Cold Comfort Cocktails

After my recent discovery of Stella Gibbons courtesy of her rather marvellous 1946 novel ‘Westwood’ I thought it only right to take in her ‘classic’ debut novel ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. And at the risk of coming over all “mumble mumble… I actually prefer the demos… mumble mumble” it’s… pretty good. I mean, I can understand why it would have been such a breakthrough hit at the time of publication, and I can just about get why it should have remained in print and bundled up under the ‘classic’ tag, but, on the other hand… really? Again, I wonder if it’s An English Thing, for much of what Gibbons supposedly parodies in the book is that terribly earthy and inescapably English infatuation with Nature and the whole Garden Of England thing, with barely suppressed sexual urges, ahem, erupting everywhere. So perhaps that Englishness is the reason I cannot quite fully connect, although equally I know that this excuse is largely ludicrous as I have spent the majority of my adult life living deep within the folds of England’s South West.

Perhaps then it is something more to do with the nature of successful parody, which relies on a strange closeness to and a certain affection for the thing(s) one is poking fun at. So if ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ seeks to sneak a giggle at the likes of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb then it also necessarily embraces something of their style, content, themes etc. Enjoyment of the parody on the readers part, then, must surely to some extent rely on a degree of enjoyment of the source texts, which means that on a personal level, the ‘joke’ here for me rather quickly wears thin. This is perhaps why I could not help feeling that ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ might have been more enjoyable if it had been shortened by a third, or even a half. I freely admit that whereas ‘Westwood’ held my attention throughout, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ rather outstayed its welcome. It’s a strange kind of book too in that it doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be and as a result rather falls between stools. I appreciate that saying this will surely Go Against The Grain, and I also willingly surrender to the accusation that I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, but there it is. The ‘science fiction’ aspect is thin and, I rather suspect, something that has only been highlighted by readers from the second half of the 20th Century onwards. Gibbons barely acknowledges the notion of it being ‘science fiction’ though, and the pointers to the book being set at some point in the indeterminate (near) future are few and far between. Something about an Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946 and descriptions of airplanes landing and taking off in the field as if they were buses… Yet these hints of The Future are unconvincing, particularly when viewed through the lens of history. So whilst air travel appears to be as workaday as bus trips or train journeys, there is no suggestion that the technology might have improved much, for passengers still need to don warm leather outfits as if the aircraft of the future will still be open to the elements, or at least will not have discovered pressurised cabins or heating. There is too a strange need to call cinema films ‘talkies’, as though in this near future the notion of silent cinema will still be popular enough to require distinctions to be made. Surely even in 1932 no-one much bothered making that distinction? It might just be another means of showing up the supposed gulf in ‘refinement’ between the urbane city dweller and the un-educated country bumpkin, but I don’t think so.

Such criticisms are largely nit-picking pedantry, of course, yet they do diminish ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ to some extent, as does the notion that it is down to the ‘civilised’ city types to ‘rescue’ or liberate the ‘backward’ farm workers, supposedly stuck in their ways and trapped in a world of nonsensical folklore and superstition. Once upon a time I would have been wholeheartedly behind the idea of Modernism transforming the rural world but I’m afraid those days of believing that ever newer technologies might Solve All Our Problems are long gone. These days I’m more likely to side with the Starkadders and rather want to tell Flora where to get off and to Stop Interfering.

Another reason why ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ doesn’t quite do it for me is that whilst, yes, it is quite comedic, it is not convincingly so. There are moments when Gibbons is almost Wodehousian in her flair for dialogue and believable ridiculousness, but it is not sustained. This was really brought home to me by following my reading of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ with Wodehouse’s ‘Mr Mulliner’ stories, the vast majority of which are prime Wodehouse and therefore enormously funny and engaging. Wodehouse is very definitely An English Thing of course, and a specifically Upper Class English Thing to boot. There is always something in his stories, though, that neatly punctures the very Englishness that they inhabit, like Bertie Wooster popping a hot water bottle in a fellow Country House guest’s bed. Indeed, this particular Wooster prank is referenced in one of the Mulliner tales, where it is joined by various other characters and names from the Jeeves and Wooster realm. This kind of Balzacian/Marvel Universe approach is one of the things that makes Wodehouse so, ahem, marvellous, as is the manner in which he so deliciously celebrates and eviscerates the very characters and environments he creates. The Englishness that Wodehouse conjures is as illusory and mythical as the one later created by Ray Davies in that it is both informed by reality and transformed by the artist’s mediation. It is an England as sculpted by the needs and expectations of Hollywood as it is by the ‘truth’ of The Country House Weekend. Nothing is real. Everything is tarnished. Isn’t it hilarious? Have another hot scotch and lemon and pull out that copy of the ‘Cowkeepers’ Weekly Bulletin and Milk Producers’ Guide’. And, incidentally, did the goat die?

If Flora’s goat did die then who killed it? Was it murder? Can animals even be murdered according to English law? Might Agatha Christie have written a mystery around it? ’Poirot and the Goat’ perhaps, though I would prefer it as a Marple mystery myself. Preferably with all the juicy discomfiting racist and sexist language of the period left intact. It’s part of what makes those old ‘Golden Age’ novels so interesting, after all, at least for me. Seeing something of the historical period through the written words of those who were living through them. Understanding that language which we might, quite rightly, now deem unacceptable and offensive was once commonplace. It’s interesting to see how we got here from there, and if such Errors Of Our (collective) Ways are airbrushed from existence then what does that say about our (collective) contemporary paranoia and weakness? But commerce must prevail, and if one needs to rewrite text in order to protect the profits from the sale of old books to new generations, then so be it. Heaven forbid that those new generations might read something offensive to their sensibilities and therefore decide to buy something else. Regardless, the media attention of the very act of such retrospective censorship will Create Attention and surely encourage sales. Safeguard the profit margin at all costs.


There are certainly some uncomfortable notions filtering through Christie’s 1939 novel ‘Murder is Easy’, a book that I read recently after hearing that there is apparently a new BBC dramatisation in the offing. It will be interesting to see what is made of the story and what kind of treatment it receives. Will it continue the trend of highlighting the supposed Dark Side of Christie’s writing? I can see why that temptation might hold, for ‘Murder is Easy’ is at root a Serial Killer thriller, but I rather hope too that the producers pick up on the humour of the book, which is richly, darkly (but not DARKLY) funny. It reads like Christie having a bit of fun with the thriller form, blending it with her more familiar ‘whodunnit’ mystery genre. Indeed, as a ‘whodunnit’ it is not particularly convincing, as even I had worked out the perpetrator quite early in the book (and I am so dim that I rarely work these things out, even on re-reads). Instead there is something humorous about wondering just how long it is going to take the (male) detective figure to cotton on, and indeed there is a lovely moment during the denouement where a female character explicitly voices this frustration. So yes, it’s partly a book about gender stereotypes and laughing at the incompetence of the male, but it is also a book where one feels a certain tension between Christie simultaneously playing up to those stereotypes and societal expectations and confronting/exposing them. There is, for example, a degree of homophobia that ripples whenever the Mr Ellsworthy character appears. He is first described as “a very exquisite young man” with “a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Another character murmurs “The artistic temperament” to which Ellsworthy turns “with a flash of long white hands” and says “‘Not that terrible phrase, Miss Conway. No – no, I implore you.’” Later he is described as a “Nasty bit of goods” with “A nasty mind and nasty habits”. Later still he’s described as “the only one who is definitely queer. He is queer, you can’t get away from it!” Yet whilst it might be a spoiler to say that Mr Ellsworthy is not the serial killer (you’d have to be even dimmer than me to really suspect him) it’s interesting that ultimately these descriptions come from characters who are either untrustworthy, a bit stupid, or just rather unpleasant.

