At the start of this month I re-read a selection of Peter Benson novels and re-appraised the music of The Waterboys from 1981 to 1985. It didn’t take long to decide that all were terrific and well-worth revisiting. In the midst of all this I also read Benson’s 2019 novel ‘The Stromness Dinner‘, which struck me as a beautifully judged piece of poetic fiction with a realist backbone. Lots of handsomely worked language about landscape and the pleasures of food. Finely wrought but staying the right side of rococo, delicious filigree and shadow. In summing up ‘The Stromness Dinner’ and Benson’s other novels I noted that nothing ever really happens in his books. Or rather that it does, but it doesn’t really. Even in something like the marvellous 2012 ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’ where there are drug dealers and murder, car chases and falling in love with hippie girls, it feels as if those cartoon episodes of action are just that: cartoons punctuating an afternoon spent watching Pasolini films on Channel 4. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck infiltrating a Truffaut season on BBC2. What lingers most are the deceptively light observations on the worlds that we pass through, the lives we lead and the loves we love to love. Darkness, sorrow, and loss, too. Inevitably.
Well, just to prove that I’ve likely been talking out of my arse, Peter Benson has only gone and written a new novel where EVERYthing happens. Here the cartoons are the main feature, a psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and turning onto love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.
Now there was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows’, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.
If there was a delicate restraint in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs reading R.S. Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. And then, and then, and then.
Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.
‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.
It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied, “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.
As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!
I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. Quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.
“I was every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985, from ‘December’ through ‘All The Things She Gave Me’ and ‘Be My Enemy’ to ‘This Is The Sea’.”
That’s Peter Benson writing in his 1994 novel ‘Riptide’. Or rather, it’s Peter Benson putting words in a characters’ mouth, for it is a work of fiction and we should always be wary of reading too much of the author’s personal life into their work, be it books, films, songs, reviews, whatever. Benson himself nods explicitly to this in a later book (2012’s terrific ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’) when he/his narrator warns us that we should not “think that something [we] hear in a book or a film has anything to do with real life. Books and films are false.” Well quite. Songs too, as often as not. Mike Scott would probably agree with that. A suggestion of the real but also a hefty dose of the mystical and mythical, perhaps. Holes around the moon on a winter’s night walking the footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn. That kind of thing.
The Waterboys, though, never really did it for me back in the 1980s or at any time since. It was one of the main reasons I put off reading ‘Riptide’ for so many years. That and surfing. I always felt there was something insufferably smug and dreary about surfers. I still do, to some extent, but I also understand that’s more about the mediated image and my own insecurities. You could say the same things about cycling, and I’d be with you pretty much 100%. Ironically of course Duncan, the narrator in ‘Riptide’, tells us that he feels exactly the same way about “surfer wankers” so yeah, that’s me told.
It is often difficult to look back and to understand our past impulses. They can often be remarkably uncomfortable and we try to obfuscate them with morning mists of misremembering. So it goes. I think then, though cannot be certain, that another reason I avoided reading ‘Riptide’ for 18 years was because Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ had meant such a lot to me in 1987 and I did not want to be disappointed. Stupid, in hindsight, but then how many of our younger selves’ decisions were anything but foolish at the very least? Then again too, je ne regrette rien and all that, and in this particular universe I’m happy I waited so long because it meant ‘Riptide’ became, along with ‘Two Cows’ and a handful of Benson’s other novels, a hugely enjoyable break from reading detective fiction back in 2012 or so.
Oddly, or inevitably not really, it’s much the same situation a decade on. The hefty piles of detective fiction on the ‘to be read’ shelves left for another week or so whilst I (re)indulge myself in some Peter Benson again, circling back to start with ‘Riptide’ because of a chance remark on social media about resurrecting old mix tapes from the mid 1980s. This particular one was great. Could have almost been one of mine, but only almost, and there is always something pleasing about that because our differences are as valuable as our connections after all. Something on there by Sinatra that I’d once foolishly have sniffed at but that now sounds sublime. An old Microdisney number that I listened to just hours before hearing of Cathal Coughlan’s tragic passing. Orange Juice, Love, New Order, The Velvets and closing out with The Chameleons. Old friends. Bookends. And yes, a Simon and Garfunkel track on there too. And The Waterboys’ ‘All The Things She Gave Me’, a song I barely recognised and all the better for that.
‘A Pagan Place’ did not mean anything to me in 1984 or in any year since until now. In some respects this is strange because I do remember that I loved, and bought, ‘The Big Music’ early in that year. Yet when we are eighteen time moves so quickly, or perhaps impossibly slowly, so by the time the summer came and left I was in a different place, a different person, metaphorically if not physically. Big was bad. An unconscionable evil. Something along those lines, anyway, and I was certainly no longer interested in The Waterboys. A year later things were not much different, and though my best friend Scott played ‘This Is The Sea’ on repeat and I begrudgingly admitted a fondness for ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ (informed in large part by aforementioned late winter night wandering of footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn where some degree of alcohol may have been involved) in reality I couldn’t help wonder if this was a sign of us growing up, apart, as teenagers do when the dreaded twenties approach. I mean, just look at the teenage male friendships in Peter Benson’s books for proof of that. Sometimes I wonder if we would still be in touch, still riding bicycles, still listening to similar but different music. Moot point of course. I do still think of him though. The things he missed. Where do the years go?
I’m glad to hear every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985 at this point in my life though, where the weight of the/my past can be cast off to a degree and allow me to hear things I’d never have allowed myself to notice. So that now what I hear is the sound of The Teardrop Explodes on steroids; Pale Fountains with long hair and more pointed Chelsea boots (enough in itself to put backs up and noses out, and I’d have been in line with that response then, but now it feels an irrelevance); Lou Reed singing songs of Ayrshire mysticism; Springsteen and the E Street Band channelling Van Morrison, swimming in symbolism and flying on metaphysical Beat poetry, a Semina soul of strangeness and sensuality. Occasionally overbearingly earnest and eager, but then they were earnest times and who wasn’t desperate to be something Other? And then that number about wanting to look like Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. Someone told me it wasn’t even on ‘A Pagan Place’ when it was originally released, but whatever, it sounds hilarious/magical now. When I hear it I need to follow it with The Triffids’ ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train’, which is maybe just the train connection or perhaps because of those Mike Scott lines about calling up Australia. And would Peter Benson, or his eighteen year old narrator in ‘Riptide’, have dug The Triffids? I hope so.
