Saturday, September 9, 2017

Detective Fiction and the "Public School Man In Revolt"

What I don't seem to cotton on to is the affectation of gentility which does not belong to the job, and which is in effect a subconscious expression of snobbery, the kind of thing that reached its high-water mark in Dorothy Sayers.  Perhaps the trouble is that I'm an English Public School Man myself and knew these birds inside out.  And the only kind of Public School man who could make a real detective would be the Public School man in revolt, like George Orwell.

                                                 --Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 31 October 1951

I quoted this interesting passage in my essay "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do": Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction, published in 2014 in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, and L. J. Hurst includes it in an online essay, "Raymond Chandler, George and Sonia Orwell," found here, at the Orwell Society blog.  It raises some interesting questions, one of which, concerning what I deem Chandler's equivocal attitude toward British detective fiction, I addressed in my essay, but another of which concerns George Orwell: If the author of 1984 and Animal Farm could have made a "real detective," could he as well have written a real detective novel?

Some suggest that he may have done just that, or at least have contributed to one.

George Orwell
Under the headline "Did George Orwell Ghost at Liberty Hall?", the Orwell Society blog has reprinted a 1996 letter from L. J. Hurst to Geoff Bradley, editor of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, which Bradley published that year on the magazine.  In the letter L. J. Hurst (again!) queries, "how much input did Orwell have into [Alan] Clutton-Brock's only mystery?"

This mystery being Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published to good reviews in the US and UK in February 1941. 

Hurst points out that in Chapter Seven of Liberty Hall, the narrator of the novel asks

Why is it, by the way, that although England normally has one of the smallest armies in the world it has the largest number of retired colonels?

And that on June 20, 1940, Orwell had written in his Wartime Diary (which was not made public until 1968)

A thought that occurred to me yesterday: how is that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?

The quoted passage in Liberty Hall comes, notes Hurst, just after the narrator mocks the self-promotion of Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), "who was also," Hurst adds, "one of Orwell's bugbears as a right-wing intellectual.

Colonel Lawrence
Hurst obviously found all this highly suggestive, but he allowed that, despite the fact that Orwell (1903-1950) and Clutton-Brock (1904-1976) had been friends--in fact they were schoolmates at Eton, where Orwell secured a place in 1917 and stayed until 1921--he could not find "references to [Clutton-Brock] in any biographies of Orwell or in other people's recollections of Orwell or his wartime milieu."  (Hurst was aware, however, that in a couple of letters from 1936 Orwell alluded to the death of Alan Clutton-Brock's wife in a car collision--the other casualty in the collision being her passenger, Norman Dyer Ball, the husband of mystery writer Josephine Bell, see here).

Yet since that time an account of a wartime meeting which took place between Orwell and Clutton-Brock has emerged, as I have discussed here.  According to D. J. Taylor's: Orwell: The Life (2003), in March or April 1941, in the recollection of a contemporary of the two men, Orwell met with Clutton-Brock, who was head of the Air Ministry's Public Relations Department, about obtaining a position with the department. 

Murder at Liberty Hall had been published in the UK about a month earlier, on February 27, 1941.  (It did not appear in the US until the late summer.)  However, it is possible that Orwell and Clutton-Brock might have discussed Murder at Liberty Hall when it was being written the previous year, or that Orwell might even have read the manuscript. 

This is as close, as far as I know, as Orwell ever got to writing a detective novel, although his first known work of fiction was in fact a mystery story, "The Vernon Murders," probably written during his first year at Eton in 1917 or 1918, when Orwell was around 14 or 15 years old.

Old Master: R. Austin Freeman
As I discussed in my last post, as an adult George Orwell wrote rather dismissively concerning what today is termed Golden Age detective fiction: that great body of work which was published between the two world wars. 

Yet Orwell also expressed warmly nostalgic feelings for some of the mystery writers of his youth, repeatedly citing with approbation a trio of old masters, all of whom had first published tales of Great Detectives solving fiendish mysteries in the pre-WWI era: Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman and Ernest Bramah.  (The stalwart Freeman continued publishing mystery fiction throughout the Twenties and Thirties as well, much of which, apparently, Orwell read.)

While Orwell for the rest of his life retained great affection for these three authors, he was, as I discussed, rather dubious indeed about the reams of mystery fiction that was being mass produced, as he disdainfully put it, during what became known, ironically in Orwell's view, as the "Golden Age of detective fiction."  (His own blunt term for the mysteries that poured off the presses at this time was "torrents of trash.") 

Orwell suggested that calling a book by shocker king Edgar Wallace--The Four Just Men, actually a prewar crime novel, though Wallace really made his name and his fortune as a mystery writer in the Twenties--a "good thriller" simply made hash of the word "good," while he dismissed Dorothy L. Sayers's higher-toned mysteries as offputtingly snobbish and fatally lacking in plausibility.

Agatha Christie and friends
Yet in 1949, the last year of his altogether too short life, Orwell kept a reading list that is quite interesting, from the standpoint of the mystery reader, in its inclusion of a not insignificant body of crime and detective fiction. 

Of the 144 books Orwell listed as his having read that year, about ten percent can be classified as criminous in nature.  These mysteries include works that are examples of the hardboiled, noir and classic detection subgenres, by authors such as Sayers, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.  (I'm posting the list separately.)

What was up with this, we might ask?  If Orwell was so dismissive of what was then "modern" detective fiction, why was he wasting his precious remaining mortal time reading it?  Some ideas suggest themselves. 

One: Orwell's physical health was extremely poor and he was in frequent pain, not far, indeed, from death; and mystery fiction has long been hailed as escapist reading of choice for the bedridden. 

Two: Orwell was checking out the enemy camp, so to speak: one of the books he read, James M. Cain's nasty noir text The Postman Always Rings Twice, he derided as an "awful" book in a letter to Julian Symons.

Another Freeman fan
(who did not like James M. Cain either)
Three: Like Raymond Chandler--a reader and admirer of the British mystery fiction of, to cite three examples, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey and R. Austin Freeman (though you rarely hear about this from the many authorities who insist that Chandler loathed all British classic crime fiction)--Orwell may have liked the stuff more than he cared to acknowledge, either publicly or to himself. 

Which certainly would explain why he was reading, during his final months of existence on earth, books like Sparkling Cyanide, The Little Sister and The Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery Omnibus (composed of The Five Red Herrings, Strong Poison and Lord Peter Views the Body.)

This latter hypothesis would be supported by Orwell's having played some role, however minor, in the composition of Alan Clutton-Brock's Murder at Liberty Hall, which, believe it or not, I'm finally reviewing in the very next post here.  Please check it out!

No comments:

Post a Comment