Another fine day, and another notable lack of people out walking or riding in the lanes and farm roads that, just a month ago, were filled with apparently happy families. In contrast, there is a line of cars parked along the road at the end of our close, and on our regular lockdown walking route when we might meet previously have met five or six people, C tells me that today she counted fifty one. As I ride out of Thorverton and up to Raddon I pass an enormous LOVE outside a farmyard. Already it seems like a forlorn echo of a future hope dashed on the rocks of complacency.
It is just over a month since I rode out this way. On that day I recall a refreshing lack of motor traffic and at least two instances of fathers out with their children on bicycle rides. Today it is just as warm, but the wind blows from the opposite direction and this feels strangely appropriate as the only other people I see on bicycles are two chaps on road bikes who pass me heading down into Crediton as I climb out. Instead what I do see are numerous families crammed into 4X4s, driving who knows where, to do who knows what, for who knows what reason. Their loss.
Last time out I was writing about the British Library Crime Classics reissue series and about the South Downs of Sussex. Well, to continue the connections, these past few weeks I have been reading more 1930s crime novels set mostly in the same parts of the English landscape in the shape of a run of Dean Street Press reissues of Moray Dalton’s tremendously entertaining books featuring Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard. Dalton (a pseudonym of Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) wrote fifteen books featuring inspector Collier between 1929 and 1951 plus a host of others, and certainly in the six I have devoured in the past couple of weeks there is a distinct sense of these books being very much in the vein of those by E.C.R. Lorac. Indeed, there are neat connections between Dalton and Lorac (aka Edith Caroline Rivett) in that both shared the same publisher for a time in the 1930s, and that both their detectives are of Scottish origin. It seems that Dalton’s Inspector Collier precedes Lorac’s Macdonald by at least a year, but one rather likes to imagine conversations between the two at some point, wherein the pros and cons of different regional character traits for the Ideal Police Inspector would be discussed in detail over high tea or a glass of sherry. Or perhaps they both just had a thing for Scotsmen (or Scotchmen as they might well have called us in those times). Not that any particular Scots traits of Inspector Collier ever really show themselves within the books, and indeed there is a curious lack of development of the character at all. He seems like something of a wraith in many of the stories, barely there at times and completely invisible at others. Indeed, in ‘The Night Of Fear’ Collier takes a back seat for much of the book, the slack of his investigative role taken up by private investigator called Glide. Glide crops up in some later Dalton books and in ‘Night Of Fear’ it does feel as though Dalton is still working out which of her characters she likes the look of best. This isn’t a criticism, incidentally, for there is always more than enough going on in the books such that the flesh and bones of Collier almost becomes an irrelevance.
The Glide character is there again in ‘Death In The Cup’, as Dalton plays with poisoning and the peculiarly oppressive strictures of familial obedience and inheritance, much of which feels inevitably Old Fashioned whilst being simultaneously timelessly relevant. It is inevitable too that for 21st Century readers there may be a degree of shock at some of the language used and some of the social and moral mores on display, but frankly I have always seen these aspects as useful historical reference points rather than reasons to damn the books to funeral pyres of unwelcome impropriety. Dalton is as good (or as bad, depending on your perspective) at this as any, and ‘Death In The Cup’ is particularly striking in its use of the word ‘loonies’ to describe those with mental health issues. “I never had cared about living with a pair of loonies about, but they’d both seemed harmless enough” says one of the servant characters before adding the observation that one particular individual “spends his time cutting pictures out of papers and pasting them in albums when he isn’t digging in his bit of garden. Just a softy I always thought. Timid and shy.” Naturally I read this and laugh at how well it describes my younger self. Or indeed my present, older self. Minus the digging in the garden, obviously. Actually what feels most interesting in all this is just how relatively recently such phrasing has fallen out of popular usage. It was certainly still amongst the favoured terms in my own 1970s and 80s youth, although then again, we are now as far from those eras as I would then have been from Dalton’s…
Elsewhere, in ‘The Belfry Murder’, there are also the inevitable references to Jews, though in Dalton’s defence it has to be said that these are rather less nastily thrown and somewhat more balanced than in most other contemporaneous cases. Early in the book an elderly immigrant to England suggests that “The Jews are a wonderful people… They have their faults, but think of the way they’ve been treated” whilst later one of the Jewish characters (named, extraordinarily enough, Kafka) himself suggests that “There are Jews—and Jews—just as there are gentlemen and cads in every race.” In the context of mainstream popular English literature in 1933 I suspect such a stance may be quite remarkable, but I am no academic and I am sure others can either rebuke me for such an ill-informed comment or suggest that this is indeed the case.
