interest for the finale: unlike the novel,
only the climactic ten minutes are set in Dorset: Lyme Regis Undercliff, where cornered rogue-gentleman
Walter Pidgeon finally dispatches smooth-talking Nazi agent George Sanders with an improvised
A more authentic BBC telefeature was shot in West Dorset in 1976, starring Peter O’Toole. It was the pilot for a planned telefilm series on Clubland heroes - Buchan's Hannay, Sapper's Bullldog Drummond etc. (These earlier heroes tended to be themselves somewhat fascist, engaged in vigilante actions against foreigners.) Though Peter O'Toole's own memoir notes that he was fascinated when young with the idea of confronting Hitler, and the novel was a favourite of his wife Sian's, his casting still seems odd for a 1930s stiff-upper-lip Clubland hero. (Was it perhaps to hedge bets dramatically by giving the lead character a histrionic edge so that the film could be considered satiric by the more cynical modern viewer?) After the early sequences authentically shot in Europe, the hero leaves London for Dorchester, being attracted by a poster for the Cattistock Hunt, with subsequent filming (in 16mm) in this area. He arrives at the Fox Inn in the village. With police after him as 'the Tandem Man', he must also elude the more dangerous and widespread English Fascist supporters, who are somehow on his trail in minutes, and wound him, forcing him to ground.
The deadly "weekend house party" story was the most common genre setup of the interwar era, as it offered a "closed" setting away from normal police presence, and it was a real enough high-society practice, inviting diverse guests down for the weekend. Soon it became the most familiar setup of the detective novel, where one and then another guest is murdered, often for reasons involving an old feud or skeleton-in-the-cupboard family secret. (The success of a recent example, Julian Fellowes's 2001 Oscar-winning Gosford Park script, allowed him to buy his own Dorset manor house, where he wrote Downton Abbey). The locale was often kept vague, probably to avoid speculation (and possible litigation) that the mysterious deaths and family scandals were inspired by those of some real landed family living nearby.
The ‘Inspector Roderick Alleyne’
series (32 novels 1934-80) of NZ-born Dame Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982), featuring
a CID man who is able to move in these social circles as he is the younger brother of a baronet,
has at least two 1939-45 works with a local setting. Marsh's 1939 Overture To Death,
about a murder during a village concert, is Dorset-set, as is her 1942 Death And
The Dancing Footman. The latter is a classic country-house weekend mystery set
at a house party for theatrical types, cut off by a blizzard during a wintry 1940 at "Highfold
Manor, Cloudyfold, Dorset" near "Winton St Giles" (cf Wimborne St Giles in Cranborne
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