A State of Flax

As the nights grow longer and the air slightly chilled, it is natural that we cast our eye across our shoulder and glance back at the year receding rapidly behind us. Shortly it will be time for me to review my listening patterns, but let’s take a moment first to think about books. Now if there were to be some kind of dominant thread in my reading for 2021 it would likely be one of rather more lighthearted crime and detective fiction than in previous years. As I recall it all started in April when someone asked me if was reading Richard Osman’s ‘Thursday Murder Club’ book. I admit I got rather sniffy about this, before plunging into a thoroughly enjoyable pile of other writers whose books might be described as comedic. I wrote about that here.

There have been numerous thoroughly entertaining little twists on this thread throughout the year, and if on occasion the thread led into a dead end, then that is to be expected. Sadly it has mostly been contemporary books that have left me frustrated, as too often they come across as attempts to mine the mythical ‘cosy’ tropes of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction that never really existed in such a form originally (I suspect Mr Osman’s book strays into this territory, and whilst I may be doing him/it a great disservice then let us remember again that time is short and the shelves of ‘to-be-read’ extensive). Of course I have said this before, but of contemporary writers dealing with the comedic light-of-touch approach, only Ian Sansom and L.C. Tyler have reliably delivered for me (Stuart David too, but he seems to me to operate in a different sphere which feels quite unique). Others start well but stumble rather too quickly, or read like quick-fire TV show cash-in scripts where characters soil themselves with 21st Century Urban colloquialisms whilst supposedly living in a 1930s Chocolate Box village. I shan’t name names because I’m sure others would find them charmingly diverting, but really. I mean, really.

The absolute highlight of my comedic crime spree, as noted at some length here, were the series of novels that Sarah Caudwell wrote between 1981 and 2000. This surprised me enormously, partly because many of the characters and settings of the books were exactly those I spent my own 1980s and ’90s abhorring, and partly because, well, I had rather fallen into a habit of considering anything written after 1970 as being Not Really My Thing. Anne Morice has helped prove this wrong too of course, and yes, yes, Colin Dexter’s Morse novels are marvellous and oh, there was all that American Neo-Noir I rather enjoyed back at the start of this Century, but that’s by the by. Reality always has a frightfully irritating habit of getting in the way of how we want to view the world, doesn’t it?

In recent months then it has been the novels of Colin Watson that have most enjoyably impinged on this flimsy theory of 1970 as hinge point of interest, as his series of twelve novels that make up ‘The Flaxborough Chronicles’ have provided an almost continuous stream of delight. With the first of the series (‘Coffin, Scarcely Used’) being published in 1958 and the last (‘Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby?’) in 1982, The Flaxborough Chronicles neatly bestride my notional punctuation point in time and poke fun at both its arbitrary position and, more pertinently, at the fashions and tropes of English society during the intervening quarter century.

Set in a fictional County town somewhere north of London, Flaxborough and its surrounding villages exist in something of a generic physical landscape. Having worked as a journalist in Lincolnshire, it is thought that Watson modelled the town on Boston, though he really does little to paint it in any detail and the sense of place is certainly not as richly observed as, say, Lorac’s Lunesdale or Bellairs’ beloved Isle of Man. Instead, what Watson does sketch out very adroitly are the characters and extraordinary ‘everyday’ narratives that exist in such places, allegedly drawn very closely from those encountered in his experiences as a local journalist. From dynamited statues of local dignitaries through the seedy night-time shenanigans of the nouveau-riche to the gin-soaked antique trading of the County set and their forthright farming neighbours, The Flaxborough Chronicles rampage deliciously through two and a half decades of Very English Concerns. Leap ahead a few decades more and one would easily recognise similar themes and characters in ‘Hot Fuzz’, to the extent that it would be no surprise if Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were to admit to being Flaxborough fans.

It is of course common practice amongst novelists to build series around detectives, be they amateur or professional, and Watson conforms to this expectation to an extent with his Inspector Purbright being a central figure throughout. Purbright is not a character who shows a particular degree of development in the twelve books, however, and what little we learn about him we do so more through the reactions of others, notably his Chief Constable (Chubb, a terrific character who breeds Yorkshire Terriers and who is frequently distressed by Purbright’s apparent refusal to actively engage with the Upper Echelons Of Society other than to investigate them). Purbright’s colleague, the ever-youthful looking Sergeant Sid Love is a little more clearly drawn, but even he exists as barely more than a few lines. Indeed, I rather wonder if the regular reminders of his eternally cherubic appearance are not an amusing remark on the nature of fictional detectives appearing never to age across decades of endeavours. Indeed there are some knowing asides dotted in the books that break the fourth wall, as it were, but Watson is never as gleefully ironic as, say, Edmund Crispin, and on the whole he strikes a fine balance between the traditional fair play mystery, the comedic novel (‘Private Eye’ once described his books as “very Wodehouse but without the jokes” which is exceedingly harsh, Watson indeed successfully suing for libel) and the post-modern.