‘Riptide’ is a tremendous read and I think I understand now the appeal The Waterboys would have had for the eighteen year old Duncan in the book who is searching for something. Losing and finding different things, all of which might have been It and then again might not. We used to make a thing about It, didn’t we? Perhaps failing to realise that It was constantly changing in front of our eyes and ears. Or maybe it was just me who didn’t understand that state of flux at the time. Entirely probable. Hopelessly naive, looking for black and white. This not that. That not this. For a long time I thought the narrator in Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Panninaro’ was the epitome of cool. That long list of things he says he doesn’t like, and then laughing and saying that the things he DOES like he loves with a passion. I mean, I still get that. I really do. It’s just that now it also feels limiting. A little embarrassing. Maybe that ‘Panninaro’ character sees it that way now too. Grown up. Grown old, at least.
I wonder if Duncan would still be listening to those Waterboys records in 2022 or if he’d have filed them in a box of uncomfortable memories and hidden them in a dusty attic or let them die of mould in a damp garage somewhere. Is he still with Estelle? Still surfing? Still looking for things and finding them and losing them? Aren’t we all?
There is a quote on the cover of my paperback copy of ‘Riptide’ from the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ that says the book is “Touching, funny and erotic.” I’m not sure about that. Touching and funny, certainly, and that’s pretty much Benson in a nutshell. But erotic? Certainly there is a lot of sex and thinking about sex in ‘Riptide’. It is a book narrated by an 18 year old boy, after all, so how could it be otherwise? Personally though I’d call the writing sensual, and it is what Benson does so well in all of his books. In ‘Riptide’ that sensuality is in the writing about sex, certainly, but it is also present in the way Benson paints the landscape and in how he has Duncan express the pleasures of surfing. The surfing of course is a metaphor for struggle and conflict. That searching for something and the finding and the losing. It is elemental and obsessive. That tantalisingly tangible yet infinitely elusive It again. Pure teenage dreams.
Benson writes with a sensuality in his latest book, 2019’s ‘The Stromness Dinner’, but here the sensuality is about food. And landscape, of course, this time that of Orkney. Always the mystical pull of landscape. The magic it holds, electric and essentially unknowable. Which is why we yearn to taste it, feel it, touch it. Steve Diggle knows the score here. I nearly missed ‘The Stromness Dinner’. Lost down my rabbit holes of detective fiction. Coming up for air. So thanks to my friends for nudging me to (re)discover The Waterboys, and thanks to Mike Scott for nudging me back to ‘Riptide’, and thanks to Peter Benson for writing books in a way that make me want to just keep reading more. And thanks to Peter Benson too for writing books that can be devoured so quickly that they feed the appetite. So I (re)read ‘Riptide’, ‘Two Cows…’ and ‘The Levels’ in a day each; ‘The Stromness Dinner’ over two. Not that they are slight books, any of them. There is a lot in there to chew over. Language mostly, because not much happens in Peter Benson books. Well, it does, but it doesn’t really. Except perhaps in parts of ‘Two Cows…’ which could be a comedy crime caper gone wrong. Except it’s also bleak and dark in places, the shadows cast by the endless scorching sun of the summer of 1976. The spells of the countryside around Ashbrittle, a place that feels like it sounds. Indeed there is something of that contrast in all of these Benson books. It could be a trademark quality. Like his skill for writing perfectly abrupt sentences. Hemingway or Fitzgerald losing themselves in Hardy landscapes. Something like that. Or nothing like that at all. Much better than I can manage, certainly.
Another of Benson’s trademark qualities would be his way with dialogue. Did I write something in the past about Benson’s dialogue being like George Pelecanos’? I might have done. Should have done, since both have a natural grasp for exchanges that is quick-fire, flowing, easy to follow until it isn’t. Who’s talking? Who said that line? Was that Muriel or Billy? Duncan or his mother? Ed or Claire?
Less happens in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ than in any of these other Benson novels. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that there is a red herring of a stolen vase, but that is about it. A cottage gets renovated and we think we might have seen ghosts. But not really. There are some reflections on Brexit and some sorrowfully angry, lost characters who might the read the Daily Mail, even on Orkney. There are salt of the earth working folks and wealthy City types, but again it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Benson makes a point (bluntly, but also, paradoxically, softly and gently because he always does) that people are mostly decent and thoughtful and kind despite their differences. It might be a book about individuals retreating to perceived positions of remote isolation, but it’s also about humans’ need to create connections and to belong to communities. The book may be separated from ‘The Levels’ by more than thirty years, but I sense a circularity here, not least in the tension between The City and Orkney, Somerset and That London. Ed and Claire might be what Muriel and Billy never were, partly because they are in their thirties and not teenagers, and partly perhaps because they are fictional characters and Benson is in his sixties not his twenties and that has to count for something, right? Even though books are false. Because books are false, perhaps.
When I first read ‘The Levels’ I was turning twenty one, so still a teenager of course, and I felt so bad for Billy. Every time I’ve read it since I have still felt bad for the boy, but increasingly also frustrated about his obsessive fixation on Muriel as Object Of Desire. Caught in a world of illusion and self-perpetuated emotional bondage (to family, to tradition, to place) he’s the Billy Liar of an ancient rural landscape with Muriel cast as Liz. Julie Christie disappears on the London train and Tom Courtney is left with the milk bottles. Or in the other Billy’s case, the willow and the basket weaving.
