At the start of this month I re-read a selection of Peter Benson novels and re-appraised the music of The Waterboys from 1981 to 1985. It didn’t take long to decide that all were terrific and well-worth revisiting. In the midst of all this I also read Benson’s 2019 novel ‘The Stromness Dinner‘, which struck me as a beautifully judged piece of poetic fiction with a realist backbone. Lots of handsomely worked language about landscape and the pleasures of food. Finely wrought but staying the right side of rococo, delicious filigree and shadow. In summing up ‘The Stromness Dinner’ and Benson’s other novels I noted that nothing ever really happens in his books. Or rather that it does, but it doesn’t really. Even in something like the marvellous 2012 ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’ where there are drug dealers and murder, car chases and falling in love with hippie girls, it feels as if those cartoon episodes of action are just that: cartoons punctuating an afternoon spent watching Pasolini films on Channel 4. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck infiltrating a Truffaut season on BBC2. What lingers most are the deceptively light observations on the worlds that we pass through, the lives we lead and the loves we love to love. Darkness, sorrow, and loss, too. Inevitably.
Well, just to prove that I’ve likely been talking out of my arse, Peter Benson has only gone and written a new novel where EVERYthing happens. Here the cartoons are the main feature, a psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and turning onto love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.
Now there was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows’, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.
If there was a delicate restraint in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs reading R.S. Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. And then, and then, and then.
Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.
‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.
It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied, “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.
As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!
I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. Quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.
“I was every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985, from ‘December’ through ‘All The Things She Gave Me’ and ‘Be My Enemy’ to ‘This Is The Sea’.”
That’s Peter Benson writing in his 1994 novel ‘Riptide’. Or rather, it’s Peter Benson putting words in a characters’ mouth, for it is a work of fiction and we should always be wary of reading too much of the author’s personal life into their work, be it books, films, songs, reviews, whatever. Benson himself nods explicitly to this in a later book (2012’s terrific ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’) when he/his narrator warns us that we should not “think that something [we] hear in a book or a film has anything to do with real life. Books and films are false.” Well quite. Songs too, as often as not. Mike Scott would probably agree with that. A suggestion of the real but also a hefty dose of the mystical and mythical, perhaps. Holes around the moon on a winter’s night walking the footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn. That kind of thing.
The Waterboys, though, never really did it for me back in the 1980s or at any time since. It was one of the main reasons I put off reading ‘Riptide’ for so many years. That and surfing. I always felt there was something insufferably smug and dreary about surfers. I still do, to some extent, but I also understand that’s more about the mediated image and my own insecurities. You could say the same things about cycling, and I’d be with you pretty much 100%. Ironically of course Duncan, the narrator in ‘Riptide’, tells us that he feels exactly the same way about “surfer wankers” so yeah, that’s me told.
It is often difficult to look back and to understand our past impulses. They can often be remarkably uncomfortable and we try to obfuscate them with morning mists of misremembering. So it goes. I think then, though cannot be certain, that another reason I avoided reading ‘Riptide’ for 18 years was because Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ had meant such a lot to me in 1987 and I did not want to be disappointed. Stupid, in hindsight, but then how many of our younger selves’ decisions were anything but foolish at the very least? Then again too, je ne regrette rien and all that, and in this particular universe I’m happy I waited so long because it meant ‘Riptide’ became, along with ‘Two Cows’ and a handful of Benson’s other novels, a hugely enjoyable break from reading detective fiction back in 2012 or so.
Oddly, or inevitably not really, it’s much the same situation a decade on. The hefty piles of detective fiction on the ‘to be read’ shelves left for another week or so whilst I (re)indulge myself in some Peter Benson again, circling back to start with ‘Riptide’ because of a chance remark on social media about resurrecting old mix tapes from the mid 1980s. This particular one was great. Could have almost been one of mine, but only almost, and there is always something pleasing about that because our differences are as valuable as our connections after all. Something on there by Sinatra that I’d once foolishly have sniffed at but that now sounds sublime. An old Microdisney number that I listened to just hours before hearing of Cathal Coughlan’s tragic passing. Orange Juice, Love, New Order, The Velvets and closing out with The Chameleons. Old friends. Bookends. And yes, a Simon and Garfunkel track on there too. And The Waterboys’ ‘All The Things She Gave Me’, a song I barely recognised and all the better for that.