Christie may not be as obviously humorous as Wodehouse or Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, but she is nevertheless adept at wielding the odd barb with flamboyant precision. When one character professes “a somewhat illogical prejudice against lawyers in general – based on the grounds that so many politicians were recruited from their ranks” I admit that I did indeed LOL, as I did when another is described as being “dressed in careless-looking country clothes” that “were unkind to his figure, which ran mostly to stomach.” Ouch.

Now ‘Murder is Easy’ is not a Marple mystery, and indeed Christie had written only one Miss Marple novel when it was published, but one rather thinks that Jane was on her mind. The books is filled with old ladies about whom there is “something very cosy and English” but that “are as sharp as nails in some ways”, and one can’t help but wonder if the book might have begun life as a prototype Marple before Christie decided that the serial killer theme leant more towards the blood thirsty realm of the thriller than the more subtle disquiet of the Jane Marple universe. Indeed, the book does rather get lost in its latter stages, falling a little too much into the rampaging action of the thriller genre for my tastes, but it is all carried off exuberantly well regardless. And this is the crux of the thing with Christie, and with ‘Murder is Easy’ in particular. For whilst it is too easy (and lazy) to think of Christie books as being ‘cosy’, so too is it to play up the darkness that underpins the (multiple) crimes committed in their pages. Christie (like many Golden Age crime writers) is more complex than that, but crucially, only slightly more so. It’s the combination of those contrasting flavours and the injection of the intangible Entertainment ingredient that make them so enjoyable. As Christie says herself in this book: “Gossip and malice and scandal – all so delicious if one takes them in the right spirit!” Quite the cocktail.

Mix me another.


In recent weeks I have mentioned how easy it is to feel thrilled at discovering something ‘new’ and yet utterly uneducated in the same instant. So it feels with Stella Gibbons, an author I have only ever been vaguely aware of as the author of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, a book that always felt outside of the orbit of my interests, although quite why that ought to be so I am not sure. Part of the dismissal would likely be simply to do with the fact that it was deemed to be A Classic, which might translate as Too Mainstream and/or A Bit Uncool. Ridiculous of course, but there we are. There may also have been something to do with it being somehow Very English, of somehow being entangled with The Establishment and hence to be sniffed at. I’m not even certain that I was aware of it being a comic novel and a parody of the whole D.H. Lawrence thing (having been forced to read a wearisome D.H. Lawrence novel in school I feel sure that knowing ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ was taking the piss would surely have piqued my interest). These days though, almost all of the things that would once have turned my nose are now guaranteed to tickle the hairs delightedly. Not that I actually have picked up ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, you understand. It has joined the ‘to be read’ list, naturally, but shaking off the baggage of Trying To Be Cool is difficult. It’s that desperately sad need to be able to respond to someone asking if you have read/heard/seen (insert title of acknowledged ‘classic’) with ‘oh yes, it’s marvellous of course, but have you read/heard/seen (insert titles of obscurities by the same artist)?’ Not that I have anyone to ask such questions, and the only person I may be trying to impress would be myself, blogs being the equivalent of mumbling to oneself when the cats have gone to sleep and the rain and wind keep one indoors. It fills the days.

All of which is by way of saying that the first Stella Gibbons book that I have read has been her 1946 novel ‘Westwood’. Republished by the Vintage imprint (didn’t it used to be called Virago and have those lovely green covers?) alongside a number of other Gibbons’ titles, ‘Westwood’ is an assured glance back at the war years as lived in London and a rather pointed critique of, well, any number of things really. At its core the book is a neat assault on the nature of the male artistic gaze, but the book also necessarily connects this theme to those of class, nationality (the default intrinsic racism of the English psyche is laid bare), gender and fidelity. It’s a heady mix, but Gibbons balances them all with ease, expertly interweaving the themes to show their interconnectedness.

Like Margaret Kennedy’s ‘The Feast’, ‘Westwood’ draws lines in the sand between the pre-WW2 world and the one that will follow, although there is a sense in this case that things are not viewed quite as optimistically, with Gibbons pointing more to a settling back into a status-quo rather than breaking new ground and overturning systems and structures. Given the nature of history’s unravelling, one might argue that Gibbons was more accurate in the long term, but that’s an argument for another time. The difference in viewpoints might simply be down to the gap between the novels. Four years may not seem like a long time, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, the space between 1946 and 1950 might as well be generational.

This closeness to the war experience actually lends ‘Westwood’ a few moments of awkwardness, mostly caused by Gibbons making reference to ’the Second World War’. This feels clumsy and I’m not at all certain that anyone not explicitly involved in journalism or historical academia would have said anything more than simply ‘the war’. It’s a minor detail, but it does jar. Perhaps it was added by an over-zealous editor in a later edition, eager to make the historical context clear. There is too, though, a strange dissonance in some of the period detail which makes it difficult to position the novel. It’s obviously post-1941, for whilst an occasional bomb lands (one of which takes out the front of a painter’s cottage in Highgate) we are clearly no longer in the midst of the Blitz, nor yet into the realm of the Baby Blitz or the V weapons. Americans are also in town (cue English upper-class disdain: “what an unpleasant language American was; at once low, confusing and illogical”) so we’re likely between 1942 and 1944, but it’s summer and there is no mention of great activity, so perhaps 1943… In many ways of course pinning the book down to a specific time is irrelevant and most likely evidence of my male infatuation with detail. Much more pertinent is the fact that Gibbons makes the war a tertiary element in the narrative. The war is something that may always be there and might indeed (as with the aforementioned bomb in Highgate) explicitly determine actions, but it is also curiously an aside, a temporary irritation in the timeless storyline of love, passion, rejection, deceit, illumination, whatever. There is a notion posited here too that whilst artists might be unpleasant as people, their work can transcend those limitations and mean something immeasurably more than the sum of the individual’s traits and foibles and/or the specificity of their creation in time and space. Then again, this does not mean those same artists cannot make the most appalling doggerel and utterly fail to see their missteps, and it does not mean that the value of the work does not diminish in light of their failings as human beings. Naturally this happens with philandering playwright Gerard Challis and Margaret: “Margaret no longer felt a strong interest in him or his plays. When her respect for him as a human being had been destroyed, her admiration for him as an artist had been destroyed also.”

Margaret is the key character in the book, as is her prolonged infatuation with Challis, but Gibbons is marvellously brutal in describing her as “unlovely and heavy in manner, and craving for beauty both earthly and divine that could never be hers.” Margaret’s own mother is equally pragmatic, saying “I’m afraid you aren’t the type that attracts men, so we’d better face it.” So much for poor old Margaret. She might end the novel experimenting with a bit of lipstick, a black dress and calling herself ‘Maggie’ but any transformation is clearly never really going to stick.

Then there is Hilda, who “would always have that place in her affections which is reserved for the oldest friend; the friend with whom there is often no link surviving save the twenty-five or so years which have elapsed since a mutual youth”. In many ways Hilda is one of the most enjoyable characters of the whole book, most of the time coming over as a kind of prototype ‘liberated’ woman, quite determined to enjoy the company of young men and to live for the moment. Her ultimate response to the duplicitous attentions of the middle-aged Gerald Challis is sharp and perfectly aimed. Hilda may be utterly knowing (when Challis first meets Hilda he remarks that she “look(s) like a painting by Signorelli”. To which Hilda says – aside – “There we go again,”) but she is also naturally open and, until the denouement, shows him a degree of kindness and friendly affection he assuredly does not deserve. It’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that her final appearance in the book is something of a let down, though, as she wanders off in the bliss of engagement with the eager flirtations of youth left behind.

This vague sense of disappointment in Hilda being ultimately subsumed by the mainstream expectations of society is reflective of a cloaked gloominess under which the entire novel concludes. Margaret, in her red lipstick and black dress, may ultimately emerge as a more self-confident character strengthened by her varied disillusions, but there is too something rather sad about it. In her conversation with Gerald Challis’ mother, Lady Challis, Margaret is told that “the only “thing” that a human being can go on wanting all their life, and be satisfied with just wanting, is God”. To someone like Margaret who disclaims religion, this is surely a thoroughly depressing thought, particularly since it is couched within the expectation that the “things” which they might find themselves wanting will invariably (and perhaps by design) be forever out of their reach. Lady Challis also suggests that Margaret is “not one of the people who need tragedy.” Instead, she needs “the Gentle Powers…. Beauty, and Time, and the Past and Pity (their names sound like a band of angels, don’t they?) Laughter, too”; needs “calming and lifting into the light, not plunging into darkness and struggle.”

