The Magazine

The Butler Did It

Why murder belongs in the stately homes of England.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By S.T. KARNICK
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The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks

by James Anderson

Poisoned Pen, 320 pp., $24.95

THE TRADITIONAL PUZZLE MYSTERY--the old-fashioned whodunit--has a long history in both the United States and Great Britain (and a less prominent but significant one in Europe and the rest of the world). The Sherlock Holmes stories are the earliest such tales that most people know about, but the first true mystery stories, those written by Poe in the 1840s, were in the puzzle style. The first important American mystery novelist, Anna Katharine Green, wrote in what is now the traditional puzzle form in books like The Leavenworth Case of 1878, as did Wilkie Collins in his justly renowned early mystery novel The Moonstone in 1868. Even Charles Dickens tried his hand at the form (very successfully) in his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

But the golden age of the whodunit was the period between the two world wars in England and the United States. Authors such as Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.C. Bailey, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, and many others of similar ability were in their prime then, and every year brought dozens of top-level puzzle mysteries. And yet, for some not entirely explicable reason, most new writers and their publishers decided after the war that murder was not a cheery business, and the puzzles faded from view, replaced by more hardboiled, explicitly violent and sexy fare.

Of course, the traditional mystery didn't entirely disappear. The continuing popularity of the form is demonstrated by today's countless, steady-selling--and typically ghastly--cozy novel series (featuring bed-and-breakfast owners, feisty grannies, or cats as the detectives). And something like a revival has been quietly happening in recent decades, with P.D. James, Reginald Hill, Elizabeth Peters, Peter Lovesey, and Tony Hillerman bringing new life to the form by creating real novels that happen to have a mystery at the center.

Unlike those more overtly ambitious writers, the British author James Anderson has gone traditional all the way, actually setting his three Inspector Wilkins mystery novels directly in the fictional past of the 1930s English countryside. Starting with The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy in 1975 and continuing to his current release, The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks, Anderson's traditional-style puzzle novels have updated the classic British country house mystery by the unusual strategy of being highly faithful to their source. Each volume includes, for example, that essential element of all great traditional mysteries: a map, in this case a floor plan of Alderley, Lord and Lady Burford's beautiful rural English home built in the seventeenth century. Each of the books takes place on this elegant estate, which could be the setting for a frothy P.G. Wodehouse farce were it not for the occasional homicide.

Anderson continually shows a fondness for genre conventions while carefully creating new variations on the old traditions. Each book, for example, has a highly provocative opening, as when a woman hisses "You murdering fiend!" at the commencement of The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), and the tension is promptly deflated to comic effect. The author then settles down to several chapters of real novel writing, exploring the various characters' personal situations, which ultimately lead up to the murder a good way through the book.

Like Ngaio Marsh--and unlike most current-day crime writers--Anderson is in no hurry to get to the actual killing. That is all to the good, for the comedy of manners allows the reader to get to know the characters and situations well, while enjoying some genial, Wodehousian satire on human nature.

The characters are just the sorts one might expect to find in an Agatha Christie book: the movie star, the plutocrat, the journalist, the diplomat, the wealthy layabout, the politician, the lawyer, the secretary, the termagant, the spunky young female, and so on. The situations are likewise familiar: a surprising provision in a will, social snobbery, blackmail, espionage, burglary, adultery, abandonment, suicide, cocktail parties, impersonations, verbal quarrels, fistfights, and the like. The characters are locked in the house at night, with a well-designed burglar alarm eliminating outsiders as possible suspects. The murders are done through simple, conventional means such as shooting and strangling.