Another character who is an almost regular inhabitant of the series (first introduced in book 4, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’) is Miss Lucy Teatime (or Lucille Edith Cavell Teatime to give her full fictional name). Now I must admit that Miss Teatime was initially a disappointment to me, as over the next few books she takes rather too central a position that feels too fussily dominant. I do wonder if Watson sensed this too, since after these few performances in Centre Stage, Miss Teatime thereafter resumes a more peripheral role where she is, frankly, much more effective. The, ah, ‘professional’ relationship between Purbright and Miss Teatime develops pleasurably throughout the remainder of the series, and there is clearly a point being made here about Purbright’s (and Watson’s?) perspective on the differences between the ‘real’ criminality (lawfully speaking) of the grifter and that of the businessman that society condones and indeed encourages and eagerly rewards. One suspects that Purbright (and Watson) would find the sleazy shenanigans of 2021 politicians both utterly reprehensible and enormously rich pickings for characters and plots. One can equally easily imagine Sarah Caudwell’s band of lawyers immersed in this slime, picking the bones clean and giving Hilary Tamar ample opportunity for unravelling webs of deceit. Plus ça change.

As previously mentioned, as well as being thoroughly entertaining mystery novels, Watson uses the Flaxborough Chronicles as a vehicle for critiquing some of the fashions and tropes of English society over the quarter century of the series’ existence. Thus he takes pot shots at the likes of the Intelligence Service and the Spy Thriller genre (1962’s ‘Hopjoy Was Here’), lonely hearts’ columns and ‘introduction services’ (‘Lonely Hearts 4122’ from 1967) and Big Pharma, herbalists and the timeless pursuit of remedies for the, ah, poorly afflicted male of a certain age… (1969’s ‘The Flaxborough Crab’). It’s in 1972’s ‘Broomsticks Over Flaxborough’ though that Watson really hits his stride with a delicious absurdist broadside aimed at the lingering appeal of rural folklore being co-opted by bored leisure classes seeking illicit thrills. One can just picture the Dennis Wheatley novels on the bedside cabinets. It may be a little obvious to set this flirting with the occult alongside an advertising campaign for detergent that washes whiter than white, but it’s a delicious opportunity to poke fun at the marketing and advertising industry. More specifically, it is the absurdist ‘specialist’ language of such industries that Watson seems to find most infuriating and it is evident that he must have derived a great deal of enjoyment inventing his own just-about plausible phrases for each. To the best of my knowledge Watson had no hand in Chrissie Mayer’s founding of the Plain English Campaign in 1979, but it would not be the most startlingly unlikely piece of news to learn that he had. In 1979 however Watson had other priorities, notably turning his attention (as it were) to pornographic films and, more pertinently, the hypocrisy of sensationalist tabloid journalists and their publishers in the terrific ‘Blue Murder’. References to Rupert Murdoch and his publishing group are thinly cloaked, to say the least; the resonance some thirty years on, distinctly depressing.

The final two instalments of the Chronicles (1980’s ‘Plaster Saints’ and ’82’s ‘Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby?’) see Watson turn his attention to the antiques trade, the declinations and dubious pasts of The Gentry and the often uncomfortable tension between established traditional tillers of the land (or ‘farmers’, as Chrissie Mayer would rather us call them) and the incursions into those landscapes of New Wealth. It may be pushing things to suggest that in his final two novels Watson anticipates the relentless march of tasteless consumerism that embodied Thatcher’s England, but not much.

The television series made by the BBC in 1977 is certainly blind to what lies around the corner, portraying as it does an England that is uniformly brown. Gone are the psychedelic paisley patterns and Pop Art brilliance of the 60s, whilst the garish day-glo superficiality of the ’80s is as unimaginable as it is inevitable. Despite (or perhaps because) of this, it’s an entertaining watch in 2021 and the host of familiar names in the cast suggest that Watson’s novels were successful in their day before rather falling between the cracks in the latter part of the 20th and the first decade or so of the 21st Centuries.

In the four filmed novels (‘Hopjoy Was Here’, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’, ‘The Flaxborough Crab’ and ‘Coffin Scarcely Used’) Anton Rodgers plays Purbright with something of the Maigret in overcoat and pipe, whilst Christopher Timothy (a year away from his first appearance as James Herriot in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’) is splendidly cast as the cherubic Sergeant Love. In my head I had always seen Miss Teatime looking somewhat like Geraldine McEwan, but Brenda Bruce is a tremendous alternative. Moray Watson turns in an excellent Chubb, just the right side of overbearingly pompous. Having said that, if someone were to make a new version of the Chronicles, Anton Lesser would be a shoo-in for Chubb, reprising his remarkably sensitive portrayal of Reginald Bright in ‘Endeavour’, and it was Lesser/Bright that I visualised when reading the books. Throw in the likes of John Comer, James Grout, Peter Sallis, Michael Robbins and Gary Watson in supporting roles and you have a remarkably accomplished cast. Everyone plays it with just the right balance between melodramatic farce and straight-faced seriousness (Rodger’s fractionally raised eyebrows and pointed pipe stems are suitably subdued points of expression from Inspector Purbright) and if you can track down the double disc DVD set then it’s highly recommended viewing.

The books, thankfully, are now much easier to come by since Farrago republished the entire twelve book series in 2018 in both paperback and ebook formats. It’s a delight to have them back in circulation.

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