Any review of a book promoted with a tagline of “was this the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’?” is of course beholden to address that very question, so let’s get that thorny issue out of the way by confidently stating hmmm, Well It Depends…
Curtis Evans certainly lays out a seductive argument for the prosecution (or is it the defence?) in his introduction to the new Dean Street Press reissue of the 1930 novel ‘The Invisible Host’ by American wife and husband team of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. In it Evans argues that whilst it may be a stretch to say that Christie could have read the book itself, there is a strong possibility she would have seen the successful 1934 Hollywood film before embarking on her own novel that would be first published half a decade later in 1939. Indeed, so successful was the film that its title of ‘The Ninth Guest’ was adopted for subsequent editions of the American novel. It is certainly true that at first glance the similarities between the two books are striking, at least in their basic premise: A group of individuals gathered by an unknown host to a location where they are cut off from the outside world and, one by one, summarily ‘knocked off’. Yet beyond those foundations I would have to say that the case for the defence (or is it the prosecution) is distinctly less coherent, despite Evans’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, and despite ‘The Invisible Host’ being a highly entertaining and recommended little read.
Certainly anyone coming to Manning and Bristow’s book being familiar with ‘And Then There Were None’ will almost immediately begin to doubt the evidence presented by the prosecution/defence, as the bespoke invitations to Christie’s cast are instead replaced by a single default telegram to those of ‘The Invisible Host’. And whilst none of Christie’s ‘victims’ are previously known to each other, Bristow and Manning on the other hand create distinct connections between their characters which in turn lend potential motives to certain killings, even if they may not conclusively turn out to be true.
Indeed, that rather vile version of the rhyme that Christie uses to title her book (and the fictional island on which it is set) also suggests her methods of murder. And if at times this involves rather a stretch of the imagination, it’s also rather an amusing conceit. Bristow and Manning on the other hand design their executions more around the particular personality traits of the party guests, and whilst Christie allows an element of this into her own macabre methods, she at least has the decency not to have one character die simply as punishment for having bad taste!
This different configuration of the cast of characters/victims also means significant differences between the reasons for each being assembled in their place of incarceration and/or execution in the first place. Christie makes a point of giving each of hers a backstory involving deaths that may, or may not to varying degrees, be interpreted as cases of pre-meditated murder. A sense of Justice Will Be Done prevails, even if it is at times deliciously warped and perverted around slinky notions of the supernatural and psychological. Bristow and Manning, on the other hand, make no bones about the fact that their victims are collected solely for their rather selfish and self-serving personalities. There are suggestions of social rather than criminal justice being at work here, with the occasional reference to communism hinting perhaps at where Bristow and Mannings’ sensibilities lie. Certainly as journalists covering stories in New Orleans and Louisiana in the early 20th Century they must have been acutely aware of social injustice, which in itself throws in the rather distasteful irony of the notoriously unpleasant nursery rhyme that gave Christie’s book its original title…
Bristow and Manning have no such compunction, and indeed its this rather dark gleeful quality that raises ‘The Invisible Host’ somewhat above the ranks of innumerable other novels hastily penned and published in the pre-Pulp Fiction fashion for crime stories in the 1920s and ’30s. Crisply-paced, its thrills are brief and well executed (if you’ll excuse the pun), but it does rather run out of breath a little early, with the denouement feeling somewhat abruptly arrived at. The challenge of wrapping things up neatly is of course a not insignificant part of the challenge presented by such a conceit and is, one might argue, always doomed to disappoint at least in some small way. Bristow, Manning and Christie all fall foul of this challenge to a greater or lesser extent and it probably comes as no surprise that the American duo’s solution is the more pedestrian and slightly less convoluted (though perhaps more believable) of the two. Such writerly complications are not a million miles away from the those concocted for themselves by authors of Locked Room mysteries, of course, for whom the biggest motivation too often appears to be showing off how clever they are. Christie, Bristow and Manning should be congratulated for avoiding the worst excesses of those temptations at least.
Suggestions then that with ‘The Invisible Host’ Manning and Bristow might have invented the particular fictional trope of unknown murderer with guests as helpless (and occasionally hapless) victims will no doubt be argued over at innumerable dinner parties and gatherings from here unto eternity. And whilst one rather hopes such parties will be somewhat less dangerous than the ones captured in their novels, one would also expect there to be little argument about why Christie’s became the best selling mystery of all time and ‘The Invisible Host’ an admittedly entertaining footnote.
A new edition of ‘The Invisible Host’ with an introduction by Curtis Evans is published in paperback and eBook formats on October 4th 2021 by Dean Street Press.
“Nobody can live in a seaside town without becoming more or less slack-minded.”
Or so says Henrietta, lead character in a couple of marvellous short books by Joyce Dennys, who spent the majority of her working life as an artist and writer in the Devon seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. The town and its inhabitants provide the subject matter for both her later paintings and the words and illustrations in ‘Henrietta’s War’ and ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’, both of which are tremendous fun and highly recommended. Initially written and published as an on-going series in ‘The Sketch’ magazine during WW2, selections were collected, edited and published by Andre Deutsch in the mid ’80s and are currently available in ebook format. As evocations of The Home Front in a sleepy West Country coastal village/town during WW2, the tales woven by the lightly fictionalised Dennys masquerading as doctor’s wife Henrietta are richly observed with numerous deliciously sketched characters. Written in epistolary form, the style is not a million miles from that of the wonderful E.M. Delafield and her ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, including an Austen-esque Use Of Capital Letters and mention of Bulbs. There is even a Lady B in evidence. ‘Provincial Lady’ was of course a barnstorming success story of the 1930s so it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to suggest at least a degree of cross-fertilisation at play here, the more so since at the time Dellafield and Dennys would have been living barely twenty miles apart.
If one were being unduly harsh one might dismiss Henrietta’s missives as not much more than propaganda intended to Raise The Spirits, yet there are nevertheless enough suggestions of disquiet and frustration in the descriptions of day to day life to argue that whilst they may be far from the harsher realities described in, say, Frances Faviell’s excellent ‘A Chelsea Concerto’, they are hardly sugar coated Toe The Party Line mimsy. As Henrietta asks in a typically astute and subtly throwaway manner: “Had you ever thought what problems this beastly war must cause to teachers of History who love both their country and the Truth?” As true today as it has ever been, and doubtless ever will be. Ouch.
Indeed, Dennys displays a barbed and wicked sense of humour throughout, as well as a feisty feminist stance, best displayed when Henrietta rails at The County Gentlemen about Attitudes To Women:
“‘They ought to be proud to come at their Country’s Need,’ said Colonel Simpkins, looking at me very sternly. ‘They are,’ I said. ‘Only they must get rather sick of being mucked about.’ ‘What a disgusting expression,’ said Mrs Savernack. ‘What Henrietta means,’ said Lady B, ‘is that one day women are being told that their place is the Home, and the next minute they have to man the guns.’ ‘And if they get their legs blown off, it’s supposed to matter less to them than it does to a man,’ I said. ‘And as soon as they’ve got used to manning the guns, the war will end, and they’ll be told their place is the Home again,’ said Lady B. ‘Bad luck, of course,’ said the Admiral, ‘but War is War.’”
All of which is followed by some marvellously biting commentary about babies, pram-pushing, members of parliament and the Future Promise Of Peace. This is Dennys at her charmingly steely best and although it may be stretching things too far, one wonders if there is something here of her confronting patriarchal and martial views expressed by her own father who died as a relatively undistinguished former professional soldier in the Indian Army around 1928. The family military connection continued, as it did for so many of these particular generations, with Joyce’s brother, Major General Lance Dennys who was to die in a plane crash in China in 1942, his name carved on the Budleigh war memorial that overlooks Lyme Bay from the top of Coastguard Hill.
Another name on the same memorial is one D. Ackland, a Budleigh resident who perished whilst visiting Guildford on 25th August 1944 when a V1 flying bomb fell on Aldersey Road. I mention this because some three years earlier, Henrietta had mused in ‘The Sketch’ ahead of a planned trip Up To Town: “Suppose a bomb were to drop on me in London? Charles and I hold strong views about being blown up together if we have to be blown up at all, and I had a vivid mental picture of Charles and the children in deep mourning, and Charles saying: ‘She would go. I couldn’t stop her. Your poor mother always had a craving for pleasure and excitement’” Truth, fiction, strangeness and sadness.
