Friday, March 30, 2012

Victorian Tableaux Vivants, #1: The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons

For the next week or so I want to write about Victorian mystery novels.  Not, to be precise, mystery novels written from the Victorian era, but ones written much more recently, and set in the Victorian era.  I have chosen four titles to look at: The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons; Waxwork (1978), by Peter Lovesey; The Wench is Dead (1989), by Colin Dexter; and Asta's Book (1993), by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell (I'm cheating a bit with the last one, since the action only really starts in 1905).  Let the tableaux of Victorian crime novels begin!--The Passing Tramp

first edition of Bloody Murder,
Julian Symons' seminal mystery genre survey
I don't suppose it is true that people adept at examining darker emotions in crime novels necessarily experienced great unhappiness in childhood, but certainly it seems to be the case that Julian Symons (1912-1994) in fact did (more on this below).

Although today he receives much less attention than he did even two decades ago, Julian Symons is one of the major figures in English crime fiction from the second half of the twentieth century. Symons was a prolific writer, publishing 28 crime novels in a half-century period (1945 to 1994; a final novel appeared posthumously in 1996), as well as collections of short stories and works of biography, history and literary criticism (a short story collection was published in 2006 by Crippen & Landru).

Julian Symons
In my view, Symons' mystery genre survey, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (originally published in 1972 and reprinted in revised editions in 1985 and 1992) arguably is the single most important critical study of the genre (I say this though I often disagree with it!).

Symons was a key figure in that transition he writes about in Bloody Murder, the movement away from the puzzle-oriented detective story to the crime novel that places greater emphasis on characterization, setting, theme, psychology, the depiction of accurate police procedure, etc. He wanted to shift the mystery genre from its Golden Age preoccupation with puzzles over to the concerns of "realistic" mainstream novels. During his long writing career Symons himself did, however, produce some genuine "fair play" detective novels, including The Blackheath Poisonings, his twentieth crime novel.

Blackheath was published in 1978, when Symons was 66 years old.  It was to be the first of a Symons trilogy of Victorian crime novels, the others being Sweet Adelaide (1980) and The Detling Murders (1982) (in the United States The Detling Secret, a superior title). Symons admitted that he was getting older and losing touch with younger English life, probably as most any older writer to some extent would tend to do, and he thought exploring Victorian life would be an interesting change for him (though he went on to write seven more crime novels after the Victorian ones, all but one set entirely in the present day).

The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)
Of the three novels the best known is The Blackheath Poisonings. Sweet Adelaide is an exploration of a notorious true crime, the Adelaide Bartlett poising case.  The Detling Secret in my view is a superior detective novel to Blackheath, though it lacks emotional force. Blackheath was televised twenty years ago in a British film adaptation with a fine cast, including Judy Parfitt, Ian McNeice, Zoe Wanamaker and Patrick Malahide.  I believe it remains the sole Symons novel ever filmed.

It is hard for me to fairly assess Blackheath as a detective novel, because I encountered the tale through the film adaptation and thus already knew the solution when I first read the book. It seems to me that modern readers may guess the solution ahead of the author's revelation.  Beyond the puzzle aspect, however, The Blackheath Poisonings is quite an enjoyable and suspenseful tale.

The novel deals with multiple arsenic poisonings in a wealthy Victorian family.  There are actually two households involved: that of matriarch Harriet Collard, her spinster daughter Charlotte (who has an importunate suitor) and her nephew Bertie Williams; and that of Roger Vandervant, his wife Beatrice (Harriet Collard's other daughter), Roger Vandervant's son, Paul, and George Collard (Harriet's son) and his wife Isabel.

Roger Vandervant dies, ostensibly of natural gastric trouble, and at the urging of Harriet Collard the pompous family doctor gives a death certificate and an inquest is avoided. Another death occurs several months later and again the doctor gives a death certificate (it's all blamed on the oysters this time).

However when certain indiscreet letters come to the attention of the police, an official investigation begins, arsenic is discovered as the cause of death in both cases, an arrest is made and a trial commences.  A verdict is reached, but is it the right one? Then there is another death....

the Felony & Mayhem edition
Symons does an admirable job of subtly capturing Victorian atmosphere (in some such recreations, the authors are so anxious to parade their knowledge about the period the books resemble encyclopedia entries swallowed whole and regurgitated on the reader) and portraying repressed family antagonisms that may lead to murder.  Not surprisingly he seems more interested in sex and psychology than economic and business detail. The Collards have a family business, toy manufacture (Symons enjoyed playing with toy soldiers as a child). If this were a Golden Age detective novel by John Street or Freeman Wills Crofts there would be much more emphasis on this and less sexual psychology. But Symons is very good at what he deigns to do.

Unfortunately it is difficult to discuss interesting aspects of this novel without spoiling the solution for those who have not read it. And since it has been reprinted in a new edition by Felony & Mayhem, it is easily available for those who want to do so!  However I do want to say more about the characterization and how it draws from Symons' own life.

Julian Symons was quite a good writer, both of fiction and essays, and The Blackheath Poisonings is throughout a well-written novel.  However, most of the characters do not break out of the confines of (well-conveyed) stock.

Judy Parfitt as Harriet Collard
First, there's the iron-willed, "elderly" (about sixty) dowager matriarch, Harriet Collard (memorably played in the film version by Judy Parfitt, born to play such roles).  Harriet is stock, but of the very best grade.  She's the real man of the family, as more than one character thinks, confident and indomitable, though tragically wrongheaded in some of her decisions (I suspect she symbolizes Symons' view of the Victorian age).

