Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Blast from the Past II: Anthony Rolls Master of the Golden Age Crime Novel

It seems like an eternity ago now, but it is almost four years since I wrote about the Anthony Rolls crime novels on my blog.  (See also this post.)  As you will see from the comments, these posts caught the attention of John Norris, and he followed with his own Rolls rave at his blog shortly thereafter.  Two of the Rolls crime novels, Scarweather and Family Matters, have since been reprinted by the British Library and I assume both The Vicar's Experiments (Clerical Error) and the wryly witty and wonderful Lobelia Grove, will soon follow.

Also in 2014 CADS: Crime and Detective Stories published  a 4000+ word piece by me on Anthony Rolls (Welsh writer Colwyn Edward Vulliamy), which I reprint here for people who may not be familiar with the CADS article and the internet genesis, who are now able to read the once very rare Rolls books for themselves.  In the piece I closed with the hope that these novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed today by a modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century crime fiction fans.  And so they have been.  (See my previous Blast from the Past here.)

Anthony Rolls (C. E. Vulliamy)
Master of the Golden Age Crime Novel

In his influential mystery genre survey, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972, rev. eds. 1985 and 1992), Julian Symons attributes the development of the psychological crime novel during the Golden Age of detective fiction in England primarily to the influence of the crime fiction of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971), specifically the first two books he wrote under his “Francis Iles” pseudonym: Malice Aforethought (1932) and Before the Fact (1932).  In both of these novels, in the first of which a man plots to murder his wife and the second of which a wife grows to apprehend that her husband is planning to murder her, the emphasis is on psychological suspense rather than classical detection.  Noting that both these novels were extremely well-received by contemporary critics, Symons asserts that “Iles had several followers, who faithfully copied his avoidance of the classical puzzle and tried hard to catch his particular blend of cynicism and realism, but for the most part only succeeded in being casual about murder.”  One of the four authors Symons lists as having written crime novels “under the influence of Iles” is Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971), who between 1932 and 1934 published four mysteries under the pseudonym “Anthony Rolls.”  Yet of the four 1930s Anthony Rolls novels Symons seems aware of only the first, The Vicar’s Experiments (in the US Clerical Error).  Concerning The Vicar’s Experiments, which details the murderous activities of a vicar who suddenly goes mad, Symons writes: “A good deal of what follows is very amusing, but the story falters sadly once suspicion of the clergyman has been aroused.”  Of Vulliamy’s later crime writing Symons notes only that there were some inferior novels by him “published twenty years and more after The Vicar’s Experiments.”  He concludes that during the Golden Age “the Iles school, including its founder, showed a certain lack of staying power.”  It is my contention, however, that Symons underestimated both the quantity and quality of psychological crime novels published during the Golden Age of detective fiction, both those that likely were influenced by Iles and those that probably were not.  In the case of C. E. Vulliamy specifically, Symons crucially missed the three additional 1930s Anthony Rolls crime novels: Lobelia Grove (1932), Family Matters (1933) and Scarweather (1934).  All three of these books are excellent crime novels, superior to as well as more original than The Vicar’s Experiments, and together they establish C. E. Vulliamy as more than a Golden Age student of the Iles school.  He was, rather, a master, eminently deserving of modern revival.[1]

