All Things Mysterious Volume Thirty-Seven
Appreciating J. S. Fletcher
J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935) was one of the prime movers of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Mystery. Some of the best crime fiction ever written was published during this time, much of it in the UK. Fletcher himself wrote over one hundred mysteries and at least 230 books overall.
Yorkshire has produced more than its share of men and women of letters--think about the Brontes or J.B. Priestley, but a writer would be hard-pressed to outdo Joseph Smith Fletcher, born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1863. He briefly studied law before taking up journalism, starting with the Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Post under the puzzling byline ‘The Son of the Soil,’ strange because Fletcher was indeed a son of the city, and not a agrarian by any stretch of the imagination! He did, however, write several novels of rural life, including two mysteries featuring Yorkshire farmer Mr. Poskitt. His interest in criminology came about in part because of these influences, both in his legal studies and in covering notable court cases as a reporter.
He did take rather a roundabout path to crime fiction, though--he started out as a poet! His first published books were collections of verse, after which he changed direction a bit. He began writing historical fiction, much of which revolved around his hometown area in Yorkshire.
His first foray into crime fiction occurred in 1909 with the publication of Marchester Royal, in which a telegram summons lawyer Matthew Deckenham to the eponymous estate, where he learns of the murder of the Lord of the manor. Deckenham meets Inspector Skarratt of the Yard and the two begin investigating but the murdered man’s relatives complicate the situation. 1909 also saw publication of The Adventures of Archer Daw, Sleuth-Hound, adapted and expanded from his short story The Contents of the Coffin, in which John Barr is convicted of embezzlement, but the bank, not having recovered its money, hires Archer Daw to search for the missing booty. The mystery genre seems to have agreed with Fletcher, for he then went wild! Three mysteries featuring Inspector Skarratt, eleven featuring Camberwell & Chaney, two stories starring Sgt. Charlesworth, and dozens of non-series standalones.
Mystery aficionados may recall the boost that Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels got when President Kennedy included Fleming in a response to a reporter’s question about the chief executive’s reading habits. Similarly, President Woodrow Wilson was said to be a fan of The Middle Temple Murder, proving that a Presidential endorsement is not an impediment to sales!
But unlike many of his Golden Age contemporaries, Fletcher did less with the traditional detective-finds-the-murderer type of story and more about crooked bankers, evil businessmen, swindlers and the like. Many’s the time in his books that the story revolves around the criminals or the accused, as opposed to the detective who is ostensibly the focus of the tale.
Now sadly saddled with a reputation for dull writing, Fletcher uses his hometown area of Yorkshire as a backdrop, or almost as another character in many of his stories. He uses plot devices now considered hopelessly quaint, like identical twins or unusual poisons, but these are hallmarks of the Golden Age and should in no way be discounted. Indeed, the prewar flavor of the fiction of this period is one of the main reasons why the Golden Age is called the Golden Age! It’s one of the main attractions for those who appreciate history and enjoy words and expressions that have fallen out of use, or descriptions of places now gone. Further, a vintage mystery can give a contemporary look, even a fictionalized one, at a place in time that simply cannot be captured at a remove of years or decades.
So if you’d like to enjoy one of the stalwarts of the Golden Age, the massive body of work created by J.S. Fletcher means that you’ve got a pretty good chance of finding something that you’ll like!
Try these for starters:
Intrepid reporter Spargo comes across a man who has come across a corpse in the road and vows to solve the crime.
The first in the series featuring Camberwell and Cheney, in which the former tries to clear his employer's name after a visitor to the estate is murdered!
An elderly pawnbroker is found murdered, and a priceless diamond has gone missing. The plot thickens!
The new reform mayor only won by one vote, but has vowed to clean up the town anyway! But then he is found murdered in a locked room, which puts a damper on his mandate.
Inspired by his own Yorkshire childhood in the 1870s, author Fletcher was most surprised how little the area had changed in the subsequent half-century.
Fifteen short pieces from the master of the well-drawn character.
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