I would never make a gumshoe, but the temptation to indulge in amateur sleuthing when confronted by a literary puzzle is something I find hard to resist. And in partnership with a crime novelist of genuine distinction, a winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger, I have tried to unravel a mystery that both us of have found fascinating.
The story began with my receiving a catalogue of books for sale from Jamie Sturgeon. He listed a parody of Golden Age detective fiction called Gory Knight, which sounded interesting. When I talked to him about the book, he said it was good – but his copy had already been sold. He suggested that I contact that expert on Golden Age mysteries, and avid collector, Bob Adey, to see if he had a spare copy. I phoned Bob and sure enough, he did indeed have a copy that he was willing to part with at a reasonable price.
Gory Knight was first published in 1937, not long after Dorothy L. Sayers produced Gaudy Night. Parodies were popular in the Thirties – Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons’ 1932 parody of doom-laden accounts of rural life (‘loam and lovechildren’ is a nice description of them) by the likes of Mary Webb that were in vogue at the time, was a best-seller. In the detective genre, E.C. Bentley wrote ‘Greedy Night’, while the pleasing title of Anthony Berkeley’s ‘The Policeman Only Taps Once’ is arguably better than the story itself.
The co-authors of Gory Knight were Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow. Neither name was known to me, and I was intrigued as to the identities of the two obscure women who presumed, and evidently with some success, to parody the leading detective novelists of the age. The day Bob’s parcel containing the book landed on my doorstep, I consulted an encyclopaedia of crime fiction. I could not find any record that Larminie or Langslow had undertaken any other work in the genre, but by chance, when flicking through the pages, I noticed that the eminent crime writer Margaret Yorke’s maiden name was Larminie.
Reasoning that there can’t be too many literary Larminies, I could not resist ringing Margaret up to find out if there was any family connection. However, I did this with some trepidation. Although she and I had met briefly almost a decade before, and she had been kind enough to contribute a couple of short stories to anthologies that I’d edited, I was not confident she would remember me, or welcome my interrupting her afternoon with a strange question about a book that she had probably never heard of.
Margaret had indeed never heard of Gory Knight, but she proved to be both helpful and charming, and that tentative first phone call has led to an enthusiastic and continuing correspondence that I have found utterly pleasurable. She told me that there was indeed a connection with Margaret Rivers Larminie (to whom for convenience, I shall refer from now on as MRL.) The family relationships are complicated, but in short, MRL was second cousin to Margaret’s father, and thus Margaret’s third cousin.
I learned that the family’s literary roots are deep – members include William Larmnie, an Irish poet and folklorist of some distinction, while Margaret’s brother wrote technical books about cars, and her nephew James (who with his wife has produced a detailed family tree) has published books about automotive fuel systems and related engineering subjects. MRL had two separate claims to fame. She was not only a novelist, but also Ladies’ All England Badminton champion in 1911 and 1912, and again (under her married name, Tragett) in 1928.
Margaret told me that she met MRL just once, either just before the outbreak of war or shortly afterwards: ‘I have a memory of someone tall and elegant’ who said she was in Who’s Who, and that this was ‘very useful’. Margaret’s understanding is that the accolade owed at least as much to her prowess at badminton as to her writing, but in her day, MRL was a popular novelist, and Margaret had read her books – other than Gory Knight.
Although the Larminies were a family of Huguenot origin, MRL was, or became, a Roman Catholic. However, for unknown reasons her marriage ended in divorce. Before the divorce, she wrote novels published by Chatto and Windus and The Bodley Head. Gory Knight, published by Longmans Green, was the first book she produced after the divorce. Margaret told me: ‘I am slightly baffled by why my parents didn’t seem to maintain contact with her. Perhaps they did and I don’t remember about it, but I didn’t use my maiden name for writing because she was still alive when I was first published.’ In the event, Margaret chose as a pseudonym the name of her maternal grandmother, Margaret Yorke. Her first novel, Summer Flight, appeared in 1957; she did not turn to fictional crime until 1970, when she created the don-detective Patrick Grant, who was to appear in five books before she concentrated on psychological suspense, following the critical acclaim accorded to No Medals for the Major (1974).
The last of MRL’s novels to appear before Gory Knight was The Visiting Moon (1932), which according to Margaret, ‘starts off with a glum man sitting on a bench in Kensington Gardens where he meets a glum woman. He wants to find a woman with whom to arrange a weekend to provide evidence for his wife to divorce him. She is on a similar quest for an obliging man.’ The woman is a novelist and in due course the partners in subterfuge fall for each other. I have not read the book, but Margaret rates it as witty, and infers that MRL was a feisty character with ‘modern views’ by the standards of her time. It may well be that she wrote the book at a time she was herself contemplating, or going through, divorce.