‘A Pagan Place’ did not mean anything to me in 1984 or in any year since until now. In some respects this is strange because I do remember that I loved, and bought, ‘The Big Music’ early in that year. Yet when we are eighteen time moves so quickly, or perhaps impossibly slowly, so by the time the summer came and left I was in a different place, a different person, metaphorically if not physically. Big was bad. An unconscionable evil. Something along those lines, anyway, and I was certainly no longer interested in The Waterboys. A year later things were not much different, and though my best friend Scott played ‘This Is The Sea’ on repeat and I begrudgingly admitted a fondness for ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ (informed in large part by aforementioned late winter night wandering of footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn where some degree of alcohol may have been involved) in reality I couldn’t help wonder if this was a sign of us growing up, apart, as teenagers do when the dreaded twenties approach. I mean, just look at the teenage male friendships in Peter Benson’s books for proof of that. Sometimes I wonder if we would still be in touch, still riding bicycles, still listening to similar but different music. Moot point of course. I do still think of him though. The things he missed. Where do the years go?
I’m glad to hear every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985 at this point in my life though, where the weight of the/my past can be cast off to a degree and allow me to hear things I’d never have allowed myself to notice. So that now what I hear is the sound of The Teardrop Explodes on steroids; Pale Fountains with long hair and more pointed Chelsea boots (enough in itself to put backs up and noses out, and I’d have been in line with that response then, but now it feels an irrelevance); Lou Reed singing songs of Ayrshire mysticism; Springsteen and the E Street Band channelling Van Morrison, swimming in symbolism and flying on metaphysical Beat poetry, a Semina soul of strangeness and sensuality. Occasionally overbearingly earnest and eager, but then they were earnest times and who wasn’t desperate to be something Other? And then that number about wanting to look like Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. Someone told me it wasn’t even on ‘A Pagan Place’ when it was originally released, but whatever, it sounds hilarious/magical now. When I hear it I need to follow it with The Triffids’ ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train’, which is maybe just the train connection or perhaps because of those Mike Scott lines about calling up Australia. And would Peter Benson, or his eighteen year old narrator in ‘Riptide’, have dug The Triffids? I hope so.
‘Riptide’ is a tremendous read and I think I understand now the appeal The Waterboys would have had for the eighteen year old Duncan in the book who is searching for something. Losing and finding different things, all of which might have been It and then again might not. We used to make a thing about It, didn’t we? Perhaps failing to realise that It was constantly changing in front of our eyes and ears. Or maybe it was just me who didn’t understand that state of flux at the time. Entirely probable. Hopelessly naive, looking for black and white. This not that. That not this. For a long time I thought the narrator in Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Panninaro’ was the epitome of cool. That long list of things he says he doesn’t like, and then laughing and saying that the things he DOES like he loves with a passion. I mean, I still get that. I really do. It’s just that now it also feels limiting. A little embarrassing. Maybe that ‘Panninaro’ character sees it that way now too. Grown up. Grown old, at least.
I wonder if Duncan would still be listening to those Waterboys records in 2022 or if he’d have filed them in a box of uncomfortable memories and hidden them in a dusty attic or let them die of mould in a damp garage somewhere. Is he still with Estelle? Still surfing? Still looking for things and finding them and losing them? Aren’t we all?
There is a quote on the cover of my paperback copy of ‘Riptide’ from the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ that says the book is “Touching, funny and erotic.” I’m not sure about that. Touching and funny, certainly, and that’s pretty much Benson in a nutshell. But erotic? Certainly there is a lot of sex and thinking about sex in ‘Riptide’. It is a book narrated by an 18 year old boy, after all, so how could it be otherwise? Personally though I’d call the writing sensual, and it is what Benson does so well in all of his books. In ‘Riptide’ that sensuality is in the writing about sex, certainly, but it is also present in the way Benson paints the landscape and in how he has Duncan express the pleasures of surfing. The surfing of course is a metaphor for struggle and conflict. That searching for something and the finding and the losing. It is elemental and obsessive. That tantalisingly tangible yet infinitely elusive It again. Pure teenage dreams.
