‘Subject: Murder’ by Clifford Witting
Originally published in 1945. Reissued in 2023 by Galileo books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
Regular readers (if such a thing exists) will no doubt know of my enormous enjoyment of the Clifford Witting novels reissued in the last year or so by Gallileo Books. Each one has been a treat of sprightly detective fiction at its best, and as a result I have had high hopes of the newly republished ‘Subject: Murder’. Originally published in 1945, the book ostensibly belongs to the Inspector Charlton series of books, although in truth Charlton does not appear until the final third, and even then appears oddly like a satellite character, plugging the evidential gaps and asking those all important questions that bite to the heart of things. At times it’s easy to see Charlton as a prototype Columbo, but without the cigar and with a clean suit and raincoat. “Oh, one other thing…”
It’s to Witting’s credit that we don’t particularly mind Charlton not being centre stage in this novel, as the spotlight instead falls on one of the supporting cast from previous books, one detective constable Peter Bradfield. Indeed, Witting lays this out from page one, indulging in some of that mild meta-fictional playfulness that is in evidence in previous books, as his narrator begins:
“My name is Peter Bradfield. Before I became a soldier I was a policeman or, to be more precise, a detective-constable. Glancing through the various cases of Inspector Charlton, who was the Big White Chief of my pre-Army days, I have found myself mentioned here and there in what is known in the world of entertainment as a small supporting role. In one place there is a whole paragraph devoted to me, so, with no little trepidation, I am going to copy it out.”
Witting/Bradfield does indeed proceed to give us a pen (self)portrait before immediately getting to the heart of the matter, which is to inform us of the upcoming “death of Sergeant-Major Yule”.
Such an immediate allusion to the critical crime of the book is one of my favourite ways to start such a novel. No faffing around with half a book of character build up and sowing of clues and having to wonder who is going to be knocked off. Bam, Pow, straight to the point. Let’s get on with it. Bradfield/Witting even assure us that, although this crime is to happen sixteen months in the future, the “book is not going to be just another rookie’s war-diary,” and that “these first chapters are not to be random military recollections, but the opening scenes of a comedy-drama that ended in tragedy”. The irony of which is that (spoiler alert of sorts here) the actual crime is not going to happen until two thirds of the way through the book, and that in some respects, the book IS a war-diary of sorts. Certainly there is a vast amount of detail about the structures of Army battalions and the differences between Infantry and Artillery terminology, and there are too a lot of descriptions of the everyday humdrum of training and life as a recruit (the books is dedicated to Witting’s own Battery Sergeant-Major so there is clearly a lot of first hand experience in all of this). It’s again to Witting’s credit that the book doesn’t get bogged down in this detail and he does a sound job of balancing what is effectively a docudrama about life as an anti-aircraft gunner in the home front with the traditions of the detective novel. Witting’s lightness of touch is crucial in achieving this balance, and he manages to weave elements of romance, humour and grim sadism with skill.
Much of the grim sadism is quickly established as belonging to the character of Sergeant-Major Yule, ensuring that when his death does finally come, we feel little pity for his rather unpleasant end. Witting drops references to De Sade early in the book, and there is a sizeable extract quoted from a book about Tomas de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition later in the novel, just in case we were in any doubts as to Yule’s particular penchants. There are some deeply unpleasant events involving pets in the book too, and any lovers of kittens and dogs with a sensitive disposition (the readers, I mean, not the kittens or dogs) might want to skip some paragraphs. Yet it does, if nothing else, heighten the awareness that behind or beyond all of these events there is, indeed, a war raging and that unimaginably worse crimes are being committed against human beings.
It’s against that wider context, however, that Witting makes one significant miss-step, by falling into the sort of casual anti-semitism that, whilst commonplace in (detective) fiction pre-WW2 almost completely disappears in post war efforts. So when Witting/Bradfield writes about events in 1915 where, after the sale of a run-down and failed hotel, “Nineteen disgruntled estate agents snatched their boards away [whilst] the twentieth, whose name was Greenbaum- or it may have been Schultzberg- pasted across his, with his own fat hands, “Sold By.”” we can’t help but feel more than a little disappointed. Worse is to come though, as Bradfield/Witting inform us that “Mr. Finklestein (or Guggenheimer, or just plain Cohen)” did not refurbish the hotel and instead waited patiently for a government requisition order for the building. The de-personalisation of individuals to generic names is bad enough, but when Witting/Bradfield tells us that after the conclusion of hostilities in 1918 the hotel was again left un-touched because “Mr. Finklestein (or Guggenheimer, or just plain Cohen) was waiting for another war” then disappointment turns to disbelief. True, the full horrors of the Nazi’s Final Solution would not have been uncovered at the time Witting was writing the book, but he must surely have been aware of the forced labour concentration camps and the systematic persecution of the Jewish people even before 1939. One would rather think that an intelligent editor/publisher in 1945 might have taken a blue pen to the extract and suggested it was a bit beyond the pale, so perhaps Hodder and Stoughton’s failure to do so says more about the publishers than it does Witting. Indeed, if one were being outrageously conspiratorial one might suggest that Witting included this particular extract as a test of the publisher’s religious and cultural preferences. There are, after all, several references in the novel to the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam’, about which Matthew Hodder was apparently sceptical about publishing…
Such uncomfortable expressions of racism, sexism, anti-semitism etc are not unusual in ‘Golden Age’ fiction of course, and for the most part I have no major difficulties with them within the context of their historical setting. This particular excursion, however, feels inexcusable even (especially) within the historical context. It certainly knocks Witting down several notches in my estimation, which is a great shame, because otherwise ‘Subject: Murder’ is another excellent example of his oevre: The narrative kicks along in a sprightly manner; the characters are nicely sketched and, in spite of that unconscionable explosion of anti-semitism, Peter Bradfield comes over as a rather likeable and entertaining chap; Inspector Charlton eventually steps in and puts all the pieces together in the correct order. There is even another neat piece of the self-aware wink to the reader near the conclusion of the book when Charlton reminds Bradfield of the old creed where “the most obvious suspect is almost invariably the criminal, [and] that the ‘least likely’ murderer is found only in fiction.” Whether this turns our to be the case in this particular work of fiction I will leave unspoiled, although I will just say that one of Witting’s best qualities is for not indulging in extended explanations once the denouement has taken place. The action has finished and people want to go home. The author does not need to show how clever they might (or might not) be.
As crime novels set (and written) during WW2 go, then, ‘Subject: Murder’ has a lot going for it. Witting’s appalling lapse in judgement with the anti-semitism notwithstanding, it is an entertaining and informative read. It may not be quite up to the standards set by the likes of ‘Measure for Murder’ and the fabulous ‘Midsummer Murder’, but it will be a welcome addition to any detective fiction lovers’ shelves.
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