If Dalton’s attitude towards Jews may be oddly out of kilter with with the established and unsavoury mainstream vilification to be found elsewhere at the time, then her attitude towards transvestism, as found in the extraordinary ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ book of 1936 is positively enlightened. It is no great spoiler to give the game away on the cross-dressing front, but it is certainly to Dalton’s credit that whilst it is clearly A Shocking Development to all involved, it is never portrayed as something to create great unease. The transvestism may be an important plot device, but there is never a suggestion that the personal sexual preferences of a character are central to any criminal activities. One could argue that this detachment of a sexual psychology from a criminal one is naive (it’s highly unlikely that any modern criminal investigator would fail to at least explore a possible connection) but then this naïveté is perhaps one of the very reasons some of us much prefer these Golden Age stories to more modern ones, where great pleasure seems to be taken in exploring supposedly ‘dark’ corners of life in excruciating detail. Dalton instead seems to say “this is no big deal”. It’s a personal choice. Nothing to do with us. I for one applaud such a position.
In ‘Harriet Hall’ and ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is a definite sense of Dalton moving her books more assuredly into the realms of the entertainment thriller than the detection puzzle genre, and its a move that, as previously mentioned, I personally appreciate. It all ratchets up to the next level in the marvellous ‘The Belgrave Manor Crime’ of 1935, in which child abduction, sexual depravity, hallucinogenic drug use, spiritualism and devil worship are thrown together in a splendid romp through the Sussex landscape. It recalls something of Miles Burton’s ‘The Secret of High Eldersham’ of five years previous, which has a similarly high-octane denouement involving a rush to save Innocents from the depraved clutches of occultists. In the spirit of populist entertainments, the majority of Dalton’s characters here are comic book caricatures of Bright Young Crowley-devotee Things, but that is certainly part of the appeal.
To get back into geographical peculiarities though, it is noticeable that whilst almost all of the Sussex place names are real (we visit Lewes, Arundel, Shoreham, and Littlehampton amongst others) the reference to South Devon, where a body is discovered early in the book is peculiarly named as Barme Head. Of course no such place exists, but some detective work based on a few other comments in the book suggest it could be based on the the area around Coleton, where the National Trust holds the marvellous Arts and Crafts / Art Deco decorated Coleton Fishacre property. This in itself is but a stone’s throw from Agatha Christie’s celebrated home at Greenway, and I wonder if the choice of a fictional South Devon location is as some kind of tangential reference to Christie? In ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is little doubt that the observation by Inspector Collier that “Quite recently a considerable amount of public money had been wasted and a number of officers had been employed for days in searching for a woman whose disappearance had proved to be voluntary and in the nature of a practical joke” is a less than veiled reference to Christie’s infamous 1926 disappearance.
With three more of the Dean Street Press’ run of Dalton’s books still to be read, I admit I am looking forward to being entertained until at least the start of the notional half term break (it feels strange that such long-established punctuation points in the year are currently essentially meaningless), at which point I will no doubt turn my attention elsewhere in the extensive Dean Street Press catalogue (Elizabeth Gill, Ianthe Jerrold, Joan Cowdroy, E & M.A. Radford and Basil Thomson having already been fully read and very much enjoyed in the past few years). So many treasures to yet unearth.
I readily admit that I am largely a creature of habit. In more than a couple of decades living in Devon I have cycled through Talaton and then over to Colestocks many, many times and always, but always, then onto Payhembury. I have passed the sign that points to Hembury Fort on so many occasions and yet have never before ridden up it. Today this changes.
The narrow lane climbs almost incessantly up towards the edge of the backdown hills, interrupted only by the occasional and infuriating dip and subsequent steep rise as it cuts straight across the landscape. At one point I am startled to see a faded ‘Vote Labour’ sign wedged in a tree, a sight so rare in the countryside as to be akin to spying a red squirrel. ‘Onwards comrades’ I mutter to myself as the lane pitches up to nearly 20% before reaching a crossroads with the Honiton road.
From here the track continues to climb, creeping slowly through cuttings in the red earth towards the escapement on which our Iron Age ancestors but their earthworks and homes. The site is now overgrown with more recently planted trees, and it is easy to forget how so much of the landscape we see has been moulded and managed by multitudes of generations, each driven by different needs and fashions.
The lane is still narrow and I sense a car crawling slowly behind me. I look ahead to see if there are any passing places, but since I see none I do the decent thing. I unclip a foot, rest a cleat on the soft, wooded verge and wave the vehicle on. A small black Volkswagen creeps past and through a wound-down passenger window I hear a young man call ‘I’m so sorry!’. I laugh, calling back that it’s fine as I resume the climb past the echoes of warrior tribes.