Benson writes with a sensuality in his latest book, 2019’s ‘The Stromness Dinner’, but here the sensuality is about food. And landscape, of course, this time that of Orkney. Always the mystical pull of landscape. The magic it holds, electric and essentially unknowable. Which is why we yearn to taste it, feel it, touch it. Steve Diggle knows the score here. I nearly missed ‘The Stromness Dinner’. Lost down my rabbit holes of detective fiction. Coming up for air. So thanks to my friends for nudging me to (re)discover The Waterboys, and thanks to Mike Scott for nudging me back to ‘Riptide’, and thanks to Peter Benson for writing books in a way that make me want to just keep reading more. And thanks to Peter Benson too for writing books that can be devoured so quickly that they feed the appetite. So I (re)read ‘Riptide’, ‘Two Cows…’ and ‘The Levels’ in a day each; ‘The Stromness Dinner’ over two. Not that they are slight books, any of them. There is a lot in there to chew over. Language mostly, because not much happens in Peter Benson books. Well, it does, but it doesn’t really. Except perhaps in parts of ‘Two Cows…’ which could be a comedy crime caper gone wrong. Except it’s also bleak and dark in places, the shadows cast by the endless scorching sun of the summer of 1976. The spells of the countryside around Ashbrittle, a place that feels like it sounds. Indeed there is something of that contrast in all of these Benson books. It could be a trademark quality. Like his skill for writing perfectly abrupt sentences. Hemingway or Fitzgerald losing themselves in Hardy landscapes. Something like that. Or nothing like that at all. Much better than I can manage, certainly.
Another of Benson’s trademark qualities would be his way with dialogue. Did I write something in the past about Benson’s dialogue being like George Pelecanos’? I might have done. Should have done, since both have a natural grasp for exchanges that is quick-fire, flowing, easy to follow until it isn’t. Who’s talking? Who said that line? Was that Muriel or Billy? Duncan or his mother? Ed or Claire?
Less happens in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ than in any of these other Benson novels. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that there is a red herring of a stolen vase, but that is about it. A cottage gets renovated and we think we might have seen ghosts. But not really. There are some reflections on Brexit and some sorrowfully angry, lost characters who might the read the Daily Mail, even on Orkney. There are salt of the earth working folks and wealthy City types, but again it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Benson makes a point (bluntly, but also, paradoxically, softly and gently because he always does) that people are mostly decent and thoughtful and kind despite their differences. It might be a book about individuals retreating to perceived positions of remote isolation, but it’s also about humans’ need to create connections and to belong to communities. The book may be separated from ‘The Levels’ by more than thirty years, but I sense a circularity here, not least in the tension between The City and Orkney, Somerset and That London. Ed and Claire might be what Muriel and Billy never were, partly because they are in their thirties and not teenagers, and partly perhaps because they are fictional characters and Benson is in his sixties not his twenties and that has to count for something, right? Even though books are false. Because books are false, perhaps.
When I first read ‘The Levels’ I was turning twenty one, so still a teenager of course, and I felt so bad for Billy. Every time I’ve read it since I have still felt bad for the boy, but increasingly also frustrated about his obsessive fixation on Muriel as Object Of Desire. Caught in a world of illusion and self-perpetuated emotional bondage (to family, to tradition, to place) he’s the Billy Liar of an ancient rural landscape with Muriel cast as Liz. Julie Christie disappears on the London train and Tom Courtney is left with the milk bottles. Or in the other Billy’s case, the willow and the basket weaving.
So is there a sense in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ of Ed and Claire doing what Billy and Muriel never could? There are certainly echoes whispering in the distance between the two books. Scents that linger. Almonds and apricots. Ghosts that flicker. Those lines in ‘We Were A Happy Crew’ about the wind in the reeds. I’m not sure Ed or Claire or Muriel or Billy would dig the sounds of Spirogyra but I think Duncan would have done and I think Peter Benson just might. They linger in ‘The Levels’, where Billy reckons that Muriel “had a beautiful face and the brain to match; her man would never be like me.” More than three decades later Ed says the same about Claire, though never quite as self-pityingly, as befits a man of thirty compared to a teenager. Naturally Claire and Ed could never be Billy and Muriel though. They’d be in their fifties, for one thing. Like me. Perhaps then they could be their children; fictional surrogates transplanted in time to fulfil a destiny that was never on the cards, not in a million years never mind thirty.