Then there's Harriet's frustrated spinster daughter.  There's the daughter's on-the-make suitor.  There's Harriet's smugly pious, evangelical Christian nephew (here Symons really writes beneath himself, I think, giving poor Bertie every last one of the negative stereotypes one can give this sort of character--he even has the young man picking his nose and afflicted with acne). And there's the formal father (Roger Vandervant) and Harriet's wastrel son George. Harriet's other daughter never really emerges as even interesting stock.

Paul Vandervant:
something of an autobiographical portrait?
Yet there are two characters who are really interesting and multi-dimensional, young Paul Vandervant and his beautiful, enigmatic stepmother, Isabel. Without saying whether Isabel did anything she oughtn't to have done, I would suggest that with her Symons surely drew on the gallery of real-life, fascinating, Victorian suspected lady poisoners. She's quite a compellingly presented individual. Paul Vandervant thinks so too and has, indeed, rather fallen in love with her.

At its heart, The Blackheath Poisonings is a moving story of young male adolescent love (I find the epilogue a narrative tour de force).  I don't know whether Symons had a similar youthful passion, but I do know there are quite a few similarities between Paul Vandervant and Julian Symons.

Symons was born in 1912 to a Jewish father of obscure origins who was nearly fifty at the time of Symons' birth.  So his father was only a few years younger than Arthur Conan Doyle--in other words, very much a man of the Victorian era.  Symons' father was very much the stern, formal Victorian father, as Symons portrays him, someone who never failed to address his son as "sir."  The family's economic status was unstable (sometimes they had good money, but more often they didn't). Young Julian, obviously an extremely bright lad, left school at fourteen to find work as a clerk. This was the end of his formal schooling.

Julian had a stammer, which his father could not help but feel was deliberate ("Come on, sir, say what you've got to say, get it out").  "He was short-tempered at home," recalls Symons of his father, "shouting angrily about mistakes made or things left undone, savagely censorious in relation to any friend brought back to the house, prudish in a deep-seated Jewish way about sexual matters."  For example, he often exasperatedly criticized Julian's play or reading choices:

not for play?
If he saw me playing solitary games with soldiers on the bedroom floor he would tell me to get them cleared up and do some work; when I was reading an article about Napoleon's Marshall Lannes in the Encyclopedia Britannica he took the volume from me, turned the  pages until he found the name of Linnaeus and, frantic with irritation, said: "Read that, sir, read something useful."

"As much as I hated anybody at this time of my life," declares Symons bluntly, "I hated my father." When Symons' father died in 1929, when Symons was a  teenager, sixteen or seventeen, the son "was not conscious of deep sorrow, nor of any emotion except ignoble relief, and a feeling that life might be easier now."

Paul Vandervant gets along vastly better with his father than this (and he is sorry when his father dies), but the two do have bitter conflicts, in which his father sounds rather like Symons' father ("Well, sir?...Do you understand what you're saying? I am a liar, that is what you're saying.").  Paul writes poetry, he wants to leave school to write, to become a journalist, and Paul is notably socialistic in political orientation, all like Julian Symons.  Paul's father is frequently obtuse, unable to understand his son's feelings or appreciate his true talents.

In A Catalogue of Crime, Jacques Barzun criticized The Blackheath Poisonings, in part because he believed that "some of the attitudes about state, church and society [expressed in the book] are of the 20th century."  I suspect Barzun was thinking to a great extent about the character of Paul, who indeed often sounds more than a bit like Julian Symons.  The novel is set in 1892, twenty years before Symons was born, and perhaps Paul seems more a character of 1912 (there also is an epilogue set in 1930, which I don't think anyone could criticize on Barzun's grounds).  But much of the interest we have in Paul's story in The Blackheath Poisonings derives precisely, I believe, from the power of Symons' self-portraiture.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Land Endureth, Part 2: John Rhode's Licensed for Murder (1958) and Ruth Rendell's Not in the Flesh (2007) (Then and Now #4)

Ruth Rendell's Not in the Flesh is a novel preoccupied with the earth.  Jim Belbury, his truffle-hunting dog, Honey, and the transitory pickers of the apples, pears and strawberries grown on the fruit farms, all these beings derive sustenance from the land (Jim and the transient fruit-pickers earn cash, Honey chunks of sirloin as rewards for unearthed truffles).  But the earth can yield dead as well as living things, ugly things that people want to stay buried and lost forever.
Sometimes our dead secrets don't stay buried. In the first few pages of Not in the Flesh, the intrepid Honey unearths not merely several truffles, but "the bones of a human hand, flesh, skin, veins, tendons all gone."  Jim Belbury knows what to do:

Jim might be an old countryman, once an agricultural laborer and living in a cottage with no bathroom and no main drainage, but still he would no more have gone without his mobile than would his fifteen-year-old great nephew.  Unaware of the number of Kingsmarkham police station, he dialled 999.

It starts with truffles....

This passage nicely catches a recurrent theme in Rendell's fine 2007 Chief Inspector Wexford novel: the inter-meshing of past and present in rural England. Judging from internet commentary, some readers have found Not in the Flesh digressive and dull.  But I quite enjoyed the "digressions." With this novel Rendell has given us a fine traditional English rural mystery tale, with plenty of her characteristically keen and penetrating social observation.

Admittedly, the formal mystery puzzle in Not in the Flesh is far from Rendell's cleverest (at her best, Rendell is capable of Agatha Christie level sleight-of-hand).  The reader likely will tumble to the truth of who left the body in the trench some time before Wexford (though another body crops up to complicate things), but the getting there makes an enjoyable journey, thanks to Rendell's characteristic skill in conveying setting and character.

