Friday, April 30, 2021

The Reality of Surbiton and Bognor Regis: Look Alive (1949), by Miles Burton

I doubt that [Dashiell] Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had firsthand information about.  He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things.  The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis.  If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air chateau....Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley....He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  they were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there.  Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

--Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944/50)

The name Surbiton conjures up visions of a neat London suburb with nice cars and smart lawns, the epitome of suburbia, that 1930s creation still existing in a time warp today, but there is much more than to Surbition.  The name Surbiton does not derive, as many people think, from suburb but from "south bereton."  The estate of Kingston had two beretons or granges where grain was collected and stored.  This north and south beretons became Norbiton and Surbiton....

The great change came upon Surbiton with the coming of the railway in 1838....Surbiton thrived as a commuter town [to London] with a great expanse of housing being built in the 1920s and 1930s....

--Tim Everson, Surbiton through Time (2017)

Hard-boiled novelist and perpetually grumpy guy Raymond Chandler had no truck for England's Detection Club, which he apparently deemed a collection of narrowminded suburban bourgeois authors putting on airs and devoting themselves to mythologizing murder in aristocratic milieus about which they knew no more from their own personal experience than any of the rest of us.  Of course as John Dickson Carr, one of the rare American members of the Detection Club, pointed out, there actually were members of the Detection Club who came from aristocratic and genteel backgrounds.  One of those was Carr's best friend in the Detection Club in those days, Major Cecil John Charles Street, whose maternal grandfather, while not titled, was nevertheless a very wealthy landed, leisured gentleman.  Although Street was a career army man and a trained engineer, rest certain that he knew the Jane Austen types too.

Chandler published his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," which included the dismissal quoted above of English detective novelists who knew only of the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis, as the title piece in his 1950 collection of short works, after its having made its original appearance in The Atlantic Montly in 1944.  Upon its publication in 1950, John Dickson Carr promptly attacked the essay, along with the rest of Chandler's work, in a scathing New York Times review, infuriating Chandler, who denounced Carr and his friend Anthony Boucher, The Times' crime fiction reviewer, as "pip-squeaks" who had conspired against him.  (Admittedly, Boucher's handing off the job to Carr was rather like asking Rachel Maddow to review the latest thoughtful opus from Sean Hannity.)  "There is nothing wrong with Surbiton or Bognor Regis, unless Mr. Chandler's soul holds much snobbery," chided Carr, in one of his milder statements.

House on Claremont Road in Surbiton
Claremont Gardens was originally surrounded
by a private fence and was for the
private use of residents only....In 1935
Surbiton Council bought the garden as a 
public amenity.
--Tim Everson
This house rather reminded me of
The Brake from Look Alive

It appears as well that John Street got in a sly little dig at Chandler, in his 1949 novel "Miles Burton" detective novel Look Alive. (Good title, that.)  Coincidentally this was the last Miles Burton novel to be published in the United States, although Street's John Rhode novels would keep appearing in the country until 1961, after which Street, whose health was declining, retired from writing.  (He died three years later.)  This point hadn't occurred to me nine years ago, when I published my book on Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but it seems obvious to me now. 

For the novel is set explicitly set in Surbiton!  Indeed, it says so right there in the first line: 

"The car, a rakish-looking two-seater of uncertain age, drew up outside the house in Surbiton."

Given that John Street very rarely named his settings after real places (besides obvious ones, like, well,  London), I think Street was having his little joke here.  I can just imagine Street and his drinking buddy Carr snarking about that bloody wanker Chandler in 1947 (Carr left England for the United states in early 1948.)  The joke goes further when you see how everyday the central characters really are in the novel.  This really is, one imagines, the conversational accent of Surbiton in all its glorious banality.  

Like in other Street books there is some complicated family history involved, but what it boils down to is that there is this "girl" in her early twenties, Annabel, and her parents, Irene and Henry Dorset. who live placidly if rather dully in Surbiton, Henry Dorset going two or three times a week to the City, where he vaguely serves as a "director of a firm of merchants."  He's also an amateur yachtsman.  

Then there is Claire Lavant, an octogenarian retired stage actress who was the second wife of Irene Dorset's late uncle, who resides at The Brake, a walled country house on the outskirts of Surbiton in Fernbrake Forest.  Claire inherited half of the Lavant family money from her dead husband, and at her death this money will go to Irene Dorset (or, if Irene is dead, to Annabel), her step-grandson, Roy Rayner, having died a couple of years previously in a criminal smuggling operation.  (Roy was one of those distressed WWII vets having a hard time readjusting to civilian life, who were popular in fiction at the time.)  But Claire Lavant is estranged from the Dorsets--in fact Henry Dorset despises her, going on and on about how she is depriving them of the family fortune.  He's rally rather obsessed with it all.  

hardcover American edition
the last of Miles Burton in the US

Annabel, who seems to have even less in her life to do than her father, is kinda-sorta involved with David Wiston, a young doctor.  People think she will marry him at some point, but she can't help feeling that he is just kind of, well, wet.  ("It seemed to Annabel that David was proving a broken reed," is one of my favorite deadpan lines in the novel.  How true, though Annabel herself is no picnic.)  

When the story opens Annabel and David are taking a country drive, which carries them out to Fernbrake Forest and The Brake.  Coincidentally?  Annabel wonders if David has done this by design, but she is persuaded to drop by The Brake to call on her great-aunt, or more properly step great-aunt. 

Perhaps she will get a friendly reception?  Well, not exactly....

