“Very few of us are what we seem,” according to Agatha Christie. This statement expresses the tension between the way that English golden-age detective fiction is popularly understood and what it actually has to say about polite society. The line, on the one hand, has the air of homely folk wisdom and offers something of a cliché, playing into the image of the “cosy” murder mystery as a form characterised by familiarity and adherence to convention. What Christie’s line in fact suggests about humanity, however, is far more transgressive and disquieting than the mode is usually given credit for. As Alison Light points out in Forever England (1991), Christie’s detective fiction in fact articulated a “conservative modernity” and it is a travesty that “the queen of crime” is now regarded as “the high priestess of nostalgia”.
The subversive subtext that underpinned Christie’s work – that polite bourgeois society is murderous and artificial – is foregrounded in Sara Sheridan’s Mirabelle Bevan series. When I interviewed Sheridan at the 2012 Dundee Literary Festival, she revealed that she formulated the appropriately oxymoronic label “cosy noir” to describe her work in order to emphasise this particular tension of golden-age crime fiction: “ Christie was really cutting-edge and she was shocking […] people writing cosy [detective fiction] now don’t seem to understand that that was edgy, and I wanted to bring the edge back to cosy crime”. Any sense of cosiness about Sheridan’s 1950s series, then, is undercut by its self-consciously problematic representations of sexual desire, violence, and the social circumstances of the time.
Set in 1952, a year after the events of Sheridan’s previous novel, Brighton Belle, London Calling delves further into the territory mapped out by that first Mirabelle Bevan mystery. Mirabelle is now established as the manager of McGuigan & McGuigan, a debt collection agency at which she was previously a secretary. Her only employee, a young black woman named Vesta Churchill who also appears in Brighton Belle, seems poised to become her sidekick for the series. The novel concerns the duo’s unofficial investigation into the disappearance of eighteen-year-old debutante Rose Bellamy Gore. Mirabelle and Vesta are motivated to investigate after the arrest of Vesta’s childhood friend Lindon Claremont, a mild-mannered black jazz musician, on the grounds that he was the last person seen talking to Rose. Naturally, then, Sheridan’s narrative delves into the racism bubbling under the surface of Austerity Britain in the 1950s, exposing the prejudices of the police and undermining nostalgic images of a post-war “all in this together” welfare state.
While Brighton Belle was very much a Brighton novel, engaging with the specificities of that particular social and geographical topography, the second novel moves very firmly into the territory of London, offering Mirabelle and Vesta’s investigation a wider social scope. The title, London Calling, is rich with references to a history of race in Britain, being not only the title song of The Clash’s album of the same name, the title of the Jamaican poet’s, Una Marson, 1938 play about black students in London and the lead-in line of BBC World service broadcasts to overseas territories. Yet where London Calling falls short, however, is in the main character’s more overt criticism of racism. Making 1950s instances of racism speak for themselves to the twentieth-first reader, as Brighton Belle did, is far more effective than having a morally superior detective figure intervene in a way that seems incongruous to the period. The social implications of an unequal society are teased out more productively in the more subtle passages of the novel. The best example is the clash between the first chapter’s wonderfully affected description of a debutante tiptoeing out of her parents’ house late at night past sleeping servants, the plump family cat, and spilled wine, with the second chapter’s depiction of a drenched young black man sitting in the rain for three hours waiting for Mirabelle’s debt collection agency to open. A promising addition to the series, then, London Calling is a gripping, stylish narrative that helps reclaim the “cosy” murder mystery by consciously including the more uncomfortable aspects of society that it has always embodied under the surface.