So is there a sense in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ of Ed and Claire doing what Billy and Muriel never could? There are certainly echoes whispering in the distance between the two books. Scents that linger. Almonds and apricots. Ghosts that flicker. Those lines in ‘We Were A Happy Crew’ about the wind in the reeds. I’m not sure Ed or Claire or Muriel or Billy would dig the sounds of Spirogyra but I think Duncan would have done and I think Peter Benson just might. They linger in ‘The Levels’, where Billy reckons that Muriel “had a beautiful face and the brain to match; her man would never be like me.” More than three decades later Ed says the same about Claire, though never quite as self-pityingly, as befits a man of thirty compared to a teenager. Naturally Claire and Ed could never be Billy and Muriel though. They’d be in their fifties, for one thing. Like me. Perhaps then they could be their children; fictional surrogates transplanted in time to fulfil a destiny that was never on the cards, not in a million years never mind thirty.
But then again ‘The Levels’ ends with the lines: “I was by the door, staring at a tree I’d planted against the wall. It looked dead months ago, but I can’t dig it up, I get a feeling, once in a while; something might happen.” And with ‘The Stromness Dinner’ there is the softest suggestion that, in some alternative universe of fictional reality and falsehood, the circle is unbroken and that tree might just have blossomed. It is certainly pretty to think so.
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.
Last month I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading the final three novels of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series and to see if I might agree with the view of the British Crime Writers’ Association that ‘The Daughter of Time’ is THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990, and whilst I know there have been many fine crime and detective novels written in the intervening three decades and that it is for future generations to assign Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tin, Plastic or whatever ages to particular genres of culture, I can’t help but doubt there might have been anything to usurp it from that position. After all, if that eminent gaggle of experts deemed Tey’s novel better than a Sayers, a Hammet or a Chandler then What Hope anyone writing after 1990?
Before coming to my own decisions on this, however, I thought I had best do things in the right order, which brings us to ‘To Love And Be Wise’, the fourth of the Inspector Grant series which was published in 1950. Now ‘The Franchise Affair’ from two years previously could reasonably be argued as barely belonging to the Grant Series at all, given that the Inspector appears only fleetingly in a supporting role. In this it feels as though Tey is experimenting with the form of the crime/detective novel whilst still feeling the need to pin it into the series that she started before WW2, however loosely. Arguably Tey’s ultimate experiment in form would come with ‘The Daughter Of Time’ but that was still a year in the future when ‘To Love And Be Wise’ made its appearance and as such it feels like a bridge between these two flares of experimentation, perhaps easily dismissed as something that rather treads water before the next big push forward. That would be a harsh judgement, however, for ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a terrific and highly entertaining example of fine post-WW2 detective fiction. It is the book where Tey regroups and clarifies her ideas about the Inspector Grant character, fleshing him out from the bare bones established in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles.’
Gone almost entirely are the casual racist and sexist outbursts that uncomfortably pepper those two books, and indeed this is true generally for the detective fiction writers whose work spans the period of WW2. In particular it is agonisingly poignant to note that the causal antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s is almost entirely erased in their books from the 1940s onwards. In Tey’s case specifically, it is as though ‘The Franchise Affair’ was a necessary trial separation between author and character, each withdrawing to question their position in the relationship before reuniting and Giving It Another Go. ‘To Love And Be Wise’ then is a return to a more recognisable detective fiction form with Inspector Grant investigating the disappearance of a young American photographer from the stereotypically picturesque English village of Salcott St. Mary. It’s classic Golden Age in structure, assemblage of character and location, yet it also feels ineffably Other. A lingering sense of unease hangs over everything, as though in recognition that whilst many might wish to attain/regain a Lost England, this is as elusive and imaginary as it always was. Just as a vision of a Romantic English Rural Idyll was mediated between 1914 and the 30s as a vision of What We Are Fighting (and thereafter Fought) For, so it returns here as an illusory spectre. In Tey’s hands though, this illusion is exactly that, and the novel leads us enthusiastically through a landscape of inevitable change in the face of stubborn nostalgia for a knowingly semi-fictional past. The village is overrun with wealthy Artistic types (“Every third cottage in the place has an alien in it”) and there is a lovely edge of awareness that the Americanisation of England is well and truly underway. So when Miss Fitch notes that “‘any American pays a girl attentions. It is a conditioned reflex. As automatic as breathing.’” it is tinged with both regret and delight.
It could be said too that ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a prescient study in gender identity and that it continues to develop the theme of women’s position in the post-war society that were broached in ‘The Franchise Affair’. As with ‘The Franchise Affair’ it can be difficult to pin down Tey’s stance on feminism as her characters often suggest either an ambivalence or a coagulation of conflicted opinions. Reflecting on a piece of cross-stitch crafted by one of the characters, Tey has Grant note: “What a lot of leisure women seemed to have had once. Now they had everything in cans and had no leisure at all. But no, it wasn’t that, of course. It was that they didn’t spend their leisure making texts in coloured wools any more. They went to see Danny Minsky and laughed themselves sick for one-and-tuppence, and if you asked him it was a better way of recovering from the day’s work than making meaningless patterns in purple cross-stitch.” Nor can Tey resist a little self-indulgence in metafiction. She may not break the fourth wall as extravagantly as Edmund Crispin, for example, but a closing comment of “‘You mistook your vocation, Grant. You’re a very good detective, but as a writer of detective fiction you’d make a fortune.’” is as delicious as any other author working in the field.
‘To Love And Be Wise’ then may not be regarded as a particularly precious jewel in Tey’s crown, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and is an essential piece of the puzzle that leads to the brilliance of ‘The Daughter Of Time’, the book that topped the aforementioned British Crime Writers’ Association list of 100 Best Crime Novels back in 1990.
As is the nature of such things, the list itself is a contentious one, not least for the inclusion of books that one might argue belong in the Spy Thriller genre rather than Crime. Defining the boundaries of a genre is always a humorous exercise of course. Personally I’d probably let Le Carré sneak into Crime, but only with his early books, whilst drawing the line at Fleming and Buchan. And much as I love Eric Ambler’s books, I still file him distinctly in my Espionage Thriller shelves. As for Alistair MacLean? Terrific populist thriller writer, but ‘Guns Of Navarone’ as a Crime Novel? I’ll take a lot of convincing. Still, looking on the bright side, if including espionage and war thrillers into the list allows Geoffrey Household’s peerless ‘Rogue Male’ to make it into the top 15 then perhaps it is a blurring of boundaries that is worth those arguments; fleetingly enjoyable and ultimately pointless as they might be.