As previously mentioned, the books are written in epistolary form, made up of letters from Henrietta to a childhood friend named Robert who, we are led to assume from the outset, is soldiering in some un-known and un-named place of secrecy. However some later references, and a little bit of arithmetic in working out probable ages, build the distinct sense that there is a more sorrowful root to this stream of letters. A suggestion indeed that Robert may in fact be a childhood sweetheart lost in the trenches of The Great War raises its head quite early, so it’s hardly a spoiler to point to some of the closing lines of the second book where Henrietta writes: “So we’ve beaten the Germans at last, and I don’t suppose I shall have to write you many more letters. All the same, writing to you has become such a habit I shall probably go on penning you long, chatty letters and dropping them over our garden wall onto your asparagus bed.” It is these occasional lapses into reverie that do much to pull the collection back from the edge of ‘Dad’s Army’ comedic parody (not that there is much, if anything, wrong with that). It is difficult to read a line like “When I was at Waterloo yesterday, Robert, I looked for you under the clock, and almost thought I could see you standing there. Where, like the Pale Hands somebody loved, are you now?” without an eye involuntarily watering and a thought for the vastness of emotion conjured by Jeremy Deller’s ‘we’re here because we’re here’.
It’s true, however, that the dominant and lasting flavour of these books is one of delicious humour and warmth; that thoroughly English tradition of Not Taking Oneself Too Seriously In Spite Of It All. The prolific illustrations are glorious too of course, with her characters as perfectly captured in pen and ink as they are in words. And to anyone familiar with the Devon coastline, immediately recognisable as Budleigh from just the few fluid lines that sketch out headlands and the roofs of beach huts. There is certainly something of Beryl Cook in Dennys’ illustrations, although it may be more accurate to suggest influences going the other way, for Dennys’ first, and perhaps most famous design work in the ‘Our Hospital ABC’ books from 1916-17 were published a whole decade prior to Cook’s birth. That said, it’s also true that by the time Dennys took up painting in her 70s, Cook was firmly in the public eye and so, perhaps as with a possible cross-pollination with Delafield in the wartime words, there is something of the same filtering into Dennys’ charming paintings of Budleigh life. Indeed All Of Life is in these paintings, from the view of characters struggling up Fore Street Hill (Dennys’ own charming house just out frame, now quite rightly sporting a blue plaque of appreciation) to the rather wonderful ‘On The Parade’ which depicts the startled and stoically blinkered reaction of some elderly inhabitants to an influx of barely dressed tourists. Painted in the 1980s, visually the picture is a charming echo of Henrietta’s observation some 40 years earlier that “Our Summer Visitors are with us once more. We are resigned to them coming down every year and cluttering up the place, putting up the prices in the shops, parking their cars in front of our garden-gates, keeping us awake at nights with moonlight picnics on the beach, and wearing trousers when nature designed them for skirts.” And aside perhaps from that line about skirts, some forty years on from the painting one could visit the Budleigh Parade, stand outside the same shelter and witness much the same scene. Plus ça change.
The last time I picked up a book with a wide-ranging coverage of Architectural history was some 38 years ago. The book was Sir Banister Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’ and I was a first year Architecture student, seventeen years old and hilariously out of my depth. References to the Pantheon and to the Basilica de San Vitale in Ravenna can still make me break out in cold sweats. My nervousness then on undertaking Barnabas Calder’s ‘Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency’ was not insignificant. Thankfully, if Fletcher’s esteemed work seemed dauntingly epic and read as distant and cold, then it turns out that Calder’s is, though equally grand in scope, eminently accessible and immeasurably warmer in tone.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Calder takes on the unenviable task of charting the development of human civilisation from the time of the Pharaohs to the present day, using not just the context of the built environment as a guide, but the energy expended by those civilisations in manifesting power and presence through building. In some respect this is a dizzyingly vast challenge, and if Calder necessarily uses broad brush strokes to give form to the timeline, then the focus on energy consumption provides a solid surface on which to pick out details. This somewhat specialist (and particularly, one might say fashionably, contemporary) lens may perhaps also help deflect any criticism of a failure to fully explore notions of East vs West (though Calder does include an intriguing comparison between the Roman Empire and the roughly contemporaneous Song Dynasty in China) or Africa (though he does touch on Mansa Musa and his grand palace in Timbuktu). I’m sure someone, somewhere will take exception to something regarding gender that Calder has or has not said, but this is surely only as inevitable as using the phrase Climate Crisis (tm The Manchester Guardian and it’s Woke Metropolitan Elite Readership) in a review of the book.
If my own Grumpy Old (White) Man persona admits a weary wariness regarding the contemporary obsession with/insistence on viewing everything through the lenses of Gender, Race or The Environment then it admits too that if there IS a subject where the thread of environmental concern naturally (ahem) runs then it is surely that of Architecture in its broadest sense. Calder understands this, but also appreciates that simply brow-beating the reader endlessly with data and explanations of How Humans Got It Wrong is Not The Answer. So whilst there certainly are quantifiable examples of energy use/consumption in the book, these are sensibly limited and strategically placed in order to help contextualise the ongoing narrative, which is a marvellously balanced one of artistic achievement versus implicit self-destructive industrial activity.
Calder’s writing is also finely balanced and inhabits the accessible ground between the stark bastions of the academically rigorous and the bleakly garish arcades of soundbite desperation. The outcome is all the better for it. His tremendous ‘Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism’ from 2016 certainly used the now ubiquitous approach of Personal History as a vehicle for exploring, in that particular case, the history of Britain’s Brutalist landscape. It certainly too gave a sense of where Calder’s aesthetic sensibilities lie. The chatty, anecdotal approach may be dialled back in this new book, but it nevertheless shows traces in the foundations as Calder lightly steps from building to building and epoch to epoch. The pace is necessarily brisk for there is much ground to cover and, even though this is not a short book, there is only a limited amount of time/space (or energy!) available, after all.
Throughout the book are suitably sketchy line drawings of various buildings referenced in the text, all drawn to the same scale in order to more easily draw comparisons. The pyramid at Khufu kicks us off in this series of sketches, and it is remarkable just how long it takes humankind to create anything approaching its immensity again. Grand Medieval churches (the French Gothic being my personal favourites) are dwarfed by its mass and only the late 20th Century industrial structures like Drax power station with its massive concrete cooling towers come close. The most telling use of this visual comparison tool, however, comes in the closing pages of the book. A drawing of the immense New Century Global Centre in Chengdu unfolds across several pages and illustrates the mind-boggling magnitude of material (and therefore energy) expended by China in recent decades. In contrast, the drawing of Cork House in London, which Calder uses as an example of energy-efficient (in design and construction) contemporary architecture, is almost microscopically small. Of course this is, in a sense, de-contextualised smoke and mirrors, for the functions of the two buildings are as different as their scales, yet it does rather bring into focus the overwhelming challenge that architecture in its widest definitions faces in this era of Climate Crisis (tm Liberal Thinkers Of A Certain Persuasion).
Calder’s book makes it clear that throughout history a narrative of Growth Is Good (from which it is easy to extrapolate ‘Greed Is Good’) has driven humankind, and this by default has created a distinct set of criteria from which ‘progress’ is defined. It seems equally clear that in order to avoid the catastrophic end game of the Climate Crisis (tm Any Right Minded Soul With A Modicum Of Concern For Equitable Sharing Of Wealth) then this set of criteria must be fundamentally re-evaluated, and that the role of Architecture in its widest sense MUST, by its very nature as a significant contributor to energy-consumption, be a primary driver in that change.
For just as the necessarily small steps taken by the individual in the creation of the Cork House are as insignificant in Real Terms as buying a bamboo toothbrush, steps must be surely taken SOMEwhere if there is to be any positive impact on an increasingly short-term global future. Whether that shift change is down to a minority of individuals recognising an opportunity to leverage technologies and materials that limit environmental impact into power/wealth for their own greed, or is as a consequence of an awareness that individual power should be shared equitably for the good of all, only time will tell. In the meantime, Barnabas Calder has certainly given us a splendid pause for thought.
