Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Short Life of Crime: Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937)

Christopher St. John Sprigg
on the left side of the blog
Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) is one of those fascinating people who briefly entered the field of detective fiction during its Golden Age, but is better known for other things besides his mystery writing.  He published six detective novels in a flurry between 1933 and 1935.  A final tale appeared in 1937.

The first six of Sprigg's seven detective novels are delightful, whimsical tales that should find favor with fans of writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes and Nicholas Blake.  Dorothy L. Sayers herself praised Sprigg's mystery fiction, as did Todd Downing (you just knew Downing's name would pop up somehow, didn't you?). Sprigg was aware of Sayers' praise for one of his novels and sent her a thankful letter.

Born a Catholic, Sprigg like many in the 1930s transferred his spiritual fervor into Marxism.  He was soon scorning his detective fiction as "trash" written to make money and immersing himself in massive, serious, intellectual  tomes that attempted to interpret everything in the world through Stalinist lenses (the word bourgeois is mentioned a great deal, and naturally not in a good way).  Sprigg's volumes of Marxist thought, published under the name Christopher Caudwell, are considered significant contributions in this field.

Much of Sprigg's work, including the final, post-conversion detective novel, The Six Queer Things, was published posthumously, for Caudwell was killed in the Spanish Civil War, before his thirtieth birthday (like many idealistic leftists of the day he had gone to Spain to support the Republican side).

In contrast with his other detective novels, The Six Queer Things, an attack on Spiritualism, is quite grim in tone, with a notably nasty last line (see this interesting review of the novel at The Study Lamp).

Back in 2012 I came across two unpublished detective stories by Sprigg, as well as an unpublished mystery play.  I'll be commenting more about these works in my next forgotten book post (plus there will be reviews of The Bughouse Affair and more on Anthony Gilbert and part 2 of the Jim Thompson-Todd Downing article, also another Life in Crime--wow, I'd better get busy!).

The Detective Novels of Christopher St. John Sprigg (Christopher Caudwell)

Crime in Kensington/Pass the Body (1933)
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) (not published in the US)
The Perfect Alibi (1934)
Death of an Airman (1934)
The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935)
Death of a Queen (1935) (not published in the US)
The Six Queer Things (1937)


  1. "I came across two unpublished detective stories by Sprigg". Do you mean the two books not published in the USA, or completely unpublished?

    1. Hi, Roger, oh, I see I should clarify that: short stories they are! Not novels! Now novels really would be something! But there are points of interest in the short stories too. More on Friday!

  2. A new author and a new detective for me. I'd like to start with "The Six Queer Things" and read more about Sprigg's take on spiritualism, my area of interest, and then there's that "nasty last line" I want to know. Thanks for the link to The Study Lamp too.

  3. I'm still looking for FATALITY IN FLEET STREET and DEATH OF A QUEEN. And I may be looking for the rest of my life. They are two of the rarest detective novels on my rather long want list. I enjoyed PASS THE BODY (very lively and witty) and ...SUNBURNED FACE the most out.

    Prashant - Spiritualism here is meant as talking with the dead through a medium. It's not the generic term often used by modern world to describe religious beliefs. And SIX QUEER THINGS is not the book to start with if you are interested in reading Sprigg. Curt will probably back me up. I have several detective fiction books I can recommend that deal with spiritualism (especially spiritualist debunking) if that is what you are interested in. But I'm guessing you mean spiritualism in the other way.

    1. You guessed correctly. I did mean it the other way. But I also like to read other viewpoints on spirituality even if it debunks the theory or is acutely critical of it. I'll be looking for some of Sprigg's books and I'll take your advice on SIX QUEER THINGS. Many thanks, Curtis.

    2. I am sorry, John. I meant to thank you, too, for the additional insight.

  4. Hmmm, never heard of this guy but enjoyed reading about him. That sure was an interesting time in history. Lots of young men's lives nipped in the bud. Sad but true. I'm adding the list of novels to my master list and will definitely keep a look out for the books. I'm intrigued. :)

  5. Yvette,

    his books are very hard to find, especially the two titles John mentioned. He's another one I'm going to try to see about reprinting. Yes, he was lost in the war but he died fighting for somethign he passionately believed in. Would he have been disillusioned like George Orwell and Andrew Garve and Julian Symons, had he lived?


    yes, it's like John wrote, Spiritualism as in mediums contacting the spirit world. I should have capitalized it! You might like Six Queer Things, but it's not really characteristic of his earlier books, which are lighthearted.


    Some people don't like the whole African section in Face, but it was something different, like a Haggard adventure story!

    Pass the Body seemed very Sayersian, which likely is why Sayers liked it! Also definite Innes quality (and this was before Innes).

    1. Thank you, Yvette. I'll keep that in mind. Spiritualism has only one connotation for me and it's exactly what it means. But I'm open to other views.

  6. Well, Prashant, as a convert to Marxism, of course Sprigg came to reject the idea of a "spiritual world" in any form and was a materialist (you know Marx's view on the "opiate of the people," etc.). He apparently became especially interested in debunking Spiritualism and its seances, mediums, etc.

    In one of his earlier books, Death of an Airman, however, he actually has an amateur detective who is a clergyman, quite sympathetically presented. It's his most available book too, Death of an Airman. Todd Downing reviewed that book and had a high opinion of the clerical sleuth.

    I think Sprigg had real ability as a detective novelists, but even had he not been killed in the Spanish Civil War I doubt he would have kept it up, because he came to see genre fiction as a distraction from his true cause, advancing the intellectual case for Communism.

  7. Recently, in Italy, was published by the Publisher Polillo, the novel The Perfect Alibi (1934), "L'Alibi Perfetto", by
    Christopher St. John Sprigg.