There would inevitably be arguments over those titles ‘legitimately’ in the list too. Me, I’m not much keen on anything written prior to 1914, which means that whilst I appreciate the importance of Wilkie Collins as a foundation layer for the genre, the books themselves leave me colder than a February night lost in a Cornish mizzle. Similarly, the overworked tedium of Erskine Childers’ 1903 effort ‘Riddle Of The Sands’ is lucky to have only just crept into the list at 93, whilst E.C. Bentley’s ‘Trent’s Last Case’ from a decade later features only at 34, appearing to have lost, by 1990, some of the appeal it once held for Crime novelists in the Golden Age when it was very much seen as the defining moment in kicking off the party, as it were. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when I read it myself some years ago, the more so as it came after gleefully devouring Sayers and Allingham. Naturally, as with Collins, I grant ‘Trent’s Last Case’ a degree of appreciation as being Of Historical Significance, but whilst it’s a diverting enough read, there are many, many more books that have brought me more pleasure.
All of which is a prolonged means of arriving back to the top of the list and wondering if ‘The Daughter Of Time’ really does deserve its place ahead of Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. The obvious answer is yes and/or no. This is a cop out of course, predicated largely on the fact that I find it very difficult to compare British and American crime/detective novels. It has always felt to me that they are very different beasts, each fired through with unique flavours (or, indeed, flavors) lent by different ingredients. Similarities exist, of course, but it’s like comparing a cask strength sour mash bourbon with a 41% Speyside dram finished in Pedro Ximenez casks. Or, to extend the analogy, what about throwing in some delicious Calvados, for the lack of any Simenon in the list is surely the biggest travesty of all? I’d have something by Léo Malet in there too, for what it’s worth, and incidentally, it’s a travesty too that his Nestor Burma books have not been reissued in English translations since the early 1990s.
Regardless of arguments about what is and who isn’t featured on that 1990 list, however, it is fair to say that ‘The Daughter Of Time’ should be at, or near the top, for it really is an astonishing novel that effortlessly blends experimentation with entertaining readability. Tey notably saw her detective novels as being less intellectually worthy than her other writing (a dozen one-act plays, another dozen full-length plays and three non-genre novels under the name of Gordon Daviot), famously calling the Grant novels her ‘knitting’. There is certainly a sense that perhaps Tey used her experience as a playwright to structure ‘The Daughter Of Time’ around a static setting, for it is easy to visualise the book as a stage set with Inspector Grant alone in his hospital bed. Occasional visitors drift in and out, but the majority of the ‘action’ is Grant’s interrogation of texts to determine ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. This interest in mediated information is a common thread to a greater or lesser degree in all of Tey’s novels, but it feels as though it reaches its ultimate and perhaps purest form here, as there is literally no other centre of narrative action other than the hospital room and Grant’s thought processes. This central theme that circles around the deceit of historical accuracy is naturally what gives ‘The Daughter of Time’ its ageless quality. Reading the book in 2022 whilst war rages in Europe is unnerving, although Grant’s observation that “A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy” is perhaps slightly less accurate than in a period of ‘peace’. Whether this says more about human nature or the power of media, however, I’m not sure. Then there is another startlingly modern moment where Inspector Grant notes that “As far as he, Alan Grant, was concerned Thomas More was washed out, cancelled, deleted”. To see such words used specifically in such a context back in 1950 is quite startling. There is Nothing New and all that.
There are solid arguments to be made for ‘The Daughter Of Time’ being the prototype for the Historical Crime Novel and the Cold Case sub-genre, but of course the key pleasure to be derived from the book is that whilst it may anticipate both of these it is deliciously free of any preconceptions of what those kinds of texts should look like. Most critically, whilst Tey elegantly conjures The Past, she does so without any clumsy reliance on Brand Names and tedious description of details that show how carefully she might have Done Her Research. Instead, the conjuring of place and time occurs almost as a series of glancing touches, momentary exposures that reveal the ghosts of impermanence. There is a glorious moment where Grant notes, whilst meditating on the/his past that “He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications.” Quite apart from the shared memory of a childhood delight in the things themselves, it’s the metaphor of the transfer as a process of unveiling The Picture that resonates so strongly. Elements of narrative coalesce into the unveiling of The Moment, whose immediate clarity is so exciting and yet immediately begins to fade just as knowledge and memory erase themselves in our consciousness.
Certainly Inspector Grant gets an enormous amount of enjoyment unearthing the ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ behind Richard III and the case of the Princes In The Tower and Tey expertly avoids the potential for a somewhat dry expose by introducing a few marvellously sketched supporting characters, all of whom appear to be referred to solely as either surnames or nicknames. These characters allow Tey to playfully engage in a range of observations, not least an extended rant about the Covenanters from Tey’s Scottish past. Unfavourably compared to the I.R.A., they are described as “A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation.” It’s harsh stuff, but it does neatly puncture any romantic notions of them as oppressed outsiders. Then there is a great take on how “‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’” Classic. Best of all though is the throwaway line where Grant is told he is “about as much use to a girl as a last year’s Vogue.” Ouch.
So yes, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is a book about challenging preconceptions and accepted truth, but it is far too self-aware to be either preachy or abstruse. It is instead humorous, illuminating, erudite and endlessly entertaining; as marvellously rewarding in 2022 as it must have felt in 1950 or will at any point in the future.
It is of course a tragedy that Josephine Tey should die at the age of 55, leaving ‘The Daughter Of Time’ as a fitting memorial. Yet the posthumously published ‘The Singing Sands’ certainly suggests that her Inspector Grant series could have rewarded us with more magnificent books. ‘The Singing Sands’ turns on another moment of historical investigation, this one rooted in the exploration of legend and reality in ‘The City of The Pillars’, lost in the Rub Al Khali. It may be a neat historical thread that weaves through the book, but in reality the book is another terrific return to more traditional structure, much as ‘To Love And Be Wise’ was after ‘The Franchise Affair’. That structure allows Tey to more physically visit landscapes, and her descriptions of the Scottish highlands and the Western Isles are marvellously evocative. Tey’s Scottish roots are certainly in evidence in ‘The Singing Sands’ but her national pride is tempered by a self-awareness that is admirable as she notes that “The quality of Scottishness was a highly concentrated essence, and should always be diluted. As an ingredient it was admirable; neat, it was as abominable as ammonia.” Quite.