Colwyn Edward Vulliamy
Although mostly forgotten today, C. E. Vulliamy enjoyed a variegated career as a writer over four decades, crime fiction being, in actuality, a relatively minor focus of his.  Born in 1886 at Glasbury House in the village of Glasbury in southern Wales, Vulliamy was descended from a prominent family of English clockmakers and architects.  Francois Justin Vulliamy (1712-1797), the founder of the English branch of the family, migrated from Switzerland to England in the 1730s and started what has been called the “Vulliamy clockmaking dynasty.”  Justin’s son Benjamin (1747-1811), was appointed Clockmaker to the King in 1771.  Benjamin’s son Lewis (1791-1871), was a notable Victorian-era architect, most admired for his designs for Westonbirt House and Dorchester House.  Louis’ son Edwin Papendick Vulliamy (1844-1914), who followed in his father’s footsteps as an architect, married Edith Jane Beavan, and with her produced one son, Colwyn Edward, the subject of this essay.[2]
Like another Golden Age crime writer, Agatha Christie, who was four years younger than C. E. Vulliamy and also hailed from the British hinterland (in Christie’s case, Devon), Vulliamy was privately educated.  Between 1910 and 1913 he studied art with Stanford Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) at the art colony in Newlyn, a fishing village outside Penzance, Cornwall (Forbes was a founding member of the colony).  When the First World War broke out, he took a commission in The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, serving over the next four years in France, Macedonia and Turkey.  He later transferred to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was demobilized with the rank of captain.  On 29 April 1916, he wed Eileen Hynes at St. Mary’s Church in Penzance.  “Owing to the war,” declared the notice in the Brecon and Radnor Express, “the wedding took place very quietly.  No invitations were issued, but on account of the popularity of the young couple, the well-known colony of Newlyn artists were present in full force.”  The Express also avowed of Vulliamy: “He himself is a man of artistic and literary abilities.”[3]
It was during the time Vulliamy spent in the Mideast that he became interested in archaeology.  In the 1920s he published several books on the subject, including Our Prehistoric Ancestors (1925) Unknown Cornwall (1925) and Immortal Man (1926), a study of burials and funeral customs (he would later draw on his archaeological expertise for his 1934 crime novel Scarweather).  With the 1930 publication of a biography of Voltaire he turned to writing about historical subjects. During this decade he also produced biographies of Rousseau, John Wesley, James Boswell, William Penn, Hester Thrale and George III, as well as studies of the Crimean War and British Imperialism in South Africa.  When discussing Vulliamy’s historical and biographical writing a friend recalled that throughout the author’s life his religious “standpoint was fundamentally agnostic” and that his “political sympathies between the wars might fairly have been described as left-wing, though he kept clear of extremism.”[4]  These attitudes can be discerned in Vulliamy’s Golden Age crime fiction as well.

Anthony Rolls
The first Anthony Rolls crime novel, The Vicar’s Experiments, which appeared in 1932, one year after Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought, does seem to show the influence of the first Iles tale, not only in its sardonic tone but in its plot structure.  Whatever we may think of Experiments now, it was quite well-received in its day.  The only Anthony Rolls crime novel published in the United States, Experiments also was placed on the recommended list of the English Book Society, a rare distinction for a mystery story.  Twenty-three years after the book’s original publication, Anthony Boucher, the dean of American crime fiction critics, warmly recalled Experiments (under its US title Clerical Error), as an “admirable ironic murder novel.”  Anticipating Julian Symons’ language by seventeen years, Boucher the same year placed Rolls among the “brightest prefects” in “headmaster” Francis Iles’ “school” of “ironic…murder novel, suavely literate and rich in subacid observation of human mores and motivations.”[5]
Experiments opens with a meeting between the Reverend Mr. Virgil Pardicott, vicar of Lower Pydal, and Colonel Cargoy, an ultra-conservative member of the parish council, in which the cheerfully ignorant and bigoted colonel opposes every innovation supported by the long-suffering country parson (the latter man is hopeful of removing from Lower Pydal to King’s Pydal).  During Cargoy’s befuddled explanation of why he opposes replacing the colored glass installed in the church chancel in 1869--“I should be sorry to see the old windows taken away.  I don’t like the notion of plain glass at all. Plain glass doesn’t seem right in a church somehow. Looks too much like a Baptist chapel.”--Mr. Pardicott’s mind abruptly snaps; and, in “a dizzy moment of revelation,” the vicar comprehends that he has “been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.”[6]  This is a brilliant line, justly quoted as well by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder, and the next few chapters, in which Mr. Pardicott plans and accomplishes the destruction of his nemesis Colonel Cargoy, are quite entertaining, with some excellent English village satire.  However, Colonel Cargoy is eliminated all too soon and Mr. Pardicott’s murderous attentions focus elsewhere--Colonel Cargoy’s widow is quite fetching, but Mr. Pardicott is, regrettably, married--with diminishing results.  The debt to Malice Aforethought seems all too evident.
Were The Vicar’s Experiments the only Anthony Rolls thirties crime novel, as Julian Symons and Anthony Boucher evidently believed, we might be justified, despite the praise earlier accorded the novel, in dismissing Vulliamy merely as a minor student in an Iles school.  However, the three Anthony Rolls crime novels that soon followed Vulliamy’s Experiments (rather aptly-titled, in this context) are superior works.  Lobelia Grove, which was published the same year as The Vicar’s Experiments, is a splendid tale of murders committed in Lobelia Grove, a neighborhood of Kipperly Park, an English suburban Garden City not far from London that is every bit as painfully proper and stiflingly conformist as any fictional English village from the period (Lower Pydal, for example).  The novel’s second chapter, in which the author describes Kipperly Park and a number of its “highly respectable, even eminent, persons,” is wonderfully wry:

