The politics of detective fiction

For JJ, who wondered what Henry Wade’s politics were.

From left to right:


  • C. St. John Sprigg


  • Julian Symons


  • Nicholas Blake
  • G.D.H. and M. Cole


  • Leslie Charteris (half-Chinese; in The Saint Plays with Fire, he argues the Establishment – business, Conservative politics, and the army – is Fascist)
  • E.R. Punshon (Dickensian liberal, attacked Nazis from 1933/34 on, published by Gollancz)
  • Ellery Queen (Halfway House!)


  • H.C. Bailey (with religious zeal)
  • Anthony Boucher (wrote article on why the detective story was liberal)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Anthony Gilbert
  • Reginald Hill
  • E.C.R. Lorac (anti-Mosley)
  • Ngaio Marsh (if clumsily, earnestly so)
  • Helen McCloy
  • Gladys Mitchell
  • John Rhode (until after WWII)
  • Rex Stout
  • Edgar Wallace

“Tory” liberal

  • John Dickson Carr (hated the welfare state and Socialists because he thought they were against individual rights; refused to visit Buckingham Palace because his gay friends weren’t invited; almost no racial prejudice)


  • Agatha Christie

Weird kind of Labour who doesn’t like the lower classes

  • Ruth Rendell

Voted Conservative, fed up with politics

  • Edmund Crispin


  • Michael Gilbert
  • Cyril Hare
  • P.D. James

Feminist Anglo-Catholic intellectual, with odd attitude to Jews

  • Dorothy L. Sayers

Weird kind of Catholic Distributionist anti-Jew liberal who didn’t believe in evolution

  • G.K. Chesterton

Barking mad

  • Anthony Berkeley (pro-murdering people, simultaneously anti-Jew AND anti-Nazi, while Wychford Poisoning Case will give a feminist fits – what a woman needs is a damn good spanking)


  • Henry Wade


  • Josephine Bell (wrote for middle-aged, middle-brow, middle class; doesn’t like Jews, blacks, or lesbians)
  • R. Austin Freeman (have you read my tract about eugenics?)
  • Philip MacDonald (did you know that black people can be identified by their stink in the dark, and that white women who cross racial boundaries are utterly depraved murderesses?  Also proposed that capital punishment should be replaced with torture to death)
  • Carolyn Wells

Far right

  • J.J. Connington (Totalitarian)



  • Margery Allingham
  • Christianna Brand
  • Christopher Bush
  • Michael Innes


  • S.S. Van Dine

22 thoughts on “The politics of detective fiction

  1. Didn’t know about Carr taking a stand for gay rights – he really was one of a kind, and maybe Wyatt was right to label him a libertarian (though the term didn’t exist yet in Carr’s lifetime) rather than a conservative.

    Your article is very interesting and makes a very necessary case for GAD’s ideological “diversity” but I’d take issue with some of the categories as they make sense only in an English-speaking political context. From a continental viewpoint Bell, Freeman and MacDonald for instance belong in the Far-Right section along with Connington, and the so-called liberals would be divided between centrists, left-wingers and leftists. It’s only old me nitpicking, though.

    What’s striking ultimately is how much more diverse crime fiction was back then – it still is to an extent but one side has largely superseded the other, at least in terms of critical recognition and awards. P.D. James was probably the last major conservative crime writer to enjoy near-universal acclaim.


    1. Carr seems to have been an individualist first and foremost; hence his hatred for theories and abstractions.

      What sets Connington apart is Nordenholt’s Million, where he argues that only the leadership of a single strong man can solve problems; democracy is misguided. Read the summary in Curt’s book, if nothing else.

      Yes, Freeman would definitely be on the far right these days. Anti-immigrant (“Sub-Man”), anti-Jew, proposed the sterilisation of the unfit (“biologically undesirable”). But he also championed science and reason to solve problems.

      People are complex beasts (even if that complexity can be successfully eradicated through a proper scientifically controlled breeding program).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The question most relevant for our time is, How did all those people get along? Some of them were friends or admired each other’s work despite their sometimes radically different politics. One observes the same phenomenon in the between-the-wars French literary scene (“La République des Lettres” as someone put it) where you had right-wingers writing in leftist magazines and reciprocally. WWII put an end to that as ideas were tested with some proving to have extremely dire consequences.


      2. Probably because in those days, people could differ politically, while not seeing those who held differing views as the devil incarnate. Too many people today define themselves by their politics, so they take disagreement as an assault on their identity.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Céline is the Anapurna of French asshole writers but he is hardly the only one, especially in the last century when major writers tended to be either fascists or stalinists – liberal democracy then as now was not very popular with the Literati. That’s only for political assholeness; the list grows even longer if we also take the personal in consideration.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. High ranking among my “favourite” French literary assholes are the ideologically diametrically opposed but equally despisable Paul Morand and Alexis Leger a.k.a. Saint-John Perse. The former was a raving antisemite and homophobe as well as an unrepentant collaborationist who managed to escape the Epuration, become a father figure to the so-called “Hussards” literary movement and to top all that ended a member of the French Academy. The latter was a moderate republican but still played a significant part in the Munich fiasco then fled to the States when the Germans were too close for comfort. He spent the whole duration of the war in hiding there, doing nothing remotely associated with resistance or helping the Allies. He still earned the Nobel Prize for his poetry but never entered the Academy because of the rancorous Général de Gaulle’s opposition. That being said, both were great writers, with Morand being one of the earliest French literati to show an interest in the genre – the preface he wrote for the French edition of Lord Peter Views the Body is very erudite and perceptive and must have been an influence on Barzun’s thinking (Morand didn’t think the detective novel should concern itself with psychology)

