Meta-Detective-Fiction

Have I seen Sidney Gilliat’s 1947 film ‘Green For Danger’? Perhaps in the 1980s during my Dole Years, on BBC2 as part of their afternoon schedules, the rarest of times in my younger years when I had access to a television alone. Certainly reading the British Library Classics’ recent reissue of Christianna Brand’s novel makes me think I must have watched it, for there is a vague familiarity about the plot and the characters, even though the film apparently took some liberties. I ought to track down a second hand copy of a DVD and check it out, for I would like to see Alasdair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Brand’s novel, first published in 1944, is certainly a marvellous period piece in itself and, as Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, is certainly one of the finest detective stories written and set during WW2. One of the things that lends the book success in this respect is Brand’s skill in making extraordinary situations and events feel like the everyday. There are no great emotional outbursts, and no terror shown in the face of falling Nazi bombs. In a short preface to a later edition of the book (included in this reissue) Brand defends herself against criticism that this stoicism might have been nothing short of propaganda by pointing out that much of her war had been spent in a heavily bombed part of London, largely amongst V.A.D.s (members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment) and that she saw “not a shadow of panic or failure or endurance-at-an-end.” There is much reflection on this kind of emotional barricading in Margaret Kennedy’s excellent WW2 memoir ‘Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry’ and whilst there is no doubt that fear and desperation were more widespread amongst the populace than is often portrayed, there is little doubt too that English/British obstinacy and a peculiar emotionless state of existence also persisted.

It’s that peculiarly English character trait of emotional detachment that allows much Golden Age (and beyond) detective fiction to exist, particularly in the realms of the intricately plotted ‘fair play’ whodunnit’s, where murder is seen in many cases as little more than a puzzle to be solved. It takes its roots, perhaps, in Sherlock Holmes’ idiosyncratic pragmatism and scientific processes of deduction, but there is surely an argument that also says Holmes is merely a blueprint drawn from English Character Traits and is therefore as much a cartoon Englishman as he is cartoon detective. That stereotypical absence of emotion filters through ‘Green For Danger’ as the irascible Inspector Cockrill navigates his way through a narrative pathway strewn with red herrings and tricky tortuous hairpin bends. It’s not quite as ridiculously convoluted and frustratingly ‘clever’ as a John Dickson Carr, but it’s hardly plain sailing, with Brand pulling things back from the precipice with a delicious sprinkling of gloomy humour. Setting the book in a hospital certainly helps create this mood of blunted emotions, for there are surely no better places to find efficiency and pragmatic responses in the face of traumatic events, particularly during wartime. The location is artfully drawn in necessarily spare lines. Like a Hockney drawing, Brand confidently lays things down with precision, space suggesting form much more effectively than convoluted explanation. It’s the small corners of exquisitely executed detail that work wonders in giving the whole its life. So many contemporary authors writing ‘period’ pieces seem to miss this. Less is more. More or less.

Not that ‘Green For Danger’ is not crammed with a multitude of elements, for it sometimes feels like a whirlpool of possible murderers fuelled by a disparate array of motives. Ultimately Cockie (as Inspector Cockrill is invariably called) is astute enough to work things out but not enough to prevent the murderer escaping ‘justice’ in the courtroom. This is hardly a spoiler, incidentally, since the opening chapter concludes by telling us that one of the seven characters introduced by means of letters carried by the postman “would die, self-confessed a murderer.” It’s the same detective fiction trope that the aforementioned Margaret Kennedy used just a few years later in her classic 1950 novel ‘The Feast’ and it works a treat here too.

Also recently reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series is Brand’s 1949 novel ‘Death of Jezebel’. Again utilising the trusted ingredients of the ‘closed room’ mystery, Brand lifts the book clear of the mire of weary ‘cleverness’ by adding even more lashes of deliciously dark humour. There is an almost hysterical degree of exuberant playfulness in the book, and the immediate post-war sense of freedom and relief is almost palpable. Characters are again lightly drawn, but this time almost to the point of caricature (Francis Carruthers Gould rather than David Hockney). Brand also uses the book as an opportunity to reintroduce Inspector Charlesworth of Scotland Yard, the detective of choice in her first novel, 1941’s ‘Death in High Heels’. I was disappointed when I read ‘Death In High Heels’ a few years back, but Charlesworth works far better here as a foil to prickly country policeman Cockrill. There’s a nice youth versus age and rural versus urban tension set up between the two, with Cockie’s droll restraint inevitably proving more effective that Charlesworth’s puppy-like enthusiasm. Brand also uses the two in an amusing meta-fictional breaking of the fourth wall: “if this were a detective novel,’ said Charlesworth, buoyantly, ‘[we would] probably confront the criminal at the moment critique!’ ‘This is not a detective novel,’ said Cockrill. ‘In real life the police don’t “reconstruct the crime” so as to confront the criminal. These writer people never get their police procedure right.’”