This may be one of the last times I ride the roads through Exeter and south to Dawlish. The traffic is already significantly heavier after some media’s hyperbolic proclamations of lockdown being eased from next week, and in truth I find myself grimacing as much from the number of cars as from the stiff head wind. Turning for home, I opt for a detour from the usual route and find myself on a quiet country lane headed for Kenn and Kennford. Lush green fields rise on gentle hillsides to my right, whilst over to the right I see the heights of Haldon. In Kenn I pause to photograph another church, this time St Andrew’s church for the parish, its New Red Sandstone bulk resplendent against the blue May sky.
At Feniton I start making things up as I go along. A sign pointing to ‘Curscombe’ leads down past the most ridiculously picturesque row of wisteria clad cottages and I think, well, it would be rude not to. As the narrow road heads back northwards I think, okay, next right and right again and we’ll see where that takes us. Where it takes us is into Buckerell, where I pause to photograph its charming church. As I do so, a piercing cry breaks the silence and to my amazement a peacock struts out from behind the neatly tended gravestones, it’s lustrous chest as blue as the freshly shampooed sky.
Like many, I have been eagerly devouring each release in the British Library Crime Classics series ever since ‘The Mystery In White’ kicked things off some five and a half years ago. Amongst the first batch of releases were a couple of John Budes’ terrific ‘place’ series novels, ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’. Both of these are wonderful reads and I very much recommend them. As with his ‘Lake District Murder’ they are novels that intentionally root themselves in place and in these times of limited travel I am very tempted to re-read them in order to travel back to these landscapes, at least in my mind. The recently reissued ‘two for the price of one’ paperback of Budes’ ‘Death In White Pyjamas’ and ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ may not follow the earlier formula of being tourist promotional materials for English Counties, but are nonetheless welcome additions to the British Library series. As Martin Edwards’ typically well informed introduction tells us, both these novels are almost impossible to find in their original versions, largely because they were published during WW2 and therefore in limited numbers. As Edwards also notes, the war permeates both books in the sense that both are decidedly up-beat and shot through with lightweight humour in attempts to raise spirits and create entertaining diversions. In this they are both assuredly successful, and if this means that they function slightly less well as detective conundrums then that is all to the good. In our similarly (but very differently) trying times such lighthearted entertainments are a singular balm.
In both novels it seems to me that Bude has summoned the spirit of Wodehouse into his prose, and this is to be applauded of course. Something in the dialogue has the wit and whimsy of Bertie Wooster and his pals and I admit that at times I could not help but hear Hugh Laurie’s voice ringing in my head. Indeed in ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ we encounter a character called Honoria whose dialogue comes complete with exaggerated lisp, and whilst of course in Wodehouse land the lisping lady would be little Madeline, all the names and traits mingle in my mind into one delicious jambalaya of amused reference and gentle ribbing. In both novels Bude pushes the narrative along at a smart pace whilst always being careful not to exhaust us. His characters are almost comic and certainly chipped from the rock of caricature, but in the context of the detective entertainment this is not only to be expected but to be encouraged. And if the denouement in each novel rather trips over itself in a desperate attempt to deliver justice and wrap up loose ends in a bluster of ‘and that was that’ then again, this is all fine, and I for one would rather that than endless lingerings and ‘another thing’s. Highly recommended.
Ditto the reissued ‘Crossed Skis’ by Carol Carnac which I devoured in a couple of sittings. This is a post-WW2 title that very nicely captures something of an England and Europe attempting to recover some sense of normality at the start of the 1950s. The novel neatly navigates between a dingy rationing-ravaged London in January and the snowy landscapes of the Austrian Alps where a party of Young Things have gathered to dance, dine and (of course) ski, all the while with an unknown interloper in their midst. If it all feels rather impossible to the modern eye, this is surely part of its charm, as Carnac (a thinly disguised E.C.R. Lorac – herself a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett) paints a convincing portrait of the contemporary society in a moment of flux, where class distinctions begin to erode and connections between individuals become by necessity random and accidental. As a whodunnit detection challenge it barely registers on the difficulty spectrum, but this is hardly the point as Carnac takes great pleasure in describing charming Alpine landscapes and the thrill of skiing to an audience desperate for an escape (literal and metaphorical) from the post-war austerity. As with Bude’s two novels, this sense of escapist entertainment is palpable, and the publication of these paperbacks in the current situation seems strangely apposite.