Ruth Rendell remains a penetrating social observer

Outside of the Kingsmarkham police force, which, longtime detective duo Reg Wexford and Mike Burden excepted, is young and racially and sexually diverse, much of the cast of characters in the main plot line of Not in the Flesh is superannuated indeed.  Many seem to spend most of their time ensconced at home by their tellies, complaining about the state of things in modern England.  Wexford, who can be rather grumbly himself about modernity (his dislike of computers, grammatical innovations like informal personal address, "political correctness" and the metric system--all of which I suspect he shares with his creator--is intense), pointedly notes that Flagford, the village where these people live and where the bones were discovered, "is locally known as 'the geriatric ward'."  How accurate this appellation is!

Oliver and Audrey Hunter, for example, are 96 and 93, and living with a resident carer.  The thoughts Rendell expresses through a police sergeant character sent to interview them (futilely) are not exactly cozy:

Barry thought of modern medicine and healthier lifestyles keeping everyone alive much longer so that by the time he reached retirement age there wouldn't be thousands, but tens, hundreds, of thousands of people like the Hunters.  Alive but not living, ancient and disabled by time, deprived by the years of memory, hearing, sight and most movement but still alive.  He, too, maybe one day.  The carer, when she told him he needn't look like that, must have referred to his expression of pity mixed with horror.

Then there's the embittered and lonely octogenarian widow Irene McNeil, who had to give up Flagford Hall after her husband died.  "It was my husband's family home," she complains.  "You could call it his ancestral home.  His family had lived there for generations.  The house is perfect Queen Anne, you know, and the gardens are gorgeous--or they were, I don't suppose they are now."

Admittedly, Irene McNiel is hard to sympathize with, as she uses the term "village idiot" to refer to a mentally impaired man and is incredulous when she sees that the policeman sent to interview her is black.  Yet I found her story arc rather interesting (she gets a new lease on life when she gets a new carer, a sprightly and astonishingly giving gay man named Greg).

Then there's the Grimbles, John and Kathleen, who belong "to that category of people who, after about forty, decide consciously or unconsciously to become old." Rendell expounds interestingly on this theme:

While the cult of youth prevails in society, while to be young is to be beautiful, bright and lovable, they [the people like the Grimbles] sink rapidly into middle age and even seem to cultivate the disabilities of the aged.  Wexford's theory was that they do this out of laziness and because of the benefits incident to being elderly.  The old are not expected to take exercise, lift heavy weights or do much for themselves.  They are pitied but they are also ignored.  No one asks them to do anything or, come to that, to stop doing anything they choose to do.

Grimble complains incessantly about the government's denial to him of permission to build bungalows on his land, to his wife's reflexive, tired strain of "Oh, John."

And there's the famous novelist Owen Tredown, dying from cancer, and his two wives (actually the one woman is his ex-wife), Maeve and Claudia Ricardo.  This menage lives in a garishly decorated Victorian villa and tries rather desperately to be Bohemian and shocking ("the wives" in particular seem like they never mentally left the 1960s).

I enjoyed following these characters and others, deftly handled as they are by Rendell.

I also enjoyed following Rendell's chronicle of rural social change and continuity.  Not in the Flesh appeared a half-century after John Rhode's rural detective novel Licensed for Murder (1958), but the agrarian worlds portrayed by the authors are not so different as one might think at first blush.  Rendell's elderly characters really seemed as if they once might have lived in the pages of Rhode's novel, fifty years earlier (it doesn't hurt in this respect that Rendell's village is called Flagford and Rhode's Famford).

Still, there is definite social change.  The fruit-pickers now are Romanians and Bulgarians, the police force is racially and sexually diverse (ultra-feminist detective sergeant Hannah Goldsmith comes in for endless zinging from the author for her zealous, politically correct attitudes) and then there's the matter of the local Somali population. In dealing with this latter group, Rendell introduces a subplot about female genital mutilation that in itself is quite interesting (and certainly topical), though it remains disconnected from the main murder plot.

Despite these changes, however, I was left with a strong impression, after finishing Not in the Flesh, of continuity.

Despite generations passing away and new ones, admittedly differently comprised ones, replacing them, despite changes in technology and sexual and social mores, the land itself endures and to a considerable extent people seem to conform themselves to it.  Though written a half-century apart from each other Licensed for Murder and Not in the Flesh portray what still in many ways are discernibly similar rural Englands.  What will things be like in another fifty years?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Land Endureth: John Rhode's Licensed for Murder (1958) and Ruth Rendell's Not in the Flesh (2007) (Then and Now #4)

"One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the land endureth forever."

Even the finest longtime prolific mystery and crime writers in their later years may suffer waning inspiration and even capacity.  Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Postern of Fate (1973), the last two novels Agatha Christie wrote, are, in my view, quite dull and meandering (the latter, indeed, approaches incoherence).  When Christie produced these two books, she was in her eighties and had already written over sixty novels (Elephants and Postern were her sixty-fifth and sixty-sixth, respectively).  Christie had been writing mystery novels for over half a century, having produced her first one, The Mysteriousness Affair at Styles, in 1920.

Elephants may remember
but by 1972 Agatha Christie
occasionally forgot

Ruth Rendell, one of the great modern-day British Queens of Crime, will publish her sixty-second and sixty-third crime novels in 2012 (this is the first year since 2008 that she has produced two novels in one year).  Like Christie in the early 1970s, Ruth Rendell is now an octogenarian, having celebrated her eighty-second birthday last month.  She published her first mystery novel, From Doon with Death, nearly fifty years ago, in 1964.