It may be an odd note on which to end an otherwise deliciously catty and humorously insightful novel, but it works very well in letting us know how Gibbons sees the role of (her) art in the aftermath of war. Reminds us too that Gibbons’ humour has its edge.

Can’t Get There From Here

Do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? Tony King does this in ‘The Tastemaker’, wondering at the end of the book how his young self in Eastbourne, hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, could possibly believe the way in which the/his future was about to unfurl. A life spent living the rock’n’roll dream, yet doing so essentially under the radar. A life lived with the likes of Elton John, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Fairy tales are more believable.

To say that ‘The Tastemaker’ is a memoir is something of a red herring, for really it is a scattershot mix of moments clipped from the dipping wings of memory; anecdotes stitched together into some semblance of chronological narrative form. To say that it barely hangs together as a book is a criticism only in so much as one gets the distinct feeling that the written word is by far the least effective medium for Tony King to be sharing these escapades and observations. They read like short bursts of excited, barely connected slippages of time. You can almost hear the gaps between the paragraphs being filled with King taking a moment before saying “and then there was the time when…” or “did I ever tell you about…” and off again in a breathless charge into the sequinned spangle of the past. There is a definite sense that ‘The Tastemaker’ would be best experienced as a series of meetings in an exclusive club where the clientele are the holograms or 22nd Century avatars of the “legends and geniuses of rock music” whose life King has shared. A club where you might be thrilled beyond belief to have been invited to but in which, after a little while, you are not entirely certain you would like to stay for the long haul.

I have long had a problem with the notion of ‘genius’. It seems to me that not only is it often so easily bandied about as to be meaningless, but it also diminishes the very qualities that make individuals successful. Leaving aside the complexities of defining ‘success’, it strikes me that the term ‘genius’ infers some ineffable natural quality that in turn effectively masks the requirement for hard work to turn that quality into something worthwhile. The mediation of ‘geniuses’ perpetuates this mythology, but that is part of the role of the Entertainment Industry after all. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The man who, in many instances throughout the 1960s and certainly the 1970s, was Tony King. Working as hard as the artists he was promoting and having almost as much of a ball whilst doing so. Perhaps more so, since he would be all but invisible outside of the rarified circles he mixed in. ‘Celebrity’ must be a curse in many respects, but such is the price.

‘The Tastemaker’, however, is hardly a book to fully lift the curtain of Oz and reveal the grubby inner workings. Such an action would surely be entirely alien to Tony King, a man whose loyalty and common courtesy emanate graciously from the pages just as effectively as does his devotion to the music he felt driven to worship and serve. There are far too many extraordinary anecdotes in the book to single out any for particular note but all of them reverberate gloriously with a warmth and presence that encapsulates the era in which they take place. Historical details contextualise everything in a marvellous flickery haze, like watching home movies in a living room clouded by smoke rather than the blockbusters of the time in cavernous cinemas. Or, to put it in musical terms, like having Elton John perform ‘Your Song’ in your front room rather than in Madison Square Garden. There is an illusory intimacy that is surely not altogether accidental. It might be a glimpse behind a curtain, but there is too an implicit understanding that there is more hidden somewhere else. Curtains cloaking curtains. Rooms within rooms. As I said, fairy tales seem more real than this. We love to suspend belief, or at least to edit our gaze.

Reading ’The Tastemaker’ it is tempting to wonder whether the times for the likes of John Lennon, Elton John, The Rolling Stones or Tony King might ever truly come again. Do these ‘legends’ belong to a distinct moment in time when Popular Culture was globally homogenised to the balancing point where shared experience was at its peak? A point from where it teetered precariously for the merest blink of an eye before plunging into the maelstrom of a torrent where distinct streams became ever more fractured and where ‘global’ recognition became lessened and shorn of value? Or is that just me projecting my own experience? Out of touch, clueless and blissfully so. Perhaps someone will write a similar book in time where names like Ed Sheeran will reverberate with the same qualities as Lennon and Jagger. And fair play if they do. Whatever…

So do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? My own younger self would surely, like Tony King, gaze on my own unfurling future and think “what the hell…?” In turn I think the same when glancing in the rearview mirror. Head shakes. Discomfort and disbelief. No regrets, but still. Fuck sake.

There is none of this in ‘The Tastemaker’ but you have to think there is at least the possibility such moments might have passed. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s just another one of those traits of ‘successful’ people. One of the elements that make up ‘genius’. Don’t look back. And if you do, ignore the leering unpleasantness you might see there. At most, add a faint wash of sorrow and a hint of gracious regret that is always qualified with “but what could I do?” Mostly though, celebrate the magic, the beauty and the value of the friendships. That and the love of the cats that you meet on the way…

Ready for Romance

If one or two of my more recent forays into the realm of detective fiction have left me a little tired then this is perhaps due to the fact that my attention has been somewhat diverted by Other Things. Notable amongst these have been visitations (and at times re-visitations) to the enormously rich body of work left by Ronald Blythe who passed at the start of 2023 aged one hundred years. What a life. I find Blythe’s writing to be deceptively soothing. Deceptive because there is, in his soft tone, something of the excitable school child flitting hither and thither. There is always a treasure trove of reference points to be chased when reading Blythe.

Yet despite his texts so often being tightly packed with jumping off points for exploration, Blythe also understands that Less Is More. There is little of the extraneous in his writing. Tangents veer off quite naturally and the lines loop exquisitely back into the design of the whole, like some magnificent illuminated manuscript carved as an Edward Bawden print block.

All of which means that my head has variously been turned by dips into John Clare, Francis Kilvert, James Woodforde and of course looking back at John Nash again. Paul too, naturally, and Ravillious and Bawden, all of whom seem to be quite fashionable (again). I’ve also been reading and looking at Thomas Hennell, who I have not noticed Blythe mention yet surely fits into the same universe, being a friend of Bawden and that circle. Hennell was also a lay preacher, which is a nice Blythe connection I suppose. Then there are Kurt Hutton’s photographs and James Hamilton-Paterson’s writing about Ships, Planes, Cars and Trains and the great dismantling of Britain (“the British disease in microcosm: laissez-faire government that, in its ideological obsession with shareholder profitability, puts off planning the nation’s infrastructure in the hope that private enterprise will take care of the future: something that has yet to happen anywhere on earth.”). All diverting and/or peerlessly riveting in turn.

Mostly though I have been distracted from detective fiction by more of those Furrowed Middlebrow books that the Dean Street Press have put out these past years. Foolishly I had turned my nose up at them for some time, assuming that they must surely be trashy romances. And whilst, yes, there is a lot of romance in their pages there is nothing trashy about them. Best leave that to the racey pulps, for which there is most certainly a place, just not perhaps in the drawing rooms of the millions of middle class readers who enjoyed the likes of Susan Scarlett and D.E. Stevenson in their prime.

I wrote about my discovery of Scarlett (or Noel Streatfeild if you prefer) a couple of months ago and really everything said there stands. There is still a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, and more of Streatfeild’s Scarlett novels remain on my to-be-read shelves as reliable backups for when the world gets just too dark and dreary to bear looking at. She’s been joined there by D.E. Stevenson, whose first Miss Buncle book I so enjoyed last year in a classy Persephone reissue. I admit I am looking forward to the remaining Buncle’s but there is so much else to discover and I rather think they might be lovely Spring and Summer reads, when the garden beckons and the warmth of the sun might heal so many wounds, physical and spiritual. Meanwhile it has been Stevenson’s ‘trilogy’ of novels from 1949 to 1951 that have most recently lit up the darkest depths of Winter.