I have said several times that L C Tyler has written some of my very favourite contemporary comedic crime stories, so when he suggested I might enjoy the novels of Sarah Caudwell, I admit I took the plunge immediately. Rather embarrassingly then as I began my purchase of a Kindle version of ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ (I know, I know, but our house is simply overflowing with books and records and there is only so much space and only so much that one can part with for the charity shops and anyway I am going to admit that I rather like the fact that I can go away on a holiday and not take an additional suitcase filled with paper) I was helpfully informed that I had already bought this item on 25th August 2019. Even more embarrassing was the fact that when I loaded the book it opened at page two or three, highly suggestive of the fact that perhaps I had failed to be immediately captivated and had given it up in pursuit of something shinier and newer. Or, as would have been more likely, older.
Now there is of course something of a tradition of legally trained professionals writing crime and detective fiction. In the UK there have been the likes of Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert, John Mortimer, Alexander McCall Smith and the inestimable Martin Edwards, whilst in the USA there has been a veritable plethora of lawyers as crime writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turrow and of course John Grisham. Marcel Berlins, incidentally, wrote a fine, short piece about the practice for the Guardian back in 2004. No surprise then that Caudwell’s own standing (as Sarah Cockburn) in the profession means that all four of her books appear to be so convincingly rooted in the legal world, and that her own speciality of tax law is a recurring theme throughout. If that sounds potentially stuffy and hopelessly dull then be assured that Caudwell treats it all with a splendid blend of assured intellectual precision and self-deprecatory wit.
Whilst legal language and terminology abounds, throughout the four novels there are also numerous Classical and literary references, almost all of which are lost on an uneducated oik such as myself. Yet such is the lightness with which these references are touched that it matters not a jot. Or at least, not so much of a jot. Indeed, there is a delicious line in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ that feels marvellously and personally apt: “[He] takes things so seriously. He’s a Scotsman, you know, from Ayrshire or somewhere like that. I think his father was a miner. There are certain hardships to which such a background does not, I suspect, inure one.” Well, quite.
Written and published variously between 1981 and 2000 (the last published posthumously), curiously the suite of recurring characters appear to remain very much of the same age and personality throughout, even as technologies and the world advances around them. Indeed, it is largely these references to technologies that mark the passage of time, since much of the narrative structure in the books is in the epistolary style and as such the format of these move from the traditional letter through the quaint ‘telex’ and back, curiously enough, to letters in the final novel when one might have expected the development to include email. That it doesn’t embrace email perhaps says as much about Caudwell’s awareness of the nature in which she utilises the form as it does about a mistrust of technology. There is certainly a sense, particularly with the implausibly lengthy ‘telexes’ in ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, that Caudwell is (perhaps not so) subtly drawing attention to the fact that this is literary device. All is unreal.
Lisa Hopkins has written at length and with insight about the epistolary style and other connections between Caudwell and Jane Austen and her piece reminds me that whilst I certainly enjoy Austen in film, in print there has always been something of a barrier. This suggests that it is hardly the themes of Austen’s work that I have struggled with, but rather the somewhat florid late 18th/early 19th Century language. Why use ten words to make a point when twenty, punctuated by commas and additional asides that, admittedly, might sparkle with wit and wisdom, will suffice just as well? In truth Caudwell does embrace this style unapologetically, which may explain my original (virtual) shelving of ‘Adonis’ at first attempt. Perhaps this means too that I am finally prepared to enjoy an Austen. Perhaps not.
Certainly there are innumerable lines from Caudwell’s books that I can imagine an Austen character in a BBC adaptation delivering, dripping in entitlement and period costume. She is eminently quotable. A favourite, from ‘The Shortest Way To Hades’ is this: “A particular tone is used by young men apparently ingenuous to make observations apparently innocent in a manner apparently respectful with the intention of being extremely impertinent: one can hardly hope, in academic life, to be unfamiliar with it.” In the subsequent ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, Caudwell’s key narrating character Hilary Tamar returns to the subject of Youth with another charmingly biting barb: “One becomes accustomed in academic life to the unreasonableness of the young. They desire not merely to be understood, but to be understood by telepathy; not merely to be permitted to tell their troubles, but to be prevailed on to do so.”
Much is made by some of the fact that Caudwell never resorts to the baseness of a gender reveal for Hilary, but I admit that from the off I simply made an assumption that Tamar is a woman. Perhaps this is an example of conflating/mistaking the author as narrative voice, or perhaps there is just something in how the character reveals themselves (or more accurately fails to reveal themselves) that feels vaguely feminine. Or at least, appears not particularly masculine. Perhaps too this reluctance to assign gender to Tamar is a means of underpinning the necessarily detached observational logic of the academic/historian/detective. Gender, Caudwell seems to suggest, is really rather an irrelevance in such a context. One wonders what they would make of the 21st Century’s obsession with ever-increasingly macro/micro definitions of identity based on individual sexual preferences. I for one would rather have liked to read those thoughts.
If Austen used her novels to critique the gentry and the rigid social structures of 18th Century England then there is certainly something similar happening throughout Caudwell’s. Populated almost entirely by characters from what one might judiciously call The City and it’s environs, the first three novels in particular are ones that I would very likely have balked at had I come across them when first published in the 1980s (there was an eleven year gap between ‘The Sirens…’ in 1989 and the final novel ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave). Filled with entitled, financially wealthy and self-obsessed individuals, they are situations and characters I would have studiously avoided in fiction as in real life. Some forty years on I am finally at least willing to allow them entry into my choice of fiction.
Flitting between Venice, Corfu and The Channel Islands in the first three novels, much of the narrative, plot and motive for crime centres on inheritance, tax avoidance and, inevitably, the greed that such topics engender and/or encourage in humans. If it is a not altogether positive outlook on life then that is surely a large part of the point Caudwell is making. There is certainly something of an admission of implicit collusion between lawyers and those who, shall we say, may be less scrupulous in their attitudes to the world than we would like to think admirable. Early in the first novel for example comes the observation that “The funeral rites of the rich are a signal for vultures to gather: among whom one may class, with all respect, antique dealers and the Chancery Bar.”
Yet whilst Caudwell admits to the slippery, necessarily confused relationship between lawyers and moral certitude she nevertheless allows herself the pleasure of having her characters pronounce variously barbed opinions. On bankers for example: “He is, after all, a banker – that is to say, he spends his life persuading people to pay for the privilege of lending him money and again for the privilege of borrowing some of it back.” On the Gentry: “he’s as nutty as a fruitcake and ought to be put away somewhere he can’t do any harm – House of Lords or somewhere.” And on men, generally: “My Aunt Regina, so far as I can discover, doesn’t believe that men progress much morally or intellectually after the age of six, and she treats them accordingly.” Ouch.
Additionally, there is a lovely light meta-fictional atmosphere that occasionally wafts across the pages. In particular, at the start of ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’ a couple of her recurrent characters are themselves involved in an attempt to pen a novel in the Romantic Crime genre, set within the realm of the legal profession. Julia admits that they are keen “to appeal to as wide a public as possible” adding that it seems clear that “readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.” Elsewhere Caudwell has Hilary pondering: “would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation.” And my favourite, which feels particularly observant and poignant: “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel – it is curiously difficult to do otherwise.’”
By the time of ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’, however, there is a definite sense of a certain darkness falling, and I rather like the fact that this gloom encroaches on a setting which is the (stereo)typical English Village because in doing so Caudwell both self-consciously mocks the gentility of the stereotype and exposes the faint undercurrents of darkness that exists in, say, Christie’s Miss Marple stories. There is too perhaps an inescapable sense of awareness of death and finality hanging over the book, given that Caudwell died of cancer in January of 2000 and so never quite lived to see it published. So whilst it most certainly continues in the marvellously entertaining and engaging manner of the preceding three books, it also certainly is a book that allows in a degree of bleakness and, dare I say it, existential weariness. There is, in its conclusion (and without giving away too much in the form of spoilers) an acceptance of the hand of chance, of logic not always being able to explain occurrences, and of the peculiarly unjust hand of Fate.
