Yesterday Cambridge University Press published my short study entitled Witchcraft and Paganism in Midcentury Women’s Detective Fiction – and the ebook version is free for the next fortnight. It’s about seventy-five pages, and the contents are rather what it says on the tin. I explore and examine the appearance of witchcraft and paganism in the detective novels of four of the British “Queens of Crime”: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and Margery Allingham. To quote from the launch blurb:
“The detective stories of the “Queens of Crime” are haunted by witchcraft and paganism. The hero of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy visits a village called “Wychwood” and falls in love with a woman named after a pagan goddess. Gladys Mitchell’s Come Away, Death is dedicated to a friend “whom Artemis bless and Demeter nourish; upon whom Phoebus Apollo shine.” Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head revolves around the climax of a folk-dance, when ritual words are muttered and a murder is committed. Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady depicts the spontaneous rebirth of witchcraft in the depths of the English countryside.”
This study began as a draft chapter in a planned book on Agatha Christie, after I kept noticing how her novels mentioned witchery and magic. In the end that book never saw the light of day (though one chapter became the basis of a journal article, and another is being incorporated into my latest book draft), but I continued to be struck by references to witchcraft in Christie and her contemporaries. The study arose out of confusion as much as anything: why did the detective novel, a form which valorised logic and rationality, seem so concerned with ideas which seemed opposed to those values?
As I delved more deeply into the books’ representation of witchcraft and paganism, I had to tease out multiple strands of the literature and culture of the British midcentury. The repeal of laws against witchcraft in the 1950s; the emergence of Wicca and other forms of pagan spirituality; the interwar “turn inward” in British culture; the way detective novels handled multiple stories at the same time. All these had a bearing on why midcentury British detective novelists wrote about witchcraft, and how it appeared in their books.
One of the major arguments of my study is that these books often create a fictional “double vision”, in which the reader is offered two possibilities. They can decide to read the events of the story as a rational set of causes and effects, in which everything has been logically tidied away by the end. Or they can see the story as touched by the inexplicable, indulging an enchanted view of the world.
I’m holding an online launch event at 1pm (GMT) on Tuesday 28th June – to discuss the subject of the book, read out some of the best bits of the novels I cover in the study, and answer questions – as well as hearing other opinions about witchcraft and detective fiction! You’d be very welcome to join us, and you can register via this EventBrite link. This study has been quite a while in writing and thinking, and I’ll be so interested to hear people’s thoughts. Do help yourself to a free ebook copy, available until July 8th 2022.