Saturday, September 5, 2020

How Fell of Bell to Blue the Jews: The China Roundabout (1956), by Josephine Bell

How odd of God/To choose the Jews--William Norman Ewer (attributed)

The presence of antisemitism in the Golden Age British detective novel is well-established (for example, see my post on it here), but it's comes as a jolt to come across it as late as 1956, in Josephine Bell's fifteenth or sixteenth detective novel, The China Roundabout, which seems to have been one of her best reviewed books.  (For examples, see Nick Fuller's page on the novel at his vintage mystery blog.)

Bell's publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, was particularly fortunate in being able to "blurb" a seeming rave review from highly regarded Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  Perhaps the ellipses left out some negative criticism, but what's quoted is pretty damn ecstatic: 

With an opening demure, domestic as a page from Jane Austen, The China Roundabout has an end like an Elizabethan tragedy.  More and more mystery, tinged with violence, accumulated in what seemed, that first afternoon, a drab but highly respectable Hampstead house...Full marks for atmosphere.

For his part longtime mystery reviewer Maurice Richardson pronounced that the novel was "[n]icely written as usual in Miss Bell's careful, concise style" and "in its best moments" had "affinities with the Victorian mystery masters, even the great Wilkie Collins."  Wow!

The person who threw the stink bomb into this praise party was Christopher Pym, who while conceding that "Miss Bell writes competently, and sometimes beautifully," nevertheless expressed "pity that her plot should be quite so old-fashionably improbable, and that she should make it so patent that such of her own creations who aren't English, upper-middle-class, Gentile and chaste are 'horrors,' 'curious' or 'abnormal.'"

While the novel is well-written, it's also the most dismayingly antisemitic classic British detective novel from the hand of an intelligent crime writer that I have encountered from the Fifties, a time when there really should have been no excuse for it to exist at all in such a form.  What in the world was publisher Hodder & Stoughton thinking when it published Josephine's parade of hateful stereotypes?  (Of course H&S gave us Sapper, but even he somewhat cleaned up his racist act before his premature death in the Thirties.)  Or, frightening thought, had they actually toned Bell's book down before publishing it?

I say this as someone who likes Josephine Bell's mysteries, while recognizing that she was a wildly inconsistent writer and that even some of her best books have notable flaws.  Setting the antisemitism aside (if you can), you might well enjoy The China Roundabout.  But it's a shame that it had to be there in the first place.  

"characters human and likable"
pronounced The Times

The novel concerns a mother and daughter, Mildred and Eileen Forrestal, who have come to stay in the Hampstead house of Mildred's late brother, Major Monte Beresford, who passed away suddenly, leaving his only sibling the house and its belongings and a substantial amount of money.  There's also a much beloved object from Mildred's youth, an exotic family heirloom: a china roundabout, a miniature music box and merry-go-round, as we would say in the States, which was gifted to a nineteenth-century Beresford Indian Army ancestor by a certain maharajah whom he had served.

Unfortunately, the china roundabout proves to be of great interest as well to all the tenants of Monte's large Hampstead house, which he had divided into flats.  These tenants are:

Advertising model and kept woman Amanda Powell

Mrs. Pickard, whose mostly absent husband is in something by way of commercial traveling

And, most revolting of all, the Rosenbergs, mother, daughter Sarah and son Heime.  ("He is in the National Service call-up, poor Heime," explains Mrs. Rosenberg, disloyally, of his absence.)  There's also an uncle, Ernst Meyer, who owns a local antique shop.  

Mrs. Pickard seems okay to the genteel Forrestals, and the very smartly dressed and heavily made up Amanda Powell, though "a bit tartish" looking is not "repellant, like Mrs. Rosenberg."  Oh! that Rosenberg clan!  Here is how Josephine describes that first meeting, seen though the discriminating eyes of Eileen Forrestal:

As she opened the first door she came to, which she took to be the kitchen, the door next to it opened, and a short, stout, greasy-haired woman came out.

"Oh," said Eileen, and she could not think how to go on.

But her visitor was not at a loss.  She offered a plump, dirty hand, bowed jerkily from the waist, and said, in a markedly foreign accent, "Rosenberg."

Eileen avoided the hand by stepping back a little.  

Remember, Eileen is the supposedly sympathetic "nice girl" focal character.  Her mother, admittedly, is presented as not all that likable (but still genteel and proper, which are all-important things in Bell's world).  So when the mother scoffs, "What a dreadful name, Heime!" maybe we should let that pass. 