There are another five Lorac novels already published by the British Library and each of these are as good as, or even better, than ‘Crossed Skis’. Two of these five are set in London, whilst another two find themselves based in Devon (the fifth takes in the fell lands of the southern Lake District). All are tremendous, but it is in the more rural based novels where Lorac shares, through her recurring character of Inspector MacDonald, an obvious love for landscape and nature. Of course it is the Devon novels that I personally find most engaging and I admit that I have spent many hours tracing the fictionalised references to place. Dulverton and Exeter certainly crop up in ‘Fire In the Thatch’, whilst the family name of the characters at the centre of the novel is ‘St Cyres’ (a reference, I like to think, to the village of Newton St Cyres, home to the legendary Beer Engine public house and brewery). The fictitious Milham on the Moor in ‘Murder In The Mill-Race’ meanwhile is described as being on the route from Taunton to Barnsford (though quite why Taunton should be named whilst Barnstaple has to be barely disguised is beyond me) which would place it around South or North Molton, or perhaps East and West Anstey.
From these geographical games it is quite clear that Lorac enjoys having fun, creating fantastic collages where fragments of the real combine to make illusory conceits of immeasurable pleasure. It’s never more mad and delicious than in her 1943 novel ‘Death Came Softly’ in which place names are entirely imaginary whilst still retaining some nods to reality (I like to think this is some kind of nod to the wartime obfuscation of place names and road signs). Exeter, for example, becomes Enster, whilst it strikes me that Valehead House may be a reference to Mamhead House, although geographically it would be in entirely the wrong part of Devon (Lorac tells us the house is “hidden in one of the wooded north Devon valleys”). Architecturally, a close fit would be the Italianate Buckland House (yours to rent for the weekend at the bargain price of between £3000 and £5700), but whilst this is indeed towards the northern part of the county, everything else in the novel points to the south. A character gets lost in the mist on the moor and shelters at one of the tors, which suggests Dartmoor rather than Exmoor, whilst Inspector MacDonald catches a train from Towmouth (Teignmouth?) through Starford (Starcross?) to connect with the London train from Enster (London is always just London (or Town) in every English detective novel ever written). Another strong clue to Valehead being modelled on Mamhead is in Lorac’s opening paragraphs of the book, in which she describes the early summer blooming of the gardens. The description is a triumph and with its mention of vast magnolias and rhododendrons would appear to be quite an accurate take on the extensive gardens around Mamhead (which, incidentally, is currently on the market should you have something in the region of £10 million kicking around down the back of the sofa). Needless to say ‘Death Comes Softly’ is, as well as a geographical detective pleasure, a fine whodunnit with an ingenious mode of murder and some marvellous period characters sketched in finest caricature. Currently only available on Kindle (unless you want to shell out £600 for a signed hardback first edition) it is, like all of Lorac’s work, tremendously entertaining.
Now mention was made earlier of how John Bude’s ‘Sussex Downs Murder’ makes me want to visit this landscape, and this has been very much the case too when reading Justin Hopper’s ‘The Old Weird Albion’. I had enjoyed the ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ record that Hopper made a few years ago for Ghost Box with Sharon Kraus and Belbury Poly but will admit that, fine and enjoyable as the record is, there is something just not quite right about hearing Hopper’s American accent narrating words about a place suffused with such ancient Albion magic. His book traces some of the same passages as the record, but extends the narrative into something that blends personal historical exploration with something that touches on the deeper pre-history within the landscape of the South Downs.
At the start of the book Hopper tells us how he grew up atheist but came to reject his parents’ lack of faith, eventually looking outside of organised religion to find that spiritual succour in landscape. It seems to me that however much we may grow to embrace or reject our parents’ beliefs at various stages of our lives, there exists in most of us always a tension between skepticism and a desire to discover some sense of faith. Certainly Hopper’s interest in exploring the histories stored by landscape underpinned by the notions of ancient natural magic is something that resonates strongly with me at this point in my life. Yet it is that underlying, perhaps even barely perceptible tension between faith and doubt that prevents ‘The Old Weird Albion’ from falling into the trap of becoming too heavily enveloped by the reek of new-age mysticism and crystal cradling hippiedom. Instead I feel that Hopper treads the line of intrigue where the threads of ancient mysteries weave into contemporary 21st Century questions of reality, myth, purpose and belonging. When new modes of normal are defined in the coming months and years, I will certainly feel the pull of the landscapes that Hopper writes about and look forward to opportunities to follow some of his pathways. I feel sure I will revisit ’The Old Weird Albion’ as I do so.