One of the most common (and, to me, irritating) traps that writers of crime/detective novels fall into is devoting interminable (and often impenetrable) tracts of text to explaining the convoluted ins and outs of how the Very Clever Detective has solved the devilishly complicated crime. It need hardly be said that in these cases such monumental excursions are obvious opportunities for the writer to Show Off about the detailed planning in their own plots, with the Very Clever Detective a thinly veiled simulacrum for the author themselves. The best writers of course seldom, if ever, utilise this ruse. Christie is a master of keeping denouements crisp and clear, helped inordinately by having her key sleuths as fundamentally sensitive and sympathetic characters (even, especially, the apparently coldly logical Poirot). In Christie’s stories the human qualities are valued every bit as much as the intellectual ones and this, I think, explains her continued appeal as much as anything.
E.C.R. Lorac follows similar lines with her serial detective John MacDonald, who has appeared in a crop of excellent British Library reissues (most recently the very fine ‘Checkmate To Murder’) and some inexpensive eBook ‘facsimiles’. All of these are excellent yarns in which Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett) adroitly balances press-on narrative with deftly placed clues for the more puzzle-minded. She’s a wonderful conjurer of landscape too, and her stories that take MacDonald to the dales and fells of Lancashire and Cumbria are exceptionally fine. ‘The Theft Of The Iron Dogs’ (reissued with the American title of ‘Murderer’s Mistake’) is as fine as any, with some well drawn characters and MacDonald’s (Rivett’s?) interest in the landscape and its indigenous characters coming over strongly. Like the other eBook reissues it is, however, sadly let down by some appalling lack of proofing. I expect these eBooks are created from OCR scanned original publications and as such typos and punctuation errors inevitably creep in, but the lack of care taken in cleaning them up is, if you will pardon the pun, criminal. The British Library series, it should be noted, does not suffer from such cheapskate manoeuvres.
Nor does the terrific Dean Street Press who recently republished a hefty series of Brian Flynn books. Now I admit I really wanted to enjoy the Flynn stories, not least because it is always a comfort to know that there is a lengthy series to be enjoyed. Having given him the benefit of the doubt for a good five books however I had to admit defeat and cast him into that aforementioned category of Tries Too Hard To Be Clever. It is surely no coincidence that it is the authors of the amateur (male) detective who most often fall into this category, their characters too often coming across as pompous asses in thrall to their own intellect. Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, it must be said, manage to escape largely unscathed by this curse, perhaps because they are both at their core flawed or damaged. Perhaps too because they are penned by women. So sadly Flynn’s serial character of Anthony Bathurst fails to appeal on all counts, being a singularly two-dimensional flat in some rather tedious scenery of workaday Golden Age crime capers. Admittedly, Flynn may flesh out his character in the (many) subsequent books but I rather suspect he will continue to spend a great deal of time explaining how that microscopic clue buried deep in Chapter five turned out to be the key to the whole puzzle, and so I regrettably file him alongside Michael Innes and his insufferable Sir John Appelby as Not For Me.
Much more enjoyable are the four novels by Cecil Waye (AKA John Rhode, Miles Burton and [real name] Cecil John Charles Street) to be re-issued in February 2021 by Dean Street Press. I’ve very much enjoyed his books as John Rhodes (featuring Dr Lancelot Priestly) and as Miles Burton. Indeed, Burton’s ‘The Secret of High Eldersham’ in which his serial character Desmond Merrion is introduced is one of my very favourite Golden Age books. Published in 1930 it is typically Burton/Street/Rhodes in that it cracks on at a fair pace with a crisp and concise plot whilst pulling in some marvellously drawn references to the contemporaneous burgeoning of (re-awakened) interest in the ancient rituals and mysteries of rural England. You can almost feel the shadow of Aleister Crowley lowering over the thrilling denouement.