Difficult to read without the penetrating knowledge that Tey must have been writing these words in the final months of terminal liver cancer, the book, whilst hardly wallowing in gloom, nevertheless allows Inspector Grant (and Tey) to explore the dark realm of mental health. Tey sensitively captures the feelings of anxiety experienced by Grant as he struggles to retain some semblance of ‘normal’, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that such notions of ‘normalcy’ are fluid at best. Grant’s immersion in the past, his desire to physically move, to Work Through/Out the issues feel remarkably Modern and another example of Tey’s remarkable ability in her post-WW2 work to be both Of The Time and ageless. She’s terrific at exposing the mythology of City vs Country too, noting that “‘Only people who live in towns are fresh-air fiends. Country people like a nice fug as a change from unlimited out-of-doors.’”, whilst there is a pointed dig at the enthusiasm shown by anthropological explorers ‘discovering’ the culture of the Isles: “Except for the delight of the people themselves in the thing, it was a sufficiently dull affair. The songs were musically negligible; some of them deplorable. If this was the kind of thing that people came to the Hebrides to ‘gather’, then they were hardly worth the gathering.” Quite, again.
And, again, there is a return to Tey’s fascination with media, as Grant notes resignedly in the opening pages that “It was yesterday’s paper, but it might equally be last year’s or next month’s. The headlines would for ever be the ones that he was looking at now: the Cabinet row, the dead body of the blonde in Maida Vale, the Customs prosecution, the hold-up, the arrival of an American actor, the street accident.” Much later he revisits this theme, noting that “Every day I swear that never again will I read a daily paper, and every morning there is the blasted thing lying waiting for me to open it and every morning I open it. It upsets my digestive juices, and hardens my arteries, and my face falls with a thud… but I have to have my daily dose of poison.” Substitute ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ for ‘daily paper’ and the phrases resonate with alarming accuracy in the present day. It’s as if humanity has learned nothing in the intervening 70 years.
I’m not much of a one for revisiting books on an even irregular basis. There are always new things to unearth, after all, even (especially) if they are old. But with Josephine Tey I suspect that ‘The Franchise Affair’ and ‘The Daughter Of Time’ at the very least will buck that trend in the years to come. I’m almost looking forward to it already.
Last week I finally read ‘The Franchise Affair’ by Josephine Tey. It had been on my To Be Read list for quite a number of years, Tey being one of those authors I was always aware I really ought to be reading but somehow never quite got round to. Of course there is something rather pleasant about keeping what one hopes will turn out to be delicious treats back for a rainy day, and there have been more than enough of those lately.
‘The Franchise Affair’ is certainly a treat, being a book that pulls off that rare feat of feeling both solidly rooted in its particular historical context and utterly contemporary all at once. Its underlying narrative of a teenage girl accusing a middle aged spinster and her mother of kidnap and abuse is hardly cosy, yet if one might be tempted to think of it as being a particularly ‘modern’ theme, it is worth remembering that the tale was itself inspired by an 18th Century case, written up and published as a piece of non-fiction in 1925 by Arthur Machen.
Although routinely listed as the third instalment of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series, Grant’s presence is barely acknowledged throughout the book which is otherwise narrated by small County Town solicitor Robert Blair. Blair is rather a closeted lifelong bachelor and the whole case is essentially his awakening to the world outside his previously insular existence. That he is so abruptly thrust into the role of amateur detective and Defender Of Honour is surely as calculated a literary conceit as it is almost accidental in its fictional occurrence. This is Fate intervening as Modernity intrudes on rural traditions; the despoiling inevitability of tabloid journalism and populist mob mentality as perfidious as the sprawling strip developments penetrating from Town to Country.
If one were being harsh one might also read ‘The Franchise Affair’ as a piece of anti-feminism that strives to position womens’ desire for sex as something indicative of deceitful tricksters, their interest in pleasure something to be kept in the shadows of shame. Certainly there is little in the depiction of Betty Kane’s activities and character to suggest any degree of sympathy from anyone, and it is hardly a spoiler to note that the book is less about the doubt surrounding Kane’s story than it is about discovering ‘truth’ behind apparently convincing lies.
There is a sense throughout ‘The Franchise Affair’, then, that Tey is exploring a key turning point in social history. Betty Kane in so many ways feels like a proto-teenager. She feels like the kind of so-called Juvenile Delinquent the world would be seeing more of as the 1940s ended and the 1950s progressed: strong, self-possessed working class girls whose sense of identity and self-preservation might have been built on the traumas of War, but who were unapologetic for all that.
Tey might be expressing distaste with such women, but she herself would have experienced something of this in the 1920s of course, as a previous generation of young women refused to give back the freedoms they had fought for through The Great War. This, and the simple fact that the story is based on something that happened a century before, suggest that whilst Tey is shining a light on a coming (near) future, she is also recognising that such a future is but a continuation of a past that falls in on itself, endlessly repeating. It is this tacit acknowledgement, I think, that makes ‘The Franchise Affair’ feel so ageless.
Having so enjoyed ‘The Franchise Affair’ then, I was of course eager to read more of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series. On starting her 1929 debut ‘The Man In The Queue’, however, I was startled to realise that I had in fact read it before. At first it was just the familiarity of the context of the murder (as the title suggests, it’s a man murdered in a theatre queue, so no spoiler there…) but then there are so many similar killings happening in all the detective stories I’ve read that it was possibly just an echo of something else. A clever and amusing piece of Reference, perhaps. But then of course, if you will excuse the pun, came the killer: Of course! This is the book with “The Dago”.
