TNC & the Great Detectives: Mid-Century Sleuths

Detectives logo

The members of the Tuesday Night Club are Golden Age Crime fiction fans who like to do some joint blogging: this time to mark the publication of a book called The 100 greatest Literary Detectives, edited by Eric Sandberg. Many different writers – including our own Kate Jackson - are contributing sections on the chosen characters.

We decided to come up with our own list, and after considerable back and forth (‘I’ll give you X if you let me have Y.’ ‘SOMEONE has to do Z’) and some very dodgy maths, we each have our list. We will each blog on as many sleuths as we can, and perhaps someone will add them all up at the end –
Bev at My Readers Block, who created the excellent logo above, is of the opinion there will be 50-ish...

And yet again the great Invisible Event has collected all the links to all this week's posts.

Last week’s links are also at  
The Invisible Event.

... and he listed all the
Week 1 entries in this post.

We are playing fast and loose with time periods (this is by no means solely Golden Age anymore), definitions and numbers, and have in the end made up our own rules.

My first entry was on Marriageable Single Women Detectives

Week 2 was The Spinster Sleuths, Marple vs Silver

This week the only way to come up with a theme for my three detectives was to call them Mid-Century Sleuths, which I agree is pretty lame.

Starting with – two for the price of one -


[I’d have put her first – ie Emmy and Henry – but in all conscience Emmy would annoyingly almost certainly want his name to go first]


These two first appeared in Dead Men Don’t Ski in 1959 (recently on the blog) and stayed around for 30 year more years and another 18 books.

They are a very unusual sleuthing pair. I could give you a list as long as my arm of the detectives they DON’T resemble: they wouldn’t remind you of Nick and Nora, they are no Dagobert and Jane, they do not resemble Tommy and Tuppence, they are not in the least like Lord Peter and Harriet. (Kate at Crossexamingcrime did a great post on the subject  of sleuthing couples last year.)

When we meet them they are safely married - no courtship that we ever see – and  have been for 10 years or so. Henry is a senior Scotland Yard detective. Emmy seems to be a contented housewife: the couple have no children (to their great regret) and her role in life seems to be to keep their Chelsea flat clean and tidy, and have a hot dinner on the table when Henry comes home. Her other job is to be understanding if Henry is late. (So they do slightly resemble another couple: Inspector Maigret and his wife Louise.)

But Henry and Emmy are undoubtedly partners. Very occasionally they get annoyed with each other, and she is no pushover. She will do a bit of sleuthing for him on the side when necessary. Henry has his ‘nose’ – his metaphor for intuition, he follows his hunches (so often it’s the woman who does this).  Neither of them gets drunk (though they smoke endlessly, being very much of their time), or behaves badly, or has an affair, or has a neurotic problem: they do have occasional spats, which don’t last long. They sound boring as hell, and actually are not: but I’m finding it very difficult to explain why not.

For the purposes of this post I re-read Johnny Under Ground, a 1965 book. I chose it more or less at random from my shelf (I have about half her books) and it turned out to be a lucky pick, because Emmy features in it a lot. We find out that she is roughly the same age as Patricia Moyes (born 1923) and that she worked in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAFs, during WW2: the book is looking back at a tragic death near an airfield where she was stationed. She starts researching some of the stories from that time, and it becomes obvious there is someone who doesn’t want the matter resurrected. We see her going round talking to people, people from her own past, and having a life (and a love – or at least a crush – before Henry). It is an unusual and well-written book, with some great characters, one of the best of hers I would say.

The really interesting thing is that Moyes herself was no Emmy: she worked in the film industry, she wrote scripts, she worked in fashion and in journalism, and spoke French well enough to do translations. Many of the books have backgrounds in areas she was familiar with, and it really shows – they are very convincing and intrinsically fascinating. See for example Murder a la Mode (thinly disguised version of Vogue, where Moyes worked as an editor). In Dead Men Don’t Ski, Emmy is a much more experienced skier than Henry, which is rather nice, especially given that the basis of the book is that most of the readers would never have been skiing.

The books are well-plotted traditional murder mysteries: I always say one of my favourite bits of clueing of all time comes in her Who Is Simon Warwick? And they do contain surprises: satisfying endings, or characters who  have something unexpected about them... You can rely on Patricia Moyes, and on Henry and Emmy.

Several of the books have featured on the blog: click on the Moyes link below to see them.

I liked them better than I remembered when I came to do an overview. What about my third detective?


was the creation of Nicholas Blake, starting with A Question of Proof in 1935. This was a very traditional Golden Age detective story in many ways, though more than one critic (Julian Symons, HRF Keating) commented on the surprise of finding TS Eliot quoted in the opening pages. Martin Edwards is nicely crushing about this in his marvellous The Golden Age of Murder - showing that Eliot was well-known and popular with crime writers, that Eliot liked detective fiction himself, and that ‘misjudgements like this by critics as renowned as Symons… have fostered misunderstandings and prejudices about Golden Age fiction that endure to this day’.