Upon entering the grounds of The Brake, Annabel and David are shocked to discover the old lady dead in her hammock in the garden, vainly bedecked in baubles and bangles!  Then when they return with David's father, a more experienced doctor, they find the "dead" old lady alive and talking to the press about her stage career!  

Was David that dim that he couldn't accurately diagnose a dead woman, or is something more sinister going on?  Soon that snoopy-nosed gentleman Desmond Merrion, who had been butting into people's business for nearly two decades at that point, is on the scene, by invitation of his old friend from naval intelligence, Henry Dorset.  After he finds something rather nasty--not in the woodshed but in the boathouse--he gets his old police acquittance, Inspector Arnold, in on the game too.  

Bushy Park near Surbiton
This picture reminded me rather of Fernbrake Forest
as described in Look Alive

It's a most complicated affair,to be sure, involving as well Claire Lavant's old friend and neighbor Sir Julius Blackrock, a retired theatrical agent who resides at a neighboring walled house, The Retreat.  (So, yes, a knight makes his way into the story.)  Then there are the various servitors at the houses, including an individual whom the jacket of the American edition describes as "the sullenly handsome young gatekeeper," who definitely carries an earthy whiff of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

(I'm convinced at this point that Street must have read that novel.)

In the London Observer reviewer Maurice Richardson gave Look Alive a strong appraisal, writing: "Nothing, in this department, is more gratifying than to find one of our sturdiest old-stagers improving on his form....Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion smoke out a nest of variegated fiends in Mr. Burton's best for several books."  Was Look Alive indeed Burton's best in several books?  Well, let's see.  Here are the previous ten Miles Burtons:

Death Takes the Living (1949)

Devil's Reckoning (1948)

Death in Shallow Water (1948)

A Will in the Way (1947)

Heir to Lucifer (1947)

Situation Vacant (1946)

The Cat Jumps (1946)

Early Morning Murder (1945)

Not a Leg to Stand on (1945)

The Three Corpse Trick (1944)

My favorites in this group are The Three Corpse Trick, Not a Leg to Stand On, The Cat Jumps, Situation Vacant and Heir to Lucifer, so, yes, that would make Look Alive Burton's best in about five books.  (I have a certain fondness as well for Death Takes the Living, but the mystery itself is certainly no great puzzler.  Death in Shallow Water and Early Morning Murder, on the other hand, are dire.)

Should Annabel go with David or the
"sullenly handsome young gatekeeper"? You decide!
(Richard Madden as gamekeeper Oliver Mellors in
the 2015 version of Lady Chatterley's Lover)

In Look Alive Street dexterously juggles several different plot orbs and ingeniously spins a most satisfying mystery.  You may feel you know some of what is going on, to be sure, but it's hard to fit everything together, at least it was for me.  It seems like Street's most algebraic plot since The Three Corpse Trick

There's even a locked room problem, or rather a locked boathouse problem, a rarity in Street's oeuvre, and some nice little alibi bits thrown in too. 

It's really rather impressive, in its formal British way, Raymond Chandler be damned.  However, a map of The Brake and The Retreat really is desperately needed, as well as a family tree.  Superior people sneer at those things, which smack of "mere puzzles," but if you are going to write this sort of mystery, I say go the extra mile, my good man!

The fact that this perfectly good English mystery of the classic puzzler variety was the last Miles Burton published in the States (much to the misery of modern collectors, who have to hunt down rare Collins Crime Club editions of the Fifties Burtons), suggests to me the waning of the popularity of the pure puzzle type of mystery, at least among reviewers and publishers.  

The review of the novel in the New York Times, cleverly titled "The Wealth of Levant," is suggestive in this regard.  "This is a book for zealous puzzle fans who don't really want their pure guessing game cluttered with such irrelevancies as a lively story or sympathetic characters," drolly pronounced reviewer Hillis Mills (a man, in case you were wondering).  Mills complained that  Desmond Merrion "is so unattractively cocksure that the reader could almost wish the villain would outwit him" and Annabel he dismissed as a "confused busybody of a girl," but he concluded that the book offered a "fine, intricate puzzle."  

That seems to have been good enough for Hillis Mills, and it's certainly good enough for me, even if it wasn't good enough for Miles Burton's American publisher, the Doubelday, Doran Crime Club.  In my next blog post I think I will post some additional American reviews of the novel to give you the climate of the day in regard to classic mystery.  

Also, judging from the photos below, Surbiton looks like it would have been cool place in the Thirties, conversational accent notwithstanding.  Of course, Raymond Chandler lived in La Jolla, California, which he didn't like either.  That man was hard to please.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Mote in Goldeneye

Has anyone ever dealt with Goldeneye Books, I wonder?  The owner seems oddly temperamental.  I had ordered a book, paid for it online on April 1,but he was to send a supplementary shipping charge.  He did that on April 2 but I had forgotten the order missed his email (my fault but I always have my hands so full these days).  Now I just got an email from him saying he's canceling the money request and returning the payment and won't sell the book to me, even though he kind of already had sold it to me.  I had already paid him for the book and as long as he wasn't shipping it was pure profit for him.  I don't see why there couldn't have been an accommodation.  

The irony is this was an author we are reprinting, so that will be one less book for the series.  Too bad the matter couldn't be worked out.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Pineapple Never Pings Twice: The Dain Curse (1929), by Dashiell Hammett

"Nobody's mysteries ought to be as tiresome as you're making this one."

--author Owen Fitzstephan to the Continental Op in The Dain Curse

"When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

--Raymond Chandler

When really in doubt, make it a pineapple!