If the reader is not one of the 7,416 fortunate persons who are now living in Kipperly Park, it is necessary that he should be given some idea of that delightful garden suburb and of the people who live there….Certainly it was a place where those who were ascending and descending on the social and economic scale tended to meet each other upon a common level of suburbaninity.  We say advisedly that they tended to meet each other, for in actual practice they were careful to keep out of each other’s way.[7]

Chapter One describes the disconcerting discovery, one evening in Lobelia Grove, of the fatally stabbed body of a man, local resident Victor Macumbrae, in the middle of the street; and the rest of the novel details the (frequently foolish) reactions and responses of the Kipperly Park denizens, including a couple of gung-ho retired military men, some prim matrons and much-decayed gentry, a compulsively conformist production department clerk (the memorably named Bertie Quirtle), journalist, a doctor, an academician and two men of faith, one a most robustly Christian Anglican minister and the other a fervent, if sadly misunderstood, adherent of spiritualism.  Police are mostly in the background and, although there is a nice young couple that does some amateur detecting, the solution to the murder (and another that follows it) comes to the couple by way of an unexpected confession.  There are subtle indications in the story as to who the murderer may be, but it takes quite a keen reader, in my opinion, to catch them.  Vulliamy’s interest in the novel lies not in providing a fiendishly developed murder problem, but rather in wickedly satirizing an English suburban community of the 1930s.  The high point of the novel, in terms of satirical treatment, probably is Vulliamy’s description of the meeting of the Kipperly Park Literary Society, “held in the new parish hall, a tin building of the most horrible aspect”:

It was the custom of the Literary Society to appoint on these occasions a hostess, who arranged the lighter and more social side of the entertainment, and provided biscuits and lemonade.  And you are not to suppose that such details were unimportant.  Although a number of serious people came to read papers on Shakespeare or Tennyson or Carlyle, or to listen to such papers, most of them came for biscuits and lemonade.[8]

