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Aristocracy Must Advertise: Repurposing the Nobility in Interwar British Fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2021


In the interwar years, authors Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham wrote popular detective fiction that explored possible roles for the aristocracy in an age of universal suffrage. Critics have seen these novels as nostalgic encomia for hierarchy and tradition. This article argues that they should be seen instead as part of a larger trend in interwar fiction that sought to make connections between aristocracy, national identity, and social cohesion. Far from celebrating an imagined idyllic past, these novels suggested possibilities for the continuing relevance of the nobility to the upholding of justice, and indeed, to the success of British democracy.

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1 Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (New York, 1941), 313Google Scholar.

2 This term appears to have been applied to the detective genre for the first time by literary critic John Strachey in “The Golden Age of English Detection,” Saturday Review of Literature, no. 19 (7 January 1939): 12–13. Haycraft uses it to describe detective fiction published in England and America between 1918 and 1930 (Murder for Pleasure, chaps. 7 and 8); Julian Symons echoes this periodization in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, chaps. 8 and 9 (London, 1972), as does Stephen Knight, “The Golden Age,” in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. Martin Priestman (Cambridge, 2003), 77–94. Others extend the period to 1939; see Catherine Aird's entry, “The Golden Age Novel,” in Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, ed. Rosemary Herbert (New York, 1999), 184–86, at 186.

3 Edmund Wilson, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” New Yorker, 20 January 1945, 257–65, reprinted in Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York, 1950), 263.

4 Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” revised from Chandler's Atlantic Monthly article from December 1944, in The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York, 1946), 222–37, at 229. See also J. K. Van Dover, Making the Detective Story American: Biggers, Van Dine, and Hammett and the Turning Point of the Genre, 1925–1930 (Jefferson, 2010). In defense of golden age detective fiction, George Orwell commented on what he saw as “the immense difference in moral atmosphere” between the earlier and later forms in “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), in George Orwell, Collected Essays (London, 1961), 249.

5 Still further examples include Phillip MacDonald's Anthony Gethryn, Nicholas Blake's Nigel Strangeways, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole's Everard Blatchington, Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale, and Michael Innes's John Appleby. See Grella, George, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4, no. 1 (1970): 30–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Binyon, T. J., “Murder Will Out”: The Detective in Fiction (Oxford, 1989), 5863Google Scholar; Mandel, Ernest, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (Minneapolis, 1986), 28Google Scholar.

6 Grella, “Murder and Manners,” 36–37.

7 John Scaggs, Crime Fiction (London, 2005), 26. Others see the golden age of detective fiction beginning with E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case in 1913; see also P. D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (New York, 2009), 50; and LeRoy L. Panek, Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914–1940 (Bowling Green, 1979), 11.

8 Only in the last decade has the work of lesser-known authors of the period been republished and made available to new readers through the British Library Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards. See his very useful volume, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (Scottsdale, 2017).

9 Colin Watson, Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and Their Audience (London, 1971), 189–90; B. A. Pike, “Margery Allingham,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 77, British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939, ed. Thomas F. Stanley and Bernard Benstock (Detroit, 1989), 3–12, at 6.

10 Marvin S. Lachman, “Ngaio Marsh,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 77, Stanley and Benstock, British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939, 198–213, at 198–99.

11 Bernard Benstock, “Dorothy L. Sayers,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 77, Stanley and Benstock, British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939, 254–72, at 256.

12 Light, Alison, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London, 1991)Google Scholar, chap. 2.

13 Joseph McAleer, Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914–1950 (Oxford, 1992), 42; see also Watson, Nicola, “Boots Book-Lover's Library and the Novel: The Impact of a Circulating Library Market on Twentieth-Century Fiction,” Information and Culture 49, no. 4 (2014): 427–49Google Scholar, at 431.

14 These figures are cited in Watson, Snobbery with Violence, 21.

15 See Hilliard, Christopher, “The Twopenny Library: The Book Trade, Working-Class Readers, and ‘Middlebrow’ Novels in Britain, 1930–42,” Twentieth Century British History 25, no. 2 (2014): 199–220CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For discussion of golden age detective fiction as middlebrow reading, see Sean Latham, “Am I a Snob?” Modernism and the Novel (Ithaca, 2003); McAleer, Popular Reading.

