--from The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner
My last visit to not French crime fiction but rather crime fiction set in France was over a year ago, with Katherine Woods's intriguing reissued mystery Murder in a Walled Town (1934), but this month I have three French-set mysteries up for review, one by an Englishman, one by an American woman and one by a certain clever Belgian famously associated with France (and I'm not talking about Hercule Poirot).
|the postman cometh|
among the earliest examples of that twentieth-century phenomenon, the person who is famous for being famous....for every person who had read [Osbert's] books there were ten who knew something of him and his family. Today the ratio would probably be more like one to a thousand.*
Though the status-conscious Sitwells did not stress the fact, the family fortune was built not on the land but what lay under it, their 17th century ancestor George Sitwell, builder of the lavish family seat in Derbyshire, Renishaw Hall, having been an extremely wealthy collier and ironmonger. Among other things, George Sitwell was the world's largest manufacturer of iron nails. For the want of some nails, the Sitwell fortune might well have been lost, or at least substantially diminished.
Osbert met David Horner in 1921, when the exquisitely decorative and well-pedigreed young man was still an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The pair hit it off rather well, though for much of the Twenties they were personally involved with other individuals, Osbert with future art critic Adrian Stokes and David with the Vicomte Bernard d'Hendecourt, with whom he lived for several years in Paris and from whom he inherited a competence.
Osbert, writes biographer John Pearson (The Sitwells: A Family Biography), "was inclined to be romantically protective to good-looking, well brought-up young men," and the slim, blond and exquisitely profiled David offered no exception in this regard. Osbert rapturously termed David "orchidaceous," a word denoting, as Nero Wolfe no doubt would know, exotic or luxuriant beauty. David's looks, agrees Pearson "were literally his fortune." Continues Pearson:
[David] dressed superbly, had an amusing line of gossip about all the best people, which he recounted in an engagingly basso profundo voice, and after leaving Cambridge was soon floating, as unattached, good-looking, upper-class young Englishmen could float in those more gentle, far-off days, through a rarely failing world of dinner-parties, long weekends and holidays abroad. He was the perfect guest, the ideal ornament for any party, charming to women and agreeable to men, better connected and far better read than the usual run of gilded social butterflies, and equally at home in the best society in Paris or in London.
David was like the man-about-town you often see in Golden Age mystery, though with rather more substance and sophistication than usual and a sexual orientations that typically remained encoded in books.
|the orchidaceous David Horner|
David thus was possessed, as he left college, of little more than those celebrated orchidaceous looks of his and an "immaculate french accent" (and, one might add, a BA degree in History and Modern Languages, though he seems to have had no plan to employ that degree in an actual career).
David trumpeted throughout his life his descent from the ancient Horner family of Mells Manor. "The Horners are probably one of the few Saxon families still extant," he (half?) joked to Osbert. "I am rather bored with the Normans and consider them nouveaux riches." David could bask in the fact that he was included in the Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal.
The back flap author bio on The Devil's Quill, published when David when 59, makes mention of his service in his forties as a Squadron-Leader in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but devotes more time to the author's Mells Manor connection, David himself writing:
I am directly descended from Little Jack Horner (Henry VIII) who was lampooned in the nursery rhyme--the "Plum" being the property of Mells bought by my ancestor when the monks were kicked out of Glastonbury Abbey--his enemies said that he had stolen the title deeds: Mells, which now belongs to my first cousin Katharine [Horner] Asquith, is once again in the hands of a Catholic.
Unfortunately Edith did not take well to David, nor he to her. With Osbert and later David, once seemingly the perpetual golden boy, suffering increasing health problems, the relationship of the two men began to deteriorate in the 1950s and they became estranged in the 1960s, several years before Osbert's death in 1969.
Having read The Devil's Quill, I would agree about the matter of David's literary ability--it was not insignificant by any means. It is a shame that he did not write more fiction.
Before the advent of The Devil's Quill, David published two other books, both of which, like The Devil's Quill, drew on his life in France: Through French Windows (1938), a combination travelogue and novel that one British reviewer presciently praised for its "Sitwellian sensibility to detail" ("he describes the interior of a bathroom better than a landscape or a church.") and Was It Yesterday? (1939). However, The Devil's Quill, which followed these two novels after a lag of two decades, is David's only crime novel--if we choose to term it such.
|David Stuart Horner|
Apparently inspired by a real life criminal case, The Devil's Quill, which is set a few years before the occurrence of the First World War in 1910, concerns an outbreak of poison pen letters (aka doxing in the pre-internet era) that afflicts Bellerive, a smug provincial French town not far from Lyons. Before the novel is over social relations will be seriously disrupted and there will be murder done as well, though the murder is not dovetailed into the plot with the seamlessness of Agatha Christie in her own poison pen mystery novel, The Moving Finger (1942).
However, The Devil's Quill is not meant to be a Golden Age homage, a Christie-like clue-puzzle detective novel. It is, rather, a mid-century crime novel, giving great attention to Balzacian social detail. (It is not a crime novel demeueble!) Atmosphere is the novel's greatest strength; as one reviewer noted, Horner "reproduces the atmosphere [of a small French provincial town] with a masterly sureness of touch."
|the Sitwell siblings|
Osbert, Edith, Sacheverall
The Devil's Quill is not only a suspenseful novel, but an amusing one, in a sardonic way. Social prejudices remain, even as envenomed letters fly around town:
"Not that I have anything against Odile, but the trouble is they have bad blood. Etienne is quite different, but you must remember that the Girodets were in commerce.
"But, after all, your Aunt Louise's husband was in commerce."
"There you are entirely wrong. To begin with, he was no blood relation of mine, and in addition to that he was not in commerce, he was in industry, and that makes just all the difference."
What a relief this must have been to the Sitwells!
For more on David Horner and Osbert Sitwell, see:
David Horner and Sir Osbert Sitwell
"The Golden Squirrel": The Esoteric Snap of the Day! The Week of Sitwelliana! June 11 2013, The Esoteric Curiosa