In Bloody Murder Julian Symons has memorably avowed of Golden Age mysteries that the “social order in these stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas.”  Yet with Lobelia Grove, much of the satirical force of the novel comes from the fact that the social order is unfixed; behind their polite facades people are uneasy because they are not confident about where they “belong” socially.  I feel confident that Symons would have been surprised but pleased by this aspect of Lobelia Grove, as well as by Vulliamy’s jabs from the left at the conservative political sentiments of certain Kipperly Park residents, who are alarmingly quick to point fingers of suspicion at foreigners, Jews, Communists and the unemployed (there is, incidentally, one wonderfully spirited Jewish resident of the community, a Mrs. Gillystein, the widow of a tobacco merchant, who has the temerity to believe that “commerce was the proper occupation of those who were honest and respectable”).[9]
Family Matters (1933), Vulliamy’s third Anthony Rolls’ crime novel, is an altogether darker murder affair than either The Vicar’s Experiment or Lobelia Grove.   It both circumscribes and intensifies the author’s sardonic focus to, as the title suggests, a single household, along with some friends and relations.  Arguably the best of Vulliamy’s four Anthony Rolls novels, Family Matters brims, like the first two tales (especially Lobelia Grove), with mordant humor and intelligent observation; yet it also dares to more seriously probe the problems of extreme mental and emotional dysfunction that provoke real life murder dramas.  I found the novel strikingly reminiscent of Julian Symons’ first period mystery, The Blackheath Poisonings, which was published in 1978, forty-five years after the appearance of Family Matters, both in the virtuoso fictional use of poison to dispatch objectionable individuals and, more significantly, in its inducement in the reader of a powerfully claustrophobic sense of familial dysfunction.  This surely would have been a Golden Age crime novel that Symons himself would have admired.[10]
Vulliamy dedicated Family Matters to Osbert Guy Stanhope (O. S. G.) Crawford, a pioneering archaeologist who became enamored with Marxism in the 1930s and believed that the “traditional British way of life” was doomed.  The novel takes place in Shufflecester, a town, like Lobelia Grove’s Kipperly Park, located within the vicinity of London.  Unlike the modern Kipperly Park, however, Shufflecester seems more a Victorian backwater.  Vulliamy opens the novel with an aerial view of Shufflecester (recalling O. S. G. Crawford’s pioneering use of aerial photography in archaeology), before focusing on the troubled household that will be the center of events:

If you fly over the town of Shufflecester at an altitude of ten thousand feet you see a town below you like a dirty grey splash on the variegated patterns of brown, purple and green which mark the level landscape of the great Shufflecester plateau.  Through the middle of the town run the gentle sinuosities of the River Shuff like a white ribbon.  Seen from a lower altitude Shufflescester has a most fantastic and irregular appearance, reminding you a lot of grey and yellow bricks thrown at random upon a carpet by some heedless child.  The builders of the town seem to have been sobered or restrained by the wide levels of the country; their houses are flat, uniform, depressed, with hardly a tall building among them.  Only the towers of the cathedral suggest a vertical idea, and even these are square and heavy.  Outside the town are purple masses of timber, green or dun streaks of arable land, flowing towards the misty line of the Wyveldon Hills, above the sea.
Even this aeroplane view gives the impression of a placid, agricultural place, resisting innovation, unmoved by the hustling spirit of the age….All the inconvenience, though not the charm of antiquity, is preserved in [Shufflecester’s] narrow streets….There is no plan or regularity….The same absence of intelligent planning gives a perverse and unhappy appearance to those parts of the town which are termed “residential.” Blocks, curves and angles of grey and yellow brick, with roofs of lilac slate, produce an effect of morose, impregnable respectability….We are particularly concerned in this drama with a house in one of the less fashionable quarters—Number Six, Wellington Avenue.  It is like all the other houses in the Avenue, small, with a slate roof, a grim bit of grass between the front and the pavement, and a scrubby garden at the back.  In this house lived Mr. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, his wife, his young son, and his venerable father.[11]

