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. (F H 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. Darton's final book Alibi Pilgrimage retraces the footsteps of the Squire family.) 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.

Moonfleet

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, inside 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 below to see 2nd image.)

 

Zig Zag path and White Nothe

Moonfleet On Screen

A loose adaptation was filmed in 1955 by Fritz Lang in Hollywood. (A pair of fickle females were added to the story, who come to an untimely end.) Though it has its admirers as an attempt at period Gothic drama in CinemaScope, it has been criticised for its lack of a real landscape (Senses Of Cinema website: 'It still feels more like an escape, less to the wilds of Dorset in the 1750s than the sound stages of MGM'.").
Moonfleet on screen, 1955
Part of the appeal of Moonfleet is the tale is told from the viewpoint of a child, something that would become the basis of a subgenre of young-adult crime-adventure novels and dramas.

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..."
(Tourism promotion sometimes incorrectly claims this 1955 Moonfleet adaptation as shot in Dorset, perhaps confusing it with a later tv version: the BBC filmed their 1984 children’s-serial version here, in and around Fleet, with the key plot scene in the Mohune church vault shot in the cellar of Dean's Court villa at Wimborne) and the finale shot at the real Carisbrooke Castle on Wight. In 2013, Sky-TV aired a 2-part loose adaptation co-starring Ray Winstone shot in Ireland.

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.

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.
The first author to tackle the subject was Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), a Navy veteran whose wide-ranging naval experience including patrolling the west Dorset coast in 1821 as a Preventive, before retiring in 1830 and taking up residence in the Lymington area. The coast along here appears in several of his authentic boys-adventure novels: The Pirate And Three Cutters (1836, a pair of novellas), Two Cutters (1841), and his colourfully-titled Snarley-yow Or The Dog Fiend, set partly on Wight around the start of the smugglers’ heyday, c1700 when Jacobite intrigue helped kickstart it, with gold coins being smuggled in etc. (Robert Louis Stevenson, while living in Bournemouth 1884-7, also wrote of this aspect in his Kidnapped, set c1750.) Following in Marryat’s literary footsteps as a prolific boys'-paper writer was W.H.G. Kingston (1814 –1880), with novels such as his 1873 The Three Midshipmen and his story (the basis for local heritage-re-enactment plays) "Billy Coombs's Last Fight," inspired by a large-scale 1784 standoff at Christchurch Harbour.
No doubt because of their appeal to the boys adventure market, these Preventive stories continued into the 20th Century.
Nield's Guide To Historical Novels describes G.V. McFadden's The Preventive Man (1920) as set in 1829 Dorset with "good local colour." There is also the oddly-titled Wiggles: A Story Of Smuggling Days And Ways In Poole (1931), a memoir-style novel narrated by an officer invalided out of Nelson's fleet, by Herbert S. Carter (1880-1956?), the local historical writer, keen yachtsman and pioneer of the Sea Scout movement who was also five times Mayor of Poole.
Smuggling remained part of the background of the naval-adventure branch of the historical novel, as in C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, where in 1801 the young Hornblower commands the Revenue cutter Swan V [a real vessel], patrolling the coast from Wight to Lyme. In C. Northcote Parkinson's 'Richard Delancy' series, beginning with Devil To Pay (1972), Delancy at one point "combats the smugglers of Poole."
Old-style local-interest novels focusing on the smugglers themselves in their heyday had fewer scenes at sea, for the smugglers operated, and fought, on land as well. These are now mainly of historic interest, and include Edith E. Cowper's 1910 The Moonrakers, set in the New Forest in 1747; Harold Vallings's The Smugglers Of Haven Quay (1911), set around Christchurch (Barry Shurlock's The Solent Way calls it "A ripping yarn which gives a flavour of the times"). Later would come John Woodiwis's Smugglers' Ride (1946), set in 1808 Purbeck, and his Treasonable Cargo (1948), set in 1803 Studland etc. De Castro Lyne's Two Coffers For The Pretender (1975) has a French count who inherits a Purbeck estate getting tangled up with smugglers.

