Saturday, March 29, 2014

De Mortuis: Scarweather (1934), Anthony Rolls (Colwyn Edward Vulliamy)

Man is an animal that has lost its hair, or most of it, and is only able to exist (in temperate climates) by means of an artificial protective covering.  From the biological point of view he is an elaborate although not entirely successful product of evolution. His intricate structure renders him the victim of a great variety of horrible diseases, while his brain is always liable to the most humiliating and unpredictable disorders.

--"What Is Man," Chapter 2 of Man and the Atom: A Brief Account of the Human Dilemma (1947), by C. E. Vulliamy

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case.  As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

--Scarweather (1934), Anthony Rolls (C. E. Vulliamy)

Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy
Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971) descends from Francois Justin Vulliamy (1712-1797), a Swiss clockmaker who settled in London in the 1730s.  His son Benjamin (1747-1811) and grandson Benjamin Lewis (1780-1854) followed in the family business; all three men were Clockmakers to the Crown.

C. E. Vulliamy was born in Wales (The Passing Tramp's ancestral home), where he was privately educated, like another crime writer we talk about here a lot, Agatha Christie, who was born in Devon four years later.

During the First World War he served in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, serving in fighting in France, Macedonia and the Ottoman Empire (he reached the rank of captain). While experiencing Asia Minor he became interested in archaeology and when he returned to England he took it up as an area of study, performing digs in England and publishing three books on the subject in the 1920s.

He then turned to the field with which he was most associated, eighteenth-century biography, producing in the 1930s biographies of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Wesley, James Boswell, William Penn and George III, among others.  He also published histories of the Crimean War and British South Africa.  It was during this time that he wrote the four crime novels published under the pseudonym Anthony Rolls.

In the 1940s and beyond he primarily produced satirical works, including a series of mock biographies of fictional Victorians, as well as six more crime novels.  There also were collections of essays and short philosophical treatises like Man and the Atom.

In a development that the mordant Vulliamy likely would have viewed with ironic amusement, all this distinguished work has been forgotten by most people today.  It is the job of the Passing Tramp to revive people, not to bury them, however. I believe Vulliamy's early Anthony Rolls novels deserve another look from the crime fiction reading public.

Vulliamy appears to have been a political leftist and a religious agnostic (or, even more likely I would think, an atheist). His 1930s crime novels are definitely not your run-of-the-mill Golden Age mysteries.  The Vicar's Experiments (1932) describes the murder spree of a maniac clergyman, Lobelia Grove (1932) details murder in an English garden city suburb, Family Matters (1933) is a dark study of murder in a seriously dysfunctional family environment and Scarweather....

Family Matters: the novel that immediately preceded Scarweather

Ah, Scarweather!  This is the book I said I would write about in a bit more detail this weekend (I want to look at Vulliamy and the Anthony Rolls novels in greater detail in the next issue of CADS).

The problem is it is hard to write about Scarweather without spoiling it.  The central idea in it is quite wonderfully brought off, in my view.  Even when the reader realizes what is coming, the reader has to read on, dreading the inevitable.

The story is told in retrospect by John Farringdale, a rather staid and respectable lawyer, eminently qualified to act as a Watson to his brilliant friend Fredrick Ellingham, a reader in chemistry at Cambridge, of whom Farringdale writes, "I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of real attainment."  The prose is formal Edwardian stuff, but excellently done.

The narrative takes place over fifteen years, 1913-1928 (yet at about 90,000 words is still shorter than most modern-day English crime novels), and details the consequences of the meeting of Farringdale's handsome cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, with the eminent Professor Tolgen Reisby, Chair of Genetics at the University of Northport, and Reisby's beautiful and much younger wife, Hilda. In the main Scarweather is quite serious, though there is ample scope for Vulliamy's characteristic satire (particularly in the final section), this time directed at academia, from which Vulliamy always stood aloof and independent.

Regretfully Scarweather (the name of the Reisbys isolated house in northern England, by the way) was Vulliamy's last Golden Age crime novel. However, with its predecessors it offers crime fiction fans a taste of something much out of the ordinary run.  Let us hope these works are reprinted someday, as old editions of them are hard to find and they merit a modern readership.

1 comment:

  1. The enthusiasm you have for Vulliamy as Rolls got me to pull FAMILY MATTERS off my shelf and I'm reading it right now. "Seriously dysfunctional family environment" is perhaps an understatement. It's quite a hotbed of passions and barely disguised hatreds in the Kewdingham household. I have SCARWEATHER on my shelf, too but I've skipped over your review when I read the bit about how hard it is to write about the story without spoiling it. I'd rather have no knowledge whatsoever about the book before reading it. I'm going to make a brave attempt to enter the most likely arch tidal waters of BODY IN THE BOUDOIR as well. Stay tuned... Thanks for all the tidbits about Vulliamy's life, too!