Ruth Rendell (b. 1930)
Modern day Crime Queen

Incredible as this may seem, Cecil John Charles Street, the other mystery writer with whom I am concerned in this piece, published (primarily under two pseudonyms, John Rhode and Miles Burton) more mystery novels than Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell combined: 143 (or 144, depending on how one categorizes The Alarm).  Even more incredible, he produced his 143 mystery novels in a "mere" thirty-eight years, between 1924 and 1961 (making an average of four novels a year, rounding up).  Street probably is the most prolific true detective novelist in the history of the mystery genre (coincidentally, he died, at the age of eighty, the same year Ruth Rendell's first novel was published).

John Street (1884-1964)
Golden Age Crime King

In this two-part piece I look at a pair of novels: Licensed for Murder (1958), by John Rhode (Street's best-known pseudonym) and the more recent Not in the Flesh (2007), by Ruth Rendell.  Though both books come from late in the authors' careers, when both authors were in their seventies (Street 74, Rendell 77), they are, I think, superior to most of Agatha Christie's later efforts.  Moreover, they have surprising elements in common, most strikingly a shared interest in social changes transpiring in rural England (note: I adopt the American spelling for the Rhode novel).

English edition

As "John Rhode" Cecil John Charles Street was a founding member of the Detection Club and one of the most popular English detective novelists in the 1920s and 1930s (after 1926 all his mystery novels were published in the United States as well as Britain, in the former country by Dodd, Mead).  His detective, the acerbic, elderly scientist Dr. Lancelot Priestley, was one of the true Great Detectives of the era, with a positive genius for solving the scientifically and mechanically complex crimes his creator devised in novel after novel.  If Agatha Christie was the era's Mistress of Misdirection, John Rhode was its Master of Murder Means.

American edition (Dodd, Mead)
Licensed for Murder was John Street's seventy-second John Rhode novel (and the sixty-seventh outing for Dr. Priestley).  There would be only five more over the next few years, none of them really recommendable. Yet Licensed for Murder is surprisingly good for this very late date, offering readers a complex plot and a persuasive rural setting.

The noted American mystery critic Anthony Boucher praised Licensed for Murder, writing in the New York Times that the "detection is competent; the murders have novelty and ingenuity to recommend them; and the background details on the management of a village inn are fascinating.  Slow and heavy, but kind of nice."

John Street enjoyed
a stout pipe and a strong pint
Anthony Boucher was discerning in his assessment of Licensed for Murder.  Its murder plot is one of Street's cleverest and the late-1950s declining rural inn setting is done with conviction and authority, reflecting in plain prose the author's over half-century familiarity with public houses and his fascination with geography and landscape (Street had been an artillerist in World War One).

Licensed for Murder opens with the managing director of Hinkley’s Brewery, Mr. Godstow, learning that the elderly tenants of the Knapper’s Arms plan shortly to relinquish the inn's tenancy, which they have held for twenty-nine years.  Godstow fears that finding new tenants will prove a stiff challenge:

The Knapper’s Arms was certainly not an attractive proposition.  A century ago Famford had been a flourishing center of the flint-knapping industry....But the industry had long since...come to an end.  The population of the straggling village had decreased, and now consisted almost entirely of labourers on the surrounding farms....
How was a tenant to be found for such a house as the Knapper’s Arms?...[T]he property included six acres of land, enough for a smallholding.  But it wasn’t everybody who would be attracted by the prospect of serving in the bar during opening hours and working on the land for the rest of the day….Electricity had been laid on during the past five years, but water still had to be pumped by hand from a well, and there was no bathroom.  The only available public transport was the bus service along the main road between Maltchester and Whitby.

After nearly thirty years Hinkley's Brewery must find new tenants for the Knapper's Arms
for fascinating information on beer and breweries, see

Godstow drives to Famford to get a look for himself at the lie of the land, which he finds, as he expected, unpromising:  

From Hall Farm the village of Famford was hidden by an intervening hill.  But when Godstow had driven to the crest of this, the village lay spread out before him: the flint-built church, with its squat tower; the vicarage; a few scattered cottages; and in the centre of all the Knapper’s Arms.  It was large for a village inn and by no means attractive in appearance.  A central block built of brick, with a roof of blue slate.  To this additions had been made from time to time, built of flint or of the local stone.  The whole effect was ugly and without symmetry.  Godstow could imagine a prospective tenant shuddering at first sight of it.

Despite his doubts about the prospects of leasing the Knapper’s Arms, Godstow is able to find an interested couple, the Bilstons.  Surprisingly, the Bilstons are Londoners who want to give up their city jobs and live in the country, confounding Godstow’s prediction that “no Londoner would ever take the Knapper’s Arms.”  After a couple weeks when the Knapper’s Arms is left untenanted, the Bilstons take up occupancy.

Not unexpectedly, however, the locals—such as Mr. Kensal and his wife, the owners of Hall Farm, and the agricultural laborers who work for them--feel the Bilstons don’t quite fit in at Famford.  As Kensal tells his wife after first meeting the Bilstons:

I’m not very greatly taken with him.  He’s got a superior way I don’t like....As for the woman....I can’t believe that her true vocation is to become the landlady of a village pub....If she makes the chaps feel that they are her inferiors, they’ll take to going to the Blue Boar.  They don’t like people who put on airs.