16 See Clive Bloom, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (Basingstoke, 2002), appendix 6.

17 See “The Top 10 Fun Facts about the Doubleday Crime Club,” ABE Books (website), accessed 21 April 2021,

18 J. E. Mopurgo, Allen Lane, King Penguin: A Biography (London, 1979), 89–90.

19 Marsh was the second author, after Christie, to have ten books published simultaneously by Penguin in 1949. See Margaret Lewis, Ngaio Marsh: A Life (London, 1991), 126; Richard Martin, Ink in Her Blood: The Life and Crime Fiction of Margery Allingham (Ann Arbor, 1988), 164.

20 On the golden age of detective fiction and nostalgia, see, among others, Curtis J. Evans, Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, and the British Detective Novel, 1920 –1961 (Jefferson, 2012), 2; Mandel, Delightful Murder, 29–30; Symons, Bloody Murder, 20; Watson, Snobbery with Violence, 140.

21 Light, Forever England, 69.

22 David I. Grossvogel, Mystery and Its Fictions: From Oedipus to Agatha Christie (Baltimore, 1979), 52; Mandel, Delightful Murder, 121.

23 James Gindin, British Fiction in the 1930s: The Dispiriting Decade (New York, 1992), 156.

24 David Glover, “The Writers Who Knew Too Much: Populism and Paradox in Detective Fiction's Golden Age,” in The Art of Detective Fiction, ed. Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales, and Robert Vilain (Basingstoke, 2000), 36–49, at 47.

25 Recently, some literary scholars have begun to analyze the era's “deep unease about interpersonal relationships, societal structures, and senses of the self”; see Brittain Bright and Rebecca Mills, “The Revelations of the Corpse: Interpreting the Body in the Golden Age Detective Novel,” in New Perspectives on Detective Fiction: Mystery Magnified, ed. Casey A. Cothran and Mercy Cannon (New York, 2016), 32–51, at 32.

26 Numerous biographies, literary and otherwise, have been written about Sayers; Allingham and Marsh have received far less attention. See Mary Brian Durkin, Dorothy L. Sayers (Boston, 1980); Dawson Gaillard, Dorothy L. Sayers (New York, 1981); Catherine Kenney, The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers (Kent, 1990); Martin, Ink in Her Blood; Lewis, Ngaio Marsh; B. J. Rahn, ed., Ngaio Marsh: The Woman and Her Work (Metuchen, 1995). For a good overview of women writers of the golden age of detective fiction, see Susan Rowland, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction (Basingstoke, 2001).

27 Len Platt, Aristocracies of Fiction: The Idea of Aristocracy in Late-Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Literary Culture (Westport, 2001), 132–33. Other scholars have noted the prevalence of the gentleman in interwar fiction but ascribe it to nostalgia; see Philip Mason, The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal (New York, 1982), 11.

28 Bill Schwarz, “The Language of Constitutionalism: Baldwinite Conservatism,” in Formations of Nation and People, ed. Formations Editorial Collective (London, 1984), 1–9; see also Stanley Baldwin, On England and Other Addresses (London, 1926).

29 Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars (London, 2009).

30 On the presumed rural setting of interwar detective fiction, see K. D. M. Snell, “A Drop of Water from a Stagnant Pool? Inter-war Detective Fiction and the Rural Community,” Social History 35, no. 1 (2010): 21–50; Scaggs, Crime Fiction, 50. The complexity of the stratum known as “society” preoccupied many in the interwar years; for a contemporary assessment, see Patrick Balfour, Society Racket: A Critical Survey of Modern Social Life (London, 1932).

31 See Bland, Lucy, “The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in 1920s England,” Journal of British Studies 47, no. 3 (2008): 624–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (Chicago, 2016); Angus McLaren, Playboys and Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London (Baltimore, 2017).