--The Passing Tramp

She's gonna wash those men 
right out of her hair!
This 1968 Dell pb edition
suits the wild and woolly story
which Hammett concocted

I originally reviewed Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, quite negatively, over at the website Mystery*File back in 2011 (SPOILERS in the linked review).  Now, a decade a later (how time flies), I decided to take another look at Hammett's second novel, considered to be his weakest.  I found I disliked it just as much as I did the first time, if not more so. The odd part is, Hammett's debut novel Red Harvest, which he published just a few months earlier in the year 1929, is one of my favorite works in the genre.  How could one author write one book that is so good and the other so bad in the same year?  Now that is an unsolved mystery!  Time constraint, perhaps?

Where Red Harvest is tight, fleet and bracingly visceral, has genuine detection which is worthy of the name and, while incredibly violent, is as real and true a piece of twisted Americana as you likely ever will encounter in crime lit., The Dain Curse is...a farrago of utter nonsense, even by the rather generous standards of the Golden Age of detective fiction. 

A contemporary rave of Red Harvest penned by children's author Walter R. Brooks (author of the Freddie the Pig books) highlights the qualities lacking in The Dain Curse:

Those who begin to weary of the similarity of modern detective novels, with their clumsily involved plots and their artificial situations and conversations, will find their interest revived by this realistic, straightforward story, for it is concerned solely with fast and furious action and it introduces a detective who achieves his purposes without recourse to higher mathematics [Take that, Philo!--TPT], necromancy, or fanciful reasoning.  It reads like the latest news from Chicago.*

*(Personally, I was reminded of Omaha, Nebraska, but, honestly, when it comes to American carnage, you take your pick. The choice of locales in my great country is legion.)

The Dain Curse, on the other hand, is a tedious muddle. in my view.  The plot, concerning a seeming "death curse" that hangs over the book's "heroine," young Gabrielle Leggett, that results in almost as many deaths as there are in Red Harvest, is ludicrous from start to finish (only getting more so as the pages go by) and handed out in great, unsatisfying lumps of exposition at the end of each of the three linked sections.  To quote a character in the book, the whole thing is just plain goofy.

Gabrielle herself is of little interest as an actual character as opposed to a plot device, despite her novel (at the time) drug addiction and physical unattractiveness.  There are no other interesting individuals among the plentitude of undeveloped characters, aside from the sleuth/narrator himself, the Continental Op--unless you count his windbag decadent novelist friend Owen Fitzstephan.  (I don't.)  Even the Op himself isn't nearly as pithy as he is in Red Harvest, or, indeed, the Op stories generally, saddled as he is with endless expository text and a ridiculous plot.  

In panning the six-hour 1978 miniseries version of The Dain Curse (with an obviously miscast James Coburn as the 5'6", overweight and fortyish Op--where was Bob Hoskins?), Washington Post television critic Tom Shales complained that the "big, fat [film] opus" contrasted with the "clean, lean novel"; yet although the novel is only, I understand, 65,000 words, I find it reads much longer than that.

my image of the Op: Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

As I wrote in my original review of the novel, there are, to be sure, some good spots in The Dain Curse, as with the curate's egg, such as the opening, about a diamond burglary at the Leggett home, which treacherously promises readers a coherent detective novel. 

I actually rather liked the relatively brief thrilleresque cult section and would have enjoyed seeing a whole novel fashioned out of this part.  (I was eerily reminded of modern grindhouse films.)  As I also wrote in my original review, I especially enjoyed this sardonic observation by the Op, which is so characteristic of him (and the author): "They brought their cult to California because everybody does, and they picked San Francisco because it held less competition than Los Angeles."  But by the third section I found myself passing quickly over the text; I was bored.  Even the grenade explosion didn't make me jump.  In my view when a detective story writer has to spend that much time explaining whodunit and why, he or she is in deep trouble.  This applies to modern day mystery writers as well.

Although some contemporary reviewers liked The Dain Curse better than Red Harvest, my impression is that the second book largely coasted off the success of the first one and the great press that Hammett was getting as the Pinkerton detective turned detective writer.  Even reviewers who deemed The Dain Curse desperately exciting, like Red Harvest, conceded that the plot in Hammett's new murder opus was preposterous. 

Despite Walter Brooks' shot in his review above at S. S. Van Dine's bestselling baroque 1929 detective novel The Bishop Murder Case, one could hardly call it less "realistic" than The Dain Curse; and given that as a book reviewer Hammett liked to lecture everyone, including Van Dine, about realism in crime fiction, I have to ask, "Holy Toledo, Dash, what gives with The Dain Curse?!"  Practice what you preach, my good man.  Maybe the whole thing is meant as a send-up of lurid pulp fiction?

About the title of this review, yes, there is a pineapple in the book, but it sure ain't no fruit--it's the aforementioned grenade, a byproduct of the Great War.  My fruit of choice for this book, however, would be a big bunch of raspberries, if you catch my drift.  Though surprisingly the grenade slight of hand is probably the cleverest thing in the book.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Reader Recommendeth: In Praise of John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942)

The Fourth Bomb

Best book 

ever read

if you 

like this


This praise, arranged rather like a Japanese haiku or modern English poem, was written in pencil at some point on the front endpaper of my copy of the American edition of John Rhode's detective novel The Fourth Bomb, reviewed in my last post. 

Stamped on the endpaper is 

BOOK  No. 37552



Jamaica is a neighborhood of the borough of Queens on Long Island.  I don't know what the Jones Circulating Library was.  (Perhaps someone could enlighten me.)  