But then again ‘The Levels’ ends with the lines: “I was by the door, staring at a tree I’d planted against the wall. It looked dead months ago, but I can’t dig it up, I get a feeling, once in a while; something might happen.” And with ‘The Stromness Dinner’ there is the softest suggestion that, in some alternative universe of fictional reality and falsehood, the circle is unbroken and that tree might just have blossomed. It is certainly pretty to think so.
In his detailed introduction to a newly re-published collection of ten detective novels by Alice Campbell (sometimes referred to as The Other AC of detective fiction), Curtis Evans suggests that the “ongoing revival of vintage English and American mystery fiction from the twentieth century” has led to many forgotten treasures being unearthed. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, these adventurous exploits of literary archeologists also present the discerning reader with some challenges, not least of which is to sift the finds for the treasures that they might relish the most. So: Neolothic hand axe, Roman samian ware, Mediaeval window moulding or 17th century table glass ware? Each might be of passing interest, but we will all have our favourites or obsessions. Detective fiction is no different, and whilst the fabulous Dean Street Press has largely succeeded in reissuing authors that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering (and in the case of, say, Ann Morice, unexpectedly so), I’m afraid that these latest excavations haven’t quite connected with me.
That said, Campbell’s debut novel ‘Juggernaut’ from 1928 is certainly aptly titled and was a great success on its original publication, even spawning a 1936 film starring Boris Karloff. Yet whilst it masquerades as a thrilling joyride of a story, it also feels barely in control of its trajectory, even if it is very clear about its ultimate destiny. The narrative plunges ever onwards, whipping up a frenzy of breathless activity that may be fleetingly exciting, but ultimately feels unnecessarily, even irritatingly, exhausting. In this, and other ways, it sets the template for Campbell’s subsequent novels, certainly up to 1932’s ‘The Click Of The Gate’ which is as far as I’ve progressed in the full collection of nineteen (a further nine will be published next year). In each of the three (‘Water Weed’ from 1929 being the third) there is the same blend of romance-fuelled mystery with plots that often seem to hang on fairly flimsy coincidences and overheard conversations in restaurants.
According to Evans’ excellent intro, Maurice Richardson (like Campbell, a self-proclaimed Socialist from a wealthy and privileged background) once suggested that Campbell did not indulge in what “American detective novelist S. S. Van Dine … dogmatically dismissed as “literary dallying.”” Now I enjoy a Van Dine paperback as much as the next fan of American mass-market detective fiction, and Richardson’s humorous surrealism can be amusingly diverting, but from the evidence of the three Campbell novels I’ve just read, ‘dallying’ (literary or otherwise) is what she does remarkably well. It’s not as though the addition of such padding was the fashion of the times, for compared to the typical detective novel of the late 1920s into the ’30s, Campbells’ books really do seem extraordinarily long, certainly when standing next to the likes of Freeman Wills Croft or other so-called “Humdrum” writers. Only Dorthy L. Sayers comes to mind as being someone with similarly lengthy tomes, but apart from the occasional tendency to outline railway timetables or church bells in overly detailed extended passages, Sayers never dallies, and as a result her books still feel thoroughly Modern. Campbell’s, in contrast, feel very much as though their foundations are firmly in the era of Victorian melodrama or even back into the interminable tedium of the early 18th Century. Each of the books feel restricted by an apparent need to Keep The Action Moving in a linear manner, an impulse that perversely breeds varying degrees of boredom and frustration. Indeed, such is the underlying sense of ‘and then this happened’ that at times one rather wonders if the books have been written by a fourteen year old.
That last criticism is of course a little cruel and unwarranted, for I am sure that the work being done on literacy and writing in our schools means that such stereotypes are increasingly inaccurate, and certainly there are numerous pieces of evidence in Campbell’s books that show her to be capable of elegant and engaging prose. In ‘Water Weed’ there is a delicious line about a character having a face that suggests “a Fra Angelico angel” whilst elsewhere there are some marvellously bitchy lines about Other Women: “”I daresay she’s good-looking enough,” returned the younger girl with the scathing accents of eighteen. “I never notice them much when they get past forty. Why, that’s old, you know!”” and men: “a big, very handsome young man, no brains, I should say. The housemaid’s idol, you know. Very good at games.” and the cutting “You know what men are like if they feel they can’t face a thing, they simply don’t try.”. Ouch. And then there is a throwaway line about a character feeling “maddened by his deliberation”. Personally, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud and say “tell me about it!” Indeed only the fact that I was reading the book whilst sitting in a public park kept me from doing just that.