Vulliamy’s Robert Arthur Kewdingham is a masterful depiction of querulous middle-class, middle-age failure.  “Poor Mr. Kewdingham had not been lucky,” writes Vulliamy, though he “came of a good middle-class family, of the sort which is capable of producing anything from a bishop to a broker—his father had been estate agent to the Duke of Tiddleswade.”  Let go from his engineering firm in 1925 at the age of 45, he has been out of work for a couple years when the novel opens, but happily for himself he has several hobbies—“science, politics, mysticism”—with which to occupy his time.  “Perhaps it was for this reason,” speculates Vulliamy, “that he thought so little about his wife and family.”[12]
Kewdingham’s wife Bertha—attractive and more than a decade younger than her husband—is growing increasingly restive over her life with her eccentric and cantankerous spouse.  Most of the Kewdingham kin, including Robert Henry, Robert Arthur’s “ancient father,” have a hearty, if misplaced, family pride, and resoundingly disapprove of Bertha, considering her insufficiently supportive of her husband (the octogenarian Robert Henry has an especially annoying habit of hurling admonitory literary quotations at Bertha).[13]  Add to this situation a spiteful bit of flirtatious feminine fluff, one Mrs. Pam Chaddlewick, an attentive but subtly sinister family doctor, Wilson Bagge, and a handsome Kewdingham cousin (a writer, no less), John Harrigall, and you have a poisonous mixture indeed. 
Where Lobelia Grove preserves the form of the detective novel, Family Matters is much more a tale of psychological suspense.  For two-thirds of the tale we tensely await for a death to occur, and when it does it is quite a doozy.  In addition to its fascinating exploration of fatal family dysfunction, Family Matters offers what is surely one of the most fascinating cases of poisoning in the literature of crime fiction.  Some may find that the novel’s scant epilogue ambiguous, but in my view Family Matters is one of the great Golden Age crime novels, unquestionably fit to stand in the company of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact.  The book was justly praised by Dorothy L. Sayers in her review of it in the Sunday Times, Sayers pronouncing: “The characters are quite extraordinarily living, and the atmosphere of the horrid household creeps over one like a miasma.”[14]
The last Anthony Rolls crime novel, Scarweather, which appeared the next year, in 1934, is a worthy successor to the earlier tales.  The story is told retrospectively by John Farringdale, a somewhat staid lawyer, eminently qualified to act as a Watson for his brilliant friend Fredrick Ellingham, a reader in chemistry at Cambridge.  Of Ellingham the admiring Farringdale declares, with positively Watsonian devotion, “I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of real attainment.”  Farringdale’s narrative, which takes place over fifteen years, from 1913 to 1928, details the fateful consequences of the meeting of Farringdale’s handsome cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, with Professor Tolgen Reisby, who occupies the Pattervale Chair of Genetics at the University of Northport and is keenly interested in archaology, and Professor Reisby’s beautiful, much younger wife, Hilda (“Scarweather” is the name of the Reisbys’ isolated dwelling in northern England).  In the main the novel is, like Family Matters, quite serious; yet there is, as in Vulliamy’s other crime novels, ample scope, particularly in the final section, for the author’s characteristic satire, which this time is directed primarily against academics and antiquarians (there are also some acid remarks about the late Great War).  The novel’s denouement is original, as far as I am aware, as well as remarkably macabre.  “As a study in criminal aberration [the Reisby case] is…of particularly interest,” pronounces Ellingham in the opening lines of Scarweather, “while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.”[15]  All quite true in my judgment.

Most regrettably, after Scarweather C. E. Vulliamy published no more Anthony Rolls crime novels.  Vulliamy remained interested in his Anthony Rolls books, however, and during the Second World War he keenly negotiated their republication with Martin Secker (1882-1978) of The Richards Press.  Both The Vicar’s Experiments (under its American title Clerical Error) and Family Matters were reprinted by The Richards Press in 1946.  Under his own name Vulliamy produced a new run of crime novels in the 1950s and 1960s (there were six of them between 1952 and 1963, to be precise), but these are, as Julian Symons indicated in Bloody Murder, inferior works, resembling Michael Innes at his most meandering and archly whimsical.[16]  Yet Vulliamy’s earlier Anthony Rolls crime novels constitute one of the most notable bodies of crime fiction produced during the Golden Age.  It is to be hoped that these novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed someday by a modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century crime fiction fans.

