Set in late 1939 during the first anxious months of World War II, Joanna Cannan’s Death at The Dog is a wonderful example of the classic English detective novel that first flourished between the two World Wars when writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh began practicing their trade. Like so many books of its period, Death at The Dog is set in a picturesque village filled with thatched-roof cottages, eccentric villagers and genial pubs. As well-plotted as a Christie, with clues abundantly and fairly planted, it’s also as deftly written as the best of the books by either Sayers or Marsh, filled with quotable lines and perceptive observations on the human condition. Cannan had a gift for characterization that’s second to none in Golden Age detective fiction, and she created two memorable lead characters in Death at The Dog.
One of them is Inspector Guy Northeast, a lonely young Scotland Yard inspector who makes his second and final appearance here and finds himself hopelessly smitten with the chief suspect in the murder of the village tyrant. The other unforgettable character is the “lady novelist” Crescy Hardwick, an unconventional and ultimately unobtainable woman a number of years Guy’s senior, who is able to pierce his armor and see the unhappiness that haunts the detective’s private moments. Well aware that all the evidence seems to point to her, she is also able—unlike her less imaginative fellow villagers—to see how very good Northeast is at his job. Most of the other villagers in Death at The Dog aren’t at all impressed with Northeast. “Practically no education,” snorts one, snobbishly proclaiming that the detective probably went no further than grammar school. Northeast wouldn’t really disagree. “Detectives aren’t any more brilliant than anyone else,” he explains. “They’ve experience in putting jigsaw puzzles together, that’s all.” Observing Northeast in action, Crescy realizes why her own attempts at writing a mystery novel had failed. “I tried to make my detective a brilliant kind of person—like Dr. Priestley [the plodding sleuth in John Rhode’s innumerable detective novels], only young and attractive. But Northeast isn’t brilliant.” Yet Crescy recognizes that Northeast is blessed with other talents far more important in a detective, and she dismisses his lack of a proper education in a line worthy of Oscar Wilde: “Education’s all very well for dining-out on, but it can’t make fools wise. A wise lad, Northeast, and wisdom is common sense lit by imagination.”
With his unassuming manner and uncommon ability to dislodge information from suspects by means of seemingly casual conversation, Northeast gradually worms his way into the confidence of the villagers, sharing a pint or two over a game of darts as he tries to discern who had the most to gain from the death of the terrible old miser who ruled over the village and his family with a fierce iron will.
The present case marks Northeast’s second visit to Loamshire. The first was recounted in the 1939 novel They Rang Up the Police, which appeared only in England. He’s not pleased to make a return visit, given “the prospect of working with two men he disliked, in a county he despised, during a war in which he wasn’t allowed to fight.”
After Death at The Dog, Cannan deserted detective fiction for nine years. When she finally did take up the genre again it was with a new character, Inspector Ronald Price, who was introduced to the reading public in 1950 in her most famous novel, the frequently reprinted and retitled Murder Included, first published in the United States as Poisonous Relations and twice later reprinted as The Taste of Murder.
Cannan’s daughter Josephine Pullein-Thompson, herself the author of three crime novels, said her mother dropped Northeast as her sleuth “because he was too nice. She much preferred her hate relationship with the awful Price,” possibly because “it was too difficult to write about good or nice people.” That may be, but Northeast is too complex a character ever to become boring, and the final scene in Death at The Dog will tear at the hearts of all but the most hardened readers. Perhaps Cannan felt that Northeast deserved a little peace.
“Awful” is a good description for Price, who foreshadows the equally loathsome sleuths Jack Rosher and Inspector Dover, respectively created many years later by Jack S. Scott and Joyce Porter. Critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, in their highly opinionated A Catalogue of Crime, praise Cannan’s work but admit that “Price is a caricature” whose “genteel-vulgar traits, speech, and habits” are “deliberately overdone in order to permit a hostile kind of humor at his expense.” In spite of the success of the first Price book, the other four in the series have never been commercially reprinted in the United States (an edition of The Body in the Beck designed for libraries was published in 1983.)
“Loamshire” in Death at The Dog is a thinly disguised version of rural Oxfordshire, where Joanna Cannan settled with her husband and four children in 1932. “The Dog” is based on a real pub, The New Inn at Kidmore End, which is still in operation and lies near Reading. During the war, especially, the pub was the center of village social life, and in Death at The Dog the close-knit relationships of the villagers, particularly those who gather around the moody but convivial Crescy, are primarily played out there.
Before she tried her hand at detective fiction, Cannan’s books dealt primarily with the aftermath of World War I and life in England during the Great Depression, although several of her novels did have elements of crime fiction in them. All show her keen interest in the social mores of the day and how people behave in difficult times.
During the war, Cannan devoted her energies with great success to writing fiction for young readers. According to daughter Josephine, her mother’s “pony” books changed the horse book genre. “Pre-Cannan the central character had always been the horse or pony,” Josephine said. “She introduced the first human heroine, a pony fanatic called Jean.” Altogether Cannan published nine books for children between 1936 and 1957. She died in 1961 after a long bout with tuberculosis.
Born in Oxford in 1898, Cannan came to the literary life quite naturally. Gilbert Cannan, the novelist who ran off with Mrs. Barrie, was Joanna’s cousin, and her father Charles was an Oxford don and Dean of Trinity who became Secretary to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press. Many of Charles Cannan’s friends were poets and publishers who made frequent visits to his home.
Joanna’s sisters also embraced the literary life. Dorothea married John Johnson, printer to the Oxford University Press, but didn’t write herself, while another sister, May Wederburn Cannan, was a noted World War I poet who was engaged to Bevil Quiller Couch, son of Q., who, having barely survived the fighting, died of the black flu shortly after the armistice. With her sisters (to whom she gave most of the credit) Joanna helped edit at the age of ten The Tripled Crown: A Book of English, Scotch and Irish Verse for the Age of Six to Sixteen.
All four of her own children became writers. In addition to her crime fiction, Josephine Pullein-Thompson has written numerous books for older children while Christine, the most prolific, has written for a younger age group. In addition to books for children, Diana also wrote a biography of Gilbert Cannan and two other books for adults. Like their mother and aunts, Josephine and her twin sisters collaborated as teenagers during the war on a book for children. Publication was held up until 1946 due to paper shortages. Joanna’s only son, Denis, is a playwright whose first play was performed at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow after he returned from the war. His second play was directed by Laurence Olivier and was a West End success and went on to New York. Joanna Cannan would no doubt be pleased that her children continue to carry on the family’s long-time love affair with words.
Why Joanna Cannan’s mysteries haven’t been more successful in the United States is something of a mystery itself. Perhaps it’s because Northeast was too realistic a character for a time when readers were looking for distractions from the war, while the unlikable Price might have been a hard sell for an American audience used to sophisticated and well-mannered British sleuths. That was unfortunate. Cannan’s books deserve a place on the bookshelves alongside the works of Tey, Allingham, Sayers, Marsh, Brand and Heyer. She’s that good. We hope the present volume will help to introduce modern readers to this very talented and much under-appreciated practitioner of the literate English village mystery.
Tom & Enid Schantz