Friday, May 3, 2013

Up Hill And Down Dale: Death of a Curate (1932), by Kennth Ashley

In his book How to Get Rich, publisher (and very rich person) Felix Dennis mentions that years ago he purchased a portion of the library of the writer J. B. Priestley (who occasionally, it will be recalled, dabbled in mystery).  One of the books Dennis bought was Up Hill and Down Dale (1924), a poetry collection "by a virtually unknown poet," Kenneth Ashley

With a slip of paper, notes Green, "Priestley had marked a particular poem" in the slim volume:

"Out of Work"

Alone at the shut of the day was I,
With a star or two in a frost clear sky,
And the byre smell in the air.

I'd tramped the length and breadth o' the fen;
But never a farmer wanted men;
Naught doing anywhere.

A great calm moon rose back o' the mill,
And I told myself it was God's will
Who went hungry and who was fed.

I tried to whistle; I tried to be brave;
But the new plowed fields smelt dank as the grave;
And I wished I were dead.

....and the byre smell in the air.
In Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes  that unpleasant subjects like unemployment "were ignored in almost all the detective stories of the Golden Age" of detective fiction (traditionally dated between roughly 1920 and 1940).  "[W]hen sympathy was expressed for the poor it was not for the unemployed but for those struggling along on a fixed inherited income."

So many detective stories were published during the Golden Age of detective fiction (more than any one person ever could read) that it might give one pause in saying what "almost all" of them did or did not do, though I think it's fair to say that the exposure of social ills was less of a concern in the Golden Age, when one prominent school of thought urged the view that "realism" did not belong in the mystery tale.

However, poet Kenneth Ashley wrote a single detective novel, Death of a Curate (1932), in which  unemployment is addressed, in a rural north England setting, with nary a country house party in sight.  It's a very good book and definitely off the beaten Golden Age track, at least in my experience.  Find out more when I give my full review this weekend.