 

 

 


One particular event, described in every smuggling history [illustrated above], which 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.)


Smuggling scenes were a popular 19th C. painting genre. Above: 'Smugglers' by G. Morland, and below, a fight between smugglers and 'Preventive Men.'

Everyone in those days got tangled up with them one way or another, and Thomas Hardy's first short story, set around the time the smugglers' iron grip first began to crumble, concerns this. Hardy says his 50-page "The Distracted Preacher," originally a 7-part magazine serial from 1879, was based on real events, with authentic smuggling lore. Set in the Owermoigne-Chaldon-Lulworth area in the 1830s, at end of the smuggling era, it dramatizes how village women were routinely involved, and then the end of the smuggler's heyday just before Hardy's own lifetime, as the 'Preventives' moved in.

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.
In terms of focus, the ‘sensation novel’ was not a crime story in the modern sense, but involved some shameful family secret which must be covered up for the sake of propriety under Victorian social convention. The prolific female pioneer of the ‘sensation novel’ (60+ genre novels) was Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), responsible for the genre-defining dialogue line, 'It is worse than a crime, Violet, it is an impropriety'. She herself complained the 'amount of crime, treachery, murder and slow poisoning’ her readers insisted upon was 'something terrible’, though she satisfied them with a long series of heroines who commit arson, poison husbands or push them down wells etc to preserve their fortunes or good names. Her first, the 1862 Lady Audley's Secret, is mainly set elsewhere but is mentioned in local literary guidebooks as it has an early scene set on the Isle of Wight, at Ventnor’s clifftop cemetery.
The novel was an immediate success, the first of many, and as the prolific "Queen of the Circulating Libraries” she was able to buy a cottage, ‘Annesley’, at the village of Bank in the New Forest, which she built up over the years into a large red-brick villa, also building many other properties in the village. (Whether she used the area for other novels is hard to say, as almost all of her c90 subsequent works are out of print, and out of legal prudence, authors tended to avoid using real place names for fear of offending the landed gentry.) The Ward-Lock Red Guide to the New Forest however says her 1879 novel Vixen makes extensive use of local settings.
Thomas Hardy made an early attempt at the sensation novel, in his 1871 Desperate Remedies, which he originally published anonymously. Hardy's title (and insistence on anonymity) had been inspired by his own private belief prose was really a desperate remedy for the true literary form, poetry. However it did not sell: Hardy had to pay the publisher to issue it and made no profit. The Spectator called it ‘a desperate remedy for an emaciated purse,’ adding the author had ‘prostituted his powers to the purposes of idle prying into the way of wickedness.' (Ouch.) One might better have said that in reality such murders were desperate remedies for those who had no other legal recourse (as women then didn’t for spousal abuse).
Tess Of The D’Urbervilles

In fact, it may have been such a real-life case of domestic abuse that prompted Hardy’s interest in the plight of such women. In 1891, Hardy was forced to censor the original magazine-serial version of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, due to its social realist outlook, featuring rape by an employer, abandonment by a husband, an illegitimate child (which dies), and a ‘domestic’ murder by Tess terminating her kept-woman sojourn in ‘Sandbourne’ (=Bournemouth), ending with her being hanged. There is a certain grim irony here at the objections, as the story is a more realistic, explicit version of a sensation novel, where in this case the woman is more victim than perpetrator.
Hardy’s interest is thought to have been influenced here by his witnessing in 1856 (at age 16) the last public hanging at Dorchester (he was one of a crowd of over 3,000), of one Martha Brown, convicted for killing her husband with an axe; she pleaded accidental death, saying a horse kicked him in the head. (Hardy wrote about an earlier husband-murder case in his poem The Mock Wife, about 19-year old Mary Channing, executed by strangulation and burning at Dorchester's Maumbury Rings in 1705, also the subject of Dorset author David James's 1994 play White Mercury, Brown Rice.) Her life and death later became the subject of My Name Is Martha Brown, a 2000 novelisation of events by ‘Nicola Thorne’ (Rosemary Ellerbeck), who lived in Dorset for 15 years. The author also appeared in a tie-in HTV docu of the same name, and simultaneously published a nonfiction book from her research, In Search Of Martha Brown.