An English village locale reminiscent of fictional Famford

This concern, however, is soon forgotten in the excitement that ensues when Mr. Bilston, taking down sheets of corrugated iron that had been put up over the inn’s great, disused stone fireplace, discovers "a charred and utterly unrecognizable human form."  Cause of death cannot be determined, but murder looks likely and Superintendent James ("Call me Jimmy")Waghorn is called in on the case.  It is assumed that the body was placed in the fireplace and burned during the period between tenancies, but, since the identity of the corpse cannot be definitely established, Jimmy finds his going as rough as the very flint, even after a consultation with his longtime mentor, the by now quite elderly Dr. Priestley.  Only after another death in Famford does truth gradually begin to emerge....

Fancy country houses and posh aristocrats
are absent from Licensed for Murder,
which emphasizes the lives of
workaday farmers and tradespeople

Besides providing a good puzzle, Licensed for Murder offers readers a glimpse of the altered landscape of even traditional English mystery in the 1950s.  Licensed for Murder has no settings of baronets and country houses, only of smallholders and laborers. Even the owners of Hall Farm, the Kensals, are plain, practical people, who concern themselves not with planning house parties for weekending society ladies and men-about-town, but rather with workaday matters like scrubbing eggs and spraying sugar-beets. With Licensed for Murder, then, we are far removed from the glamorous, sophisticated English country house murders of stereotype.

Dr. Priestley on the case!
The rural world of Licensed for Murder is not so different as one might initially think from that of Ruth Rendell's quite interesting 2007 Chief Inspector Wexford novel, Not in the Flesh. To be sure, English society has changed since the 1950s and Rendell does not ignore these changes.  In her novel Rendell demonstrates that she shares John Street's interest in fictionally chronicling social transformation. 

Yet the land endureth, even after the passing of generations. More on Rendell's novel in Part Two!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Precious Right to Read a Murder Mystery

I thought this bit was worth passing on to people!

the last mystery story to be published in Italy--at least so long as the Mussolini regime functions

In 1939 the American detective novelist Todd Downing wrote an Oklahoma friend an interesting letter in which he mentioned that his acclaimed 1934 detective novel The Cat Screams "is to be the last mystery story published in Italy--at least so long as the Mussolini regime functions."  According to Downing, the Milan publishing firm of Mondadori had bought the translation rights to The Cat Screams "just before Mussolini issued his decree, and they rushed it into print just under the wire."

Hitler may have loved Edgar Wallace,
but apparently Mussolini  was not a mystery fan

Downing's friend was highly incensed:

[I]t would seem mystery stories belong to the literature of "escape"....So, no more sleuthing, vicariously, for the Italians.  They will be restricted to a literary diet of hero-worship with the fascist big shots in the leading roles, deification of the ancient and modern Italian great, speeches by Mussolini, and novels on the various regions of Italy and her colonies, with the emphasis on the greatness and goodness of everything Italian and the meanness of everything foreign.

For his part Downing confessed that it struck him "that taking a people's detective stories away from them is just about the farthest north of something."

I agree with Todd, as he so quaintly and colloquially put it!  So, when you read your next Golden Age detective novel, you'd better appreciate it, even if it's a mediocre one! Just imagine having your reading limited to Mussolini hagiographies!

Todd Downing:
"Taking a people's detective stories
away from them is just about
the farthest north of something."
I know I get some Italian visitors to this blog and I would love to hear more from them (or anyone else of course) on this subject.  I also read (in Guido Bonsaver's Censorship and Literature in Fascist Italy) that Mondadori declined publishing Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None the same year it published The Cat Screams, 1939--not because the former book was a mystery, but because it contained two impossible-to-delete suicides (and the Regime considered the depiction of suicide demoralizing).

filmed in the United States during World War Two,
but unpublishable in Italy

So was The Cat Screams really the last mystery published in Italy, at least until after World War Two?  I would love to see a copy!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Touch of Class: The First Time He Died (1935), by Ethel Lina White, and Going Wrong (1990), by Ruth Rendell (Then and Now #3)

The first time he died, Charlie Baxter was genuinely touched by the signs of his popularity....

Reading The First Time He Died, the superb fifth crime novel of Golden Age British suspense writer Ethel Lina White, I was struck--not for the first time--about how oddly underappreciated Ethel Lina White is.  One of her novels, the once highly lauded The Wheel Spins (1936), was made into an Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, customarily deemed the best of his British pictures.  Another White novel, Some Must Watch, was filmed in the 1940s by Robert Siodmak as The Spiral Staircase, a classic old dark house thriller and the movie most often assumed to be Hitchcock film but in fact isn't.

In addition to her good film fortune, Ethel Lina White wrote fine suspense novels that stand on their own merit and also are a (surprisingly neglected) link between the Gothic and sensation novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and modern psychological crime novels.

Ethel Lina White
I hope to illustrate this point in this installment of Then and Now by comparing The First Time He Died with Going Wrong, a novel by the great modern Crime Queen Ruth Rendell.

Ruth Rendell

The rarest of Ethel Lina White's crime novels, The First Time He Died is also one of the author's four or five finest.  Briefly, the novels tells of the scheme of three individuals--Charlie Baxter, his wife, Vera, and the couple's friend, Puggie Williams--to commit insurance fraud by faking Charlie's death.  Grave complications naturally ensue. 