Of course anyone with even a passing interest in (detective) fiction of the period between the wars will acknowledge that such books will be at least threaded with elements of sexism, racism and antisemitism that feel abhorrent to any vaguely enlightened 21st Century reader. I’ve noticed that more recent entries in the British Library Crime Classics series feel the need to print a warning to this effect in their frontispieces, and whilst I suspect such a thing may send Daily Mail readers into a tailspin of anti-‘woke’ ranting I don’t have much of a problem with it. If it helps younger generations of readers to understand the historical context to the books and to enjoy them for all the pleasures they bring rather than immediately convulsing into knee-jerk calls for ‘cancelling’ then I’m all for it.
Yet whilst I’ve been able to wrinkle my brow wryly at some outré observations in many books and swiftly move on, there is something in Tey’s use of “The Dago” that really drags ‘The Man In The Queue’ down. There is a page early in the book where her Inspector Grant character uses the term with such unrelenting repetition that one suspects Tey must surely be using this as a literary technique to make a point about Grant’s racist character. True, the term may be used less frequently as the book progresses and Grant comes to know the individual in question on a more personal level. There is even the intriguing line in which Grant “consider[s] the man again. ‘Is he a dago?’ ‘No; a Londoner.’” Does that line suggest an inherent understanding of London (if not the UK) as being multi-cultural and post-race, even in 1929? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Is Tey making a point about casual racism, or is the casual racism just so endemic in society that she isn’t even really aware of it even as she writes it? If one were giving the benefit of doubt one might suggest the former, but I’m rather afraid that might just be an act of naive kindness.
What’s not in doubt whilst reading ‘The Man In The Queue’ is Tey’s grasp of pace and place. The book gallops along like an enthusiastic young colt, Inspector Grant endlessly grappling with the tension between instinctive flair and the unbending fact of evidential reality. The story takes him up to Tey’s native Scotland where the landscape of sea lochs and hills crossed by the loneliest and narrowest of roads is painted with a keen eye. It is through this landscape that Grant embarks on a furious Buchanesque chase of an escaped suspect (the aforementioned “Dago”, naturally) and these pages really are as thrillingly written as anything in ‘The 39 Steps’.
Yet underlying all of this cerebral unpicking of truth and the undeniable thrill of the chase there is still this nagging discomfort of “The Dago”. Having almost accidentally read the book for a second time, I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst its strengths on the whole outweigh the unpleasantness, it is extremely unlikely that I will ever read it for a third.
I might say something similar about the second instalment of the Inspector Grant series. Published in 1936, ‘A Shilling For Candles’, replaces the casual racism of “The Dago” with the deeply rooted anti-semitism of the age(s) in the form of an (of course) “Jewish song-writer”. Now in her defence, there is certainly a sense of Tey attempting to make a point about antisemitism by having the character embark on this quite extraordinary outburst:
“‘He didn’t need a reason. I’m a Jew.’ ‘Oh, come, Mr Harmer! Do you ask me to—’ ‘Oh yes, you don’t have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England’s a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between races. It doesn’t matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what the shade of your skin is.’ He blew his breath expressively through his teeth. ‘Did it ever occur to you, Inspector, that you’re the only people who’ve really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That’s your pet expression, and that describes it. No mixing. No marrying. Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then. You’re the only country in the world where a Jew is unmistakable. A German Jew looks like a German as often as not, a Russian Jew looks like a Russian. The countries have taken them into themselves. But an English Jew looks like a Jew. And you call it tolerance.’”
In the context of the times, viewed through the lens of history, that feels like quite a speech. Particularly the line about the “German Jew”… And if it seems likely that Tey might have seen the inclusion of such a speech as evidence of her own ‘tolerance’, or as an attempt to grapple with Bigger Global Issues within the context of a detective novel, from this distance it comes off as just a clumsy mis-step. The equivalent of someone today blustering about how some of their best friends are Jews, or gay, or black, or trans, or whatever.
Not that such missteps are any great reason for avoiding reading these Josephine Tey books. They may jar more than in books by some of her contemporaries, but that’s hardly a crime in and of itself. Instead we might look on those mis-steps as uncomfortable faux-pas’ as the writer seeks a means of embedding bigger themes into the body of such a throwaway, supposedly low-brow genre as the detective novel. Certainly the “Jewish Issue” suggested by Harmer’s outburst is at best an isolated, momentary aside in the thrust of ‘A Shilling For Candles’. Instead the book more effectively develops the theme of media’s place in manipulating or guiding an agreed narrative. This theme is touched on in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and of course more elegantly executed in ‘TheFranchise Affair’. The media in question in these books is specifically the tabloid newspaper, although the role of Hollywood and film is drawn into the picture in ‘A Shilling For Candles’. It is fitting then, perhaps, that ‘Shilling’ should have been filmed a year after its publication by Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Young and Innocent’ (released as ‘The Girl Was Young’ in the USA). The film is hardly a faithful adaptation of the novel, but there are some nice touches. The long crane shot that leads towards the denouement in particular is technically elegant, although modern sensibilities might struggle to focus on this over the sight of the black-faced minstrel band. They truly were different times.
Both ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles’, then, whilst certainly enjoyable enough in their own right nevertheless feel strained (and not to say stained) and to a greater or lesser degree decidedly uncomfortable. They might lay the foundations for Tey’s character of Inspector Alan Grant but they feel like somewhat tentative and exploratory advances in comparison to ‘The Franchise Affair’. Of the three further Grant novels that Tey completed before her death in 1952, at least one (‘The Daughter of Time’) is regarded as one of the greatest detective novels ever written (indeed, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it as THE greatest crime novel of all time in 1990). I look forward to discovering to what extent I might agree.