My Name Is Martha Brown cover

My Name Is Martha Brown: a novelisation of the life and death of the real-life character whose public hanging the young Thomas Hardy watched in 1856.

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 modernist-style (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 Style
A now-obscure work which predates Moonfleet in authorship, the 3-decker novel Broken Bonds (1874) by retired soldier turned author [Henry] Hawley Smart (1833-93) is (judging by the cover map) set at Portland when it was a centre of convict labour.

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 Tolpuddle Martyrs supposedly swore their secret labour-union oath around a sycamore tree, which can still be seen in the central Dorset village of Tolpuddle.

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 murder regarded as the inspiration of the country house murder genre - as well as a sad object lesson in how justice is not always seen to be done - occurred in a village near the Somerset-Wiltshire boundary. The 1860 Road Hill House murder was a press sensation which saw Scotland Yard's top man, DI Whicher, unjustly discredited and forced into retirement only to be later proved right. The case was influential in terms of crime fiction, with an immediate impact on the Victorian 'sensation' novel like Lady's Audley's Secret, while the unlucky but capable DI was the inspiration for the detectives in Dickens's Bleak House and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. It continued to influence crime fiction [Wiki list here ].
The original 1860 case was dramatised in 2011 as an ITV movie, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, which followed in the footsteps of a 2008 nonfiction book by Kate Summerscale.

 Desperate Remedies cover


Desperate Remedies
: set 1835-67, this domestic melodrama is perhaps the least-known of Hardy’s novels today as it is not strictly part of the Wessex pastoral novel cycle which combined character-based social realism with the romantic appeal of its larger-than-life pastoral ‘Wessex’ setting. It was instead his attempt at a “sensation” novel. Though it is partly set farther north, it has as much of a range of pseudonymous "Wessex" settings as any work by him, from Wareham and Dorchester along the West Dorset coast.

The Ripper Case
The Jack The Ripper murders in London in 1888 have a pair of local connections. The first link is via leading investigator Inspector Frederick Abberline, who was from Blandford and who later retired to Bournemouth. One scene involving him is in the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore [first published serially, 1991-6] on which the film (where Abberline is played by Johnny Depp) is based, which opens with a post-retirement scene on Bournemouth beach. (There are no local scenes in the film version, or in the 1988 TV miniseries Jack The Ripper, where Abberline is played by Michael Caine – with a Cockney rather than Dorset accent.) Abberline also features in the series of Sherlock Holmes-spinoff novels about Inspector LeStrade by locally-based author and teacher M J Trow (1949-), who lives on the IoW and is also author of a 2012 biography of Abberline.
The other local-interest figure is Montague Druitt of Wimborne, a member of a distinguished local family, who was found drowned in the Thames after the last Ripper murder and was then named in a Scotland Yard chief’s memoirs as a likely suspect. (Some Ripperologists refer to him as an official scapegoat.) The 2010 hour-long dramatised documentary Montague Jack, shot entirely locally by Wimborne Cine & Video Club and issued on DVD for sale in local bookshops, features both characters. Abberline is played by retired actor-producer Michael Medwin, who lives locally and here presents the case to camera or via voice-over dramatic re-enactment scenes, with Pamphill and Poole locations doubling as London.

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 1884-7 Bournemouth sojourn of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) is worthy of a footnote here. Rodney Legg’s Literary Dorset notes that his 1892 The Wrecker, though mainly Paris-set and published after his local stay, has a finale discreetly set in Dorset, at Stalbridge. We can also add the train-wreck scene in The Wrong Box, set in the New Forest. The 1966 comic film version adds a – quite fictitious - serial killer called by the press “The Bournemouth Strangler” to add a mistaken-identity-corpse mixup to the story. However the plot device of a tontine, where whoever lives longest wins the prize reflects a real practice of the time - a poster for a local tontine, involving Bournemouth area hotels, can be downloaded here.