In truth though, there is much in ‘Water Weed’ (by a slim margin my favourite of the three) that is worthy of attention, even if Campbell does her best to obscure it behind swathes of quasi-baroque decoration. First of all there are some intriguing Freudian tropes threading through the text, notably an Oedipus theme that a young Ross Macdonald would surely have found attractive. One contemporary reviewer certainly felt differently however, opining that “it is to be hoped that the fashion of plumbing the depths of Freudian theory for dramatic fare will not spread.” It’s hardly a spoiler to say that that Oedipus theme never quite comes to fruition as one might expect, but that there is instead a remarkably frank account of masochistic sexual preferences that simultaneously feels uncomfortably out of place in detective fiction of the period, and remarkably brave. A hint of the Modern peering from behind that gauzy curtain of lingering Victoriana, perhaps. Such jarringly direct unveilings are always interesting to come across of course, and do make one realise how our perception of the activities and proclivities of certain periods in history are coloured by the weight of a constructed retrospective picture that is rarely, if ever, entirely (or even remotely) accurate.
Speaking of commonly accepted inaccuracies, one of the most regularly parroted criticisms of the other Other AC (i.e. Agatha Christie) is that she was never much cop at characterisation. It’s the kind of lazy potshot taken by folks who tend to look down their noses at genre fiction in general. They are of course wrong in this respect about Christie, but it is perhaps more appropriate when thinking about Campbell’s work. Certainly I struggled somewhat to remember who was who in these three books, and that’s from someone who is generally pretty good at discriminating between all the ‘men in suits’ in films. Campbell’s characters largely feel like lightly sketched cartoons propelled through plots that spiral like miniature tornadoes through the pages. One exception might be one in ‘Water Weed”: a housekeeper who begins to harden into what might easily be an early prototype for Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’. Indeed, there is a sense that Campbell’s books (at least these early three) could be seen as B-Movies to Daphne Du Maurier’s A-List blockbusters: Diverting enough entertainments, but perhaps ultimately lacking in much lasting interest. Which would explain, at least in part, why they languished out of print for more than seventy years.
In conclusion then, and to throw in a decidedly out of context reference point, these three Alice Campbell books read like some of those early ‘extended mix’ versions of Pop hits in the nineteen eighties where the listener would be numbed by lengthy ‘disco’ extrapolations of drum machines. They may have been interesting up to a point, but one always rather felt like one was waiting (often interminably) for a return to the actual song. With Campbell’s books it feels as though those drum machine exploits drown out what are, in fact, some nicely turned plots with some odd and compelling themes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for those 12″ Disco Mixes and they have lots of admirers, just as there will be a lot of fans of ‘lost’ detective fiction who will enjoy every page of these reissues. Me? I just can’t help wishing that someone could have released the 7″ radio edits.
Last month I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading the final three novels of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series and to see if I might agree with the view of the British Crime Writers’ Association that ‘The Daughter of Time’ is THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990, and whilst I know there have been many fine crime and detective novels written in the intervening three decades and that it is for future generations to assign Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tin, Plastic or whatever ages to particular genres of culture, I can’t help but doubt there might have been anything to usurp it from that position. After all, if that eminent gaggle of experts deemed Tey’s novel better than a Sayers, a Hammet or a Chandler then What Hope anyone writing after 1990?
Before coming to my own decisions on this, however, I thought I had best do things in the right order, which brings us to ‘To Love And Be Wise’, the fourth of the Inspector Grant series which was published in 1950. Now ‘The Franchise Affair’ from two years previously could reasonably be argued as barely belonging to the Grant Series at all, given that the Inspector appears only fleetingly in a supporting role. In this it feels as though Tey is experimenting with the form of the crime/detective novel whilst still feeling the need to pin it into the series that she started before WW2, however loosely. Arguably Tey’s ultimate experiment in form would come with ‘The Daughter Of Time’ but that was still a year in the future when ‘To Love And Be Wise’ made its appearance and as such it feels like a bridge between these two flares of experimentation, perhaps easily dismissed as something that rather treads water before the next big push forward. That would be a harsh judgement, however, for ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a terrific and highly entertaining example of fine post-WW2 detective fiction. It is the book where Tey regroups and clarifies her ideas about the Inspector Grant character, fleshing him out from the bare bones established in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles.’