There is too a tremendous passage where Hilary Tamar reflects on truth and reality: “…when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters – they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence.” Tamar concludes by suggesting to her friend and colleague Julia that “Sincerity… is a quality not to be trusted.” Ah, the studied, deeply ingrained cynicism of the academic, the lawyer or, indeed, the novelist. As insightful and prescient in 2021 as it was in 2000 and will no doubt be in 2042. Where would we be without it?
Finally, almost as a concluding aside, interestingly it appears that Caudwell’s books were at the time (and perhaps still) more popular in the USA than the UK, and certainly the American paperback editions have marvellous Edward Gorey illustrations. There is therefore a great temptation to pick these up from the second hand sellers and be damned with the ever-receding amount of available shelf space. Life is too short and all that.
There may yet be a glimmer of sunlight at the end of the grey tunnel of gloom that has been May 2021, but I would not place much money on it. It would be nice to able to read in the garden beneath warming rays instead of curled up under a blanket on the sofa, after all. Perhaps too the sun might raise levels of enjoyment, for much of my recent reading has been sadly somewhat underwhelming.
After what was a tremendous start with ‘A Load Of Old Bones’, I have to say that I found Suzette A. Hill’s second instalment in the series to be a disappointment. The multiple narrators still work to a degree throughout ‘Bones In The Belfry’, but I admit I found myself tiring of the voices of Bouncer the dog and Maurice the cat, particularly as in this book they rarely move the narrative on and instead are devoted mostly to recapping in a slightly different way on something that we have already been shown through the words of the vicar, Francis Oughterard. It rather reminds me of those dreadful television news bulletins and ‘magazine’ shows where there is a compulsion to say exactly the same thing several times, often in exactly the same words (but occasionally with a fractionally changed inflection), so concerned are the writers that we are too dim to understand. Also there are, perhaps, only so many witty observations to be made about cat and dog behaviour…
There are a few light meta-fictional touches in ‘Bones In The Belfry’ (a character turns up to write a crime novel about the murder that is at the heart of ‘A Load Of Old Bones’) but these feel a little half hearted and do not really develop as one might hope. Sadly, the peculiar tension between morality and self-preservation, between self-sacrifice and individualist self-interest that permeates oddly through ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is almost entirely missing here. Instead the thing is almost entirely played for laughs, leaning towards comedy rather than the comic. Perhaps subsequent books recapture something of the charm and strangeness of the first, but on the evidence of ‘Bones In The Belfry’ it may be some time before I feel the desire to find out.
Better by a significant distance is Sarah Caudwell’s 1981 novel ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’. Now this had languished unread in my Kindle library for several years, to the point at which my initial impulse to buy and subsequent failure to actually start it are lost forever in the murky mire of my memory. Thankfully a nudge from L.C. Tyler had me loading it up, and goodness, what a wonderful read it is. For much of its length the book utilises the model of novel in letters, with additional cogitation by the series’ title character Hilary Tamar. Tamar as a character is quite lightly drawn in the book, with much of the focus being given to her barrister colleagues, yet this lightness of touch allows really quite concrete and appealing characters to emerge. Mostly this is done through the most marvellous exchanges of dialogue which are so thoroughly redolent of Red Brick University educated professionals as to be almost parodic. Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn) delicately treads the line between farce and thriller, weaving a tremendously well constructed plot with threads of bright humour, literary reference and a splendidly evocative sense of place (her depictions of Venice may be less detailed than Donna Leon’s but are every bit as captivating). As a ‘detective’, Tamar is very much in the mould of the detached thinker, making astute observations and lingering somewhat in the background, and I am certainly intrigued to see how the subsequent novels unfold. Certainly too I hope for something more fulfilling than that provided by the Reverend Oughterard.
Now I have noted several times in the past that the British Library Crime Classics series is a reliable source of good quality reissues that give a tremendous return in terms of enjoyment. I’ve noted too that the broad church of detective fiction means that occasionally a particular title or author fails to hit the (personal) mark, and this is certainly the case with Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1934 ‘The Chianti Flask’. Perhaps best known for her 1913 novel ‘The Lodger’ (and this perhaps known to more people in the form of Hitchcock’s film adaptation), Lowndes writing, even in 1934, feels stylistically rooted in the Edwardian era. Indeed ‘The Chianti Flask’ reads very much as some kind of Romantic Melodrama with barely a nod to the genre of crime or detection. If one were being kind it might be described as an inverted mystery, but really there is little mysterious about the story, whilst the build up to what feels like an obvious and inevitable reveal feels laboured and tedious rather than suspenseful and thrilling. Unless you are committed to collecting the series or enjoy the florid limpidity of constrained romance, I would leave this one on the shelf.
In contrast, some of my own favourite titles in the British Library series have been the resuscitations of Freeman Wills Croft and his Inspector French, although in recent weeks it is a couple of his titles outside that reissue series that have entertained me. The first of these is ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ from 1922, in which some of the foundations for his Inspector French character are sketched out in the form of Scotland Yard detective Willis. As with Belloc’s ‘Chianti Flask’ there is still something of the melodramatic to Wills Croft at this point of his development, particularly in the treatment of the ‘love interest’, but on the whole the pace of the thriller carries this one through. Split into two parts, Wills Croft creates an opportunity to lay the groundwork for his later commitment to the police procedural approach. In the first half of the book therefore we follow two amateur detectives attempting to uncover fraudulent activity, and whilst they Do Their Best in a kind of Richard Hannay ‘Boys Own’ manner, it is clear that only professional involvement can crack the case. ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ may not be the best example of Wills Croft’s craft, but it is thoroughly entertaining and an interesting reference in terms of his development as a writer.
Writing as much as one new novel each year, by the time of 1939’s ‘A Fatal Venture’ Wills Croft was well into his stride, with Inspector French an established character and his reputation as the expert in unpicking watertight alibis very much in place. Raymond Chandler once said that in terms of plots, Wills Croft was “the soundest builder of them all” and certainly ‘A Fatal Venture’ has a sturdy storyline peppered with interestingly sketched characters. An infatuation with modes of transport (trains and boats in particular) comes over in many of Wills Croft’s books, and if that manifests itself in the rather cool detachment of factual detail rather than effusive passion, then so be it. One very much knows what one is getting with his books, and with that in mind his Inspector French seldom fails to deliver. He certainly does so here, and with an interesting solution to the key alibi being found through the realms of photography, it is also going to interest anyone who ever wielded a camera as much as to those who appreciate the lines of a steamship.
Should you by any chance be a regular reader of my Unpopular witterings then it will surely come as no surprise when I tell you that I am not A Learned Man. I am certainly no academic. When I say, therefore, that there is a long history of multiple narrators in the English novel, stemming from the early development of the novel in letters, this is not backed up by any in-depth knowledge or vast breadth of reading. Rather it comes from observations of reading a bunch of crime and detective novels and identifying some similar threads of structure. Plus five minutes of reading some articles on the Interwebs. The desire to weave these observations with Serious Research in order to produce some kind of extended academic text is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak almost to the point of non-existence. All I really want to do is (“baby be friends with you…”) tell you about some books I have read and (mostly) enjoyed.
As noted previously, L.C. Tyler uses the multiple (in this case dual) narrator structure to great effect in his Elsie and Ethelred (or perhaps it is ‘The Herring Collection’) series of books. All are tremendously entertaining and hugely enjoyable and I encourage you to explore without delay. Another contemporary(ish) author who was on my recently compiled list of comic crime books to sample was Suzette A. Hill, and I have taken the plunge with the first of her Reverend Oughterard series. First published all the way back in 2007 (the time of The Ancients, surely), ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is a rather peculiar type of crime novel for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that two of the three narrators are animals, and the third a/the murderer (that last point is hardly a spoiler, in case you were wondering). Expectations are further confused in that it also strays from the expected structure of an inverted mystery. By which I mean there is no mystery for anyone to solve or to prove in court. Not really. Instead there is almost an inversion of the inversion, and questions of moral choices are similarly challenged and somewhat turned on their heads. It’s a tremendous comedic read, with the voices of the cat (Maurice) and the dog (Bouncer) being marvellously captured as cartoonish tropes that nevertheless develop subtly as individual characters throughout the book. This gives the book a pleasant sub-theme where Hill develops the idea of mutual need and trust triumphing over received/mediated divisive stereotypes. That Hill does so in a vibrant, marvellously engaging manner is to be applauded. Also to be cheered is the way in which Hill casts such a breezy air over a tale of such dark and despicable fact. This detachment between reality and fantasy seems to simultaneously grow and diminish as the book unfolds and the murderer seeks to cover his tracks and avoid detection. By the novel’s conclusion I admit that I came away feeling that I had read a marvellous piece of entertainment and yet was also left curiously troubled. There are, it seems, a further five novels in this series, all starring Maurice and Bouncer, and all but the latest (2016’s ‘The Primrose Pursuit’) featuring the Reverend Francis Oughterard and I admit I am intrigued to see how Hill addresses and develops the questions raised in this first outing.