In many ways 1949’s ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is the odd one out of the trilogy as it alone is set in the balmy Southern climes of England as opposed to the isolated rural farming landscapes of the Scottish Borders that root ‘Music In The Hills’ and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ (aka ‘Shoulder The Sky’). ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is also the book in the trilogy that is most easily read as a standalone novel since the threads and characters that feed into the next two are fairly minimal. It’s a lovely book in its own right and is fired through with the kind of post-war detail and musing that I am increasingly a sucker for. There is uncertainty and confusion. There are characters struggling to cope with the aftermath of trauma. There are truckloads of insecurity and impulses for self-sacrifice. It might all be rather overwhelming were it not for Stevenson’s deftness of touch and core of warmth and humanity. One rather gets the feeling that Stevenson would ascribe to the notion that neither being an optimist or a pessimist make a difference to the outcome of anything, but that the optimist has a rather happier time waiting.

‘Vittoria Cottage’ then is an optimistic novel, as are ‘Rough Weather’ and ‘Music In The Hills’, in which there may be cads and blighters but you know that in the end Those Kinds Of People will be inevitably sad and empty (they do “nothing but chase pleasure from morning to night without ever catching up with it.”) and will get their comeuppance. Everything in the books is calculated to be largely free from risk and it is hardly a spoiler to say that in the isolating snow storm that inevitably descends in ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ there are no tragedies to speak of and all adventures end happily ever after. This is the kind of book that Stevenson wrote: unapologetically chirpy and none the worse for that. One can imagine them bringing solace to the hardship of a post-war world of rationing, just as they might do in our 21st Century when “the difficulty of existing [might make] existence hardly worth while…”

If ‘Vittoria Cottage’ does a vague job of introducing characters that will be at the heart of the remaining two books, and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ plays on the resilience of love in the face of adversity (with a side of the unbelievable for good measure) then ‘Music In The Hills’ is the one which feels most wholeheartedly complete in itself. Here Stevenson indulges us with some tremendous invocations of landscape, where the imaginary Drumburly and Mureth are amalgams of aspects of the Scottish Border country that Stevenson, whose father was a first cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, knew and loved. Whilst many of the place names are fictitious, Dumfries and Lockerbie are both mentioned as is Gretna Green. Indeed Gretna is mentioned in one of the most uncomfortable portions of the book in which closeted 14 year old Eleanor falls in love with a man twice her age and talks about running away to Gretna to get married. Perhaps she had been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. To be fair to Stevenson (and her key character of James Derring) the inappropriateness of that crush is well handled and Stevenson uses it to make a nice point about the ‘invisible’ nature of women’s desire. James, confused by the feelings engendered by unexpected devotion, rambles on about how “Girls never talk about men. It isn’t the right thing. It isn’t done. Girls talk about—about hockey and—and things like that.”” Eleanor replies doubtfully with ““I don’t think you’re right… At school the girls talked a lot about their boy-friends…””

‘Music In The Hills’ deals at its heart with notions of a woman’s place within a man’s world and if the views expressed are essentially conservative and traditionalist then at least they are contextualised within the period and none of the women characters are portrayed as anything but accomplished and stoic. Central to the book is Rhoda, an artist who exited ‘Vittoria Cottage’ with head held high and a heartbroken James Dering in her wake. In ‘Music In The Hills’ Rhoda again makes the point that “If I married I could go on painting as a hobby but not as a career. It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t.” Or can she? The fact that I have already noted that Stevenson is at core an optimist and that nothing particularly unexpected happens in the books might give you the answer to that particular question, but again this is hardly a spoiler. These books are essentially fairy tales for grown ups (one hesitates to say ‘adult’ for there are no Adult Themes in evidence, really) and there is not much wrong with that.

This realm of the Furrowed Middlebrow, then, is one that I find myself being pulled into more and more and there are so many things to discover. I find it intriguing that one can go through life almost ignorant of whole trenches of culture and that the discoveries one makes that feel excitingly unique are in fact quite obvious. It’s rather like ‘discovering’ The Beatles when one is 55 and feeling as though they may be a secret treasure. The ‘reality’ rather bumps one on the head. And of course I say ‘one’ when really all I mean is me. I’m sure that others are vastly different and know immeasurably more about all sorts of things. There was a time when that might have made me feel inferior and rather dim, but whilst I suspect there will always be a trace of that in my response to the world (it may be, as people are fond of saying, “in my DNA”, even though I suspect this is actually all but impossible scientifically speaking) I’m now quite happy to simply enjoy the discoveries and live the moments. James Hamilton-Paterson suggests that one “trick for avoiding the threat of the future [is] to live in the past”. If that is true then roll up Barbara Pym and Stella Gibbons. Let’s be having some more of Margaret Kennedy and E.M. Delafield. Let’s delve into more of the 40 books that D.E. Stevenson wrote in the space of 40 years. Line ‘em up. I’m ready for romance.

Dreary Mr Dodsley

John Ferguson’s ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ is entry number 111 in the on-going British Library Crime Classics series and might sadly be seen as further evidence of the project running out of steam. As suggested previously, this may be a case of my own attentions being (finally!) diverted into other avenues but there are certainly other treasures being unearthed elsewhere that I have enjoyed immeasurably more than anything the BLCC series has thrown up for a while, so this is not entirely the case.

‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ follows an infatuation for positioning the books as being a particular ‘kind’ of mystery. In recent years we have had a stream of books touted as being place specific (a Staffordshire Mystery, A Paris Mystery, an Alpine Mystery, an Oxfordshire Mystery, and so on…) and others that have been ‘event’ specific (a Fireworks Night Mystery, a Second World War Mystery, a Christmas Crime Story). In this case ‘Mr Dodsley’ is the latest in the trend of the ‘bibliomystery’. Now I’m sure that pursuing thematic threads within the archives of the British Library is a diverting occupation, but I admit I grow rather weary of the fashion, and certainly of having the ‘kind’ of mystery laid out in subtitles. At least John Bude (or Ernest Elmore if you prefer) just came right out and proclaimed the particular geographical location in his titles and I must say that his ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’, ‘The Lake District Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’ remain some of my favourites in the BLCC series. Still, perhaps this kind of playing down to the audience by including banal subtitles is as much A Sign of The Times as the dreary reminders and disclaimers about language and portrayals of gender, race, sexuality or whatever that now appear at the front of each book. These feel like insults to intelligence, but I’m a curmudgeonly old white man, so what do I know? To be positive for a moment though (don’t expect this to last), it is certainly to Martin Edwards’ credit that his research furnishes us with some background on John Ferguson and a body of work which is now largely forgotten some seventy years after his death in 1952. Amongst this biographical information Edwards tells us that Ferguson could count Dorothy Sayers as a contemporary fan, but then there is no accounting for taste.

Now I should hate to suggest that either the estimable Edwards or Sayers might be wrong, and it is an inescapable fact that both are much more highly qualified to make judgement than me. Yet, quite simply, I just don’t think ‘The Death of Mr. Dodsley’ is very good. There is inevitably something about following formulas when writing detective or any genre of fiction, and I have no truck with that. The trick to success, however, is to make that formula invisible, or at the very least to make it dance in a delicious manner. Ferguson does not manage this. Instead the formula is all too visible; a stodgy mass that treads on our toes every time it takes a step. Ouch.

It starts off entertainingly enough with an opening scene in the Houses of Parliament and one wonders if perhaps we are in for something as good as ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson’s terrific ‘The Division Bell Mystery’. No such luck, as the action quickly shifts to a second hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road and the discovery of the body of, yes, you guessed it, bookshop owner Mr Dodsley. From here we flit hither and thither, being introduced to a variety of characters, none of whom one feels particularly strongly about and all of whom one would be quite content to see unmasked as the murderer at the book’s denouement. It’s the kind of thing where one sees the obvious emerging from the clouds of mystery even before they have occurred to the writer, never mind the minds of the Scotland Yard chaps (and one private investigator) that Ferguson has summoned to solve the case. What are their names? I finished the book a couple of days ago and I can no longer remember. Sadly too I feel disinclined to open the pages to remind myself. Names are an irrelevance anyway, as the detectives are as unremarkable and forgettable as the cast of suspects who amble through the book telling fibs and hiding secrets, none of which are particularly shocking or interesting.