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.


Montague Jack poster


Did Sherlock Holmes Ever Visit Dorset?
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 gravesite

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 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!"

 
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 [1913] 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’
After WWI, there was a generic proliferation of crime novels, which saw it become the nation’s most popular genre. Some of these were racy action-oriented thrillers rather than mysteries, and the most prolific Twenties writer here was Edgar Wallace (1875-1932). Wallace (whose output at one time amounted to a quarter of all UK novels in print), used to stay at the 5-star Branksome Tower Hotel, and set 50pp [Chs IX-XIV] of his 1922 novel Mr Justice Maxell (1963 pbk) locally. (Frequented by celebrities until its demolition in 1973, it stood above a chine near the Poole-Bournemouth boundary.) In this globe-trotting mystery about high finance and political chicanery, the hotel figures in a small significant role as a place which ranks with Monte Carlo, Paris, Hollywood etc. The plot concerns the title character’s disappearance from his nearby mansion in ‘Branksome Park, Bournemouth’, where the corrupt judge lives with his film actress wife and where after he disappears, documents and a body are found in the garden well.
EW was also officially the 20th C.’s most filmed author [he became chairman of British Lion studios], and decades after his death, some of his works were used as the basis for a tv series, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, a 47-film package of hour-long supporting 'B' features produced with updated postwar settings for budget reasons, and sold to overseas tv markets. One of these, To Have And To Hold, based on his 1927 story “The Breaking Point” was set and exterior-filmed in Bournemouth, Sandbanks and the New Forest. (This was the subject of a local Echo Weekender feature, 16.2.02.) The story, which opens and closes on Bournemouth Pier, is a murder-triangle drama reminiscent of film noir mysteries like Double Indemnity and Vertigo, about a detective who falls for the woman he is assigned to protect. Released theatrically as a supporting feature, it was also originally the only one of the 47 issued as a standalone video, and is now on DVD on Volume 5 of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries tv series being run on the Talking Pictures channel.


The Ghost Camera, 1933: In this early talkie directed by Bernard Vorhaus, co-starring Ida Lupino and John Mills, a London photographer picks up a camera with evidence of a murder while on an outing to a ruined Norman castle which looks suspiciously like Dorset's famous ruin, Corfe Castle.

 

 

 

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.)
Murder At The Vicarage cover This would put the village of “St Mary Mead,” plus neighbouring “Market Basing,” (also a haunt of sleuth Hercules Poirot), just beyond northeast Dorset’s boundary with Hampshire.
There is also a local link regarding her 1939 novel (and play, often filmed) Ten Little Niggers (the unfortunate title is from an old nursery rhyme; the work was usually retitled Ten Little Indians or more generally And Then There None, cf for its 1945 film version), set on the south Devon coast. HRF Keating’s Bedside Companion To Crime says Christie was inspired to write it by Poole’s Brownsea Island after it was bought in 1927 by a Mrs Bonham Christie (no relation), who evicted all the tenants and kept all visitors away, leading to rumours of strange goings-on, with the name “Nigger Island” perhaps inspired by nearby Gigger’s Island. Christie also stayed at Burgh Island resort hotel on the southeast Devon coast, but this is only a tidal island, which would not work for her plot - though she did use it for her Poirot mystery Evil Under The Sun, with the ITV-Poirot series version filmed there.

 
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 locale here.)
Also set in Salisbury around this time is The House On The Cliff (1932), by the prolific writer of detective, mystery and thriller novels Laurence Meynell (1899-1989).