Though published in paperback
by Collins, The First Time He Died is
the rarest Ethel Lina White crime novel

This suspense novel indeed is superbly suspenseful ("Miss White works up her macabre passages with consummate skill," declared one reviewer), but it also exhibits literary styling above the genre norm at the time.  The three main characters all are memorable, but so, even, are minor characters.  An anonymous  schoolgirl who develops an instant crush on Charlie when he performs a chivalrous act for her is, for example, expertly limned in the few pages of the book she occupies:

The girl went home feeling that every cell in her body had been subjected to a chemical change.  For the first time she experienced the chaotic upheaval of Nature.  Hitherto, she had been a boy, and would have been murderous to a Constant Nymph* on the hockey field.*

*(The Constant Nymph is a bestselling 1924 Margaret Kennedy novel considered scandalous by many at the time for its depiction of adolescent female sexuality)

Particularly interesting is White's depiction of how the characters in the novel are affected by their class sensitivities.  Charlie, who comes of intensely respectable middle-class stock, scandalized his family be taking a follies girl as his wife (White makes it absolutely clear that Vera's livelihood consisted of removing her clothes in public).  Both Charlie and Vera in spite of themselves are rather in awe of their friend Puggie, a bibulous sponger who tantalizingly may have been an Eton and Oxford man at one time:

It was evident...that he had begun life in a different social sphere from that of his friends, and had probably met them when he was sliding down the ladder and they were climbing up, so had clung to their necks, as ballast.

Charlie's sense of class inferiority comes into central play in the novel, when he becomes enamored with Jennifer Burns, a budding crime writer of superior social position.  Incidentally, Jennifer is no mere scribbler of puzzles, oh no!  She'll have you know that she has loftier pretensions than "mere puzzles":

"I came here to collect material for a book....You know, atmosphere and types.  I must get realism."

"What sort of a book?" he asked.

"Crime.  Of course, I shall concentrate on the psychological aspect--the mind of the criminal."

Since the reader by this time has long come to suspect that the mind of Charlie has pronounced sociopathic tendencies, the situation becomes quite interesting....

How similar all this is to Ruth Rendell's psychological tales of troubled urban loners, drifters and outright psychos, particularly her novel Going Wrong. This 1990 tale details the obsessive passion of street criminal made good Guy Curran for his childhood love (and social "superior"), Leonora Chisolm.  If it sounds a bit like Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby--albeit with the lyrical beauty and romanticism removed (there is little "gorgeous" about Guy Curran)--Rendell herself would agree, as she even references F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel in her own book.

the sad romance of illusion

Guy's problems seem to stem from his inability to appreciate that the class barrier evidently is a nearly insuperable obstacle to cross even in Britain in 1989.  He is repeatedly belittled by Leonora's friends and family for his poor taste and his retrograde values (among other things, he thinks women should dress attractively, he likes Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals and he consumes meat).

At one point Leonora's mother, Tessa, lays it on the line to Guy: "To be perfectly frank, no matter how much money you've made, you don't belong in our class."  Granted, as Tessa goes on to add, Guy's criminal past and obsessiveness would be problematic under any circumstance.  Still, the charm of Leonora's smug family and friends quite escapes me!

With their shared themes of criminality motivated by class sensitivities and obsessive passion, The First Time He Died and Going Wrong have considerable similarity (it could be said that the Rendell novel, over twenty years old, itself is now somewhat out-of-date in this respect).  I would say, however, that as s a suspense novel The First Time He Died is clearly the superior of the two.

To be sure, Rendell has produced numerous genre masterpieces in the suspense field, such as A Demon in My View (1976), A Judgement in Stone (1977), The Lake of Darkness (1980), The Killing Doll (1984) and The Bridesmaid (1989) (to say nothing of her Barbara Vine titles), but I would not classify Going Wrong among these books.

Suspense is suspended and the great reveal is what the English call a damp squib.  There is a cruel twist that reminded me of the ironically-titled Julian Symons novel The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968), but to me it felt perfunctory.  Finding the characters rather uninteresting and unlikable--excepting Guy's amazingly steadfast, second-best girlfriend--I didn't much care what happened to them.

Irony 101: be careful what you wish for

So, score one here for Ethel Lina White.  Let's hope an enterprising publisher reprints The First Time He Died.  It is, I would say, a suspense classic. Now I think I may go reread A Demon in My View or The Lake of Darkness....

Note: For a recent piece on Ethel Lina White, see Martin Edwards' review of her novel Some Must Watch. The Passing Tramp

Friday, March 9, 2012

Forgotten Books by Forgotten Authors #2: Insoluble (1934), by Francis Everton

Oh to be England now that April's (okay, March) there!  Well, we readers CAN be in England in April or March or any other time of the year, all through the miracle of literature--crime literature preferably.

This installment's forgotten mystery novel by a forgotten mystery author--Insoluble (1934), by Francis Everton--is very English (and very rare!).  After my recent spate of hard-boiled reading I had to readjust slightly.  But I soon felt right at home again.  Insoluble is quite an interesting tale, rather strikingly modern in some ways.

What seems modern about Insoluble is its emphasis on realistic characters and setting and credible psychology over the mechanics of detection.  In fact, though the novel was published in England by the Collins Crime Club, I'm not altogether certain in my mind how much a true detective novel it is.  The police detection, by a local man, Inspector Pratt, is mostly behind the scenes.  What progress is made in solving the crime is mostly through the groping intuitions of lay characters.  Yet I, something of a detection addict, still found it an engrossing mystery.

I am getting ahead myself, however!  What actually happens in Insoluble?  Let us begin....

Essentially Insoluble is a classic tale of middle class (or upper middle class) English domestic murder.  Sylvia Manning is trapped in a loveless marriage with Cecil Manning, managing director of the Ruston branch (apparently West Midlands vicinity) of British Industrial Chemicals, Ltd.  The couple actually lives in the village of Haythorpe, with their two young children, Betty and Tony, and Cecil's imperious aunt, Jane Bickersteth, who raised him from a young age, after the death of his father and stepmother.