Humour is there too in 1953’s ‘London Particular’ (or ‘Fog Of Doubt’ if you prefer) but it is certainly more muted and the meta references to Cockrill’s previous cases are restricted to, I think, one throwaway line. The humour here is more in the way the plot takes almost ridiculous turns as different characters attempt to take on the blame in order to protect their friends and family members. It’s a kind of painful dark amusement derived from misunderstandings and mistaken identities that lead to murder and tragedy. As such, it’s not Brand’s best outing, and for me suffers somewhat by placing a lot of the focus on events at the trial. I’m not a big fan of using trials as the method of unpacking clues and arriving at the Big Reveal, and whilst Brand does it as well as the next writer, it still causes me to skim pages and Skip To The End. ‘Green For Danger’ and ‘Death of Jezebel’ are both more successful by allowing the whole crazy messes to work themselves out ‘in situ’ as it were, thereby keeping the thrills going almost until the final page. Perhaps people who find courtroom dramas to be thrilling will feel differently, but it seems to me that it is not Brand’s strength. She is certainly better when creating atmosphere through a sense of place and one can’t help wish that more had been made of the pea soup fog that gives the book its title. My mum tells great stories of the monumental London fogs of the early 1950s and they must have been a perfect prop for crime and detective novelists. Yet perhaps that very obviousness is why Brand does not make more of it. Indeed the ultimate denouement makes it unclear if it has been an essential element at all, so perhaps that is just another little bit of Brand’s humour showing through.

There is humour and meta-fictional self-reference too in Clifford Witting’s ‘Midsummer Murder’. First published in 1937, this is the second book in a series featuring Inspector Charlton. Like Brand’s Cockie, Charlton is a country policeman, keen to solve the cases on his doorstep ahead of any involvement by The Yard, and Goodreads suggests there are sixteen books in the series. I do hope that the Galileo publishing house have plans to reissue more of them in the coming months for I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Murder In Blue’, ‘Measure for Murder’, ‘Dead on Time’ and ‘Midsummer Murder’ this year (I’m saving the seasonal ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ for December).

‘Midsummer Murder’ takes place in the fictional market town of Paulsfield (a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire) and, as the second instalment of the series, makes several passing references to characters that crop up in ‘Murder In Blue’. In fact, published earlier in the same year, ‘Murder In Blue’ itself plays the meta card by alluding to the events that play out in the town square in this second book, so there is a dizzying amount of self-referential playfulness at work here that feels remarkably (Post) Modern. Like Brand and many other detective fiction writers, Witting is keen to play the game by puncturing the facade of the fourth wall, having his police surgeon character profess, early in the book, that “it is only your fictional medical man who can announce with certainty, after a swift glance at the wound, that the deed was done with a Mannlicher 7.63 mm. or a Webley .455 self-loader”. There are some further pronouncements later in the story about the differences between ‘revolver’, ‘automatic’ and ‘self-loading’ weapons that similarly poke fun at the devilment of detail used and abused by novelists, all of which position Witting quite clearly as a writer both fully conscious of the essential ingredients of the genre he is working within and at the same time keen to, if not exactly subvert those expectations, at least make us aware that he is not taking himself too seriously. And is it a spoiler to point out that the book concludes by admitting that “We know that the Detection Club, under the presidency of Mr. E. C. Bentley, do not like mad murderers, but there it is.”? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because certainly the entire book really does lead us towards that conclusion from the off and, anyway, it is too sweet a piece of light hearted self-awareness to pass up.

Certainly all of the Inspector Charlton series books that I have read have been spirited and light hearted but ‘Midsummer Murder’ perhaps most of all. There is no evidence to suggest that the book is in any way an inspiration for Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books or the ‘Midsomer Murders’ television series, but it has to be admitted that a more accurate title would be ‘Midsummer Murders’ because the killings do keep coming in the best spirit of such things. It is another sign that here we have a writer both celebrating the genre they are working inside whilst simultaneously acknowledging a punctuation point in the history of its development. One can’t help wonder too if Witting was writing with an eye on contemporaneous political and social changes in England and beyond, for the book both celebrates existing country ways of life whilst anticipating their decline and disappearance. With a few strokes he paints a picture as delightful as Flora Twort’s painting of Petersfield Market Square that adorns the cover of this edition: “Those who live in the never-ceasing bustle of London will hardly credit the hush that falls on a country town between the hours of one and two in the afternoon. The shops close and the whole population sits down to dinner. Some of them call it lunch, some of them even call it luncheon, but as the same butcher serves them all, that is mere pedantry.”

That aforementioned thread of mental health issues and insecurities that permeates the book also suggests a fracturing world; a world where previous certainties are dissolving to be replaced with uncertainty and the threat of death from above. It may be a stretch to suggest that Witting is anticipating bombs falling from Heinkels, but in the light of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica’s bombing early in the same year of his book’s publication, it is perhaps not so fanciful as all that. In the face of the gathering storm (literally, as a thunder storm provides the backdrop for the book’s denouement) however, Witting remains ultimately upbeat and fires his writing with a kind of grim humour that is similar to that of Christianna Brand. It is certainly fitting that both writers should be benefitting from a degree of rediscovery in our own challenging times.

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