[1] Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972; rev. ed. New York: Mysterious Press, 1993), 139-141.  Symons in fact underestimated the number and significance of authors of psychological crime novels during the Golden Age of detective fiction, both before and after the advent of “Francis Iles.”  The other purported members of the “Iles school” about whom Symons writes in Bloody Murder are Richard Hull (for The Murder of My Aunt, 1934, which Symons considers—errantly, in my opinion--the best of Hull’s crime novels, even though he finds it “labored”); F. Tennyson Jesse (for A Pin to See the Peep-Show, 1934, a fictionalized version of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case); and Raymond Postgate (primarily for Verdict of Twelve, 1940, the first of Postgate’s three crime novels).
[2] The Brecon and Radnor Express, 2 July 1914, 8.  For articles from this newspaper see Cymru 1914: The Welsh Experience of the First World War, at  On the clockmaking dynasty of the Vulliamys, see Chris McKay, Big Ben: The Great Clock and the Bells of Westminster (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). For the Vulliamy family tree, see the records at  Vulliamy allowed himself an amusing inside joke at his family’s expense in his pseudonymous The Vicar’s Experiments/Clerical Error, whenever he referenced his illustrious architect grandfather, Lewis Vulliamy, who, we are told, restored the church serviced by Mr. Pardicott, the maniacal clerical killer of the title:

“I am so glad that you approve of what we are doing,” said Mr. Pardicott….”The present state of the chancel certainly does no credit to the taste of Lewis Vulliamy—indeed, I think his ecclesiastical work is generally atrocious.  Dorchester House—of course that was another thing altogether….”
“Dorchester House?” said the canon.  “I have a married niece—Mrs. Romaine—living in one of those new flats….”

Anthony Rolls, Clerical Error (Boston: Little, Brown), 106.  Dorchester House had been demolished in 1929 to make way for The Dorchester, a hotel which held its grand opening in 1931.  Earlier in the novel Mr. Pardicott had vociferously denounced Lewis Vulliamy’s church restoration efforts: “When the present chancel was restored by that awful old Gothic bungler, Vulliamy, in 1846, he very awkwardly cut off the lower half of the north window.  I suppose he didn’t care a toss what he did, because he was only interested in his dreadful sham Gothic….”  Rolls, Error, 84.
[3] The Brecon and Radnor Express, 11 May 1916, 5; The Times, 7 September 1971.  On Stanford Forbes and the Newlyn art colony see James Vernon, “Border Crossings: Cornwall and the English (imagi)nation,” Geoffrey Cubitt, ed., Imagining Nations (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), 160-162.
[4] The Times, 7 September 1971.
[5] “Book Notes,” New York Times Book Review, 19 May 1932; Anthony Boucher, “Criminals at Large,” New York Times Book Review, 16 January, 11 December 1955.
[6] Rolls, Error, 5, 8.  Readers of modern crime fiction may also be reminded of Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper (2001), another mordant tale about a murderous cleric.
[7] Anthony Rolls, Lobelia Grove (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1932), 27, 29.
[8] Rolls, Grove, 130.
[9] Symons, Bloody Murder, 108; Rolls, Grove, 208.
[10] See my assessment of The Blackheath Poisonings at my blog The Passing Tramp, at
[11] Anthony Rolls, Family Matters (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1933), 1-3.  On the fascinating story of the curmudgeonly O. S. G. Crawford, see Kitty Hauser, Bloody Old Britain: O. S. G. Crawford and the Archeology of Modern Life (London: Granta Books, 2008).  At the time of the publication of Family Matters, Vulliamy himself was 47 years old, the same age as his character Robert Arthur Kewdingham.
[12] Rolls, Matters, 3, 6.
[13] In The Vicar’s Experiments, Colonel Cargoy’s attractive, much younger wife also is named Bertha. 
[14] “Dorothy L. Sayers, “Three Horrid Households,” The Sunday Times, 11 February 1934, 9.
[15] Anthony Rolls, Scarweather (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1934), 3, 5.
[16] C. E. Vulliamy to Martin Secker, 28 November 1942.  Letter currently in possession of David J. Holmes, Autographs.  The first of the later Vulliamy crime novels, an inferior reworking of The Vicar’s Experiments titled Don among the Dead Men (1952), was the source for the British film “A Jolly Bad Fellow” (1963), starring Leo McKern.  See the review at

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