Leo Bruce may not have used multiple narrators in his 1936 book ‘The Case For Three Detectives’ but he does rather marvellously weave in three other fictional detectives alongside his own Sergeant Beef (making his novel debut). I’ve previously only been familiar with Beef through short stories, and I very much enjoyed this first extended outing in which, typically, the sergeant is almost invisible for the entire novel. Almost from the off Beef tells us quietly via the narrator that he knows who the murderer is, but before we find out we must follow the tortuous paths taken by the thinly disguised characters of Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll), Hercule Poirot (Monsieur Amer Picon) and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith). I have no idea what Sayers, Christie or Chesterton thought of this curious ‘homage’ but I do rather hope they took it all in the deliciously lighthearted spirit in which the whole book reads. Bruce gleefully and perceptively picks up the crucial character traits of each of the fictional detectives and has a great deal of fun poking gently at their literary idiosyncrasies. Detective novels of the period are peppered with deft asides that self-mockingly dig at the very medium and genre they are written in, but for the most part this is done with sharp one-liners from any members of the police who may or may not be principal characters. In this case however the entire book is effectively given over to being a confection of raised eyebrows and self-knowing smirks. It’s also a neat method of covering multiple suspects, motives and solutions to the locked room puzzle, cutely puncturing the whole air of ‘look at how CLEVER I am as an author for plotting these devilishly confusing crimes’ that can hang like a depressing pall over some of these books. Metafiction in a comic detective novel of 1936. Who’d have thought.
Going back briefly to touch on the idea of multiple narrators now, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Wilkie Collins of course used this approach in ‘The Moonstone’, a novel which is cast as pivotal in the development of the crime/detective genre. Now I have tried several times to get a grip on Collins and with ‘The Moonstone’ in particular, but every attempt has drawn something of a blank. As previously noted I am far from qualified to cast aspersions on the academic claims to its Importance In The Canon, it’s just that I have always found it (and Collins generally) somewhat impenetrable and more than a little dull. Doubtless this says more about me that it does about the book (and doubtless too there are calls of ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ at this point), and perhaps in future years the blindfold will be removed and its genius fully revealed to me but until such times I shall continue to drift along with my stock response of ‘Wilkie Collins… meh…’
I have a similar attitude towards Mary Kelly, whose novels ‘The Christmas Egg’, ‘The Spoilt Kill’ and (most recently) ‘Due To A Death’ have all been reissued in the British Library Classic Crime series. Of the three my favourite is certainly ‘The Christmas Egg’, yet I say that whilst acknowledging also that it is probably the least ‘good’ in terms of literary worth. Here is (often) the rub with crime/detective novels: the apparently ‘best written’ and ‘most literary’ can also be the least engaging and entertaining. Kelly’s ‘Spoilt Kill’ and ‘Due To A Death’ certainly fall into this trap for me, with each being undeniably well crafted and full of a literary grit that is admirable. Both books use the foundation of the crime novel as a basis for exploring Bigger Issues, and unless you are a Right Wing Daily Mail reading Gammon (surely impossible if you are reading Unpopular) it’s hard not to sympathise with those. In the case of ‘The Spoilt Kill’ those issues are around class, industry, commerce, love and money. In ‘Due To Death’ these class/commerce issues are still there, working alongside questions of illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancy and patriarchal attitudes. Yet whilst ‘Spoilt Kill’ still quite obviously uses the crime novel structure on which to hang everything else, this is pushed to, or indeed beyond the limit in ‘Due To A Death’. It could be argued that it’s in the inverted mystery sub-genre, but that would be stretching things because the ‘mystery’ or ‘crime’ is initially so vaguely referenced that one wonders if it’s really a crime at all, and maybe it’s just me, but my mind was certainly wandering as the book went on, to the point of skimming and skipping to see if anything was really going to happen. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it really doesn’t. Which might be the point, but… There is some exquisite use of language in the book that is very much to Kelly’s credit. I particularly like how she describes “squalls slashing up the estuary, streaming over the windscreen, curdling like smoke on the roads.” There are also some very eloquent and perceptive observations on power and class, such as when her narrator describes the site of a re-purposed Country House: “It was far enough from the river once to have been the home of the rich; but even here they no longer lived. Their large houses had become their utilities: schools, golf clubs, hotels, clinics.” Elsewhere the question of being wealthy enough to be beyond the law resonates particularly strongly in 2021: “They’ll hook you for your paltry two thousand. You must chisel in millions before they’ll let you get by.” Ah, the fluid standards of the hyper-capitalist societies we are forced to inhabit. And yet for me this sharply observed critique of late 1950s and early 1960s UK society is not quite enough, and whilst ‘Due To A Death’ might conceivably land on the pedestal of classic literary novel, it struggles to convince as a crime one.
“‘I used to think that my life was an Agatha Christie novel,’ I said. ‘A little convoluted, but essentially well-ordered and civilised. I’m beginning to think it may be more Raymond Chandler.’”
Last time out I was talking about comic crime/detective stories and made reference to some that I was hoping to catch up on. Top of that list were the two most recent books in the Elsie and Ethelred series by L.C. Tyler, which I am rather ashamed to say almost passed me by. I have said this before and I will say it again, but I do find it difficult to keep track of contemporary releases by artists, be that music or books. Mostly this is, it must to said, My Own Fault, for I have long since struggled to find the time to read journals (physical or virtual) that might alert me to such things. In the virtual world I recall there was a period where it was so easy to set up RSS feeds from blogs I enjoyed, but that all seemed to go the way of the Dodo when Whoever Decides These Things proclaimed that RSS was Old Tech (that was someone at Google no doubt, who canned Google Reader) and that everyone was Doing Social Media instead. There was probably some significant degree of truth in that decision, and Time Waits For No Geek after all, so blah. Or Blah. Or even BLAH.
So it took a reference to the form of the comic novel in a comment by the author Stuart David, a delve into a back issue of CADS, a subsequent spark of ‘oh YES, L.C. Tyler’ and a tangential waddle across to Goodreads to see what I might have missed for me to Get With It. At which point I realised I had missed not only the cosmic coincidence of a just published ‘Farewell My Herring’ being beautifully lined up for me, but also the previous entry in the Elsie and Ethelred series ‘The Maltese Herring’. And yes, since you ask, it is only now that I realise I could just have ‘followed’ Mr Tyler on Goodreads, or indeed on The Social Media to find out what he might have been up to. But really. The Social Media. It’s such a cesspit of gloom and bile (interrupted occasionally by videos of cute animals doing amusing things) generally, isn’t it? The temptation to permanently disengage is so strong these days.
By some strange coincidence that of course is no coincidence at all, there is something of this thread in ‘Farewell My Herring’, as Elsie and Ethelred find themselves snowed in at a Crime Writing Workshop high in the Yorkshire Dales, without phone signal or (gasp) Access To The Internet. Now if you are some (ahem) snowflake Millennial undergoing an endless identity crisis (I jest – some of my best friends are Millennials with identity crises) you will doubtless have to imagine such horror. Those of us who are old and more than grumpy enough will be able to remember such a thing with gooey-eyed fondness and will doubtless nod in appreciation of the observation, expressed by the marvellously prickly and chocolate addicted Elsie that “It’s only the twenty-first century that thinks it has to be online twenty-four seven in order not to miss out.”