Gone almost entirely are the casual racist and sexist outbursts that uncomfortably pepper those two books, and indeed this is true generally for the detective fiction writers whose work spans the period of WW2. In particular it is agonisingly poignant to note that the causal antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s is almost entirely erased in their books from the 1940s onwards. In Tey’s case specifically, it is as though ‘The Franchise Affair’ was a necessary trial separation between author and character, each withdrawing to question their position in the relationship before reuniting and Giving It Another Go. ‘To Love And Be Wise’ then is a return to a more recognisable detective fiction form with Inspector Grant investigating the disappearance of a young American photographer from the stereotypically picturesque English village of Salcott St. Mary. It’s classic Golden Age in structure, assemblage of character and location, yet it also feels ineffably Other. A lingering sense of unease hangs over everything, as though in recognition that whilst many might wish to attain/regain a Lost England, this is as elusive and imaginary as it always was. Just as a vision of a Romantic English Rural Idyll was mediated between 1914 and the 30s as a vision of What We Are Fighting (and thereafter Fought) For, so it returns here as an illusory spectre. In Tey’s hands though, this illusion is exactly that, and the novel leads us enthusiastically through a landscape of inevitable change in the face of stubborn nostalgia for a knowingly semi-fictional past. The village is overrun with wealthy Artistic types (“Every third cottage in the place has an alien in it”) and there is a lovely edge of awareness that the Americanisation of England is well and truly underway. So when Miss Fitch notes that “‘any American pays a girl attentions. It is a conditioned reflex. As automatic as breathing.’” it is tinged with both regret and delight.
It could be said too that ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a prescient study in gender identity and that it continues to develop the theme of women’s position in the post-war society that were broached in ‘The Franchise Affair’. As with ‘The Franchise Affair’ it can be difficult to pin down Tey’s stance on feminism as her characters often suggest either an ambivalence or a coagulation of conflicted opinions. Reflecting on a piece of cross-stitch crafted by one of the characters, Tey has Grant note: “What a lot of leisure women seemed to have had once. Now they had everything in cans and had no leisure at all. But no, it wasn’t that, of course. It was that they didn’t spend their leisure making texts in coloured wools any more. They went to see Danny Minsky and laughed themselves sick for one-and-tuppence, and if you asked him it was a better way of recovering from the day’s work than making meaningless patterns in purple cross-stitch.” Nor can Tey resist a little self-indulgence in metafiction. She may not break the fourth wall as extravagantly as Edmund Crispin, for example, but a closing comment of “‘You mistook your vocation, Grant. You’re a very good detective, but as a writer of detective fiction you’d make a fortune.’” is as delicious as any other author working in the field.
‘To Love And Be Wise’ then may not be regarded as a particularly precious jewel in Tey’s crown, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and is an essential piece of the puzzle that leads to the brilliance of ‘The Daughter Of Time’, the book that topped the aforementioned British Crime Writers’ Association list of 100 Best Crime Novels back in 1990.
As is the nature of such things, the list itself is a contentious one, not least for the inclusion of books that one might argue belong in the Spy Thriller genre rather than Crime. Defining the boundaries of a genre is always a humorous exercise of course. Personally I’d probably let Le Carré sneak into Crime, but only with his early books, whilst drawing the line at Fleming and Buchan. And much as I love Eric Ambler’s books, I still file him distinctly in my Espionage Thriller shelves. As for Alistair MacLean? Terrific populist thriller writer, but ‘Guns Of Navarone’ as a Crime Novel? I’ll take a lot of convincing. Still, looking on the bright side, if including espionage and war thrillers into the list allows Geoffrey Household’s peerless ‘Rogue Male’ to make it into the top 15 then perhaps it is a blurring of boundaries that is worth those arguments; fleetingly enjoyable and ultimately pointless as they might be.