Written and published in a three year burst immediately following ‘High Eldersham’, the four novels written as Cecil Waye are similar in feel in that they all follow the same formula of valuing pace above puzzles. In other words, the thrill of the chase definitely wins out over the plodding dreariness of detection. There is a sense too of Waye/Street still looking for a voice in these novels, or at the very least of looking for the winning character. And as enjoyable as these four books are, by the end of ‘The Prime Ministers Pencil’ one feels rather glad that Dr Priestly and Desmond Merrion went on to enjoy much lengthier fictional careers than Christopher Perrin, whose private detective’s hat is hung up for good. Indeed, there is also a sense that Waye missed the golden opportunity for a great series by effectively retiring his best character at the end of opening novel ‘Murder At Monk’s Barn’, for Perrin’s sister Vivienne really does own the narrative and is the most significant factor in making it the most successful of all the four books. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that marrying off Vivienne at the end of the book was the biggest mistake Waye made, particularly for those of us revisiting from the 21st Century. For whilst Christopher is a diverting enough character, the of-his-time self-assuredness (male arrogance?!) that develops over the subsequent three books makes one both glad that his fictional career is cut short and yearn for the altogether spikier and more complex character of his sister.
Of these four novels, ‘Murder At Monk’s Barn’ is also the one where the balance tips most towards crime/detective fiction, with the subsequent stories very much establishing themselves comfortably in a realm that crosses into political thriller and being somewhat prone to the law of diminishing returns. ‘The Figure of Eight’ is rip-roaring enough, with Foreign Agents and secret symbols making a play for our attentions. One rather suspects that Street is channeling some of his experience as a writer for MI7 during The Great War into his pseudonymous Waye’s output here, whilst the presence of Buchan can be felt hovering over his shoulder. And there is nothing wrong with that, after all.
‘The End Of The Chase’ seems to draw yet more on Street’s experiences with MI7 and with European Politics, in particular the shadier side of Eastern Europe with excursions into the shadowy environs of Budapest and Vienna between the wars. It’s all very evocatively drawn and there are certainly some lines to be teased out and forward into Graham Greene and eventually to the masterful and now mourned John le Carré. However it is still to the masculine adventuresomeness of Buchan that Waye most obviously leans here, and with a plot that takes in international finance, forgery and the human frailties that so often act as the undoing of the petty criminal, ‘The End Of The Chase’ ultimately emerges as a very enjoyable, if somewhat slight, romp.
By 1933’s final Waye novel featuring Christopher Perrin, ‘The Prime Minister’s Pencil’, there is certainly a sense of Waye losing his interest somewhat, as Perrin emerges ever more as caricature rather than character and the plot takes turns into the realms of the ridiculous (at least to the 21st Century reader) rather than the intriguing. As with ‘Figure of Eight’ and ‘The End of The Chase’, ‘The Prime Minister’s Pencil’ trots along at a decent pace and there are certainly some rather delicious barbs at the Political Classes which I am certain would appear marvellously apposite at any point in history but which feel extraordinarily apt as we creep into 2021. At various points Waye describes what is clearly a Tory MP with villainous eyes on the premiership as “of that type of politician who owes his success to clever boosting rather than to sound statesmanship.” and that “He’s the sort of man who poses as a popular demagogue, the guardian of the liberties of the people, and all that sort of tosh.” Later, Waye notes “You don’t suppose that because, unless Providence intervenes, the man will be Prime Minister some day, that he has all the attributes of an archangel, do you? Conceal the truth! Why, man alive! it’s only by the rarest of accidents that a professional politician ever reveals it.”
Those peculiar parallels between the 1930s and our contemporaneous times nearly a century ahead are certainly some of the appealing factors in reading and re-publishing these forgotten pleasures of throwaway fiction but, like our distaste for the jarringly blatant (and to a modern eye almost comically stereotypical) anti-semitism, racism and sexism held within their pages they are but sidelines. For the not so simple truth is that these ridiculous whimsical fictions are just that: fictional realms into which we can escape the realities of our everyday whilst simultaneously being prodded by timeless barbs of that very present. The prime minister being dealt a deathly blow by an exploding pencil (that’s hardly a spoiler by the way. Just look at the book’s title…)? Well, more ridiculous things have happened in the past twelve months, haven’t they?