On the book's back endpaper in pen is written 1/7/42--perhaps the date the book, which was published in January 1942, was received at the library?  Evidently, this eager, mystery fancying patron was so enraptured by The Fourth Bomb that he (she?) couldn't forbear writing his opinion of the book on the endpaper.  I interpret it as a statement that the mystery is the "best book ever" followed by an injunction to "read if you like this kind'--i.e. mysteries, or traditional English mysteries.  Or did he mean it was the "best book [I] ever read--if you like this kind"?

Either way, the infamous naysaying of Raymond Chandler and Edmund Wilson aside, there have long been many Americans, male and female, of the Anglophile persuasion who felt just as this reader did.  More on this soon.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bombs Away, Murder Fanciers! The Fourth Bomb (1942), by John Rhode

Despite unsettled conditions about him, John Rhode, recognized as one of England's ablest detective story writers, continues to produce adventures concerning his amazing criminologist.

--Dodd, Mead blurb to John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942)

"It would be enormous fun," she exclaimed.  "I'm sure Sir Oswald and Lady Hunton would enjoy the old dear immensely.  Send him along, do."  

I shouldn't have described the professor as enormous fun," Jimmy replied.

--Inspector, now Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn and his wife Diana discuss the impending visit of the formidable Dr. Priestley, John Rhode's sleuth extraordinaire in The Fourth Bomb.


Just over a couple of weeks ago an echo of an eighty-year-old military conflict was heard when a British explosives disposal team detonated, in a "controlled explosion," a 2200 pound World War Two era German bomb in Exeter, UK.  During the long ago hostilities the city was heavily damaged by enemy planes, which conducted 19 raids there, dropping 7000 such devices, particularly in May 1942 during the so-called Baedeker Blitz, which killed 156 people in Exeter. (It was said that Hitler selected bombing sites out of a Baedecker travel guide.)  A video in the link above shows the recent explosion, giving one a sense of the kind of thing which so many people experienced throughout the world during those years of violent conflict and wanton slaughter.  

Another, nonstressful way to experience the war (after the Exeter detonation nearby buildings were damaged and people were not able to return to their homes for several days), is through novels published at the time, like mystery writer John Street's mystery The Fourth Bomb, published in early January 1942 and set in UK over about ten days in the month of December, presumably of the year 1940, during the midst of the original German Blitz.

Between 1941 and 1944, the highly prolific Major John Street, who after a short term of service in the war resided outside of London with his companion Eileen Waller in an isolated English village, published no fewer than fifteen detective novels, nearly four every year, eight of these under his pen name John Rhode and seven under his pen name Miles Burton.  These are:


  • Death at the Helm 1941
  • They Watched by Night 1941
  • The Fourth Bomb 1942
  • Night Exercise (non-series) 1942
  • Dead on the Track 1943
  • Men Die at Cyprus Lodge 1943
  • Death Invades the Meeting 1944
  • Vegetable Duck 1944
  • Up the Garden Path 1941
  • Death of Two Brothers 1941
  • This Undesirable Residence 1942
  • Dead Stop 1943
  • Murder M.D. 1943
  • Four-Ply Yarn 1944
  • The Three-Corpse Trick 1944
The amazing thing is that not one of these is a "bad" book, in my opinion, though of course some are better than others.  Three of them--Murder M. D., The Three-Corpse Trick and the oddly named Vegetable Duck, are among the best of his crime novels, in my view, with several others not far behind these top titles. Taken together, Street's dozen mystery novels with war settings arguably are the most significant group of World War Two crime novels by a classical British mystery writer.  (All but three of them are authentically set in villages during the war; these ones with war settings are marked in bold.)  

Agatha Christie, for example, though also a highly prolific writer (though not as much as Rhode), published "only" six mystery novels during the same period (she also wrote Curtain, apparently), and how many of them are even set during the war, let alone in an interesting way, aside from the 1941 Tommy and Tuppence espionage thriller N or M?  There's The Moving Finger (1943)--and what else?  Christie, it seems, largely sidestepped the war in her wartime fiction.  

Canadian paperback edition of
The Fourth Bomb
John Rhode novels never really
caught on in pb in the US, although
they were more often seen in
Canada and the UK.
Just this pb edition will set you back 
around $70 US dollars today.
I don't believe that I even mentioned The Fourth Bomb in my 2012 book on Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and JJ Connington, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  At the time I recall being disappointed with it, in that Rhode's elderly scientist amateur sleuth, Dr. Priestley, only appears in the last 47 pages of a 260 page novel, essentially to wrap things up.  Superintendent Hanslet doesn't appear in the book at all, leaving the investigative legwork for most of the novel to be carried out by Inspector, or  for the duration of the war Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn, now in Army Intelligence, and a not overly perspicacious local policeman, Sergeant Swatland. 

There is no ingenious murder gadgetry in this one, in contrast with many other Rhodes, and Dr. P.--after being briefed on the case by Jimmy at his home at Westbourne Terrace in London (which he refuses to evacuate as long as he has his loyal cook by him; his secretary and supposed son-in-law, Harold Merefield, being in service)--solves the case in short order, having decided, rather extraordinarily at this stage, to venture out to the country scene of the crimes and investigate the case himself.  

Once Dr. P., who already had the essence of the solution in mind when he leaves London, ambles around for a bit for but a single chapter he has seen all he needs to see.  In the penultimate chapter, he gives the classic "drawing room lecture"--though in this case it's delivered in the library)--before the assembled Sergeant Swatland, local attorney Montague Corsham and local squire Oswald Hunton. 

Incidentally, could Street's character names get any more English?