Whilst not as infuriatingly self-congratulatory as John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr at his insufferable ‘best’, Ferguson does nevertheless summon the spirit of that writer’s convolutions and so-called cleverness. Less smug and obtuse it may be, but ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ tries to be too clever by half and ends up being as dim and ditzy as the character who likes to pretend they are in the latest Hollywood film showing at the Gaumont. Perhaps when he wrote ‘Mr Dodsley’ Ferguson thought himself to be artfully playing with the form by weaving a kind of metafictional confection where the illusions of fiction rub shoulders with reference to’ real’ literary characters, but this is folly. Sadly the book just doesn’t have the wit to carry that off. The feet in those large policeman’s boots tread on our toes again as they attempt a feeble waltz. Ouch again.

With my past passing interest in Pop music, I cannot help but draw parallels between the archaeology of records and that of books. Yes, there are many, many great artefacts that have fallen between the cracks over the years and that glisten like marvellous treasure when brought back into the light. Similarly there are innumerable things that perhaps are best left where they are. Just as there is not necessarily anything remarkable about something that has become embedded in a cultural canon, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about something just because it is rare, or because it has been forgotten for a lengthy period of time. ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ then is like one of those peculiar oddities that act as fillers on extensive CD boxsets of ‘lost’ Indiepop singles. A curious aside, at best, but hardly a Classic. Time for the British Library publishing arm to move on?

An Air That Kills

Every so often I think I ought to pick up some kind of more, ah, contemporary crime fiction. After all, one must make some kind of effort to exist in the timescale one physically occupies, even if only tangentially. One cannot exist solely in that space between 1930 and 1950, after all. Whenever this urge is surrendered to, however, it inevitably seems to lead to disappointment. Anything that is contemporary both in writing and setting leaves me cold. Too much ‘gritty’ realism that is anyway never as good as Derek Raymond. I’m not even sure I would want to (re)read Raymond these days though, and whilst David Peace’s books would surely still read as strangely beautiful depictions of deranged psychedelic monstrosities I’m not at all sure I ever want to go there again either. So the idea of anyone ‘new’ doing anything ‘new’ just strikes me as something I don’t much need to consider. Fair play to everyone who does, mind. Different strokes.

It’s much the same with contemporary writers who play around with historical crime/detective fiction styles. Much as I want to enjoy them, the majority seem to succumb either to an unbearable tinge of ‘cozy’ nostalgia for a mediated and misunderstood illusion or to pepper the text with insufferably detailed points of historical reference to show off their skills in period research. I’m quite certain that in my turn I come across as unbearably pretentious and snobbish about such things, but there it is. Unpopular by name…

The fact that I not only finished Andrew Taylor’s ‘An Air That Kills’ but also rather enjoyed it, then, took me by surprise somewhat. Of course 1994 is hardly ’contemporary’, and my enjoyment of the book likely suggests that there is a turning point early in the 21st Century that might mark my (new) notional cut-off point of interest, but there we are. At least I’ve moved that point on from the 1980s, so I’m travelling forward, albeit slowly.

First in the ‘Lydmouth’ series of novels, I admit I was seduced into giving it a go not only by the fact that it was a 99p speculative punt on Kindle, but also because ‘Lydmouth’ sounds West Countryish. I thought perhaps Lynmouth and Lynton on the North Devon coast might be the inspiration, and sure enough the book opens with a train journey out of London Paddington, heading west. The book is set in the post-war period and part of me wondered too if we might be about to visit some crime committed under the tragic shadow of the 1952 flooding disaster, but no, the train instead heads away from Bristol towards Wales, where ‘Lynmouth’ becomes Lydney (or vice versa) and the story begins in earnest.

It is all quite earnest too, as it quickly becomes evident that we are in for a narrative that revolves mostly around the themes of secrets and wanted/unwanted babies. Viewed through the lens of 2023 it might feel somewhat uncomfortable that this theme of women and pregnancy should be written by a male voice and I admit that the thorny issues of gender identity and voice leave me confused about how I ought to be reading this. Suddenly thirty years seems like an age, which of course it is. It’s as long a period as between when ‘An Air That Kills’ is set to when it was written. This too fuddles my brain and convinces me that time is something that is hardly stable and linear but instead is at best elliptical and irrational. That’s a discussion best carried out under the influence of whisky and wine though.

So ‘An Air That Kills’ revolves around dead babies and secrets. There is nothing particularly surprising in any of it, except in that, perhaps, we visit such sordid events in a fictional historical landscape that we are more often encouraged to think of as Above All That. A nonsense of course, for as the book shows us, such vile unpleasantness has existed for centuries as an explicit element in the complexities of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun, it’s just that perhaps at different times one didn’t talk about it. Or write about it, except possibly in hints hidden beneath ermine cloaks in books that took ten pages to describe someone posting a letter. Or in detective books that concerned themselves more with the altogether more socially acceptable motives for murder such as money and, occasionally, passion (as opposed to Lust, which would be A Very Different Thing).

Andrew Taylor doesn’t take ten pages to describe posting a letter. In truth his writing is nicely paced and there is little time wasted on anyone expostulating at length about possible explanations for the bones of a baby found in an old cesspit beneath a crumbling hotel from the wrong side of the tracks. In truth too there is no great mystery about any of it, and I suspect that most people will see the truth rearing quite unpleasantly into view long before it is officially uncovered for us by Inspector Thornhill. Newly arrived in Lydmouth, Thornhill too helps supply an undertow of lust into proceedings, although it’s all a bit uncomfortable because the poor chap is struggling to control sexual urges that cannot/will not be sated by his wife, who is too busy looking after their children. This kind of idea that only men have sexual needs might well be a case of Taylor reflecting the period notions of expectation, but it nevertheless feels a little clumsy and awkward. Thirty years, as noted, is an awfully long time, and perhaps this thread is picked up and picked apart in future instalments as the hinted at ‘relationship’ between Thornhill and returning journalist Jill Francis is explored. One rather hopes so, and I admit that ‘An Air That Kills’ is an enjoyable enough start to a series to tempt me into finding out. Not sure I’ll want to take much more than another 99p punt though.

Coggin, Cockin and Cornish Comedic Crime Capers

Galileo Publishers has, in the past year or so, risen to being one of my favourite reissue houses, mostly on the back of the extraordinarily good series of Clifford Witting’s Inspector Charlton books that they have resurrected. His ‘Midsummer Murder’ was featured in the Unpopular advent series in December last year, whilst ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ has made it firmly into my top ten of Seasonal Detective Novels and will no doubt be one that I shall enjoy again and again for years to come. Joan Coggin’s terrific ‘Dancing With Death’ was another richly enjoyable slice of seasonal fictional fare, and whilst not quite as top drawer as Witting’s offering it has nevertheless helped cement her place as one of my favoured purveyors of comedic criminality. ‘Dancing With Death’ was the fourth and final outing for Coggin and her magnificently scatterbrained character of Lady Lupin. Coincidentally (or more likely not) the book mirrored Lupin’s first outing (1944’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’) in being a mystery set in the Christmas season of goodwill to all men, except for those who are rather unfortunately earmarked for murder. Coggin is certainly light reading, yet whilst the books are coated with a patina of nostalgic whimsy there is too a little biting undertow of social commentary. ‘Dancing With Death’ then is about love, age, money, greed and the deception of appearances, yet it is also about the transition from wartime destruction to post-war privation and the uncertainties of The Future. I do hope that Galileo will be able to reissue the other three Lady Lupin books, for even the American Rue Morgue reissues are some twenty years old now and very difficult to find at a reasonable price. Fingers crossed. Perhaps too the Girls Gone By outfit will look at reissuing the ‘Bramber Manor’ series of girl’s school books that Coggin wrote under the name of Joanna Lloyd, although I imagine too that like all of us they have more than enough to be getting on with.

