By Thomas F. Schwartz
Two titles on the shelves at Camp Rapidan were authors considered the best writers of the mystery genre: Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, often claimed to be the best mystery novel written by Christie, and The Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers, offer interesting insights into the writers and the Hoovers.
Agatha Christie was born into a well-healed British household In Torquay, Devon, England. This area became a haven for Belgian refugees fleeing the German occupation in 1914. Her first husband served in the British military. During World War I, Christie volunteered as a nurse in the British Red Cross and later served as an apothecary’s assistant where she learned of various poisons. Belgian refugees, and her knowledge of poisons, became plot devices in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This was the third mystery novel that featured the private detective Hercule Poirot.
His first appearance was in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where the reader learned that Poirot was on the Belgian police force and retired continuing as a private detective. With the German invasion, he fled to the English countryside to live in anonymity and grow vegetable marrows- but the murder of his friend and neighbor, Roger Ackroyd, prompted Poirot to help the police solve the crime.
Christie’s dedication to her sister provides the structure of the mystery:
“TO PUNKIE, WHO LIKES AN ORTHODX DETECTIVE STORY, MURDER, INQUEST, AND SUSPICION FALLING ON EVERY ONE IN TURN.”
The narrator of the mystery is largely through the voice of Dr. James Sheppard who attended to all the dead bodies that appear in the story. Poirot enlists the assistance of Dr. Sheppard as they gather clues to solving the crime. Given the Hoover’s efforts to feed Belgians during World War I, the character of Hercule Poirot must have held special meaning for them.
Dorothy Sayers was the daughter of the Reverend Henry Sayers. Her father gave her lesson in Latin, and she also received lessons in French and German by governesses. Known first as a mystery writer for her amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers gained additional fame in later life for her writings on religion and her translations of Dante. Both Sayer and Christie were contributors to The Floating Admiral, a collaborative effort by the Detection Club discussed in an earlier blog post.
In The Omnibus of Crime, Sayer’s introduction provides a wonderful overview of the evolution of mystery writing from the Jewish Apocrypha, Herodotus, and the Aeneid to the creator of the modern detective novel format, Edgar Allan Poe. Her categories reflect her sense of the many varieties of mystery crime writing “The Story of Pure Sensation,” “The Story of Pure Analysis,” “Tale of Mixed Type,” “The Journalist Detective,” “The Police Detective,” “The Scientific and Medical Detective,” “Specialists,” “The Intuitive Detective,” and “The Comic Detective.”
Sayers also includes the supernatural in her analysis as well as disease, madness, ending with “tales of blood and cruelty.” While none of Sayer’s own writings appear in the anthology, some classic tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and W. W. Jacobs classic short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” provide more than 900 pages of mystery, horror, and brain-teasing pleasure.