Then there's one last chapter, which is, rather interestingly and originally for Street, told from the culprit's perspective.  It's easy to see how this could have been recast as a Miles Burton novel, with the case solved instead by that series' insouciant gentleman amateur detective, Desmond Merrion, and his dim attendant policeman, Inspector Arnold; but Street already had a 1942 Burton title and needed one for Dr. Priestley for that year.

However, on rereading The Fourth Bomb, I am happy with it as it is.  Arguably it's a bit leisurely, even by Street's standards, but I enjoy soaking up the rural English wartime atmosphere.  The mystery itself is a reminder of how ingenious Street was at plot construction.  From just a couple of little points, Dr. P. is able logically to unravel a case which had flummoxed Jimmy and Sgt. Swatland for over 200 pages.  It's a cleverly designed solution, though I did have one query about the culprit's plot which wasn't addressed.

jacketed British first edition by Collins 
The American first edition will set you back
$250 for a strictly okay copy without a dust jacket.
A Collins first with jacket
might cost you your home!
The plot in short concerns the death of Samuel Gazeley, a London diamond merchant who resides near the village of Yardley Green, scene of enemy bombing action in the first chapter of the novel.  Gazeley is found dead in a ditch by the crater made by the fourth of the Nazi bombs, presumably a casualty of the attack.  (As an aside I will mention that my biggest complaint about this novel, where movements, like in a Freeman Wills Crofts mystery, are centrally important, is that there is no endpaper map.  Street mentions Bolthurst, the county town, and the villages of Fetterworth, where I think Mr. Gazeley lived, and Stayneden, these locales being respectively twelve, two and three-and-a-half miles from Yardley Green; but it would have been nice to see a map to visualize it all.)

The affair opens at Street's favorite locale, a pub, this one the Fox and Grapes, when the bombing occurs. The dead body is found after the bombing at the end of Chapter One and identified as Gazeley in Chapter Two.  Initially events are seen mostly from the perspective of attorney Montague Corsham, who had drawn up a will for Gazeley and now is seeing to his affairs. 

We learn that Gazeley, though notoriously woman-shy, recently had become engaged to marry Susan Mellor, sister of prominent local farmer Mr. Petersfield and a bold widow who seems to have put fear and loathing into the hearts of most of the local men--so why Gazeley of all people wanted to marry her is a mystery to them.  Forward Mrs. Mellor is disparaged throughout the novel for such sins as wearing trousers, putting on too much makeup, not knowing how to behave properly in a pub (!), calling men she hardly knows by their first names and, last but not least, for being a gold digger.   

Interestingly Mrs. Mellor shares most of a surname with gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, the studly title character in D. H. Lawrence's notorious 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was not published in the UK in an unexpurgated version until 1960--Lawrence's ultimate embodiment of masculinity.

Street was no prude, even if he had his sexist moments (perhaps prompted by his unhappy first marriage), and it wouldn't surprise me if he read Lawrence's novel.  The Fourth Bomb itself has one slightly randy passage, which I should have quoted in Masters. (I had underlined it but must have forgotten about it.)  Speaking of Susan Mellors to Sergeant Swatland, Ambrose Burnage, landlord of the Fox and Grapes, starts the following exchange:

That woman's a perfect nuisance.  She's always coming into my bar of an evening, dressed in those trousers she wears and carrying on as if the place belonged to her.  She'll talk at the top of her voice to anyone who will listen to her, and make a proper commotion one way and another.  I tell you, the chaps don't like it.

Upsets them, I daresay," the Sergeant remarked.  "Women never seem to know how to behave in a pub."  

"You're right there, it does upset them," said Burnage.  "Do you know what James Weller, Mr. Petersfield's foreman, said to me the other day?  Women may be all right in bed, but they are a blessed nuisance in the local."

Sure it's sexist, but I have no doubt that it conveys genuine attitudes in the day, as women became for a time, during the war, more independent and assertive--more "masculine," if you will.

Someone unwelcome has arrived in the pub?
Maybe Mrs. Mellor?
Aside from Jimmy's bride of a couple of years, Diana, who is staying as a guest at the local squire's country house (it seems she's a "distant cousin" of his), Mrs. Mellor essentially is the only woman in the novel, which is male-centered even by John Street's standards.  Unlike ball busting Mrs. Mellor, Diana is a sympathetic character, but Street, after introducing her in 1939 in Death Pays a Dividend, never did with her character what he might have. 

Diana appeared or was referenced successively in Dividend, Death on Sunday (1939) and Death on the Boat Train (1940), but, after The Fourth Bomb, as I recollect, her only appearance is in The Paper Bag (1948).  By contrast, indefatigable Jimmy Waghorn would appear right up through the last John Rhode novel, The Vanishing Diary, in 1961.

When Jimmy first meets her in Dividend, Diana is a cook in the household of a wealthy London stockbroker.  Like the real life author Monica Dickens, who recounted her work experiences in her first book One Pair of Hands (1939), which was published the same year as Death Pays a Dividend, Diana Morpeth (the surname comes from a town in Northumberland) is a young woman of "good birth" who decides to go into domestic service. In The Fourth Bomb, she talks over the case with Jimmy a few times and then, after he has to return to the army, she chauffeurs Dr. Priestley around the county for the day.  It's pleasant to have her around, but even more would have been pleasant, to be sure.

Author Monica Dickens (1915-1992)
might have been the model
for John Rhode's Diana Morpeth
Anyway, back to the plot of the novel, things gets more complicated when Jeremiah Winthorpe, Gazeley's partner in the London diamond firm, shows up and announces that Gazeley had returned to Yardley Green with a belt of eight diamonds strapped to his person, and said belt is nowhere to be found!  Did someone loot the diamonds from Gazeley's body?  Things get yet more complicated from there, in this enjoyable tale with many twists.  

