Hey, look at that! It is Z! We made it! Yippee!
Ahem. Right. This month, I’ve been attempting to identify, name, and describe Golden Age murder mystery tropes. I’ve been focusing on clue tropes, and on tropes that allow the knowing reader to solve the mystery, or to predict something yet to happen in the text, without reference to the actual clues. But! Today is different. Today, I pay tribute to the thing that, above all others, keeps me reading Golden Age mysteries. Those tremendously eccentric, totally mad, absolutely splendid…
“Oh Philip!” Cried Grace. “I do care–I do! But how–with this thing–this unsolved murder–between us–how–“
“Ahem.” It came loud and clear from the branches of the tree under which Grace and Philip were embracing. They looked wildly up. A face, for a moment unrecognizable, both from context (for one did not expect to see it framed by green summer leaves) and from hue (for it was suffused a brilliant, blushing red), poked down at them through the foliage. It was a round face, with sparse grey hair at the top, and a bow tie and collar at the bottom, and it surveyed them warily from its perch.
“Why–why, it’s Uncle Percy!” Cried Grace after a moment of horrified silence.
The face took on a thunderous aspect. “Of course it’s Uncle Percy! Who’d you think it’d be, a faun?”
“I didn’t expect you to be spying on us in a tree, anyway,” said Grace coldly.
“Spying? Spying? That ain’t reasonable, my gel. Did I know–hey–did I know beforehand that you and young blighted Philip would be canoodling under this very tree? Hey–did I?”
“But, if you’re not spying, what on earth are you doing in that tree, sir?” Asked Philip.
Now Uncle Percy’s face took on a shifty, embarrassed look utterly alien to it. “Fact is,” he said, blushing more redly than before, “fact is, I like bein’ in trees.” He spoke with growing enthusiasm. “Always have. Nice places, trees. Branches. Greenness. Solitude. Interestin’ bugs.”
Uncle Percy likes being in trees. For the rest of the book, the reader knows that any tree might contain Uncle Percy. Because he likes them.
Maybe he was in a nearby tree when the murder was committed, and has so far failed to mention this interesting fact to anyone. Perhaps he will be up in a tree when the second or third murder is attempted, and will come down just in time to thwart villainy. Or perhaps Uncle Percy’s tree habit is just an interesting eccentricity that the author included to interest and amuse us.
And I, for one, am interested and amused. Whenever Uncle Percy appears subsequently, I will be paying particular attention to him, waiting in happy expectation for him to do or say something curious. This is, by the way, a good time, oh Golden Age writers, to slip one by me. I may not notice, if you drop a clue in a scene in which Uncle Percy is doing something odd.
And it is these characters that keep me reading Golden Age mysteries, more than anything else. There isn’t a zany character in every Golden Age mystery, but there is always a decent chance of one, and I live in hope. Besides, there are other things to like about the books. Still, I do like my mysteries comic, and my characters zany, and Golden Age mysteries often oblige.
Off the top of my head, I’d say the best Golden Age writers of zany characters are: Michael Innes, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, and John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson. I am, I know, leaving off many who deserve to be on this shockingly short list. In fact, I could list most Golden Age mystery writers here. Still, when I think of zany characters, these four authors spring to mind. Oh, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, of course. And… but no. No, the list is too long.
Tell me about yourself, reader! Do you like your characters zany? Who do you like best, of the writers of the Golden Age? Do you have a favorite (or favourite) Golden Age mystery you’d like to mention here? Would you like to say hello? Leave a comment! And thanks for reading my A to Z!