What Galileo has done however is publish a novel by the awkwardly similarly named Joan Cockin, whose ‘Villainy At Vespers’ I have just finished. Did I initially confuse and conflate the two names? It is a distinct possibility… Yet the chances are that I would have picked up the book regardless, for the resuscitation of Witting and Coggin is certainly enough for me to place a great deal of faith in the archaeologists of detective fiction working for the publisher. ‘Villainy at Vespers’ definitely repays that trust, for it is a tremendously entertaining romp through a post-war landscape. First published in 1949, the book is set in Cornwall during the kind of “June when workers in city offices look out through grimy windows at the sun and curse their luck in having decided to take their summer holiday in August.” It kicks off from the first paragraph in suitably grisly and melodramatic style: “Human sacrifice – primitive physical sacrifice – has long been out of favour in England. A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man, naked and with his throat cut was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltraun’s Church in the village of Trevelley.”

It is not entirely clear which part of Cornwall the fictional village of Trevelley is supposed to be, although I concede that for most readers this would be entirely irrelevant. For those, like myself, who find it impossible to read such things without at least once pulling out a map to consider the roots of physical inspiration, it’s an enjoyable diversion. At times Trevelley feels very much like somewhere on the North Cornwall coast, perhaps around Padstow, Polzeath and the Pentire Point. On the other hand, the fictional ‘Powey’ and the descriptions of the numerous crossings of the river inevitably makes one think of Fowey and the Bedinnick Ferry made so famous in much later years by Trembling Blue Star’s gorgeous song ‘ABBA on the Jukebox’. Either way, North or South coast (or most likely a fictional melange of the two), the Cornwall that Cockin depicts might yet be a ways from sinking into the unpleasantness of its own tourism successes, but there is already a sense of a landscape that sees a need to reinvent itself and to mediate its mythologies in order to move forward into the second half of the 20th Century.

So already in 1949 we have a Cornwall that is infiltrated by characters from London (and worse, from Abroad!), bringing the kind of crime and violence that will irrevocably change the character of the place. Cockin seems to take pleasure too in positioning this ‘new’ flavour of crime both as being alien and yet simultaneously connected to the ‘historic’ criminality of smuggling so essential to the Cornish Culture some might be seeking to protect. Throughout the book then there is a kind of push and pull between the two elements of criminality and their appeal as tourism attractions. Past and present (and, inevitably, future) jostle for position, each reliant on the other but also battling for supremacy. There are too notions of the position of The Church in all this, as Cockin notes the apparent decline in spirituality in favour of architectural interest or, indeed, the shock value of Unfortunate Events. Gruesome ‘pleasure’ seekers drawn to places by the grim allure of mystery and the pungent stench of ‘evil’, or the middle-aged, middle-class and semi-educated refugee from Modernity meandering from place to place with a Pevnser or a Betjeman clutched close to their chest, seeking out Medieval carvings and brasses to rub. Thumbing through my copy of C.B. Newham’s tremendous ‘Country Church Monuments’ I naturally plead guilty to at least the latter of these charges.

‘Villainy at Vespers’ might, then, be a clever observation of the transformational tourist landscape of immediate post-war England, but it is also quite simply a grand detective yarn. It sits comfortably within the Detective On Holiday sub-genre where Inspector Cam might be seen to rub shoulders with the likes of Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill, George Bellairs’ Littlejohn or E.C.R. Lorac’s Macdonald. Or, if one likes one’s detectives in the amateur mould, perhaps Wimsey or Poirot. Indeed, Cockin plays the always enjoyable (to me at least) card of tipping the wink and invoking other fictional characters within her book. Poirot and Holmes get a namecheck, as does Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen who would by 1949 be sadly already near to the end of his enormously enjoyable ‘career’, until of course his odd resurrection in 1977’s somewhat bonkers ‘The Glimpses of the Moon’.

One might take this willingness to poke fun at one’s own work as as sign of confidence in one’s ability and understanding of the genre, and in Cockin’s case this would be entirely correct, for ‘Villainy at Vespers’ is a thoroughly well constructed and neatly, ahem, executed piece of period detective fiction. There are two further books in the Inspector Cam series (‘Curiosity Killed The cat from 1947 and ‘Deadly Ernest’ from 1952) and I for one would love to read them. Fingers crossed too then that Galileo will add those Cockins to the Coggins in their continuing reissue action.

Death of an Author

With over 100 books by 40 or so authors, there must surely be a danger that the British Library Crime Classics is starting to dredge the depths of its collection of detective fiction from the 1920s to the 1950s. Perhaps it is a fading interest on my own part, but I must admit that I have found more recent releases to be suffering from that law of diminishing returns. E.C.R. Lorac’s ‘Death of an Author’ is unfortunately a case in point, for whilst there are flourishes of what makes Lorac’s other books so brilliant, there is too an unfortunate sense of this particular book being a not entirely successful exercise in style. In this it reminds me somewhat of George Bellairs’ earlier books, in which he also seemed to cast about rather, dallying in theatrical prose structure before finally settling on the enormously satisfying style in which his Littlejohn character worked through numerous mysteries from the late 1940s to the end of 1960s. Perhaps it was this decision to experiment with style that led to feature series detective Robert Macdonald being excluded from this book. He is replaced instead by two detective characters; one from Scotland Yard called Warner and the other a local Inspector by the name of Bond. Not James.

The book starts well enough, with an intriguing situation in which identities are shrouded and an underpinning theme of gender inequality in the publishing industry echoing wider society is laid. Such socially and culturally politicised themes can often make novels rather hard work, and it is certainly to Lorac’s credit that she manages this particular element of the book with a withering wit. It’s tricky to highlight this without giving away spoilers to some extent, but there is a marvellous exchange early in the book where a rather chauvinist author is told in no uncertain terms: “You envisage women still as the sheltered, emotional playthings of men. The woman of today is beginning to see through the fraud; in short, we are realising ourselves, developing our dual heritage from father and mother alike, and adumbrating the time when artistic creativeness,—genius even—may be expected from women and men alike.” Adumbrating. What a tremendous word. What a shame we might still, nearly a century later, be not unreasonably said to be not much forrader in this respect.

One would not be entirely surprised to hear, then, that the woman expressing these views becomes, shortly afterwards, a suspect in the book’s titular death. Local copper Bond distrusts her from the off, suggesting that she is “one of those odd independent women who don’t cotton on to their own sex.” One can almost hear Lorac giggling as she puts those words in her character’s mouth, the sharp humour continuing as Bond reckons that “She’s just one of those queer secretive women who might make a bid for notoriety. Lots of brains and no conscience.” Perhaps he is the blueprint for Fleming’s Bond after all.

There is a neat little reference to Agatha Christie’s infamous disappearance in Bond’s continuing outburst too: “She’ll have a nervous breakdown, and then when she’s recovered she’ll announce that the whole thing was a loss of memory… and if the police had had any sense at all they’d have realised that she was ill to start with.” The manner in which Lorac accentuates the deeply rooted patriarchal idiocy by making this point through the voice of a stereotypically traditional male character is wickedly funny. One rather suspects that Lucy Worsley and Christie would wholeheartedly approve.

