A 1930’s Antidote To Indifference

As noted in a couple of reviews here in recent(ish) months, there has been a degree of disappointment seeping into the output of the British Library Crime Classics reissue programme. I found John Ferguson’s ‘The Death of Mr Dodsely’ to be dreary, and even the most recent E.C.R. Lorac salvage operation was not amongst that otherwise magnificent author’s best work. As for the seemingly endless stream of titles by John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr, well, don’t me started. No, really, don’t get me started because I couldn’t finish another one. Indeed the recently released ‘The Black Spectacles’ starring series detective Dr Gideon Fell remains the only book in the entire BLCC canon whose covers I have not even cracked. A period blurb from the Times Literary Supplement assures us that the book is “Mr Dickson Carr in his most ingenious and learned form” which I translate as being at his most insufferably smug and ‘clever’. Having said all that, I must point out that I did actually rather enjoy the John Dickson Carr Inspector Bencolin novels that, I think, kicked off the Dickson Carter Dickson Carr BLCC run, stuffed as they were with Grand Guignol melodrama. ‘Castle Skull’ was great fun too, so perhaps my ire ought more accurately to be directed at the fictional form of Gideon Fell, whose pompous self-regard tempted the author into those tiresome exercises in ‘learned’ cleverclogsness. 

With such recent disappointments playing on my mind somewhat then, it was with some trepidation that I opened the pages of the most recent BLCC reissue, Billie Houston’s 1935 effort ‘Twice Around The Clock’. As a one-off piece of detective fiction there would, by rights, be even more of a reason to be dubious about this title since, as Martin Edwards notes in his introduction, there are very good reasons why many ‘forgotten’ one-off novels remain out of print and for whom resuscitation ought certainly to be resisted (i.e. they’re a bit poor). Edwards does a fine job in giving us some brief background detail on Billie Houston and it seems that at the time of writing the novel she was a highly recognisable ‘celebrity’, being one half of the Houston Sisters vaudeville act. Edwards rightly suggests that it is too easy to criticise individuals who gain fame working in one medium when they venture into the realms of writing. Perhaps some of these excursions may be little more than casual cash-ins, but certainly not all, and regardless, criticism ought to focus on the work and not the ‘celebrity’. Certainly on the evidence of ‘Twice Around The Clock’ Billie Houston could write an effective detective thriller, for the book is a tremendous quick-fire snapshot of the genre, being riddled with romance, death, betrayal, mad scientists and much, much more besides.

As in Clifford Witting’s ‘Subject: Murder’, there is a disturbing scene involving a kitten that many readers will want to skim or skip, but that is nevertheless crucial in prompting almost every member of the cast to threaten violence on the shortly-to-be murdered victim. Again as in Witting’s novel, this victim is portrayed as a sadistic figure whose death we may not exactly celebrate (for we are, after all, educated and cultured 21st Century sophisticates) but certainly do not mourn. In Houston’s case we are additionally treated to the delights of that obsession of the age, ‘madness’ and the paralysing fear of ‘inherited madness’, which results in at least one of the cast of suspects confessing to the crime. It’s a catching disease too (confession, not madness), for very quickly it seems like everyone is in on the act. Maybe it’s a gentle poke of fun at ‘Murder On The Orient Express’. Or maybe not.

In essence, ‘Twice Around The Clock’ is a classic country house murder mystery in that the cast are ‘trapped’ on stage with no escape, in this instance by a raging summer storm that, the author cheekily suggests, is the kind of thing only found in cinematic features. Indeed it’s this marvellously self-knowing pleasure that drives the book along at a terrific pace (the entire short book encompasses a period of 48 hours, hence the title) and which makes it such a treasure. It’s hilariously bonkers, it knows it, and it’s damned if it’s going to apologise for it. Indeed, if anything it just keeps ramping up the gloriously ridiculous tempo. As Sir Anthony Fane retorts: “I will be damned, sir! What with murders and sudden deaths and illness and engagements… what’s going to happen next, I should like to know?”

It’s barely a spoiler to say that what happens next is the narrative being taken to the next level of hysteria, as foreign agents bind and gag everyone and attempt to force the secret of the deceased mad scientist’s poison gas formula. Will they succeed? Will plucky England succeed in foiling its foes? Will Love Prevail? Will the denouement include the unexpected unveiling of facts never hinted at upon which everything will hinge? Perhaps it is a spoiler to say that in the case of this last question the answer is that yes, yes there will be, and yet whilst in many cases such twists seem frustrating and weak, in Houston’s hands it seems entirely natural. OF COURSE there is something cloaked in the history of these characters that must eventually come forth and OF COURSE it is preposterous and melodramatic and serves the duty of Love. How could it not?

It is certainly tempting then, on the strength of ‘Twice Around The Clock’, to wish that Billie Houston had written more in the same vein, yet equally it is gratifying to know that she didn’t. Like the band who make one triumphant Pop single and split up, ‘Twice Around The Clock’ may not be Great Literature, but it is fantastically fine entertainment and a perfect antidote to a surfeit of Dr Gideon Fell. In my universe, praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

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