Friday, March 28, 2014

The Crime Novels of Anthony Rolls (Colwyn Edward Vulliamy)

Anthony Rolls is one of the crime writers whom Julian Symons in his seminal genre study Bloody Murder mentions as one of the "followers" of Francis Iles, the name under which Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote three psychological crime novels, the two best known of which by far are Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932).

Symons  lists three followers in addition to Rolls--Richard Hull, F. Tennyson Jesse and Raymond Postgate--and designates this group the "Iles school."  He concludes that this school "showed a certain lack of staying power" and that "for the time being [Iles'] influence faded."

Symons actually much underestimates the significance of the psychological crime novel, both in Great Britain and the United States, during the Golden Age, by attributing the innovation seemingly exclusively to this so-called "Iles school."  Important as Francis Iles undeniably was in developing psychological crime fiction, there were a number of other significant authors who worked this vein in the same period, proficiently and apparently independently of the immediate influence of Francis Iles.

However, I will leave this matter for another time and place and consider specifically the case of Anthony Rolls. There is no question, it seems to me, but that his first crime novel, The Vicar's Experiments (1932; cutely retitled Clerical Error in the United States), was influenced by Iles' Malice Aforethought, which preceded it by a year.  Like Malice, it details the actions of  man plotting a murder, in this case a vicar who suddenly snaps mentally, deciding that he has "been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy" (an obnoxious and influential parishioner).

It's an idea that allows scope for some wicked satire--Peter Lovesey memorably used a similar plot in The Reaper (2000) nearly seventy years later (without being familiar with Rolls' book, he later told me)--but I agree with Symons that "the story sadly falters once suspicion of the clergyman has been aroused."

But this is not the end of Anthony Rolls' story.

Symons goes on to write that "Rolls' later books, published twenty years and more after The Vicar's Experiments, did not repeat its [presumably relative--TPT] success."  I agree with Symons that the crime novels Rolls published between 1952 and 1963 (under his actual name, C. E. Vulliamy) are inferior works, far too arch for their own good. They might be said to resemble Michael Innes at his most precious and whimsical--and then some!

Yet Symons seems not to have been aware that there were three additional Anthony Rolls crime novels published in the 1930s: Lobelia Grove (1932), Family Matters (1933) and Scarweather (1934).

Each one of these novels is, in my opinion, more original than as well as superior to The Vicar's Experiments. Together with Experiments, these works constitute a notable body of British psychological crime fiction that deserves resuscitation today. I plan to write in full detail about all four of the Anthony Rolls novels in an article for the next issue of CADS, but, having just completed the last of them, Scarweather, I thought I would post some immediate impressions about it this weekend.

There will as well be some more about Anthony Rolls--or, I should say, Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (here is a portrait of the distinguished  author-to-be, done over a century ago).

Crime novels by Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971)

As Anthony Rolls
The Vicar's Experiments (Clerical Error) (1932)
Lobelia Grove (1932)
Family Matters (1933)
Scarweather (1934)

As C. E. Vulliamy
Don among the Dead Men (1952)
The Body in the Boudoir (1956)
Cakes for Your Birthday (1959)
Justice for Judy (1960)
Tea at the Abbey (1961)
Floral Tribute (1963)


  1. Interesting that it's called the "Iles school" when C.S. Forester and A.P. Herbert wrote similar psychological crime novels that predate anything Berkeley published. Who were their influences I wonder?

    I liked The Vicar's Experiments so much that I started looking for as many of Vulliamy's books under both names. I managed to buy copies all of the Rolls books (all of them so very scarce!) except for Lobelia Grove over a period of about three years. I tried to read one of the Rolls books several years ago (can't remember which), but I guess I was not in the right frame of mind because it didn't grab my attention at all. I put it back on the shelf after only the first chapter. Now with your amazing claim that each of them is "more original than as well as superior" to his first I will have to dig them out and get cracking. Of his books published under his own name I have Body in the Boudoir and Floral Tribute. Based on the titles alone and the whimsical dust jacket for ... Boudoir I'm guessing they are more lighthearted than his books published as "Anthony Rolls." Looks like I was correct with your description of “too arch for their own good”. Which of the Vulliamy titles have you read? Is Body in the Boudoir worth reading?

  2. John, I slogged through three of four the later ones and didn't like at all. They were very similar! Never had had a copy of Body in the Boudoir, so maybe this will the exception! It was such a bad pattern I didn't want to risk another one.

    But then personal tastes differ. I though Experiments wasn't as good in the later part. Liked Lobelia Grove and Family Matters right off, but wasn't grabbed by Scarweather after the opening and set aside. Didn't get back to it until recently, years later, and quite enjoyed.

    Without diminishing Francis Iles, who really was quite important no doubt, Symons made a mistake in attributing so much exclusively to him, I think. Symons omits people and systematically under-credits people like Austin Freeman, Ethel Lina White and Marie Belloc Lowndes. This leaves the impression that Iles, a sort of Atlas, bore all the weight of the psychological crime novel on his shoulders.

    1. How could I forget Marie Belloc Lowndes? She was doing some very interesting things with crime fiction very early on: The End of Her Honeymoon, What Really Happened, The Story of Ivy, and of course The Lodger.

  3. Symons does mention Forester, but in his section of "curiosities and singletons" (Christopher St. John Sprigg pops up there too). As you suggest Symons couldn't put him in an Iles "school," since he preceded Iles, so he is deemed a "curiosity."

  4. The only Vulliamy book I read was Don Among The Dead Man, which I found was a dreadful attempt at combining the plots of Malice Aforethought and Trial and Error without any of Iles/Berkeley plotting ability, psychological insight or wit. From what you say it probably also recycled elements of The Vicar's Experiment. I usually enjoy satire, but Vulliamy's only managed to irritate me. In fact I hated the book so much that despite having read it some 20 years ago I still remember most of it!

  5. Henrique, I agree with you completely about Don Among the Dead Men. The 1930s books really are better though!