Apparently a critic once said that Peter Cheyney’s books made Mickey Spillane seem like Proust. I doubt if it was meant as a compliment, but if we’re talking about cutting to the essence of Pulp fiction then maybe there is no greater one. For if Proust might use many thousands of words to beautifully say not really very much at all then Cheyney takes hardly any words and says a heap of things that might well cause offence, and hilariously, grubbily so. You can’t get more Pulp than that, after all. And whilst public opinion is surely no signifier of lasting cultural value, certainly Cheyney’s sales figures (1.5 million books sold in 1946 alone, for example) would suggest that his books at the very least tapped into contemporary fascinations with extraordinary success. The French certainly seemed to dig his books, particularly those featuring the harder than hard-boiled American agent and detective Lemmy Caution, with many film adaptations released through the 1950s and ’60s. Ironically, the most famous of these, Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ may have Caution as a character (played as always superbly by Eddie Constantine) but in a story not actually penned by Cheyney.
Out of print and out of fashion for some time, the Lemmy Caution series is now being republished by the redoubtable Dean Street Press alongside Cheyney’s novels featuring British detective character Slim Callaghan and the ‘Dark’ series of espionage thriller books. I’ve just polished off the first in each of these series and I’m pleased to report that the 1936 debut of Lemmy Caution in ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is as wildly entertaining and hilariously offensive to 2022 sensitivities as the Spillane reference might suggest. It’s certainly about as far from delicately composed prose as it is possible to get; a world where every woman is a “dame” and caricatured mobsters inhabit England’s green and pleasant lands with schemes for kidnap, blackmail and cold blooded murder. It’s all Edward G Robinson, Dick Powell and Veronica Lake larking gleefully about, stuffing Hammett and Chandler into a blender and flavouring the results with gut-rot moonshine. So when Caution points out that “she’s a nice kid, but she likes to pretend she ain’t. She’s one of them girls who’s had too much money an’ too much of her own way” then it is easy to picture Bogart in ‘The Big Sleep’, lurking in the shadow of his Buick, face spotlit by the moon or headlights and smoke curling out of his lips. Sure, it may feel stilted and incongruous to have these staples of the Hollywood fiction factory toting their automatics around the English landscape, but as a blast of escapist comic-book Noir ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is hugely enjoyable.
Whilst the wholesale importation of Pulp Americana in the form of Lenny Caution might have met the needs of a thrill-seeking British public, it seems there was nevertheless a significant call for anglicising the genre. Enter, therefore, London private detective Slim Callaghan in 1938’s ‘The Urgent Hangman’. Yet whilst the characters and locations might be English, the flavour is still decidedly Trans-Atlantic and Pulpy. So when Callaghan suggests that a woman “knew quite a lot about life and practically everything that there was to know about men” then it is still easy to picture Sam Spade leaning back in an office chair, face cut across by the light cast through blinds and smoke curling out of his lips. The only difference might be Spade played by Bogarde rather than Bogart, the cigarettes Players rather than Lucky Strikes.
Certainly Callaghan, whilst sporting a deeply buried (and rather vaguely sketched) righteous moral code is hardly the kind of character who would make you stop and think that maybe Cheyney was some kind of left-leaning Hammett type. On the contrary, it would be easy to laugh at these books and portray the tropes that Cheyney rolls out as the wet-dreams of Brexiteers; a mediated nostalgia for an outrageously exaggerated and comic fiction recast as historical accuracy that might go down well with the rabid euro-sceptical ultra-right wing loons apparently in charge of British government policy in 2022. To such people the comic-book Continental character who spouts such lines as “‘I spoke to ’eem. ’E said I mus’ tell the trut’, that I mus’ not get into some troubles wiz ze police.’” might be read as less ”Allo ‘Allo’ slapstick and more ‘Foreigners as de-humanised entities’. Quite how Cheyney meant it is, at best, rather clouded by the fogs of history. One might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then again…
If I had stumbled on these Caution and Callaghan books when I was digging those Hard Case Crime reissues nearly two decades ago (was it really 2004 when I came across Max Phillips’ ‘Fade To Blonde’?!) I would surely have devoured them all in an instant. Sure, if you want something more resonantly London-centric then you should go for the likes of James Curtis’ tremendous 1936 title ‘The Gilt Kid’ or ‘There Ain’t No Justice’ from the following year. Curtis’ books might also be ‘better’ than Cheyney’s, but there is certainly enough in ‘The Urgent Hangman’ and ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ to make me think of picking up further instalments when I’m in need of decompressing my brain.
The ‘Dark’ series of espionage thrillers, meanwhile, perhaps translate better to 2022, although again you’d want to take that translation with a hefty does of salt, particularly if you are not white and male. Especially male. Because if Cheyney’s Pulp fiction makes Spillane read like Proust, then ‘Dark Duet’ makes Ian Fleming read like Joyce.
With it’s three (four at a push) inter-connected stories, ‘Dark Duet’ spans wartime London, Lisbon and (briefly, tangentially) Eire, it stars the characters of Michael Kane (an English spy who does not play cricket) and Belgian Ernie Guelvada, both of whom lay waste to the plans of Nazi counter-intelligence networks. First published in 1942, ‘Dark Duet’ is understandably a slice of enormously patriotic propaganda and is none the worse for that. That the bad guys will get their comeuppance is never really in doubt, nor is the assurance that the good guys will get the girls. As many of them as they might want, in the case of Guelvada, who has all the ‘best’ lines:
“A woman was like a harp. You could play tunes upon her if you knew how to do it. Because most women never ceased to think in terms of love; they laid themselves open to the operations and schemes of all sorts and conditions of men.”
“For a woman—especially when she loves deeply—is unable to think logically—whatever feminists may say.”
“how annoying it would be if a woman deeply in love were able to think logically. What bad times many men would have.”
Now maybe you can’t get past those kinds of lines, and that would be fine. They are not attractive, after all, and whilst one could be generous and suggest that it’s far from clear if Cheyney means us to take them as evidence of Guelvada’s unsavoury morals (one can just hear those aforementioned eurosceptic right-wing loons baying “he is Belgian, after all,”) one does rather feel that it’s perhaps more indicative of Cheyney’s own leanings, or at least of pedalling to the atmosphere of the times.
It would appear, from a cursory glance, that Kane and Guelvada do not recur in the ‘Dark’ series, although given that we are dealing with caricatures rather than developing characters that’s hardly a problem. Personally I’d rather go with the likes of Cheyney contemporaries Geoffrey Household and Eric Ambler or the later Le Carre and Deighton for my spy thriller kicks, but there is certainly something of the swashbuckling John Buchan in ‘Dark Duet’ that is marvellously entertaining. Cheyney may play to the cheap seats, but there is nothing much wrong with that after all.
