Should you by any chance be a regular reader of my Unpopular witterings then it will surely come as no surprise when I tell you that I am not A Learned Man. I am certainly no academic. When I say, therefore, that there is a long history of multiple narrators in the English novel, stemming from the early development of the novel in letters, this is not backed up by any in-depth knowledge or vast breadth of reading. Rather it comes from observations of reading a bunch of crime and detective novels and identifying some similar threads of structure. Plus five minutes of reading some articles on the Interwebs. The desire to weave these observations with Serious Research in order to produce some kind of extended academic text is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak almost to the point of non-existence. All I really want to do is (“baby be friends with you…”) tell you about some books I have read and (mostly) enjoyed.
As noted previously, L.C. Tyler uses the multiple (in this case dual) narrator structure to great effect in his Elsie and Ethelred (or perhaps it is ‘The Herring Collection’) series of books. All are tremendously entertaining and hugely enjoyable and I encourage you to explore without delay. Another contemporary(ish) author who was on my recently compiled list of comic crime books to sample was Suzette A. Hill, and I have taken the plunge with the first of her Reverend Oughterard series. First published all the way back in 2007 (the time of The Ancients, surely), ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is a rather peculiar type of crime novel for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that two of the three narrators are animals, and the third a/the murderer (that last point is hardly a spoiler, in case you were wondering). Expectations are further confused in that it also strays from the expected structure of an inverted mystery. By which I mean there is no mystery for anyone to solve or to prove in court. Not really. Instead there is almost an inversion of the inversion, and questions of moral choices are similarly challenged and somewhat turned on their heads. It’s a tremendous comedic read, with the voices of the cat (Maurice) and the dog (Bouncer) being marvellously captured as cartoonish tropes that nevertheless develop subtly as individual characters throughout the book. This gives the book a pleasant sub-theme where Hill develops the idea of mutual need and trust triumphing over received/mediated divisive stereotypes. That Hill does so in a vibrant, marvellously engaging manner is to be applauded. Also to be cheered is the way in which Hill casts such a breezy air over a tale of such dark and despicable fact. This detachment between reality and fantasy seems to simultaneously grow and diminish as the book unfolds and the murderer seeks to cover his tracks and avoid detection. By the novel’s conclusion I admit that I came away feeling that I had read a marvellous piece of entertainment and yet was also left curiously troubled. There are, it seems, a further five novels in this series, all starring Maurice and Bouncer, and all but the latest (2016’s ‘The Primrose Pursuit’) featuring the Reverend Francis Oughterard and I admit I am intrigued to see how Hill addresses and develops the questions raised in this first outing.
Leo Bruce may not have used multiple narrators in his 1936 book ‘The Case For Three Detectives’ but he does rather marvellously weave in three other fictional detectives alongside his own Sergeant Beef (making his novel debut). I’ve previously only been familiar with Beef through short stories, and I very much enjoyed this first extended outing in which, typically, the sergeant is almost invisible for the entire novel. Almost from the off Beef tells us quietly via the narrator that he knows who the murderer is, but before we find out we must follow the tortuous paths taken by the thinly disguised characters of Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll), Hercule Poirot (Monsieur Amer Picon) and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith). I have no idea what Sayers, Christie or Chesterton thought of this curious ‘homage’ but I do rather hope they took it all in the deliciously lighthearted spirit in which the whole book reads. Bruce gleefully and perceptively picks up the crucial character traits of each of the fictional detectives and has a great deal of fun poking gently at their literary idiosyncrasies. Detective novels of the period are peppered with deft asides that self-mockingly dig at the very medium and genre they are written in, but for the most part this is done with sharp one-liners from any members of the police who may or may not be principal characters. In this case however the entire book is effectively given over to being a confection of raised eyebrows and self-knowing smirks. It’s also a neat method of covering multiple suspects, motives and solutions to the locked room puzzle, cutely puncturing the whole air of ‘look at how CLEVER I am as an author for plotting these devilishly confusing crimes’ that can hang like a depressing pall over some of these books. Metafiction in a comic detective novel of 1936. Who’d have thought.
Going back briefly to touch on the idea of multiple narrators now, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Wilkie Collins of course used this approach in ‘The Moonstone’, a novel which is cast as pivotal in the development of the crime/detective genre. Now I have tried several times to get a grip on Collins and with ‘The Moonstone’ in particular, but every attempt has drawn something of a blank. As previously noted I am far from qualified to cast aspersions on the academic claims to its Importance In The Canon, it’s just that I have always found it (and Collins generally) somewhat impenetrable and more than a little dull. Doubtless this says more about me that it does about the book (and doubtless too there are calls of ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ at this point), and perhaps in future years the blindfold will be removed and its genius fully revealed to me but until such times I shall continue to drift along with my stock response of ‘Wilkie Collins… meh…’
I have a similar attitude towards Mary Kelly, whose novels ‘The Christmas Egg’, ‘The Spoilt Kill’ and (most recently) ‘Due To A Death’ have all been reissued in the British Library Classic Crime series. Of the three my favourite is certainly ‘The Christmas Egg’, yet I say that whilst acknowledging also that it is probably the least ‘good’ in terms of literary worth. Here is (often) the rub with crime/detective novels: the apparently ‘best written’ and ‘most literary’ can also be the least engaging and entertaining. Kelly’s ‘Spoilt Kill’ and ‘Due To A Death’ certainly fall into this trap for me, with each being undeniably well crafted and full of a literary grit that is admirable. Both books use the foundation of the crime novel as a basis for exploring Bigger Issues, and unless you are a Right Wing Daily Mail reading Gammon (surely impossible if you are reading Unpopular) it’s hard not to sympathise with those. In the case of ‘The Spoilt Kill’ those issues are around class, industry, commerce, love and money. In ‘Due To Death’ these class/commerce issues are still there, working alongside questions of illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancy and patriarchal attitudes. Yet whilst ‘Spoilt Kill’ still quite obviously uses the crime novel structure on which to hang everything else, this is pushed to, or indeed beyond the limit in ‘Due To A Death’. It could be argued that it’s in the inverted mystery sub-genre, but that would be stretching things because the ‘mystery’ or ‘crime’ is initially so vaguely referenced that one wonders if it’s really a crime at all, and maybe it’s just me, but my mind was certainly wandering as the book went on, to the point of skimming and skipping to see if anything was really going to happen. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it really doesn’t. Which might be the point, but… There is some exquisite use of language in the book that is very much to Kelly’s credit. I particularly like how she describes “squalls slashing up the estuary, streaming over the windscreen, curdling like smoke on the roads.” There are also some very eloquent and perceptive observations on power and class, such as when her narrator describes the site of a re-purposed Country House: “It was far enough from the river once to have been the home of the rich; but even here they no longer lived. Their large houses had become their utilities: schools, golf clubs, hotels, clinics.” Elsewhere the question of being wealthy enough to be beyond the law resonates particularly strongly in 2021: “They’ll hook you for your paltry two thousand. You must chisel in millions before they’ll let you get by.” Ah, the fluid standards of the hyper-capitalist societies we are forced to inhabit. And yet for me this sharply observed critique of late 1950s and early 1960s UK society is not quite enough, and whilst ‘Due To A Death’ might conceivably land on the pedestal of classic literary novel, it struggles to convince as a crime one.