It’s no surprise that Band is such a stolid patrician, however, as this kind of character is required to offset the more urbane intelligence of The Yard Man, who equally instinctively trusts the suspect in question and believes the improbable version of events that suggests her innocence. Yet it is this very battle of beliefs that, for me, leads the book into the kind of murky landscape which the dreaded John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr might happily inhabit. Indeed it is this wearisome author who is sadly brought to mind through much of the rest of the book, as Bond and Warner argue the toss over a multitude of possible explanations for what is, in essence, a kind of locked room mystery. At this point in the early 1930s (‘Death of an Author’ was originally published in 1933) John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr was enormously popular of course (I understand that along with Christie and Ellery Queen, he was one of the ‘Big Three’ in China at the time), so it is understandable that other detective novelists might experiment with some of his structure in their own fiction. Lorac is much, much better than this though, and whilst the tedium of Bond and Warner exchanging theories is endured there are at least some flashes of the love of landscape that make many of Lorac’s other books so enjoyable. One sudden turn of the narrative, for example, takes us West, into the borderlands of England and Wales where the river Wye wends its way through steep sided valleys and where “away to the south the grand contour of the Yat Rock rears its craggy heights against the sky.” As in Lorac’s Robert Macdonald novels, this landscape is delicately sketched in a few assured lines, like Thomas Hennell watercolours.

Sadly though neither these lovely glimpses of the Wye valley nor the book’s denouement of a rather thrilling chase along the South coast from London to Brighton and then through Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford before finally landing in Eastbourne quite manage to lift things from the torpor of the heavy middle. Indeed, the description of “the long hideous rows of dreary grey houses which disfigure the downs immediately at the back of Brighton” being “soon left behind” might well stand as a metaphor for this entire book. Perhaps Lorac is subconsciously acknowledging the wearisome masculine battling of theories that she has modelled in the bulk of the book. Or then again, perhaps not so subconsciously, for some of the final words of the book come from the aforementioned female suspect who laughingly suggests to Bond and Warner that “Neither conceit nor ability is a purely masculine monopoly” and that “We’re a mixed lot, all of us!” That Lorac should have mixed experiments that explored the frightfully dull duelling of patriarchal ‘intelligences’ with her otherwise deft and neatly observed hand has surely left ‘Death of an Author’ as more of an oddity than a bona-fide ‘classic’. That she should have all but abandoned such mixing in her future novels is, however, to our enduring relief.

Molly Thynne

To make mention of Christmas in the last gloomy days of January is surely one of the biggest faux-pas imaginable, so I shall say little about the pile of festive themed detective novels that, like any self-respecting enthusiast of the genre, I had assembled on the shelf in anticipation of the season. Perhaps unsurprisingly Clifford Witting’s ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ emerged as my favourite, for Witting has emerged as one of the very finest of those detective fiction writers operating in the immediate pre and post WW2 period. Galileo have done a fine job in unearthing his books, with all five of the Inspector Charlton titles that they have reissued in the past couple of years being essential reads. One rather hopes that they will shortly turn their hand to the remaining books in the series. Galileo has similarly done a fine job of reissuing a couple of Joan Cockin’s deliciously comedic crime capers, and 1947’s ‘Dancing With Death’ was another seasonally themed novel that I very much enjoyed with my sherry and chocolates. Ditto Nicholas Blake’s ‘The Case Of The Abominable Snowman’. The book’s alternative title of ‘The Corpse In The Snowman’ might appear to be a howling spoiler, but this aspect of the mystery is so clearly telegraphed early in the narrative that it really isn’t. It’s a workmanlike mystery elegantly penned, as one might rightly expect of a future Poet Laureate, for as I feel certain anyone interested enough to read this far will know, Blake was the pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis.

Meanwhile, the dubious honour of being bottom of the list of my seasonal reading in 2022 falls to Carter Dickson, whose ‘The White Priory Murders’ is as dreary an example of John Dickson Carr’s ‘celebrated’ Locked Room mystery shtick as one might be unfortunate enough to stumble on. Nothing very much seems to happen in the book except for a steady stream of bozos expostulating about how the crime might have been carried off, whilst the insufferable Sir Henry Merrivale tells them, and us, how this is all very well, but sadly Not What Happened, before eventually unveiling the truth in a denouement that one feels immensely thankful for simply because it means the ordeal is finally over rather than it being a satisfactory conclusion to an entertaining story. I appreciate that many people love this kind of thing, but please remind me of my feelings on this when the mostly wonderful British Library series reissues another so-called classic by this tiresomely smug writer.

Apologies for falling into the trap of negativity there, but this is what John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr does to me. Makes me forget myself and my Best Intentions for Staying Positive In The Face Of It All. The ridiculously chipper novels of Susan Scarlett (aka Noel Streatfeild), whose ‘Clothes-Pegs’ and ‘Babbacombe’s’ I read recently, do help in chasing away the blues, as do the six detective novels of Molly Thynne. Indeed, Thynne’s 1931 novel ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ was firmly my second favourite seasonal slice of crime fiction, featuring as it does all the best ingredients for a highly entertaining Christmas romp: Ridiculously heavy snowfall? Check. Posh folks stranded together in a single setting (here it’s a village pub rather than a Country House)? Check. Jewellery theft? Check. Murder? Check. People being Not What They Appear To Be? Check. Fictional novelist as narrator? Check. Aging chess master as astute amateur detective? Erm, ‘check’, as it were. ‘The Crime at Noah’s Ark’ does nothing out of the ordinary, but it presses all the right buttons with the perfect amount of pressure to be thoroughly entertaining. It is the fourth of the six detective novels penned by Thynne between 1928 and 1933 and the first of the three which feature ‘series’ detective, the aforementioned chess master Dr Constantine.

The three Dr Constantine novels are arguably the best of Thynne’s small body of work, building as they do on the character of the chess master and his somewhat Holmesian methods of investigative thinking and reasoning. Of the three books that precede the introduction of Dr Constantine, it is is her first, ‘The Draycott Murder Mystery’ that stands out as being the best. It’s alternative title of ‘The Red Dwarf’ might to more modern eyes suggest a connection to hideously unfunny science fiction but is in fact a nice reference to the stylograph pen that was so popular in the early part of the 20th Century and which provides the key clue on which the solution of the crime hinges. Winston Churchill had two of these pens, apparently; one with red ink and the other with blue, with which I imagine he would doodle the Union flag on his notepads. Incidentally, did the ‘Red Dwarf’ television show also take its name from the pen? Was the space ship called ‘Red Dwarf’ and was it called that because it looked like the pen? Inspired perhaps by youthful endeavours playing with office equipment imagined as spacecraft speeding through the universe… I admit I am sufficiently intrigued to pose the question, yet insufficiently interested as to warrant even a cursory look on the Interwebs for the answer. I digress….

Molly Thynne’s The Red Dwarf’ is a neatly constructed murder mystery that trots along at a fair pace without ever losing its breath from the misuse of over-excitable ‘action’ that some of her contemporaries occasionally suffered from. Some marvellously period notions of social propriety and ‘honour’ thread through the narrative, which is perhaps not unexpected when one realises that Thynne herself was born into the aristocracy. Related on her mother’s side to James McNeil Whistler and the English etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden, it seems that her early years were spent mixing within the circles of the social and artistic elite in the heady environs of leafy Kensington, where no doubt meetings with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Henry James left a lasting impression. Yet whilst there is certainly an air of the Upper Classes filtering throughout all of Thynne’s detective novels, and of her Writing What She Knows, there is too a welcome sprinkling of self-awareness and good humour. Early in ‘The Red Dwarf’ she puts her tongue in the cheek of her amateur sleuth and points out that “With a smile at his own childishness, he fell back on the time-honoured method of all detectives of fiction and set to work with a pencil and paper to get his thoughts in order.” Elsewhere she makes a curious use of the old Scots word ‘algey’ to describe things going amiss and one cannot help but wonder how she came across the word. Perhaps in some aristo visit to Scottish lairds or to the Duke of York in Balmoral (her second cousin was one of the Duke of York’s bridesmaids). Perhaps not.