There would inevitably be arguments over those titles ‘legitimately’ in the list too. Me, I’m not much keen on anything written prior to 1914, which means that whilst I appreciate the importance of Wilkie Collins as a foundation layer for the genre, the books themselves leave me colder than a February night lost in a Cornish mizzle. Similarly, the overworked tedium of Erskine Childers’ 1903 effort ‘Riddle Of The Sands’ is lucky to have only just crept into the list at 93, whilst E.C. Bentley’s ‘Trent’s Last Case’ from a decade later features only at 34, appearing to have lost, by 1990, some of the appeal it once held for Crime novelists in the Golden Age when it was very much seen as the defining moment in kicking off the party, as it were. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when I read it myself some years ago, the more so as it came after gleefully devouring Sayers and Allingham. Naturally, as with Collins, I grant ‘Trent’s Last Case’ a degree of appreciation as being Of Historical Significance, but whilst it’s a diverting enough read, there are many, many more books that have brought me more pleasure.
All of which is a prolonged means of arriving back to the top of the list and wondering if ‘The Daughter Of Time’ really does deserve its place ahead of Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. The obvious answer is yes and/or no. This is a cop out of course, predicated largely on the fact that I find it very difficult to compare British and American crime/detective novels. It has always felt to me that they are very different beasts, each fired through with unique flavours (or, indeed, flavors) lent by different ingredients. Similarities exist, of course, but it’s like comparing a cask strength sour mash bourbon with a 41% Speyside dram finished in Pedro Ximenez casks. Or, to extend the analogy, what about throwing in some delicious Calvados, for the lack of any Simenon in the list is surely the biggest travesty of all? I’d have something by Léo Malet in there too, for what it’s worth, and incidentally, it’s a travesty too that his Nestor Burma books have not been reissued in English translations since the early 1990s.
Regardless of arguments about what is and who isn’t featured on that 1990 list, however, it is fair to say that ‘The Daughter Of Time’ should be at, or near the top, for it really is an astonishing novel that effortlessly blends experimentation with entertaining readability. Tey notably saw her detective novels as being less intellectually worthy than her other writing (a dozen one-act plays, another dozen full-length plays and three non-genre novels under the name of Gordon Daviot), famously calling the Grant novels her ‘knitting’. There is certainly a sense that perhaps Tey used her experience as a playwright to structure ‘The Daughter Of Time’ around a static setting, for it is easy to visualise the book as a stage set with Inspector Grant alone in his hospital bed. Occasional visitors drift in and out, but the majority of the ‘action’ is Grant’s interrogation of texts to determine ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. This interest in mediated information is a common thread to a greater or lesser degree in all of Tey’s novels, but it feels as though it reaches its ultimate and perhaps purest form here, as there is literally no other centre of narrative action other than the hospital room and Grant’s thought processes. This central theme that circles around the deceit of historical accuracy is naturally what gives ‘The Daughter of Time’ its ageless quality. Reading the book in 2022 whilst war rages in Europe is unnerving, although Grant’s observation that “A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy” is perhaps slightly less accurate than in a period of ‘peace’. Whether this says more about human nature or the power of media, however, I’m not sure. Then there is another startlingly modern moment where Inspector Grant notes that “As far as he, Alan Grant, was concerned Thomas More was washed out, cancelled, deleted”. To see such words used specifically in such a context back in 1950 is quite startling. There is Nothing New and all that.
There are solid arguments to be made for ‘The Daughter Of Time’ being the prototype for the Historical Crime Novel and the Cold Case sub-genre, but of course the key pleasure to be derived from the book is that whilst it may anticipate both of these it is deliciously free of any preconceptions of what those kinds of texts should look like. Most critically, whilst Tey elegantly conjures The Past, she does so without any clumsy reliance on Brand Names and tedious description of details that show how carefully she might have Done Her Research. Instead, the conjuring of place and time occurs almost as a series of glancing touches, momentary exposures that reveal the ghosts of impermanence. There is a glorious moment where Grant notes, whilst meditating on the/his past that “He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications.” Quite apart from the shared memory of a childhood delight in the things themselves, it’s the metaphor of the transfer as a process of unveiling The Picture that resonates so strongly. Elements of narrative coalesce into the unveiling of The Moment, whose immediate clarity is so exciting and yet immediately begins to fade just as knowledge and memory erase themselves in our consciousness.