But what about MRL’s collaborator, Jane Langslow? At first, Margaret could not cast any light on Langslow’s identity, and our internet searches drew a blank. But as we debated the mystery, Margaret checked the family tree, noting that MRL gave to the novelist in The Visiting Moon her mother’s name, Laura. Laura’s maiden name was Pollock and she was the 21st child of Sir Frederick Pollock (1783-1870). Sir Frederick was Chief Baron of the Exchequer from 1844-66, when he was made a baronet. Researching a web page about the Pollocks suggested by her nephew James, Margaret discovered that Sir Frederick had two wives. The first was Frances Rivers, who had twelve children and died in 1827. His second wife, whom he married in 1834, and who also produced a dozen offspring. Her name was Sarah Anne Anowah Langslow. MRL’s mother Laura had been married before and had three other children, one of whom was Maud Diver (Katherine Helen Maud Marshall Diver, 1867-1945). After her first marriage was dissolved, Laura married Edward Merry Larminie.
Maud Diver, MRL’s half-sister, was yet another writer. She was born at Murree, a hill station in the Himalayas, and educated in England, before later returning to live and write in India, which is why she is sometimes described as an ‘Anglo-Indian novelist’. She produced more than two dozen books, including some non-fiction works, which sold in substantial numbers. Her work is a product of its time; she wrote extensively about inter-racial relationships, and one modern commentator has complained that her work ‘served to legitimize British Imperialism’, which seems a little harsh, given that she evidently loved the country of her birth, and perhaps fails fairly to reflect the way in which Maud seems to have moderated her views, in keeping with changing attitudes, over the course of her lengthy writing career. In Candles in the Wind (1909), one character is called Mrs Rivers, indicating that Maud used family names from time to time when working on her books.
Margaret came up with the theory that Maud Diver might have used the Langslow name to conceal her identity when working on a book quite different from her usual line of work. If Maud and Jane Langslow were one and the same person, then Gory Knight was written by two half-sisters, a highly unusual form of literary collaboration.
Margaret’s reading of the two women’s other work provided clues which, to my mind, added weight to her suspicions. MRL’s characteristic fictional themes included men accepting the inevitable and providing evidence to prove adultery, such as hotel bills, when there was a need for divorce. This prompted Margaret to wonder if Laura fell for Edward Merry Larminie and Maud’s father co-operated with regard to the marital split: ‘Both Maud’s and Margaret’s themes seem concerned with extra-marital love, if not always consummated! Maud’s views on mixed race relationships are not admirable but she must be assessed bearing in mind when she was writing.’
She found further evidence to support the view that Maud was Jane Langslow: ‘Edward Larminie was a soldier and engineer and was stationed in India for many years. The hero of Candles in the Wind is an army engineer. It seems quite likely that if her older half sister was stationed in India, MRL might have gone there too, and it’s also likely that as young girl, Maud, her mother married to Edward, spent time in India…all Laura’s older children are likely to have spent time in India.’ Candles in the Wind may not be politically correct, but Margaret attributes its success to Maud’s ability to evoke the atmosphere of India under British colonial rule: ‘The Frontier wars, the threat of Russia, the construction of bridges, the fighting of battles, and so on.’ Maud’s skills in this regard have even been compared to Kipling’s.
By the mid-Thirties, the literary hey-days of both MRL and Maud Diver were past. Margaret thinks that they decided that it might be fun ‘to spin a detective story’, and in so doing to poke gentle fun at the leading mystery writers of the day. It seems to me to be a highly plausible idea, although at the time of writing we are still in search of conclusive proof.
A final puzzle was to identify the book’s dedicatee, referred to cryptically as ‘H.F.M.’ I wondered if solving this little conundrum might help to cast further light on the identity of Jane Langslow, but this appears unlikely, since having studied the family tree, Margaret found that MRL had an aunt called Helena Frederica Macaulay.
So what of Gory Knight itself? The story parodies the celebrated detectives Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey (and his manservant Bunter), Reggie Fortune, Dr Priestley and Inspector French – although the French character appears only in the final stages of the book .The sleuths gather, by improbable means, in an English country house, and are immediately greeted by the disappearance of the cook (the eponymous Ms Knight.) It is an entertaining piece of work. The plot is slight, and stretched out excessively, but to my mind there is much pleasure to be had in the way MRL and ‘Jane Langslow’ render the eccentricities of Poirot, Wimsey and Bunter in particular.
Margaret enjoyed the book at least as much: ‘It is great fun, very entertaining and a good puzzle, also very clever. I would appreciate it more were I familiar with the work of Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode and H.C. Bailey but I don’t think I’ve read any of them and so don’t know their sleuths. The Wimsey and Poirot figures – Lord Robert Mooney and his faithful Bunyan and Hippolyte Pommeau – are very clever. Huge country house where Miss Pyke lives alone and is unfazed by having so many guests…at first I thought how over-punctuated it was – lots of dashes and a myriad semi-colons. I like semi-colons but there was a superabundance – but that settled down after a bit.’
So there you have it. A lively period piece, a skit on Golden Age detection that has survived long enough to spark a friendship between two crime writers who have derived a good deal of amusement from their own attempts to collaborate in proving that, as regards the authorship of Gory Knight, it was Maud Diver ‘whodunit’ in collaboration with her younger half-sister.
This article first appeared in CADS, edited by Geoff Bradley