The problem is that Eileen sticks her nose up in the air nearly as much as her mother, always deeming people, in her words, repellent and revolting, like Mrs. Rosenberg.  It's interesting that an author who was a doctor, who must occasionally have dealt with unclean, poorly groomed and smelly people, should present her ostensibly sympathetic focal character this way.  Josephine must have hated her day job!  Of course she relocated from London to Guildford, Surrey in 1936.  (Maybe there weren't any Jews there.)  Freeman Wills Crofts, who grew to hate the big city too, was a neighbor. 

Some of Bell's experience as a doctor in London went into her Thirties crime novels Murder in Hospital (1937) and The Port of London Murders (1938), which are better books.  The latter book, which as I recollect is an impressive example of Thirties social realism in the detective novel, is being reprinted by the British Library.

Back to Roundabout, however, here are the adjectives associated with the book's Jewish characters so far:

short, stout, greasy, dirty, foreign

Mrs. Rosenberg's daughter, Sarah, is better, but not much: "She had a handsome, sulky face, framed by too much dark, curly hair."  Her accent is "Cockney, overlaid with traces of B. B. C."  A "vicious flash of rage" appears in her "dark eyes" when Eileen asks her a question she doesn't like, then she summons her mother, who appears, "rubbing her hands on a dirty apron."

Heime of the National Service call-up never appears in the book, but old Uncle Ernst does; and though he looks better than his niece, he's obviously a scheming crook too.  As is Amanda Powell's Jewish sugar daddy, upon whom Bell lavishes the most hostile description of all:

Mrs. Forrestal introduced the stranger.  A Mr. Mackenzie; obviously from that branch of the clan whose chief headquarters originally were from Palestine.  His suit fitted his well-fed figure too closely, and its pin-stripe was too wide.  He wore three rings.  His blue-black hair was carefully oiled.  Eileen, passing thoughtfully to the windward of him, put down the tray near her mother.  

Later he flashes a smile full of "well-fitted" teeth.

Well-fed, flashily-dressed, rings, oiled hair, false teeth--Josephine really got them all in here!  Well, she did leave off his wearing a fur coat, but then the book is set in late summer.

One has to wonder whether Bell chose the surname "Rosenberg" as a nod to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed for pro-Soviet espionage in the United States in 1953.  I mean, would she really have chosen that surname coincidentally, when she was writing the novel but two years later?

To be fair to Eileen, she's repelled by a non-Jewish character as well, a shady lawyer named Mr. Digby, whom she finds a "frightful little tike."  Eileen realizes to her abject horror that Mr. Digby bites his nails (!) and she make a strenuous effort "not to look at Mr. Digby's fingers."

All this brings to my mind, minus the actual antisemitism, Ngaio Marsh, who often seemed more appalled by poor breeding and physical appearances (see her epic fat-shaming in Black as He's Painted) than the moral fact of murder.  Seemingly bad manners, in the eyes of these hyper-sensitive and desperately superior British mystery authors, are worse than an evil character.  This may be one reason why many writers in the hard-boiled school, like Raymond Chandler, had no use for genteel mystery.

No doubt Josephine Bell would have countered that she just "called things like they are." (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today.).  However, when you include several Jewish characters in your novel and make them all highly objectionable, in many respects drawing them in the most "repellent" stereotypical fashion, and you're doing all this not long after World War Two and the Holocaust, to me it seems not a matter of overzealous "political correctness," but rather something that is simply, well, repellent.  Even Bell herself seems to recognize that there may be an issue here, only to immediately dismiss it, in a conversation between two of her characters, old Mother Forrestal and Mrs. Pickard:

You mean the Rosenbergs?  Not quite--Refugees, originally, I believe.  Her husband was left behind, and died in a concentration camp.  You can't help feeling sorry, but all the same--"

"Exactly."

Amid all those delicate pauses and polite hesitations, I get the feeling that these two "nice" ladies are thinking maybe Hitler wasn't all that far on the wrong track, actually.

Score one for Old England
Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge

If you can get past all this revolting garbage, there's actually a decent little story here.  The mystery around the roundabout is compellingly presented and Bell maintains a high level of suspense throughout the first half of the novel, when a memorable death occurs.  "It sound like the worst kind of Victorian melodrama," pronounces one character, but if you are a mystery fancier, Victorian melodrama can be a lot of good fun.  I'm not surprised that at least one critic invoked the spirit of The Moonstone

There's a plateau in the second half of the novel, as Bell gets a little tangled up in complications (as she often does), yet all is brought to an enjoyable finish, when a valiant, old, sensible Englishwoman (Mildred's old friend and companion, Amy Henderson) faces down the deepest-dyed villainy, like Miss Pross valiantly fending off Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.  With the appearance of Bell's amateur detective, David Wintringham, to help sorts things out, this is a lot more like a Thirties mystery than a Fifties police procedural, although Bell's presiding policeman, Superintendent Steve Mitchell, is on hand and active as well. 