The story is told by Peter Lindsay, Cecil Manning's stepbrother (his mother married Cecil's father). Like Cecil, Peter was raised by "Aunt Jane" after their parents died, though he himself was no blood relation to Aunt Jane and had to accustom himself to her preference for Cecil. Further damaging Peter's relationship with Cecil, the latter man cut out the former in the pursuit of Sylvia some ten years before the novel begins.

There's also the matter of Cecil's "nasty streak of cruelty."  As Peter tells it, with an image that is surely likely to strike us cold today: "I could never forget how, as a boy, when there were kittens to be drowned, [Cecil] would prefer dropping them on stone flags in the old stable yard behind the house."

As the novel opens Peter informs us that the previous evening he had been reading at Cecil's behest "a thesis on the chemical warfare of the future."  Cecil, declares Peter, "loved horrors for their own sake" and found it engrossing reading.  Peter for his part deems the thesis "gruesome stuff."  It gives him bad dreams and a foreboding of disaster.

this "gruesome stuff" appeals to sadistic Cecil Manning
who "loved horrors for their own sake"

Sure enough, Sylvia appears in Peter's law office (he's the family lawyer) to tell him she must end the marriage with Cecil or she will have to do something even more drastic. Cecil's cruelty toward her is now finding expression in his contemptuous, abusive treatment of their delicate son, Tony.  Aunt Jane supports Cecil in everything does, making Sylvia's life even more intolerable.

Complicating matters further, Sylvia has also found an extracurricular interest, the handsome and single Stephen Wainwright.  To Peter, Sylvia confesses to a one-time hotel tryst with Stephen: "Well, we love each other.  These things will happen.  But we neither of us meant it to go so far."

Then there's Mr. Hawkesley, chief chemist at the Cecil's Ruston branch of British Industrial Chemicals, who is in a dispute over some business papers (concerning a patent application) that Cecil has seized but to which Hawkesley feels he has the right of ownership.  Hawkesley, Peter informs us, is "an Irishman, one of the white-faced, black-haired, tense variety."  Hawkesley's being Irish tends to being out Anglophiliac snark in our narrator, Peter:

He was not a bad sort, really, if you made sufficient allowance.  But one never felt at home with him.  He was an expert in grievances.  Even in tennis flannels there was something about him vaguely reminiscent of a potato famine.

Completing the cast of main characters is Annabel, the charming and intelligent daughter of Dr. Strange (the Manning family physician) and Sylvia's closest lady friend.  Annabel got a science degree in college and is desultorily looking for a teaching post as science mistress at a girls' school.  Despite being older than Annabel, Peter is quite fond of her and he thinks she is of him, though she has also shown a certain interest in Hawkesley....

Things get progressively worse between Cecil and Sylvia at their home, Pipers, especially with Aunt Jane egging things on in her inimitable way.  "She could so stress a word here and another there, she was so adept at innuendo," avows Peter, "that she could almost insult you by asking you to pass the marmalade.

deadly toddy

At a bridge party where the above principals all are present, hot toddies (laced with lots of whiskey) are consumed.  The next morning Cecil is found dead in his bed, overdosed on Sylvia's Perronal tablets (sleeping pills).  Perronal, we find, is insoluble in water, but dissolves readily in alcohol solutions--especially when said solutions are warm.

Gossip soon runs amok in the village, as any reader of English murder mysteries can imagine. The high priestess of village gossip, Mrs. Manser--"like some big fat spider in the ivy, spying on the village and spinning scandal"--is another good character.

Mrs. Manser is the "spider in the ivy... spinning scandal."

Numerous disconcerting facts emerge:

Cecil's life was insured for 10,000 pounds.

Everyone knows about the strife between Sylvia and Cecil and Sylvia's attachment to Stephen.

Cecil supposedly made a new will, leaving everything to Aunt Jane in trust for the children, but no one admits ever having seen it and it now can't be found.

Hawkesley's patent has disappeared from the safe at Pipers.

Lights were seen switched on at Pipers early on the morning of Cecil's death.

It's no wonder the police are soon investigating the Pipers bridge party guests.

Insoluble is a well-written and engrossing mystery tale that I believe readers would enjoy today.   The very clever, double-edged title is just one of numerous pleasing points about the novel.

"Francis Everton," the author of Insoluble, was actually Francis William Stokes (1883-1956), an engineer and the managing director (later chairman) of Stokes Castings, Ltd., a family firm located in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (apparently the "Everton" in Francis Everton came from his mother, Harriet Everton).

centrifugal casting

Stokes was a key figure in the development of the centrifugal-casting process.  While he made a greater mark in industrial technology than he did in detective fiction, the six Francis Everton mystery novels were favorably reviewed and four of them were published in the United States as well as England.  Insoluble was praised by Compton Mackenzie "as a good murder story because the murder itself is credible and the characters are recognizable human beings."  Dorothy L. Sayers found it "intriguing and full of life and movement."

Compton Mackenzie praised Insoluble
for having a"credible" murder
and characters that are
"recognizable human beings"

Though written by an engineer, Insoluble differs from works by Stokes' better-known fellow engineers/detective novelists, Freeman Wills Crofts and Cecil John Charles Street, in being more literary in style (there are even epigraphs for each chapter) and far less dependent on material detail and painstaking detection.  Clearly Insoluble is a step in the direction of the psychological crime novel, away from classical detective fiction.

In an author's note at the beginning of Insoluble Stokes thanks his wife and his brother for the "considerable help" they gave him with the novel.  Stokes' brother, Arthur Meredith Stokes (1886-1965), was a solicitor, just like the narrator of the novel.  It is also worth nothing that Stokes' two sisters, Edith May and Margaret Elizabeth, were teachers, like Annabel Strange in the novel.

