The Magazine

For the Madding Crowd

The rise of the bestselling novel.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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It continued with Elinor Glyn, whose publishers also recognized that, at the end of a long day, most shopgirls don't want to curl up with Dostoyevsky. They want love, adventure, temptation: vivid dramatizations of their own adolescent daydreams. As the late publisher Alan Boon recognized, they want heroines whose lives and lovers are more glamorous than their own. Boon, who cofounded Mills and Boon, still Britain's leading producer of romance novels, put it this way: "Our heroes are always what we call Alpha men--strong, mentally and physically tough, intelligent, tall and dark. The Honest Joe type of man may make a good husband, but he's not exciting enough for our readers."

Glyn, who died in 1943, also wrote advice books; but she was more determinedly modern--and secular--than Corelli, whose late-Victorian sensibility still turned to religious and temperance themes. Glyn was packaged and promoted as a woman of the world, open-minded and self-assured. She called herself "a writer upon psychological subjects which interest the average citizen": the Dr. Phil of her day. Never sexually explicit, Glyn nonetheless made clear her belief that Victorian notions on the subject were badly worn. My own, battered copy of Glyn's "The Philosophy of Love" (1923), fished from the bargain bin in a second-hand bookstore, is hailed on its jacket as "The Most Daring Book Ever Written!"

After 1918, what Bloom calls "consolatory and spiritualist" books, big sellers during the war years, continued to do well. But "daring" became a publishing byword during the 1920s, as reading became "a popular and regular form of mass leisure entertainment" and sales of books soared. New genres appeared, including the thriller, to exploit war-related subjects and themes. In England, William LeQueux, Edgar Wallace, and Herman McNeile ("Sapper") largely invented the thriller--with debts to Jules Verne and the early H.G. Wells. As thrillers still do today, these early examples featured good guys thwarting bad guys bent on evil conspiracy; they also concerned both the wonders and perils of modern technology. Le Queux's heroes in "The Terror of the Air" (1920) battle "a great pirate aeroplane" that "terrorized the world, destroying aircraft and shipping, bombing London, New York, and Paris, and spreading poison gas, disease germs and other horrors over its helpless victims."

MUCH POPULAR FICTION continues to depict the conflict of good and evil, as the enduring success of the detective novel suggests. Although Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes famous during the 1890s, the detective novel came of age during the 1920s, as the careers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Nagio Marsh, among others, began to form. For many readers, these years between the First and Second World Wars remain the Golden Age of mystery writing, when the genre was fresh, and fictional detectives were individualistic, not interchangeable. Sayers's Lord Peter Whimsey wore spats; Christie's Poirot is described by another character in Christie's first novel, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" (1920), as a man "whose neatness of attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound."

BUT THE 1930s brought notable changes to British mystery fiction, as more violent crime novels, influenced by the American pulp magazines, began to appear. In his 1944 essay "Raffles and Miss Blandish," George Orwell identified James Hadley Chase's bestseller "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" (1939) as a particularly grim forerunner of things to come. Orwell compared Chase's book with E.W. Hornung's "Raffles" novels published in the early 1900s. Raffles is a crook, but he's also a gentleman. He avoids violence and confines himself to lifting jewels. Moreover, the Raffles novels, wrote Orwell, offer "very little sensationalism--very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind." And Raffles effectively pays for his crimes by dying in battle, for Britain, during the Boer War.

But "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" is replete with violence. Featuring--in addition to eight murders--a series of floggings and rapes, it takes for granted "the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behavior." In the old-style crime story, Orwell observes, one left "dull reality" for "an imaginary world of action." But with Chase's books, one not only enters a realm of "cruelty and sexual perversion," but is invited to identify with the criminal's depraved view of the world.