Admittedly it doesn't help the case for authenticity when David, after a crazed drug addict tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, attributes this attack to "a typical advanced case of marijuana poisoning."  Bell would get better on modern crime and police procedure after she exiled David Wintringham from her books.  As for the antisemitism, I hope Bell bade it adieu by the 1960s.  It really was way past time for it.  A a person on another blog post of mine commented of Bell, "She's a good writer, but in some ways she makes even Christie look like a free-loving liberal."  Too true!  Christie in her books seems to me to have been much less hidebound than Bell.

The China Roundabout, incidentally, was not published until 1965 in the United States, in a paperback edition by Ballantine, under the title Murder on the Merry-Go-Round.  It's an awful title, but obviously "roundabout" was a no-go in the United States.  I don't know what was done with the rampant antisemitism.  I will have to get a copy someday and see.

20 comments:

  1. (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today). You just insulted 50% of the American people. You are wrong about President Trump and bigoted toward his supporters.

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    1. Well, I will try to parse this one out for you.

      Quoting: "No doubt Josephine Bell would have countered that she just "called things like they are," (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today)"

      I hear all the time supporters of Trump saying, when he says something outrageous, things like, "Trump just tells it like it is." And if you don't like it, you're being "politically correct." I think a lot of people of that sort might say, well, there are bad Jews (or blacks or Hispanics or gays), why can't you say so? You're trying to "cancel" my speech, etc. I think Bell might have said, why can't I portray villainous Jews in my novel if I want to? And apparently Hodder & Stoughton was just fine with that. I'm not, and I tried to explain why.

      Perhaps you were under the impression I was accusing Trump supporters of being antisemitic. I wasn't, though obviously the neo-Nazis and fascists who support him are. But that's really by the by. My reference to Trump only had to do with the whole issue of purported "political correctness."

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    2. Right on, Curt. I see no reason why a reasonable person without a guilty conscience would would want to interpret and depict that specific statement in your review as an indictment of Trump supporters.

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    3. When I was in line for the primaries in 2016, a woman next to me loudly announced to another woman that she was voting for the "blunt man who tells it like it is." I wanted to ask her, you mean Bernie Sanders, lol. but, no, she was voting for Trump. I think Josephine Bell felt she was just "telling like it is," as it were. In one of her books she writes, so-and-so decided to be honest. I thought uh-oh and sure enough she really unloads. I'm sure Bell would just say I'm being politically correct. But I think it's legitimately bad, what she did in this book, no question.

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    4. 50% in your dreams, maybe. He's a minority President.

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    5. Political correctness is form of consideration for other people's feelings, which is something decent people shouldn't object to. Sure it can get nitpicking and extreme. But not calling people names based on their Other-ness, so as not to offend them, is hardly extreme. Apparently Trump supporters, like Trump himself, really hate not being treated with the respect they think THEY deserve--but hate to extend that respect to anyone who isn't (in the old-fashioned term) "One Of Us."

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  2. How odd of God
    To choose the Jews.

    But not as odd
    As those who choose
    A Jewish God
    But not the Jews.
    -someone responded. A Jewish friend maintains that "picked on" is a more accurate translation than "chosen".

    "It's interesting that an author who was a doctor, who must occasionally have dealt with unclean, poorly groomed and smelly people, should present her ostensibly sympathetic focal character this way."
    Not only that, but as a doctor in London in the 1930s Bell would undoubtedly have worked with Jewish colleagues.
    Her hostility to Jewish refugees could also be connected with the fact that most were middle-class and were not allowed to practise their professions in Britain when they first arrived, even - or especially - if they came from countries with higher levels of training. If Dr. Bell encountered someone better qualified than she was but unable to practise she might have felt both guilty and offended.
    As for cleanliness, the tin bath in front of the fire for the whole family once a week was the standard in much of Britain. Many of the middle-class refugees who found themselves in rented working-class accommodation were shocked by British levels of cleanliness and hygiene.

    Anti-semitism seems to have been a trope, a rather nasty game, for British writers for a few years after WWI. They don't seem to have thought about it or to have taken it seriously or allowed it to interfere with friendships or even love and marriage, but it crops up arbitrarily now-and-then in books. After Hitler turned up people realised the implications of what they'd swallowed and regurgitated and clammed up, unless they were genuine anti-semites or contrarians or both.
    On the other hand, in the 1950s there seems to have been exasperation and hostility to refugees in general and their failure to assimilate - or for their attempts to assimilate - into British life - Michael Gilbert features Polish gangsters in some of his books, for example - so Bell may have been going with the cultural flow and/or showing that suffering can degrade more often than it ennobles.