So this thread of disconnection from the online world is one that permeates the book, yet it also goes hand in hand with another thread, which is about the propagation of conspiracy theory within ‘pre-Internet’ networks of local gossip and story-telling (the bonkers idea of one character being a CIA agent). Thus Tyler adeptly juggles themes and makes points by writing in character, making observations about The World without sounding insufferably dull and worthy. Inevitably too there is something of the very contemporary notion of Living Through Lockdown in the sense of the characters being locked into the same space and unable to leave without the very real danger of death or serious injury. Of course this might be a case of one of those cosmic coincidences dropping into the thread of the (my) world, and I do wonder if anyone reading the book at some point in the future will make this connection? Perhaps not.
A rather more likely reading of the book from the future, given the setting of a snowed-in Victorian house, is an expectation that this might, at any point, turn into a ‘Christmas Murder Mystery’. Well it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that the book resolutely refuses to follow that expectation whilst simultaneously teasingly leading us on. As one of the characters points out: “as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route.” and anyone familiar with the genre will immediately start thinking of all those snowed-in murder mysteries (re)published in November/December in recent years with their cover illustrations of Country Houses cloaked in the blue/purple hues of moonlit snowscapes. Step forward the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Mystery In White’ (okay, this one has an illustration of a train stuck in a snowdrift, but didn’t the runaway success of the 2014 reissue of this 1937 novel kick this all off?), Francis Duncan’s ‘Murder for Christmas’ (1949) and Jill McGowan’s marvellous ‘Murder At The Old Vicarage’ (a relatively unusual late 1980s pleasure for me). Elsie would most certainly approve.
My own favourite amongst this sub-genre of Snowbound Crime/Detective Novels Set In Or Around The Festive Season however would be Lorna Nicholl Morgan’s wonderful ‘Another Little Murder’. Originally published in 1947, this is the book which I most instinctively thought of whilst enjoying ‘Farewell My Herring’, not least because the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title of the reissues is at best a shrewd marketing ploy, for the story really has almost nothing to do with the festive season at all. Now although Tyler makes no specific reference to any of these books in his text, there is an offhand reference to Gladys Mitchell, whose ‘Murder In The Snow’ from 1950 would certainly be a delightful addition to any pile of seasonal reads. There are also numerous mentions aside to John Dickson Carr, but since I still find his books to be, on the whole, insufferably smug, I will pass swiftly on.
From the outset of the nine book series Tyler has used the technique of two different narrators, with Elsie and Ethelred each moving the story forwards from their own perspectives. As a technique it works well in allowing each character to develop and to firmly establish their relationships with other characters and inevitably with each other. It means that one of the many pleasures of the books are the exchanges of dialogue between the two. My favourite of these exchanges in ‘Farewell My Herring’ is almost certainly one where Ethelred leads with “He’d have been thrown out of the Crime Writers’ Association, if they ever do throw anyone out. If he’d stayed a comic crime writer he would at least have had some respect.” To which comes Elsie’s swift rejoinder of “Not much”. Ouch. In ‘The Maltese Herring’ meanwhile, there is a marvellous exchange under Ethelred’s narration: “‘How many scheming dames with mouths like a scarlet gash have tried to seduce you for their own crooked purposes?’ ‘Just the one,’ I said. ‘I turned her down.’ ‘How many times have you been beaten up by a corrupt cop in a grimy alleyway?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Just scammed by academics.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like Chandler,’ said Elsie. ‘Maybe Edmund Crispin on a quiet day.’”
The Crispin reference, as I have said many times in the past and will repeat ad nauseam in the future, is entirely apt, for it is Crispin’s effortless, featherweight lightness of comic touch that these novels of Tyler’s most resemble to my eyes. The similarities extend too into how both authors explore post-modern notions of metafiction within their stories. Crispin, writing from the 1940s to the 1970s, is deliciously knowing and relatively sparing in breaking the third wall. Tyler, meanwhile, as a 21st Century author is almost gleeful in abusing the form. In many respects I suppose it is meta-meta: Tyler knowingly poking fun at the very knowingness he has his characters display as the books unfold (from their titles inwards and onwards). Indeed, in a supreme moment of inverted self-mockery he has Ethelred proclaim (in ‘Farewell My Herring’) “I hate metafiction”. LOL.
It is inevitably true that most of us likely also hate metafiction when we are excluded (for whatever reason) from the in-jokes. As such it is impossible for me to judge how others might react to the comic knowingness of Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred books, yet I suspect that there is more than enough to enjoy without any knowledge whatsoever of crime/detective fiction’s rich tapestry. These books are, like the early Flavia De Luce stories by Alan Bradley, deceptively light and breezy reads. Both ‘The Maltese Herring’ and ‘Farewell My Herring’ are, like all the preceding books in the series, hugely enjoyable contemporary comic romps that are shot through with more than enough marvellously rewarding jibes and referential homages for those who want to see them. Now I just need to figure out how best to be kept in the loop for future instalments.
The other day a friend almost sheepishly admitted to reading (and enjoying) Richard Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Now I’m sure it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, but aside from admitting a degree of Unpopulist Elitism, the principle reality of my not adding Osman’s book to the already over-crowded and ever expanding ‘to-be-read’ shelves is that there are there simply too many already there, and that there are too many other things I’d put ahead of it on my list. One day, perhaps… one day.
It did make me think however about a couple of things. One: That we ought not to be sniffy when someone who may have gained ‘celebrity’ in one area of life explores other avenues. Unless the work in that new avenue is Not Up To Scratch, in which case, sniff away. Two: That it is too easy to fall into the trap of being critical of Books As Entertainments and thinking that writing in a lighthearted and comedic manner is lightweight and easy. Three: That all writing that may vaguely fall into the ‘crime and detective’ genre is All The Same. And Four: Life is too short.
Point two got me thinking further about my own predilection for the more light-hearted and gently comedic end of crime/detective fiction. It has been said before, but it bears saying again that densely convoluted ‘technical’ or, that dreaded word, ‘scientific’ crime puzzles leave me cold and quickly bored. The Holmes books and stories just about get away with it for me because although Holmes is such an insufferably smug know-it-all character, the tales are saved by the foil of Watson, through whose narratives quite rightly Conan Doyle presents the cases. Sayers is adept at this also, as is Christie. It is a skill that ought not to be underestimated.
Following through on the train of thought about writing in the comedic manner has also had me delving back into issues of the tremendous CADS magazine for an excellent piece by Kate Jackson on ‘comical criminality’. There are so many suggestions of authors and books in Jackson’s piece that it can be quite a challenge knowing where to start, but as the case with these things, one of the first things I did is check to see if my own favourites are in there. And yes, there, present and correct, is Leo Bruce, whose Sergeant Beef stories are always a delight when included in those terrific themed collections in the British Library series. Ditto Richard Hull and Alan Melville, both of whom have benefitted from British Library reissue action with the tremendous ‘Murder Of My Aunt’ and ‘Death of Anton’ both being highly recommended reads. Some of Jackson’s other suggestions are more troublesome to track down without investing significant time and potentially funds in seeking out old printed copies, but then that can be part of the thrill. I managed to find reasonably priced copies of Joan Coggin’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’ and Delano Ames’ ‘She Shall Have Murder’ for example, and am very much looking forward to delving into those.
On a personal note it was also great to see Jackson giving a big thumbs up to Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s excellent series of books featuring the hugely entertaining Gervaise Fen were amongst the first English crime/detective stories that I read as I transitioned from years of consuming hard boiled American Noir, and as a result will always retain a special place in my heart. Really though Crispin’s books are, at their best, marvellously readable and remarkably post-modern period pieces with a timeless charm. As Jackson points out, it is the deliciously light and self-aware use of metafictional humour that Crispin does so well, and it is this quality that helps the books along at a terrific pace. It’s been said before and will be said again, but really if you are in any way interested in detective fiction, then Edmund Crispin is a Must Read.
Also amongst my personal list of Must Read’s are the two contemporary authors that Jackson also makes mention of in her article. L.C. Tyler’s wonderful ‘Elsie and Ethelred’ series has been one of my most enjoyed series in the past decade or so and I’m delighted to see that the latest instalment has just been published in the form of ‘Farewell My Herring’. One rather hopes that the title is only the latest in the series’ witty appropriation of classic crime story titles and not some signifier of An Ending, but regardless, the book has certainly leapfrogged many others to land on the top of the ‘to-be-read’ shelves.