32 Ellenberger, Nancy W., “The Transformation of London ‘Society’ at the End of Victoria's Reign: Evidence from the Court Presentation Records,” Albion 22, no. 4 (1990): 633–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 651.

33 M. L. Bush, The English Aristocracy: A Comparative Synthesis (Manchester, 1984), 4.

34 My thanks to the anonymous reviewer who emphasized this point; see also Harold Perkin's discussion of the transformation of aristocratic landlords into businessmen in the years following the First World War in The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (London, 1989), 251–66.

35 Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923; repr., New York, 1961), 33, 37, 55–56, 60.

36 Sayers, Whose Body?, 111. See “Leave It to Jeeves,” and “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” in P. G. Wodehouse's collection My Man Jeeves (London, 1919).

37 Most scholars emphasize her snobbery; see Watson, Snobbery with Violence; Latham, “Am I a Snob?, chap. 6, views it as satire.

38 See Freedman, Ariela, “Dorothy Sayers and the Case of the Shell-Shocked Detective,” Partial Answer: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 8, no. 2 (2010): 365–87Google Scholar; Gill Plain, Women's Fiction of the Second World War: Gender, Power and Resistance (New York, 1996), esp. chap. 3; Stacy Gillis, “Consoling Fictions: Mourning, World War One, and Dorothy L. Sayers,” in Modernism and Mourning, ed. Patricia Rae (Lewisburg, 2007): 185–97.

39 Margery Allingham, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929; repr., London, 1979), 11, 18.

40 Allingham, Crime at Black Dudley, 168.

41 Margery Allingham, Mystery Mile (1930; repr., London, 1959), 26. Théophile Steinlen (1859–1923), Swiss-born art nouveau illustrator and painter, was known best for his stylized paintings and posters of cats; Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), a contemporary of J. W. M. Turner, is frequently credited as the first English Romantic watercolorist.

42 Martin, Ink in Her Blood, 100.

43 Allingham, Mystery Mile, 122, 123.

44 Sayers, Whose Body?, 121.

45 Perkin, Rise of Professional Society, 2–9, at 3, 2.

46 On the development of Lord Peter Wimsey, see Brittain Bright, “The Maturity of Lord Peter Wimsey and Authorial Innovation within a Series,” in Serial Fiction: Dying for More, ed. Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda, and Barbara Pezzotti (Basingstoke, 2015): 87–98.

47 Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder (1936; repr., London, 2009), 480.

48 Ngaio Marsh, Death in Ecstasy (1936; repr., London, 2009), 76.

49 The nineteenth-century prototype for this aristocratic figure is Pierce Egan (the elder), whose Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and His Elegant Friend, Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in Their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (London, 1921) began publication in monthly shilling editions, continuing through 1828. See Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City (Ithaca, 1995); for a historical treatment of the phenomenon, see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton, 2004). See also the conclusion to Matthew Beaumont, Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London (London, 2015), 408, for his suggestion that the detective is one of the two “metropolitan archetypes” stemming from that of the flâneur in the late nineteenth century, the other being the criminal.

50 Melissa Schaub makes the point that Sayers's and Allingham's detectives put “the public good above personal benefit, even the benefit of a loved one rather than oneself.” Melissa Schaub, Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detection Fiction (New York, 2013), 94.

51 W. D. Rubinstein notes that this process was accomplished largely between 1918 and 1925. Rubinstein, W. D., “Wealth, Elites and the Class Structure of Modern Britain,” Past and Present, no. 76 (1977): 99126CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 99.

52 Schaub, Middlebrow Feminism, 3.

53 S. S. Van Dine's third rule for writing detective stories stipulated, “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.” S. S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” (1928), reprinted in Haycraft, Art of the Mystery Story, 189–93, at 189–90.

54 See, for example, Elizabeth A. Trembley, “‘Collaring the Other Fellow's Property:’ Feminism Reads Dorothy L. Sayers,” in Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein (Bowling Green, 1995), 81–100.

55 This relationship is developed across Allingham's novels Sweet Danger (1933), The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), and Traitor's Purse (1941).