The wartime village atmosphere is quite well conveyed, as per usual with the author, and while none of the many characters are particularly "deep" they are credible as such.  Street even takes time to give the aging Dr. Priestley a little extra dimension, which I hadn't appreciated before.  

In this passage the increasingly sedentary Dr. P. half regrets agreeing to take the train out to Oswalds Hunton's place in Fetterworth, near Yardley Green, despite his love of a good mystery, which we have long known about, and, more surprisingly, his desire for companionship:

At his age, he reflected, there was a vast difference between anticipation and execution....many objections obtruded themselves.  The fatigue involved, changing one's regular habits, the awkwardness of living on terms of familiarity with total strangers.  On the other hand, the project had its compensations.  Here was a problem well worthy of definite solution.  And, he might as well admit it if only to himself, there were times nowadays when he felt desperately lonely.

That last sentence was unexpected.  Did it reflect the attitude of the author, who was once John Dickson Carr's best bud and a very active and convivial participant in the Detection Club, but would attend its London meetings less and less frequently as the years passed after the war?  (During the war club meetings were suspended.)

The reader:
American newswoman Lucy Curtis Templeton
(1878-1971) numbered among the fans of 
John Street in both his John Rhode and
Miles Burton manifestations
English mystery writer and postwar Detection Club member Christianna Brand once called the mysteries of John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts "men's books," because they were concerned with "dry" technical matters such as railroad timetables and tidal movements.  However, one of the most favorable reviews which The Fourth Bomb received was from an American woman in her sixties, Lucy Curtis Templeton (1878-1971), who edited the book review page in a newspaper in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel.  

Six years old than John Street, Lucy Curtis was described as "a lady in a man's world," having graduated from Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Philadelphia and the University of Tennessee in 1901 and gone to work for the newspaper as a proofreader in 1904. 

She later became the paper's telegraph editor, meaning the person who handles the copy that comes into the office by wire.  It is said that she was the only woman in the southern United States employed in such a capacity at the time.  In 1912 she was alone at the office in the early hours of an April night when word of the sinking of the Titanic came in over the wire; she immediately scrambled to get out an EXTRA edition.  

When still a young woman, Lucy Curtis married an attorney named Templeton, but he died after only three years of marriage and she went back to work for the newspaper, reviewing books, among other things, until her retirement at the age of 83 in 1961.  One of the books she reviewed two decades before her retirement, under the book review page's "It's a Crime" column, was one of John Rhode's "men's books," The Fourth Bomb.  She loved it, pronouncing:  "Mystery of the week, so far as this column is concerned, is The Fourth Bomb, by John Rhode, published by Dodd, Mead and Company."  Then followed a discussion of the plot, ending in the conclusion: "One of the best."  Seems this was a woman who could abide a man's book.

I'll bet Miss Lucy even would have known how to act in a pub!

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Canal with Corpse: A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair (1962), by Michael Innes

"It's the craft that is long in this life, surely, and not how a boy's fancy is moved for a girl."

Returned servant Seth Crabtree in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

"Commissioners of Police simply do not come upon corpses during rural walks.  It was another of the things that just aren't done."

London's Commissioner of Metropolitan Police Sir John Appleby thoughts in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

Ah, but a corpse actually is just what one should expect to come upon during a country ramble, at least in a traditional British mystery, as Michael Innes well knew.  Down these country lanes a charming genteel couple must go....

What feels cozy to you, I once asked, on what remains today my most visited blog post.  (I must owe it all to Jim Parsons!)  To me, it's definitely reading about British mystery writer Michael Innes' characters John Appleby and his aristocratic wife Judith solving genteel murders in the country.

As a crime writer Michael Innes was like a box of (poisoned) chocolates, in that with his books you never knew what you were going to get.  Sure, there were likely to be aristocrats and country houses, Oxford dons and ivory towers, old masters and art museums--and lots and lots of literary quotations.  But would any given Innes "mystery" be a "thriller," a true detective novel, or some sort of hard to classify mystery extravaganza?  You never knew, at least in Innes' creative heyday, from the mid-Thirties into the mid-Fifties.  

Later on, from the Sixties to the mid-Eighties, say, you could be fairly certain you would be getting an amiable amble with the Applebys though country lanes and mansions.  To be sure, there would a nice dead body to be discovered and some detection and witticisms to go along with all that, but the quality of the detection from book to book would vary.  Innes published sixteen John Appleby detective novels in the quarter century between 1961 and 1986, and I think I have just described the majority of them.  

Peper Harow House (Wikipedia), built in 1765 by Sir William Chambers, who
mentioned as the architect of fictional Scroop House in A Connoisseur's Case
--both houses have "four sparsely placed urns" atop a parapet

Perhaps the best of these later novels, A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair, came at the early part of this period, in 1962.  By this time, the light from the Golden Age may have been fading, but the sun had not sunk below the horizon yet.  I first read ACC a little over twenty-five years ago, in 1995 (I know because I wrote the date 11/18/95 in the book, a then recent HarperPerennial paperback edition); and on rereading it recently I found that it has held up really well.

In a lot of my writing about British crime fiction, I have sought to revise the influential Julian Symons-Colin Watson-WH Auden thesis that these books almost invariably were reactionary country house affairs, filled to the rafters with stuffy blue-blooded aristos; adventuresses with pasts and ingenues without them; brusque big game hunters and silly-ass men-about-town; crass millionaire businessmen of regrettably bourgeois origins; stiflingly correct butlers, opinionated cooks and trim, all-too-frequently dim, maids; and bludgeoned bodies bloodily strewn throughout libraries, studies and billiard rooms.  It's all a Cluedo board come to (very limited) life, said critics.  Yet there were certain Golden Age crime writers who really did tend to conform to this stereotype, at least in terms of setting, and one of these was the father of the donnish detection school, Michael Innes.