As for Ian Sansom, well, I continue to await with great anticipation a new entry in the marvellous ‘County Guides’ series. I have written about Sansom in the past of course (in one of those strange circumstances of cosmic coincidences I realise this would have been around the time Jackson’s piece was published in CADS) so there is not much to add here except to say that if you have not yet delved into the County Guides, or the earlier series of ‘Mobile Library’ stories, then you are missing out on some real treats.
Other contemporary writers that Jackson suggests are Suzette A. Hill and Anthony Horowitz. From what I can ascertain, Hill’s stories sound quite whimsical and may, I fear, fall into traps of contemporary ‘cosy’. This may, however, be an entirely unfair assumption, and with her ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ available for less than the price of a coffee, is certainly worth an inquisitive punt. Horowitz, meanwhile, I admit I have avoided for much the same reasons of Unpopular Elitism as suggested for ignoring ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Also, probably envy, but those are my own problems and I will deal with then in my own way and in my own time. By which I mean I shall Carry On Regardless.
One contemporary author that Jackson does not mention but who may fall onto a tangential ellipse of the comedic crime fiction arc would be Stuart David. Some Unpopular readers may be more familiar with David as a musician with his terrific Looper act and membership of the early (classic?) Belle And Sebastian lineup, but he’s also the author of the rather excellent series of ‘Peacock’ stories. In a rather glorious coup of metafictional theft, the Peacock character has been lifted from the pages of an Ian Rankin novel and given a new universe to inhabit. Now I will admit to being unfamiliar with the Rankin books, but this hardly matters I am sure, for David’s opening salvo of ‘The Peacock Manifesto’ is tremendous fun in its own right and needs not a shred of ‘context’ setting. Indeed, I did not even know of the Rankin connection until after I had devoured it in a couple of sittings. Its subtitle of ‘A beer-fuelled pursuit of the American Dream. Glasgow style.’ pretty much describes what you get and is worth celebrating for that fact. A recent survey noted Glasgow as the ‘sweariest’ city in the UK, and David’s book certainly lives up to this reputation in gleeful style. Its sequel ‘With Love From Evil Bob’ is an even quicker read but no less enjoyable for that. Written in the form of letters to Peacock from the titular Evil Bob (Peacock’s main Partner In Crime in the ‘Manifesto’), the book is by turns a hilarious caper and a witty metafictional romp in the post-modern rubble. Bob himself describes his letters as “junkyard jack-ass prose. Totally self-absorbed.” and that’s as good a description as any. Elsewhere, Stuart David has expressed a desire for the Peacock books to establish the genre of the Scottish comic novel. I’m already lining up the other titles in the series for consumption, but on the evidence of these two I’d say that Peacock and David are well on the way to achieving that goal.
Tracey Thorn has been on something of a creative roll in recent years, with a steady flow of books, newspaper/magazine columns, and (let’s not forget) a tremendous solo record in 2018’s, erm, ‘Record’. To someone of my age, who thrilled to the brittle charm of The Marine Girls, fell head over heels for the sparse yearning of ‘A Distant Shore’ and then settled into decades of ever-shifting, (nearly) always rewarding records with Everything But The Girl, it has felt like a positive flurry of pleasure. The world may have been going to hell in a handcart, but there’s always been something new from Tracey Thorn to pull us through. Okay, that’s maybe caffeinated hyperbole, but I swear down that on a level it is on the level. And now she’s written a book about everyone’s favourite Go-Between. Stop the world right here. We’ve reached the moment of perfection.
That’s bullshit, of course, because the world is still going to hell in that same old handcart and it’s got some dodgy wheels to boot, so what the… and did you know that everyone’s favourite Go-Between was Lindy Morrison? Certainly everyone I speak to recently is saying as much. And it might be true. It might be that Tracey Thorn’s gloriously celebratory and incandescently incendiary book about her friendship with Morrison has made everyone feel safe and secure about voicing that opinion. It’s like a ‘me too’ moment for Go-Betweens fans. It’s funny though, because almost everyone who I hear saying it is a man, and was probably at some point in their lives a journalist or a university student in Germany*.
Me? My favourite Go-Between is still Robert (Forster). Or maybe it’s that other Robert (Vickers) because frankly how can someone look so young for so long? We need to see the painting in the attic. Other days of course my favourite Go-Between is Amanda, and on others still it is Grant. But ah yes, of course my favourite Go-Between is Lindy. Has always been Lindy. Except when it hasn’t.
That’s a fucking clumsy way of saying the bloody obvious and that is that Life Is Complicated. And ever shifting. Marvellously, excruciatingly so. Thorn gets this of course, and so does Morrison. It’s just that Thorn also knows that if she’s going to write a book about Morrison (who, if she’s know at all is known as The Drummer In A Rock Band Than Never Sold Any Records Except To Three University Students In Germany**) she knows it needs to be something bigger and smaller than that. It needs to be a love story. And so it is.
So ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is in essence a love story between two women. But it is also by necessity a love story between women and men; between women and music; between men and music; between people and life. It’s also a story of the love (and hate) between writers and performers (we’ll maybe get into that particular can of worms later). Between performers and their audiences. Even if that audience is only three University students in Germany.***
It is also by necessity a story of pain, mistrust, anger, despair and betrayal. Speaking of which, Forster and Mclennan are in this book too. Of course they are. It’s just that they come across more as a couple of dicks than they do in any other story written about The Go-Betweens. It’s not wholly negative press (Thorn is too canny for that, and anyway, there’s the impression that behind the righteous indignation she still likes the odd Go-Betweens number) but it does throw the accepted worldview upside down rather, and that is fine. Others, Forster included, have written their versions of their stories and we are free to read them. That’s the way our world works, for better or for worse. Multiple narratives weave around us and we pluck the ones we fancy and fuck the ones we don’t. Or vice versa. And sometimes our perspectives on the ones we fancy switch around. So it always was and forever will be.
But ugh, hold up there a minute, because this notion of ‘so it always was and forever will be’ is also the crux of ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’. It’s a critical hinge point because Thorn recognises it as an essentially patriarchal one, rusty and greased with putrid excrement. So whilst the book is about Lindy Morrison and her life in and around the Go-Betweens, it is also an indignant assault on the macho male industrial machine. Punches are thrown and at times it’s uncomfortable reading (my own refusal to re-read anything I may have written about the Go-Betweens in the past few decades is one minor example of this discomfort). Thorn makes good points forcibly, which is how it should be. (An editor might now suggest altering my line to something like ‘so it always was but need not forever be’, but frankly that sounds a bit wanky and ugh, we’re really not that optimistic are we?)
So if Thorn essentially edits the issues around Morrison’s erasure from the Go-Betweens myth down to one of gender, then that is fine too. It’s an accurate point to be making, and frankly one would have to be blind and stupid not to recognise that. There is another point, however, that Thorn also almost makes, which is around the Rock world’s infatuation with the writer over the performer. Thorn does brush up against this when she refers to the idea that THE DRUMMER IS THE BAND, whilst elsewhere pondering the fact that almost all rock journalists immerse themselves in the lyrics of the songs at the expense of the playing. As a non-musician with an interest in words I can’t help but understand this approach (I’m resisting the urge to write the word ‘sympathise’ because frankly I’m too busy holding my hands up, pleading guilty as charged, it’s a fair cop guv etc.) but when you stop and think about it, it is a bit weird. But there it is. Maybe we really can blame Dylan and the Beatles and The Stones and the Swingeing Sixties for everything. And maybe if Morrison had been a drummer in a Jazz trio, or in a chamber orchestra (do they even have drummers in orchestras, or is that ‘percussion’? See, I told you I was no musician) then she’d have been written about differently. Maybe not.
There is much more to ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ than rock’n’roll, friendship and feminism of course, but the coffee is cold, it’s getting dark and there are Other Things to think about. Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison might be thinking about them too, whatever they are. They’ll be writing and living, loving and dreaming. And the loves and the dreams will by turns be angry, compassionate, frustrated and celebratory because like we said, Life Is Complicated, and we make our sense of it by telling our stories. ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is Tracey Thorn’s.
And it’s brilliant.