56 Dorothy L. Sayers, “Gaudy Night” (1937), reprinted in Haycraft, Art of the Mystery Story, 207–21, at 209.

57 See Kenney, Remarkable Case, 15; Gaillard, Dorothy L. Sayers, 8; on Marsh's fidelity to the novel of manners, see Kathryne Slate McDorman, Ngaio Marsh (Boston, 1991), 74.

58 Quoted in Martin, Ink in Her Blood, 1.

59 Jacques Barzun, The Delights of Detection (New York, 1961), 149.

60 Panek, Watteau's Shepherds, 19–21.

61 Martin, Ink in Her Blood, 8.

62 Sayers, Whose Body?, 45.

63 Ngaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead (1934; repr. London, 2009), 11.

64 Light, Forever England, 66.

65 On the editions, see H. R. F. Keating, Murder Must Appetize (New York, 1981), 9. Murder Must Advertise had sold twenty thousand copies by 1938 (Time, 28 February 1938, 67); these numbers are cited in Robert Kuhn McGregor, with Ethan Lewis, Conundrums for the Long Week-End: England, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lord Peter Wimsey (Kent, 2000), 237.

66 Sayers, “Gaudy Night,” 210–11. A number of critics have commented on Sayers's remarkable intertwining of two genres in this and subsequent novels in the series. See Kenney, Remarkable Case, 52; Jean A. Coakley, “Novel of Manners,” in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, ed. Rosemary Herbert (Oxford, 1999), 314–15, at 314; LaGrand, Virginia and Mattson, Craig E., “Peter Wimsey and Precious Ramotswe: Castaway Detectives and Companionate Marriage,” Christianity and Literature 56, no. 4 (2007): 633–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Grella, “Murder and Manners,” 30–48. See also Bright, “Maturity of Lord Peter Wimsey,” 87–98.

67 Dorothy Sayers, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays (New York, 1947), 225.

68 Sayers, “Gaudy Night,” 209–11; see also Panek, Watteau's Shepherds, 101.

69 Sayers, “Gaudy Night,” 209–10.

70 Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (1933; repr. New York, 1961), 251.

71 Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 12, 59.

72 Sayers, 108.

73 Sayers, 296.

74 Sayers, 300.

75 Sayers, 99, 102, 119, 122, at 122.

76 Sayers, 112.

77 Sayers, 2, 7, 27.

78 Sayers, 81.

79 Sayers, “Gaudy Night,” 209–10; my emphasis.

80 Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 173–74.

81 Sayers, 324–25.

82 Mandler, Peter, The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (New Haven, 2006), 168Google Scholar.

83 Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie (1938; repr., London, 2009), 5.

84 Marsh, Death in a White Tie, 6.

85 Marsh, 102–3.

86 Marsh, 103.

87 Marsh, 106.

88 Marsh, 122.

89 Marsh, 127.

90 Marsh, 129.

91 Marsh, 132.

92 Marsh, 53–54.

93 Marsh, 79.

94 Marsh, 176, 188.

95 Van Dine, “Twenty Rules,” 191.

96 Margery Allingham, Coroner's Pidgin (London, 1945), 161, 163, 167.

97 Allingham, Coroner's Pidgin, 23.

98 Allingham, 150.

99 Charles Rzepka argues that Sayers's novels make the larger point that “the ideals that sustained . . . the age of class distinction, deference, and privilege based on blood” were moribund and would survive only if they could “prove their usefulness for the betterment of society as a whole.” Charles Rzepka, Detective Fiction (Cambridge, 2005), 175. This analysis overstates the extent to which the aristocracy's elitism had abated, but otherwise it could be expanded to include both Allingham and Marsh's fictional sleuths.

100 Most notably, Mandel, Delightful Murder, 121.

101 See Cannadine, David, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Beckett, J. V., The Aristocracy in England, 1660–1914 (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar.

102 Adonis, Andrew, Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884–1914 (Oxford, 1993), 275CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

103 Miles, Andrew, “Social Structure, 1900–1939,” in A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain, ed. Wrigley, Chris (Malden, 2003), 337–52Google Scholar, at 350.

104 Light, Forever England, 66.

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