Innes himself was a don, not to mention a "serious," or mainstream, novelist.  His actual name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, "Michael Innes" being the appellation he reserved for his mystery writing sideline.  But what a sideline mysteries became for him!  There are 32 John Appleby novels, not to mention 13 non-series mysteries and four John Appleby short story collections.  Granted he also found time to write a score of mainstream novels and a half-dozen short story collections, as well as nine critical works.  The man was an all-round writing machine, to be sure, but he has mostly distinguished himself in the public mind (of classic mystery readers) as a genteel crime writer.

A Connoisseur's Case truly is a case for connoisseurs of what is known as classic English crime.  There's a Georgian country mansion, Scroop House (though Appleby, noting it was finished in 1786, scoffs "Late....Practically Victorian."); a disused early-nineteenth-century canal where a dead body pops up (or floats up, really); a public house quaintly named the Jolly Leggers (after the men who used their sturdy backs and strong legs to get boats through canal tunnels); and not one but two butlers: Tarheel and Hollywood, both of them drolly yet individually characterized.  The only thing missing is a map, which would have been rather charming to see, given how you get to know the locations so well.

Coates Portal of the Sapperton Canal Tunnel, Thames and Severn Canal (Wikipedia)
the canal, finally abandoned in 1933, resembles the canal tunnel entrance described 
in ACC as "an orifice handsomely framed in a wall of heavily rusticated stone, and even 
more handsomely embellished with caryatids, herms, cornucopias and a balustrade

The Applebys are staying at the country house of one of Judith's eccentric Raven relations, her uncle Colonel Julius Raven of Pryde Park, an amateur (of course) piscatorial authority.  During their perambulation along the canal they find a public house, unfortunately run by a revoltingly bourgeois innkeeper, David Channing-Kennedy.  "Not the old sort of innkeeper," carps Appleby. "R.A.F. type, with a handle-bar mustache specially grown to tell you so.  Put in by the brewing company, I suppose, and not very pleased that he hasn't been given a superior little riverside hotel on the lower Thames."

There they encounter an old man, Seth Crabtree, a former servant at Scroop House recently returned after some fifteen years in the United States  (Spokane, Washington of all places). It's only a few hours later that Sir John and Lady Appleby discover Crabtree dead in the the disused canal tunnel.  Seems someone wasn't happy Crabtree had returned to the neighborhood!

interior Sapperton Canal Tunnel--no bodies here!

Actually lots of someones were not happy with Seth Crabtree.  With a master's hand Innes distributes suspicion evenly around the area, including the "new" Scroop House owners, Bertram Coulson and his wife.  Coulson was a distant Australian sheep packing relation of the previous late owner, Sara Coulson (who died two decades previously), the daughter of Viceroy Crispin, known as the Grand Collector for her famed house parties populated by politically and culturally distinguished guests.  In the suspect line there's also Bertram Coulson's previous tenants, Alfred Binns (something in trade, don't you know) and his two bickersome young adult children, Daphne and Peter, as well as a local doctor, Brian West, who was around the scene of the crime. 

Even Colonel Raven, who huffily recalls that Crabtree was long ago  "packed off to the colonies" for vague scoundrelly doings, is behaving suspiciously.  But then you never can tell with those Ravens, a dotty lot for sure.

speaking of handlebar mustaches
RAF pilot Roger Morewood (1916-2014)
He retired as a Wing Commander in 1957
and with his wife started a boarding kennel
See The Top 34 Pilot Moustaches

There's quite a packed little mystery plot in ACC, one that is impeccably crafted, which should satisfy the mystery connoisseur; and for those who more attracted to cozy, or traditional British genteel country atmosphere, it's here in spades as well.  At the end of the novel Appleby even gathers all the suspects together in the Scroop House library to hear his elucidatory lecture.  

Judith Appleby can be a bit of a pill to my taste, always declaring people "unspeakable" and "dreadful" when she deems their class status unfixed.  Judith likes to be able to place people as genteel or menial class as the case may be.  Sir John ribs her about this, but one gets the impression that the stable and ordered country society of Georgian Britain was an attractive vision for the author himself, as it must be for legions of Jane Austen fans, one supposes.  He certainly kept writing his modern versions of it!

To be sure, I wouldn't want every British detective novel to be like Michael Innes. However, I'm very glad that there still are Michael Innes detective novels left for me to read, as well as others of his to read again.  They make ever so pleasurable British country weekends, if only in my mind.  "It's the craft that is long in this life...."

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Town Mouse, Country Mouse: Richard Nunley on Amanda Cross' The James Joyce Murder (1967)

The country was more beautiful than ever in the evening light.  The farms seemed set out on the hills, neatly plowed fields contrasting in shades of green with their adjoining meadows.  Kate felt certain that the good life might somehow be possible here, yet knew this to be only  a dream.  

---The James Joyce Murder (1967), by Amanda Cross

The Berkshire Eagle, located in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is the newspaper of record for Berkshire County, the state's westernmost county.  The newspaper is actually mentioned in Amanda Cross' detective novel The James Joyce Murder, which I reviewed in my last post.  Amanda Cross, aka English professor Carolyn Heilbrun (1926-2003), annually summered with her family at their home in the village of Alford, Massachusetts, giving rise to the Berkshires setting of her second mystery.  