It is inevitable that some will point out that Cheyney’s books are sexist, misogynist pieces of trash that should have remained buried in the wastelands of cancelled culture, and I would not argue significantly against this, other than to mildly suggest that fiction is not fact and that the fantasies we might consume do not define our personal morals or ethics. And as that little Belgian assassin Guelvada says in ‘Dark Duet’: “Do not believe that life is ever really serious. Sometimes it is a little dramatic. Sometimes merely boring. But seldom serious.””
The ‘Lemmy Caution’, ‘Slim Callaghan’ and ‘Dark’ series of books by Peter Cheyney are published by Dean Street Press on 7th February with new retro-themed cover art. They are available to pre-order now.
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.
Kevin Pearce, whose writing has always been and continues to be a source of great inspiration, once had a terrific habit of starting off a piece with the question “so what have you been listening to/reading recently?” Like the typical linguistic magpies that we are, I admit to having utilised the same opener on many occasions. Let’s revisit it one more time.
So what have I been reading? Well, the mention of Kevin Pearce is a neat way to introduce ‘The Edge Of The Object’ by Daniel Williams, for both he and Pearce were co-conspirators with myself in the Tangents website and the Fire Raisers fanzine projects way back in the murky mists of time. ‘The Edge Of The Object’ has its roots in history at least as ancient, since the bulk of the text was written in the blinking of an eye between those two projects, when Williams took himself off to a dilapidated and remote cottage in northern France to write. He’s more recently alluded to this episode in a tremendous piece for Caught By The River on the 30th anniversary of the release of Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’ LP.
As one might expect give the title, it is the object that drives much of the book. If it has taken a quarter of a century for it to be published then in part this has been down to the challenges of Williams’ original concept of having the individual ‘episodes’ that make up part one and three as calligrams with text wrapping around, or within, the two-dimensional representation of objects suggested by, or implicit in the body of the text itself. That this conceit never feels forced nor detracts from the connectivity of the individual elements within their gently meandering narrative is both to Williams’ credit as writer and also to the skills of Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press for realising the ideas in physical form.
Hopkins may be familiar from his work on an extraordinary edition of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’. Typeset and printed by hand using a tabletop letterpress onto a rich variety of objects, including 1960s slide transparencies, pencils, matchbooks and a myriad of other surfaces, the edition of 80 boxes deservedly won the 2017 MCBA International Artist’s Book Award. That project also highlighted Hopkins’ interest in literature that challenges traditional notions of narrative structure, and with Williams being drawn to similar threads (he has previously written a series of lipograms, one of which was published by Half Pint Press in 2017), it feels like a natural punctuation point on a journey of thirty plus years of friendship that the two should come together so perfectly.
If ‘The Edge Of The Object’ hints at an interest in the experiments in literature by the likes of Pessoa and Perec, there are echoes too of Geoff Dyer in Williams’ prose. Of ‘Paris, Trance’ perhaps most explicitly given the settings and the undertow of narrative, but more expansively in that sense of moment, of recording, of observation, of perception. The notion of the camera’s eye being that of the Other. The surrealist detachment and the anarchists’ detournement of the object. Perhaps too like ‘The Book Of Disquiet’, the individual ‘episodes’ of parts one and three of ‘The Edge Of The Object’ can be dipped into and enjoyed on their merits as stand-alone pieces. Each are rich in their excavation of language, evocative of place, moment, person, hope, regret, whatever. They could be photographs piled loose in a drawer, plucked at random and enjoyed for their unique qualities. Being human however, the impulse to connect and create story from distinct elements is strong, and Williams adeptly weaves these notional photographs into a tapestry that balances self-reflective and personal memory with broader strokes of recognisable, translatable themes and experiences. The author both connects to and distances himself from the central narrative character by adopting the second-person perspective throughout these two parts of the book. It’s a striking technique that lends a detached coolness to language that is often earthy and luxuriously poetic, seeking out moments of remembrance like a tongue reaching to a loose tooth, prodding the peculiar ache of memory.
Perhaps then it is inevitable that my favourite of all these shape pieces is one which traces the map of the mainland UK and that documents Williams’ hitchhiking travels from town to town. I see the ghost of my young self in there, living in the town jutting into the sea like a nose and recalling how we “managed to clear the dance floor simply by taking to it, wild and unrestrained, misshapen, round pegs trying to fit into a square hole.” I read this now and wonder if Williams, like me, almost fails to recognise the person who drifts spectrally from the text? Time is a strange creature, after all, warping and bending us into peculiar reflections of ourselves, like simulacrums stuck in a fairground.
I wonder too what the lightly fictionalised figures who inhabit part two of the book might make of it all now. This part discards the notion of shapes and reverts instead to a more traditional narrative, following as it does a collection of musicians from what we might have called the ‘indie-pop’ scene on a tour around France. The narrative voice switching from second to first person also helps secure the differentiation of the three parts of the book. Again, reading this in 2021 has a peculiar resonance of a fictionalised history being fragmented against the concrete barriers of time. Memory dwindles and fades into archaeological traces. ‘Reality’ is, as ever, dislocated and re-joined in altered states. Of course, to what extent that might be apparent to anyone less connected to the ‘reality’ is impossible to say, just as it is to consider how it might have been read had it been published in 1996 rather than 2021. What was it were saying about time being a strange creature?
Straddling the line between book as object, of literature as idea, and the perhaps more traditional landscape of narrative comfort, ‘The Edge Of The Object’ manages to balance these elements into an absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable work. That it looks as well as it reads is testament to thirty odd years of experimentation, crafty tinkering and the hands-on experience of type design. It’s certainly been worth the wait.
‘The Edge Of The Object’ by Daniel Williams is published in an edition on one hundred copies by The Half Pint Press. Full details of the book, including info about a launch event on Dec 1st 2021 can be found at http://theedgeoftheobject.com