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 series began as a fundraiser for the school where he was then teaching, and the first, the 1935 A Question Of Proof, is set at ‘Sudeley Hall’ boys’ prep school, probably modelled on Dorset’s Sherborne School, which the author himself attended, later marrying the daughter of a Sherborne master when he taught there. The story has the poet turn to private detective work (poetry isn’t paying much) when a pupil, the Headmaster’s nephew, is found strangled.
His 1937 There’s Trouble Brewing [see blurb opposite] is set at ‘Maiden Astbury’, the ‘Basket Down’ military range off the ‘Poolhampton-Bidmouth road,’ and ‘Basket Cove,’ an old smugglers’ cove. In the 1938 The Beast Must Die, Lyme Regis appears briefly at start and finish as the setting (never used in the film versions).

 


The Nigel Strangeways series [1935-66] by “Nicholas Blake”
Crime writer Nicholas Blake was really the future Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis, then a schoolmaster, and his hero moves in circles the author was familiar with. Like the author, the hero is married (to a female explorer who is also his professional helpmate), and the novels also feature smart modern marital repartee. The blurb for his 1937 There’s Trouble Brewing gives the flavour of this semi-humorous series:

Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways is invited to address the Maiden Astbury literary society. The picturesque Dorset town is home to Bunnett's Brewery, run by the much disliked, and feared, Eustace Bunnett and shortly before Nigel's visit, Bunnett's dog Truffles was found dead in one of the brewery's vats. The culprit was never caught - although there was no shortage of suspects - but when a body is then found in the same vat, boiled down to its bones, Nigel is called into action to help capture the killer.

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].

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 1934-5 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 was not used as a location, the exterior of the Rattenbury house, the 'Villa Madeira' on the Eastcliff, only being depicted in the opening sequence using an anonymous suburban road [pictured]. There have since been one or two docudrama re-enactments made for tv ‘true-crime’ series, but again with location filming done elsewhere.


A 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 justice.

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.

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 in 2015 Paramount announced plans to remake the story, using a script by Veena Sud, the executive producer of the 2010 US TV version of the cult Danish crime serial The Killing.

The film’s visual setting is what Halliwell's Film Guide called "a blatantly artificial English countryside,” and neither Dorset nor Bournemouth feature specifically in it, just a generic south-coast locale, doubled by a Californian coastal location for the finale [pictured above]. There is a 1987 ITV telefeature remake, starring Anthony Andrews and US TV comedy actress Jane Curtin, and scripted by Jonathan Lyn [Yes Minister] and Barry Levison [the American director of Diner, Toy Story etc]. This was shot on location in Somerset, but it is a remake of the 1941 script, the novel's dark ending of collusive victimhood evidently still too controversial to film.


‘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:
 

Events happen quickly in Wandles Parva: the Bishop of Culminster discovers a skull while out for an invigorating seaside swim; a druidic Stone of Sacrifice in the woods seems to be at the center of a lot of activity, and the rock carries a new bloodstain; a freshly dug grave contains only a suitcase holding a stuffed trout and the note, "A present from Grimsby." Meanwhile, the well-travelled skull disappears from an art studio and turns up in an exhibit at the Culminster museum, and Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, the new tenant at the Stone House, narrowly avoids an arrow to the head, shot by a figure clad in full Robin Hood costume!

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):

Mrs. Bradley took the bus along the Boscombe Road as far as Southborne. From there she walked over Hengistbury Head, was ferried across to Mudeford with a boat-load of other people, caught another bus into Christchurch, visited the Priory, inspected an antique dealer's stock, bought a large knife which she would not permit the dealer to wrap up, and caused a certain amount of sensation by lunching with the weapon beside her plate.

 

The Mrs Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell, regarded as a cult contribution to the genre, eventually ran to 66 novels, 1929-83.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Below: Mrs Bradley would be considerably glamourised for the 1990s tv series, starring Diana Rigg.

With the arrival of hostilities in 1939-40, the appeal of the old-fashioned detective story was 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.
The deadly "weekend house party" story was the most common genre setup, 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 Chase).
Here, the impact of war does not impinge on the story, but it soon would, as we shall see in Part Two.
Go to Part Two.
 

 

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