Once Amanda Cross, whose feminism struck a nerve in the Eighties, was one of the more popular authors of classic style detective novels, particularly after the publication of her sixth mystery, Death in a Tenured Position (1981).  As far as I could tell, The James Joyce Murder went through at least nine editions between 1967 and 1993.  After the original hardcover edition, published by Macmillan's "Cock Robin" imprint in the United States and Gollancz in the United Kingdom, there a came 1970 Amanda Cross hardcover omnibus edition, Triple Cross, and another hardcover edition from Dutton in 1982, in honor of the centennial of James Joyce's birth.  Then there followed a deluge of paperback editions: Ballantine 82, Ballantine 85, Fawcett 87, Little, Brown 89, Ballantine 90 and, in the UK, Virago 93 (Virago being a feminist press which reprinted a good number of female penned mysteries in the Eighties and Nineties).  If you ever shopped at a used bookstore in the Nineties, Amanda Cross novels easy to find!  The James Joyce Murder is still in print in the US and UK today.  I'm not sure what edition the American one is, but in the UK it recently was brought out in spiffy new paper and electronic versions by Pan Macmillan.

It was in 1988 that the late Richard Nunley (1931-2016), longtime professor of English at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield (pop. 42,000 today) and Berkshire Eagle columnist (Our Berkshires), sat down and read The James Joyce Murder (Fawcett 87 edition?).  I quote extensively from Nunley's Berkshire Eagle review article, "The Grad-School Attitude," because I found Nunley's view of the novel as a social document interesting:

Berkshire Community College

Last week a friend put in my hands an Amanda Cross mystery story, "The James Joyce Murder."  I sat down and read it in two goes, though I would have read it in one if I hadn't absolutely to do something else.  It's an adroit and clever story.  Its setting is the Berkshires.  The county town the story unfolds in sounds like Alford, "unique in that it has no commercial establishments whatever," but the author pointedly places it north of Pittsfield.  Of course, it is all made up.  But the storytelling is captivating enough to set you believing the town, called "Araby," must be somewhere between Clarksburg and Mount Washington, and a secondary mystery develops for local readers to guess which one it is.

Nunley was right: "Araby" is Alford, where Heilbrun's summer home was located; but the author, who then was protective of her anonymity (she was worried that being known as a mystery writer would prevent her from receiving tenure at stuffy Columbia University), threw people like Nunley off the scent by locating Araby near Pittsfield.  Back to Nunley:

It's not a new book.  Macmillan published it in 1967....In 1988 the prices of restaurant meals and Berkshire real estate in it read laughably low, and the hero drives a VW bug and they all go to a drive-in movie, but otherwise there's not much that is dated after 20 years.  Adding to the fun is the author's saucy irreverence about the Berkshires and us locals.  The necessary victim is an odious farmer's wife whom I felt an incipient pang of sympathy for, being a local.  But somebody's got to go if you're going to have a mystery.  The main characters are New Yorkers up for the summer who think rude thoughts about us.  "A newspaper in the country!  [Reed's] astonishment turned to bemusement as he noticed it was yesterday's Berkshire Eagle."  "It transpired that Pittsfield, bless its up-to-date little heart, had a community college and a bookstore."  "Country people are incurably curious.  It's only urbanites who can ignore their neighbors."  "Taxes are high in Araby, since only houses can be assessed to raise the money for homes and schools.  The summer people are taxed, in fact though not in principle. at twice the rate of the year-round people, which, since the summer people are all clearly rich as Croesus, strikes the board of assessors as only equitable."  The city slickers get exasperated at the local telephone service and break down on the Taconic and talk of Tanglewood (but never go).  

Amanda Cross is all light heart and amusement.  One reason you keep reading is to see what smart crack she'll make about the Berkshires next.  But the book's characters left me thinking about a quite different concern, one suggested by the book but in fact far removed from its gay intentions.  Its main character, Kate Fansler, is a university English professor, and a lot of others are either literature professors or graduate students who will become English professors. Cross' characters, I emphasize, are not meant to be taken seriously, but in them she comes close to distilling something real I think not so amusing--what I call the "grad-school attitude."  

This is an attitude so marked by self-conscious and brittle flipness, a knowingness that, while it is at pains to display its erudition, is equally at pains to signal it is too sophisticated to take any of it in earnest.  The attitude assumes big cities--New York, London, Paris--are the only places for a normal person to live; anywhere else is exile.  It makes a bid deal of drinking, and smugly reads sex, normal or queer, into everything.  It spends a lot of time on gossip, either about colleagues or celebrities or the literary figures grad students study.  It involves both a lot of self-promotion and a lot of bellyaching about how society doesn't appreciate and properly reward intellectuals of the superior sort they are.  It takes affluence for granted.  In literature, it overvalues the "creative" process and originality of technique at the expense of wise content and realistic soundness of values....this "grad-school attitude"....may say far louder than any pious words to the contrary that English is irrelevant or worse, is for the ineffectual nerd and the study of language and literature is an incomprehensible frill....

Butler Library, Columbia University

Dick Nunley was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Kings College Cambridge, though I don't know whether he was an Anglophile like Heilbrun.  Certainly the two teachers, both of whom were highly regarded as teachers, held varying views of rural and urban life.  According to Nunley's 2016 obituary he was an "exacting teacher with high expectations for all," whom many of his former students, including Judy Waters, credited "with changing the course of their lives."  The same was said of  Carolyn Heilbrun after she died in 2003.  Surely no greater praise can be afforded a committed educator.