Stokes' father, William Edward Stokes, started an iron foundry, the fount of the family fortune (and the setting of Stokes' detective novel The Hammer of Doom); yet before that the Stokes family line was headed by three generations of butchers, going back to the 1700s (periodic reference is made to the village butcher, Blagg, in Insoluble). Judging by Insoluble, Stokes had a good feeling for middle class English life in the 1930s.  Insoluble is singularly lacking in country houses and aristocrats.

Unfortunately, Insoluble is quite a rare book.  My own copy is ex-library and has been read nearly to death, its blue library covers barely holding together (incidentally it came from an address in Haxby Road, York, a onetime lending library that appears to be a Blockbuster now!).  My hope is that Insoluble can be reprinted in a modern edition, because today's mystery fiction fans should enjoy it.  The novel is realistic 1930s English domestic crime fiction at its best.

The detective novels of Francis Everton (Francis William Stokes)

The Dalehouse Murder (1927)
The Hammer of Doom (1929)
Murder at Plenders (1930)
The Young Vanish (1932)
Insoluble (1934)
Murder May Pass Unpunished (1936)

For Part One in this series, see --The Passing Tramp

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Updike on Mystery Fiction

Perusing Due Considerations (2007), the recent essay collection by the late, great American writer John Updike (1932-2009), I spotted a few nuggets on the mystery/detective novel/thriller that I hope are of interest to mystery fans (they were to me!).

In a piece on his childhood reading that he wrote for the New York Times in 1965, Updike reflected on what he calls his "inability to read bravely as a boy":

My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, as it is yet.  I was afraid of encountering, in any book, something I didn't want to know....O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure.  Having deduced that "good books" depict a world in which horror may intrude, I read all through my adolescence for escape.  From the age of twelve I had my own user's card to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Public Library, a beautiful, palatial haven....I read all the books the library had by Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr, in that order....Also humorists....Fifty books by P. G. Wodehouse I must have consumed....Science fiction just barely escaped being too alarming; I read of it copiously until its implications--of time and space so vast that the individual life is as nothing--began to sink in.

John Updike

Reading Public Library: "a beautiful, palatial haven"

The young Updike saw the mystery genre as the great genre of escape and thus he embraced it wholeheartedly.  "With such books," he writes, "I dissipated my youth, while my contemporaries were feasting on classics."  Updike recalls at age fifteen experiencing his "last vivid boyhood fright from books" when he visited his uncle and aunt in Greenwich, Connecticut and discovered their copy of James Joyce's Ulysses:

The whiff of death, God's death, that came off those remorseless, closely written pages overwhelmed me.

So back the young Updike went to "soluble mysteries, as in mystery novels...."

the "whiff of death, God's death" in the
"remorseless" pages of James Joyce's Ulysses 
gave the young Updike a genuine "fright"

John Updike

In a review forty years later of a spy thriller, Robert Littell's Legends (2005), Updike recalled being

a fourteen year old boy lying on a red caneback sofa in Pennsylvania eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches (a site-specific ethnic treat) and reading one mystery novel after another.  Not just mysteries--Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner--but an occasional international thriller, like Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Demetrios and Graham Greene's The Third Man.  The idea of reading a non-genre novel, with its stodgy domestic realism and sissy fuss over female heartbreak, repelled me then, but I could lose myself all morning and afternoon in narratives of skullduggery, detection and eventual triumphant justice.  And, so, to judge from the best-seller lists, can millions still.  Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract...The reader's essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached.

Gardner evidently goes down great with
 peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches

Updike goes on to note that modern crime writers  like P. D. James "give signs of wanting to be 'real' novelists, free to follow character where it takes them and to display their knowledge of the world without the obligation to provide what William Dean Howells disapprovingly called 'a complicated plot, spiced with perils, surprises and suspenses'."

American realist author William Dean Howells
wrote disapprovingly of complicated plots
"spiced with perils, surprises and suspenses"

So, is Updike condemning his childhood mystery reading as the dissipated escapism of youth?  As a great literary eminence, did Updike feel contempt for the classical mystery genre?  Not so, I would argue.  He seems finally to have regarded the books with genuine warmth and affection.

Updike admired Christie's
"brilliantly compact, stylized and efficient mysteries"

Considering Agatha Christie specifically, Updike writes of the Crime Queen's "brilliantly compact, stylized and efficient mysteries."  He adds that "the genre in its lean classic English form fit [Christie] like a cat burglar's thin black glove."

credibility over ingenuity?

Updike sounds much more respectful of Agatha Christie than many modern journalists and crime writers!  Judging from the above I am not altogether certain Updike believed that P. D. James necessarily got the better of Christie when in her mysteries she traded ingenuity for credibility (as James herself has put it). Updike seems to recognize that there is a respectable place in the world of literature for the classical detective novel of the sort associated with Christie, Carr, Queen, Gardner, Marsh and others.

I suspect those of us who devoured classical mystery at a young age, like John Updike and Michael Dirda, never forget the youthful pleasure of it, even if we "outgrow" it.  And, for better or worse (personally, I'm in the better camp), many of us, like the great intellectual Jacques Barzun (age 104), never outgrow it.

Jacques Barzun
mystery reader of nine decades standing

Addendum: Here's a great 2004 interview with Updike where he refers to his childhood love of classical detection--The Passing Tramp

I loved Agatha Christie, of course. And also, an American team called Ellery Queen. I read a lot of Ellery Queen. Erle Stanley Gardner. I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner before I was 15 or so.