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Really intriguing list, Nick! We’re at the point in the U.S. (many of us are at any rate, it seems) where the alignment of party designation determines whether you like or don’t like the output of a particular actor or musician or author. If Actor A isn’t in your red or blue camp, then his or her body of work isn’t worthwhile. And that seems misguided for some obvious reasons, including the fact that the TV/film role they are performing is just that: politics doesn’t speak to competency or creativity in executing an artistic task, like writing a book or singing a song. Those products may carry a political message, but sometimes everything created by that person is either embraced or dismissed because of a stated political alliance.

    So I’m wondering if you ever feel or have felt like right- or left-leaning sentiments get in the way of (or enhance?) your enjoyment of GAD authors. As there’s an historical or era-defined spacing — many of the classic stories were published prior to the second World War, after all — between then and now, is it easier to come across and consider the political opinions within a GAD text compared to reading an author writing today and injecting political comments into a mystery story? Just curious….


    1. Yes; most fiction is insufficiently Marxist.

      Too often in a detective story, guilt is laid at the feet of an individual, rather than to capitalism. Detective fiction also idolises the effete aristocracy and property holders.

      That is why I prefer the revised versions proposed by Punch. Lord Lickspittle Dies! Murder on the Orient Bicycle (in which the killers throw kittens under the victims’ bikes, having misinterpreted “Die Proletarier haben nichts zu verlieren als ihre Ketten”, and Poirot is lynched in a workers’ revolution).

      This rotten reactionary thread runs right through art. Look, for instance, at Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro!

      Mozart and librettist Da Ponte recognise the fundamental reality of class struggle: the patriarchal, entitled, titled plutocrat oppresses the working man (and woman). But the opera is ideologically false. Figaro discovers that he is really a member of the bourgeoisie, the son of a property holder, and not a member of the proletariat. The opera should finish with the enemies of the people – the Count and Countess, and their lackey Don Basilio – guillotined! Instead, it closes with that most hackneyed of conventions: a happy ending, to lull the audience into acquiescence and false consciousness. The classes are reconciled, with no revolution in sight. This is false to the empirical truth of Marxism. Mozart and Da Ponte were class traitors, sycophants of the decadent imperialist Viennese court.

      Then again, not enough detective fiction is National Socialist…

      Seriously, though, not much.

      Some books are so reactionary they’re exasperatingly amusing – MacDonald’s White Crow, Myers-Briggs’ Give Me Death, or Bell’s Summer School Mystery. I don’t like Wade much, largely because he’s dull, and horses and huntin’ and shootin’ (or huntin’ and shootin’ horses) aren’t my thing.

      Some left-wing writers are too grim, because life is earnest and unjust, and most people in a capitalist society are corrupt.

      I’m always interested to read what authors have to say about the world; even if I disagree with them, it’s thought-provoking. (Chesterton, for instance, is often illuminating about human behaviour, even if his solution is invariably more Catholicism.)

      What really irritates me (both in fiction and real life) is blinkered ideology, whether left or right, religious or political.

      Apropos which, I definitely agree with your first point; the politicization, and factionalization, of modern life is really misguided. And who would ‘scape whipping?

      Liked by 3 people

  3. You’ve to correct me if I’m wrong here, but wasn’t Berkeley a died-in-the-wool misanthrope? So being pro-murdering people and simultaneously hating Jews and Nazis is perfectly in line with his misanthropy, but can you chalk that up as a political position? I don’t know. He was still a great writer and plotter though.


    1. Berkeley probably was a misanthrope to some extent but my feeling is that he also loved to pull people’s legs, to make them feel uncomfortable by saying and writing outrageous things. Even The Poisoned Chocolates Case can be seen as him sticking out his tongue at his colleagues and readers.
      Regarding his actual political leanings, it may be of interest to know that he was The Guardian’s resident crime fiction critic for many years. He also wrote for The Daily Telegraph earlier in his career though, so I don’t know whether it’s relevant.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The email notification put Ngaio March under “Unaligned” which surprised me somewhat based on the little I know about her work. And I do not see her at all on the website. Are you undecided?


    1. No, Marsh is there, under liberal. She was anti-racialist from the 1930s, even if her non-white characters tend to be idealised, or noble savages.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An interesting list, but I think a linear spectrum of politics misrepresents the complexity of individual ideologies. I think Chesterton and Carr alone (who each seem to belong at about four of five different points on such a spectrum) would suggest that such a model is inadequate. And, despite being what might be called a moderate left-winger myself, I don’t see it as fair that the right wing on this list is identified nearly entirely by racial intolerance rather than by what might be seen as “positive” conservative values, such as reward of individual initiative, and freedom from government interference and excess taxation. If Carr is viewed as liberal based on his social views, I think he must also be identified as conservative based on his fiscal ones— indicating either that a linear spectrum is inadequate, or that he’s pulling off his own Carrian impossibility.

    Liked by 2 people

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