*You probably don’t need to read the book to get the gist of the joke, but read the book anyway to get the joke. It’s funny because it’s true. ** It’s not my joke, so don’t blame me if you don’t get it or if you do get it but don’t find it funny. *** It’s still funny.
‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is published by Canongate.
This article may also be available on the International Times website.
One of the most common (and, to me, irritating) traps that writers of crime/detective novels fall into is devoting interminable (and often impenetrable) tracts of text to explaining the convoluted ins and outs of how the Very Clever Detective has solved the devilishly complicated crime. It need hardly be said that in these cases such monumental excursions are obvious opportunities for the writer to Show Off about the detailed planning in their own plots, with the Very Clever Detective a thinly veiled simulacrum for the author themselves. The best writers of course seldom, if ever, utilise this ruse. Christie is a master of keeping denouements crisp and clear, helped inordinately by having her key sleuths as fundamentally sensitive and sympathetic characters (even, especially, the apparently coldly logical Poirot). In Christie’s stories the human qualities are valued every bit as much as the intellectual ones and this, I think, explains her continued appeal as much as anything.
E.C.R. Lorac follows similar lines with her serial detective John MacDonald, who has appeared in a crop of excellent British Library reissues (most recently the very fine ‘Checkmate To Murder’) and some inexpensive eBook ‘facsimiles’. All of these are excellent yarns in which Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett) adroitly balances press-on narrative with deftly placed clues for the more puzzle-minded. She’s a wonderful conjurer of landscape too, and her stories that take MacDonald to the dales and fells of Lancashire and Cumbria are exceptionally fine. ‘The Theft Of The Iron Dogs’ (reissued with the American title of ‘Murderer’s Mistake’) is as fine as any, with some well drawn characters and MacDonald’s (Rivett’s?) interest in the landscape and its indigenous characters coming over strongly. Like the other eBook reissues it is, however, sadly let down by some appalling lack of proofing. I expect these eBooks are created from OCR scanned original publications and as such typos and punctuation errors inevitably creep in, but the lack of care taken in cleaning them up is, if you will pardon the pun, criminal. The British Library series, it should be noted, does not suffer from such cheapskate manoeuvres.
Nor does the terrific Dean Street Press who recently republished a hefty series of Brian Flynn books. Now I admit I really wanted to enjoy the Flynn stories, not least because it is always a comfort to know that there is a lengthy series to be enjoyed. Having given him the benefit of the doubt for a good five books however I had to admit defeat and cast him into that aforementioned category of Tries Too Hard To Be Clever. It is surely no coincidence that it is the authors of the amateur (male) detective who most often fall into this category, their characters too often coming across as pompous asses in thrall to their own intellect. Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, it must be said, manage to escape largely unscathed by this curse, perhaps because they are both at their core flawed or damaged. Perhaps too because they are penned by women. So sadly Flynn’s serial character of Anthony Bathurst fails to appeal on all counts, being a singularly two-dimensional flat in some rather tedious scenery of workaday Golden Age crime capers. Admittedly, Flynn may flesh out his character in the (many) subsequent books but I rather suspect he will continue to spend a great deal of time explaining how that microscopic clue buried deep in Chapter five turned out to be the key to the whole puzzle, and so I regrettably file him alongside Michael Innes and his insufferable Sir John Appelby as Not For Me.
Much more enjoyable are the four novels by Cecil Waye (AKA John Rhode, Miles Burton and [real name] Cecil John Charles Street) to be re-issued in February 2021 by Dean Street Press. I’ve very much enjoyed his books as John Rhodes (featuring Dr Lancelot Priestly) and as Miles Burton. Indeed, Burton’s ‘The Secret of High Eldersham’ in which his serial character Desmond Merrion is introduced is one of my very favourite Golden Age books. Published in 1930 it is typically Burton/Street/Rhodes in that it cracks on at a fair pace with a crisp and concise plot whilst pulling in some marvellously drawn references to the contemporaneous burgeoning of (re-awakened) interest in the ancient rituals and mysteries of rural England. You can almost feel the shadow of Aleister Crowley lowering over the thrilling denouement.
Written and published in a three year burst immediately following ‘High Eldersham’, the four novels written as Cecil Waye are similar in feel in that they all follow the same formula of valuing pace above puzzles. In other words, the thrill of the chase definitely wins out over the plodding dreariness of detection. There is a sense too of Waye/Street still looking for a voice in these novels, or at the very least of looking for the winning character. And as enjoyable as these four books are, by the end of ‘The Prime Ministers Pencil’ one feels rather glad that Dr Priestly and Desmond Merrion went on to enjoy much lengthier fictional careers than Christopher Perrin, whose private detective’s hat is hung up for good. Indeed, there is also a sense that Waye missed the golden opportunity for a great series by effectively retiring his best character at the end of opening novel ‘Murder At Monk’s Barn’, for Perrin’s sister Vivienne really does own the narrative and is the most significant factor in making it the most successful of all the four books. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that marrying off Vivienne at the end of the book was the biggest mistake Waye made, particularly for those of us revisiting from the 21st Century. For whilst Christopher is a diverting enough character, the of-his-time self-assuredness (male arrogance?!) that develops over the subsequent three books makes one both glad that his fictional career is cut short and yearn for the altogether spikier and more complex character of his sister.
Of these four novels, ‘Murder At Monk’s Barn’ is also the one where the balance tips most towards crime/detective fiction, with the subsequent stories very much establishing themselves comfortably in a realm that crosses into political thriller and being somewhat prone to the law of diminishing returns. ‘The Figure of Eight’ is rip-roaring enough, with Foreign Agents and secret symbols making a play for our attentions. One rather suspects that Street is channeling some of his experience as a writer for MI7 during The Great War into his pseudonymous Waye’s output here, whilst the presence of Buchan can be felt hovering over his shoulder. And there is nothing wrong with that, after all.
‘The End Of The Chase’ seems to draw yet more on Street’s experiences with MI7 and with European Politics, in particular the shadier side of Eastern Europe with excursions into the shadowy environs of Budapest and Vienna between the wars. It’s all very evocatively drawn and there are certainly some lines to be teased out and forward into Graham Greene and eventually to the masterful and now mourned John le Carré. However it is still to the masculine adventuresomeness of Buchan that Waye most obviously leans here, and with a plot that takes in international finance, forgery and the human frailties that so often act as the undoing of the petty criminal, ‘The End Of The Chase’ ultimately emerges as a very enjoyable, if somewhat slight, romp.
By 1933’s final Waye novel featuring Christopher Perrin, ‘The Prime Minister’s Pencil’, there is certainly a sense of Waye losing his interest somewhat, as Perrin emerges ever more as caricature rather than character and the plot takes turns into the realms of the ridiculous (at least to the 21st Century reader) rather than the intriguing. As with ‘Figure of Eight’ and ‘The End of The Chase’, ‘The Prime Minister’s Pencil’ trots along at a decent pace and there are certainly some rather delicious barbs at the Political Classes which I am certain would appear marvellously apposite at any point in history but which feel extraordinarily apt as we creep into 2021. At various points Waye describes what is clearly a Tory MP with villainous eyes on the premiership as “of that type of politician who owes his success to clever boosting rather than to sound statesmanship.” and that “He’s the sort of man who poses as a popular demagogue, the guardian of the liberties of the people, and all that sort of tosh.” Later, Waye notes “You don’t suppose that because, unless Providence intervenes, the man will be Prime Minister some day, that he has all the attributes of an archangel, do you? Conceal the truth! Why, man alive! it’s only by the rarest of accidents that a professional politician ever reveals it.”
Those peculiar parallels between the 1930s and our contemporaneous times nearly a century ahead are certainly some of the appealing factors in reading and re-publishing these forgotten pleasures of throwaway fiction but, like our distaste for the jarringly blatant (and to a modern eye almost comically stereotypical) anti-semitism, racism and sexism held within their pages they are but sidelines. For the not so simple truth is that these ridiculous whimsical fictions are just that: fictional realms into which we can escape the realities of our everyday whilst simultaneously being prodded by timeless barbs of that very present. The prime minister being dealt a deathly blow by an exploding pencil (that’s hardly a spoiler by the way. Just look at the book’s title…)? Well, more ridiculous things have happened in the past twelve months, haven’t they?