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  3. Thanks for the interesting response. I will probably add more later, but when I was writing this of course I thought of Agatha Christie’s famous Middle European refugee Mitzi from A Murder Is Announced, the ditzy au pair. John Rhode has one too at the same time, Lotti. But Bell’s Mr. Mackenzie isn't a refugee and hes just as bad, or worse, as the rest. He's very much the stereotypical well off “Scottish Jew” of between the wars detective fiction, wearing rings and stinking of hair oil. And Ernst Meyer speaks English well, unlike Mrs. Rosenberg, yet he's a crook too, I guess its just that Bell is so relentless and pervasive with the nasty Jewish characters in this book, it seems exceptional.

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    1. One way Jews could come from Germany to England in the 1930s was as domestic servants - some of them nominal - which might explain Mitzi and Lotti. References and skills were not required. I can't recall the book, unfortunately, but I remember a story where assorted German refugees are "employed" as servants and working as scientists. The complication comes when a "footman" maintains that as he too has a Ph.D. he should also be a "butler".

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    2. It all seems to tie in with the complaints about not being able to get good help anymore!

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  4. Not having read any Josephine Bell I cannot comment directly, but the last two books I read were Death On The Lawn by John Rhode and Checkmate For Murder by E C R Lorac. Both of those books contained the N word although neither book contained any characters of colour. I mention this to illustrate how casually acceptable racism was in the world prior to The Holocaust showing us where such attitudes lead. The words would surely be excised from any current work. Sadly, I think the only real change has been one of substitution, that of Muslim in place of Jew. How many current books are relentless and pervasive with nasty Arab characters (and usually one "good" one for contrast)? Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose. Haters gotta hate and heroes need villains.

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    1. The fact that Bell's book seems to have been so praised by reviewers like Elizabeth Bowen with no mention of the racism (excepting Christopher Pym) shows people still had a very lenient attitude toward this sort of thing, I think.

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    2. Sad to say, there's still a lot of leniency in some circles toward racism and anti-Semitism. The KKK hasn't been laughed out of existence yet! And the attitude of some people toward today's refugees (who are fleeing horrors that most Americans can't even imagine) is a lot more dangerous than the shudders and snark of English gentlewomen.

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    3. Oh, I agree, when people call these books "dated," in fact they are less dated than we think. Similar issues continue to present themselves in these times. It can be complacency to think we are so much better.

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  5. For what it's worth, I tried to read this novel in the American 1965 paperback, and none of the anti-Semitism had been edited out--or at least enough of it remained that it turned me very much off.

    I've attempted to read a number of Bell novels over the years, and she can never help her petty prejudices and superciliousness coming through. It's a shame because she does write well, and sometimes she can be sympathetic--"Easy Prey" is the one novel of hers I finished and I did enjoy it. But I cannot imagine she was a person whom it was pleasing to spend time with, though I suppose that's not really relevant to whether she is a writer of merit!

    I checked and I'm the commenter who compared her to Christie, and I agree with you that Christie was not prejudiced in the same way, and certainly not by the 1950s. Christie was politically right-wing, in the genteel upper class British way, but she led a full and varied life where she met people of different races and creeds, and she wasn't really bigoted, I don't think. Sometimes insensitive, certainly--I'm thinking of the bit in Ordeal by Innocence where she writes something about the adopted biracial daughter that's like "she's a dark horse, it must be the part of her that's now white"--but she doesn't have this kind of visceral dislike of the Other.

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    1. That's interesting that Ballantine left it in. Christie's American publisher censored antisemitic language in her earlier books after the Anti-Defamation League complained about a character she included in The Hollow after WW2. The Jewish woman boss of the "nice English girl" with dyed hair and a "voice like a corncrake."

      I wonder whether the language in Roundabout led to it not being published in the US in hardcover? She had a spotty publication record in the US.

      Yes, it was actually your comments on a previous Bell thread that made me resolve to read this book again. I had forgotten about the antisemitism though I had annotated it in pencil in the book. So we owe this blog post to you!

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    2. Supercilious--a good word for Bell's frequent heroines!

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  6. http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=70476 for a really hostile look at Bell!
    As I said, it's odd. You'd think that training snd working as a doctor and what she saw as a result would give her a certain toleration of human oddities, but it seems to have left her with a full collection of intact prejudices.

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    1. I wrote about in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery about how a lot of GA British mystery became hostile to the post-WW2 changes in society. You might see Bell as someone who became more conservative after the war than before it.

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    2. Concerning the Mystery*File review, I think like a lot mystery writers from her generation she went downhill in the 1970s. If they were having trouble with social changes in the Fifties, just imagine the Sixties and Seventies. But I actually like some of her books even from that period, especially such a nice client. I'm not someone who believes that there's no room for conservative discourse in society.

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