It seems to me that Thynne loses her way somewhat with her second detective novel, 1929’s ‘Murder On The Enriqueta’. Expecting an entertaining ‘closed house’ mystery on the open seas, I was disappointed to find that only the opening scenes are set on board, with everything else then taking place within the social whirl of The London and revolving around (yawn) inheritance, social propriety (again) and the time-honoured mistrust of Foreigners. It feels somewhat like a book that is flailing around trying to decide what genre it wants to belong to. Romance, murder-mystery, thriller: it straddles all of these, and if it never quite settles satisfactorily on one, it nevertheless has a rollicking good time trying. ‘The Case of Adam Braid’ from a year later is much more assured and comfortably positioned as a murder-mystery that seems to take some wry self-aware amusement in balancing the entire mystery on the question of whether the butler did, or did not do it. Well, that and trying to prove that the plucky young lady to whom all the evidence rather worryingly points, is innocent.

As already mentioned, the three novels featuring Dr Constantine are perhaps Thynne’s best, with 1932’s ‘Death In The Dentist’s Chair’ and 1933’s ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ following ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ in being neatly penned, nicely entertaining examples of genre writing. Thynne does seem to have had a penchant for introducing characters who Are Not Who They Appear To Be, which perhaps reflects an increasing sense of mistrust being shown for the machinations of ‘her’ social class. Or perhaps it’s just that Very English Thing of taking any opportunity to put on Fancy Dress and pretending to be someone, or something Other.

Regardless, ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ was Thynne’s final foray into the world of fiction, detective or otherwise. She appears to have quite happily withdrawn thereafter to a life of quietude on the High Street of Bovey Tracey in Devon, where she died in 1950 at the age of 68. The six detective novels she left us might not be what one would immediately recommend to anyone dipping a toe into the genre for the first time, but they are assuredly ones that deserve attention from anyone with even a modicum of interest in the inter-war period.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 24

‘Four Winters’ by Jem Southam
Published in 2022 by Stanley | Barker. Buy direct here
This piece was originally published on the International Times website here, and then on and on Caught By The River here.
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“In the middle of a December night a few years ago I was woken by the phone ringing downstairs. Nothing good ever comes of such a call and this time it was news that my younger brother had been admitted to hospital, and the doctor caring for him had rung to say he thought it unlikely he would live through the night. I drove to see him and sat with him through the early hours, in the eerie quiet of the emergency ward, until late in the morning when it appeared he would pull through.

When I got home that afternoon I decided to go for a walk by the river. As the dark of the dusk gradually gathered I sat on a log to sift through the thoughts and emotions of the day. Gradually I became absorbed in what was in front of me; the turbulence of the streams surface as the water raced around the bend, the waving of the reeds and the branches of the overhanging tree, and the pink of the clouds being pushed across the sky by a south-westerly breeze.

When mallard ducks pushed out from the bank to swim across the river in search of a safe haven for the night, I picked up the small digital camera I had just started to use and quickly took a picture.”
Jem Southam

There is something profoundly moving about experiencing art that is rooted in the landscapes one calls home. I felt it earlier this year when I read parts of Davina Quinlivan’s gorgeous ‘Shalimar’ and I feel it again looking at the photographs collected in Jem Southam’s ‘Four Winters’. The photographs move me most, I think, because whilst I have sat on the same log, watched the waving of the same reeds, enjoyed the sight of the same mallard ducks and the same pink kissed clouds, I have never made photographs that begin to approach the brilliance of Southam’s. Lord knows I have tried.

Some thirty years of teaching taught me that the easiest response to much art is “I could have done that”. This is especially true of photographs, and particularly so in an age when everyone thinks themselves a photographer just because they have a phone in their hand. The answer to such an assertion is, of course, “But you didn’t.” These are necessarily simplistic exchanges but they hint at the difficulty of being an artist, which is rooted in the not-so-simple act of the follow through. The challenge of actually Doing The Work. How many times have I thought of an idea and then watched it fizzle away like a damp squib on firework night? Far too many to count. Something always gets in the way. Often those somethings are pedestrian and/or irritating: Going out to work; cleaning the house; going to the store. Often too though those somethings are pleasurable: Going for a bike ride; swimming in the sea; walking on the cliffs; reading just one more book; listening to just one more new record; cuddling the cat; drinking a single malt as the sun goes down. Such things may be immensely life-affirming and enjoyable, yet they are not doing the drawing. They are not making the photograph and they are not rolling the ink and lifting the print. Life is a trade off and this is why I am not an Artist. Or a Cyclist. Or a Swimmer. Not really. Not even remotely. And this is why I could not make the photographs that Jem Southam has made. This is why Jem Southam is an Artist and I am not.

Something else I remember from early in my thirty years of teaching is spending hours watching the same Andy Goldsworthy documentary film over and over again with different classes. I was not, and am not still a huge Goldsworthy fan. His work does not seem to me to be as eloquent or elegant as Richard Long’s, for example, although I do understand why people are drawn to his sculptural interventions in the landscape. One thing I did like from that Goldsworthy film however was hearing him talk about spending time really getting to know a place. It sounds so easy yet is extraordinarily difficult to achieve with any depth of feeling.

Jem Southam clearly knows this place on the river Exe. One of his previous books, ‘The River: Winter’ explored a larger stretch of the Exe, going up as far as the bridge over troubled water at Bickleigh (yes, local legend still has it that Paul Simon was inspired to write the song after playing a show at the Fisherman’s Cot pub in 1965, even though Art Garfunkel punctured this myth back in 2003) whilst in his photographs of ‘The Painter’s Pool’ he immersed himself in Stoke Woods, a hair’s breath from the confluence of the Exe and the Culm. None of these photographs, however, fall into the well-worn trap wherein a single repeated source becomes a vehicle for exploring light, tone and ever-changing mood. They do this too, of course, yet for Southam the very essence of the place seems to be the subject as much as anything else conjured by the processes of photography itself. In these ‘Four Winters’ photographs that place is very specific, with all of the pictures being made at dusk or dawn at just a few points along the river near the village of Brampford Speke. The first winter is photographed at a bend near Burrow Lane, whilst the subsequent three shift downstream to the fields below St Peter’s church before finally focusing on the flooded pond where Southam captures the river in spate reclaiming part of its passage from more than a century past. In the summer months Swallows will nest in the rich red banks and swoop across the river catching flies, but in Southam’s winters these banks are invisible below the waters and the swallows replaced by geese, ducks and swans. The brightness of summer too is replaced by the delicious cloak of winter, and many of the photographs are suffused with the softest light imaginable, like landscape viewed through what author Malcolm Saville would have described as being that gentle rain peculiar and particular to the West Country. They are painterly pictures, glowing with the illusory spectral resonance of Constable sketches. Much remains hidden. Human presence is suggested only by the lights of the cottage near Lake Bridge, glowing like a beacon of warmth in the winter’s morning or evening chill. Mostly though the human hand is shrouded, acknowledged only through contemplation and consideration: Southam’s presence behind the lens, making decisions about what we see and what we do not, feels essentially invisible, whilst the knowledge of the changes in the river’s course come only through immersion in aged maps and the gathering of ultimately useless trivia, like the shoes and plastic toys left discarded in the layers of mud and enmeshed twigs after the floods subside.

These photographs then, capturing as they do the passage of their titular four winters, are rich in meditative reflection and elegantly capture both the impermanence of life and the eternal cycle that nature perpetuates. The recurrence of swans in this place and in these photographs is emblematic of this cultural mythology of death and renewal, as though the migrating geese have brought ancient Scandinavian lore to this corner of a Devon waterway. As Southam himself notes in the short text that accompanies the photographs, according to such mythology, the swans carry “the souls of the dead across into the afterlife” and are “depicted drawing the chariot carrying the sun across the sky, which after sunset descends into the underworld, reappearing in the morning to renew the daily cycle.” In so doing, perhaps, they invest this place with a simultaneously earthly and otherworldly energy that Southam in turn transmutes into visual form. He crafts it from the light and the shadow and allows the actors on the stage to dance their beautiful ballet. Birds fly. The whispers of ghosts settle on bare branches and the touch of what God we harbour inside pours salve on our wounds. Magic in here.