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.