I found another aspect of the opening pages to be more surprising – that the young hero, Michael, a teacher in a boys’ prep school, is having an affair with the headmaster’s wife, apparently without any great authorial disapproval: surely unusual in 1935. Nothing else in the book departs from the norms of the time, though I surprised myself by enjoying the fathers vs pupils cricket match, which included stringent comments on how the fathers should have played it to ensure they didn't beat the boys (reminded me of this Gladys Mitchell book).

Nigel Strangeways is a friend of the adulterous Michael. He is  a very well-connected private investigator, called in to protect the school’s interests when a murder takes place. He is, naturally, in full co-operation with the local police, who one feels would have liked to strangle him in real life. He is widely believed to be based on WH Auden (right) in appearance and manner, and honestly is just a collection of unexciting eccentricities: he drinks vast quantities of tea, likes a lot of blankets on his bed, sings snatches of songs, and quotes incessantly from poems and Shakespeare. He is like every 1930s male detective rolled into one and then ironed back out in a rather dull manner.


Nicholas Blake himself was actually the distinguished poet Cecil Day Lewis, writing crime fiction on his days off. He was left-wing, and had a complex lovelife – which makes it all the more disappointing that Strangeways is very very snobbish, and very very judgemental about women. There is a lot about ‘wanton’ women, usually lower-class just to combine with the snobbery: see my entry on There’s Trouble Brewing here.

As the books went on, he didn’t really change much. He was married, and widowed, and found a new partner. In a late entry, The Morning After Death, he has sex with a young student while a visiting academic in America. Though weirdly, I found from A Question of Proof that he was sent down from Cambridge: his qualifications for being an academic always seemed suspect, and here I feel I have caught Blake out…

As you may have gathered, I chose Strangeways as one of my list of detectives, and was rather disappointed when I came to look at the books again – not as good as I’d remembered. He is as annoying as he would be in real life, without much in the way of humour or self-deprecation. However, like the Tibbetts, he appeared in a fair number of books over 30 years, and so there is some sociological interest in reading them – the settings are interesting and varied, from the school, to a publishers’ office to a brewery to a country house to a holiday camp. 

You don’t ever feel you’d like to know the man in real life, mind you.

And then again - Cecil Day Lewis is now perhaps more famous for fathering Daniel, Tamsin and Sean, but I think his poetry is under-rated: Walking Away (also set in a boys’ school…) is a great poem about parenthood, and The Album is a beautiful love poem: the man who wrote them seems to have had a generous heart and a great love of other people. I wonder if he wrote the detective stories as potboilers, moneymakers, and didn’t concentrate on them enough. I have a regret for the great crime fiction that he might have written if he’d let himself….

You can find posts on several Nicholas Blake books by clicking on the label below.

The top photo, from the always-generous Imperial War Museum, shows the work Emmy Tibbett & Patricia Moyes did during WW2: ‘The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF): In the Flying Control Room at RAF Dunholme, an aircraftwoman assists in the bringing of Lancasters back to base after a raid on Berlin.’

Picture of WH Auden in 1938, from the National Media Museum.

The schoolboys are from the New South Wales archives.


  1. I like NIgel Strangeways well enough, Moira, 'though I'll admit he's not on my list of 'the greats.' But I really, truly do like Emmy and Henry Tibbett! So glad to see them highlighted here. They're both interesting characters as individuals, and I like their marriage, too.

    1. Yes, Margot - the Tibbetts marriage is a realistic and thoughtfully portrayed one. And there is always a place for Nigel S, even if he's not up there in the top tier...

  2. Thanks for the mentions. When I first read: 'Kate at Crossexamingcrime did a great post on the subject of sleuthing couples last year,' my first thought was Did I? Shows how bad my memory is lol
    Henry and Emmy are a good couple together, though in book 2, I forget the title, Henry does admit to straying slightly or very nearly so. Johnny Underground was my first experience of this couple and I do remember enjoying this one.
    As to Nigel, I enjoyed him most in the 5-6 books, but he was never the same after the death of his first wife. He did end up rather creepy in The Morning After Death.

    1. That's hilarious about you not remembering, but I can imagine myself doing exactly the same. And sometimes I come across an old post, and think that I barely remember writing it... Nigel has his moments, and the books are enjoyable, but he doesn't seem all that well-rounded.

  3. I'm enjoying going back and looking at the Tibbetts. I always liked Blake's End of Chapter, in part because it's so obvious PD James ransacked it for her Original Sin!

    1. Oh that's interesting! it did seem to be the original ur-text of 'books set at the publishers office'.

  4. I missed commenting on some of your Great Detectives post, and I remember this one so well because it is about two authors I really like. Moyes is one of my top mystery authors and I have copies of all of her books. I also like Blake's series and read quite a few when I was younger, and now would like to read (or reread) more of them.

    I am glad you pointed out End of Chapter as "set in publishers office" because I am particularly interested in those too.

    1. I think there are quite a few Moyes books that I haven't read, I will slowly work my way through them. they are always very enjoyable. And I think you will like End of Chapter too.


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