Certainly Inspector Grant gets an enormous amount of enjoyment unearthing the ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ behind Richard III and the case of the Princes In The Tower and Tey expertly avoids the potential for a somewhat dry expose by introducing a few marvellously sketched supporting characters, all of whom appear to be referred to solely as either surnames or nicknames. These characters allow Tey to playfully engage in a range of observations, not least an extended rant about the Covenanters from Tey’s Scottish past. Unfavourably compared to the I.R.A., they are described as “A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation.” It’s harsh stuff, but it does neatly puncture any romantic notions of them as oppressed outsiders. Then there is a great take on how “‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’” Classic. Best of all though is the throwaway line where Grant is told he is “about as much use to a girl as a last year’s Vogue.” Ouch.
So yes, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is a book about challenging preconceptions and accepted truth, but it is far too self-aware to be either preachy or abstruse. It is instead humorous, illuminating, erudite and endlessly entertaining; as marvellously rewarding in 2022 as it must have felt in 1950 or will at any point in the future.
It is of course a tragedy that Josephine Tey should die at the age of 55, leaving ‘The Daughter Of Time’ as a fitting memorial. Yet the posthumously published ‘The Singing Sands’ certainly suggests that her Inspector Grant series could have rewarded us with more magnificent books. ‘The Singing Sands’ turns on another moment of historical investigation, this one rooted in the exploration of legend and reality in ‘The City of The Pillars’, lost in the Rub Al Khali. It may be a neat historical thread that weaves through the book, but in reality the book is another terrific return to more traditional structure, much as ‘To Love And Be Wise’ was after ‘The Franchise Affair’. That structure allows Tey to more physically visit landscapes, and her descriptions of the Scottish highlands and the Western Isles are marvellously evocative. Tey’s Scottish roots are certainly in evidence in ‘The Singing Sands’ but her national pride is tempered by a self-awareness that is admirable as she notes that “The quality of Scottishness was a highly concentrated essence, and should always be diluted. As an ingredient it was admirable; neat, it was as abominable as ammonia.” Quite.
Difficult to read without the penetrating knowledge that Tey must have been writing these words in the final months of terminal liver cancer, the book, whilst hardly wallowing in gloom, nevertheless allows Inspector Grant (and Tey) to explore the dark realm of mental health. Tey sensitively captures the feelings of anxiety experienced by Grant as he struggles to retain some semblance of ‘normal’, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that such notions of ‘normalcy’ are fluid at best. Grant’s immersion in the past, his desire to physically move, to Work Through/Out the issues feel remarkably Modern and another example of Tey’s remarkable ability in her post-WW2 work to be both Of The Time and ageless. She’s terrific at exposing the mythology of City vs Country too, noting that “‘Only people who live in towns are fresh-air fiends. Country people like a nice fug as a change from unlimited out-of-doors.’”, whilst there is a pointed dig at the enthusiasm shown by anthropological explorers ‘discovering’ the culture of the Isles: “Except for the delight of the people themselves in the thing, it was a sufficiently dull affair. The songs were musically negligible; some of them deplorable. If this was the kind of thing that people came to the Hebrides to ‘gather’, then they were hardly worth the gathering.” Quite, again.
And, again, there is a return to Tey’s fascination with media, as Grant notes resignedly in the opening pages that “It was yesterday’s paper, but it might equally be last year’s or next month’s. The headlines would for ever be the ones that he was looking at now: the Cabinet row, the dead body of the blonde in Maida Vale, the Customs prosecution, the hold-up, the arrival of an American actor, the street accident.” Much later he revisits this theme, noting that “Every day I swear that never again will I read a daily paper, and every morning there is the blasted thing lying waiting for me to open it and every morning I open it. It upsets my digestive juices, and hardens my arteries, and my face falls with a thud… but I have to have my daily dose of poison.” Substitute ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ for ‘daily paper’ and the phrases resonate with alarming accuracy in the present day. It’s as if humanity has learned nothing in the intervening 70 years.
I’m not much of a one for revisiting books on an even irregular basis. There are always new things to unearth, after all, even (especially) if they are old. But with Josephine Tey I suspect that ‘The Franchise Affair’ and ‘The Daughter Of Time’ at the very least will buck that trend in the years to come. I’m almost looking forward to it already.