Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Little Murder Tour in France (with apologies to Henry James) Part One: The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

"That's as may be, but you'll never stop people taking in Bellerive by saying nothing.  The less you say the more they talk."

                                                         --from The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

My last visit to not French crime fiction but rather crime fiction set in France was over a year ago, with Katherine Woods's intriguing reissued mystery Murder in a Walled Town (1934), but this month I have three French-set mysteries up for review, one by an Englishman, one by an American woman and one by a certain clever Belgian famously associated with France (and I'm not talking about Hercule Poirot).

the postman cometh
The first of these crime novels is The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Stuart Horner (1900-1983), an interesting individual best known not for his writing but for his having been the longtime companion of English baronet and author Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell (1892-1969) of the eccentric and ever-so-aristocratic Sitwell clan, much written about over the years though not nearly as much read. Outspoken academic intellectual FR Leavis once acerbically declared, noted Brooke Allen in a review of Philip Ziegler's biography of Osbert Sitwell, that the Sitwells belonged "not so much to the history of literature as to the history of publicity."  They were, notes Allen

among the earliest examples of that twentieth-century phenomenon, the person who is famous for being famous....for every person who had read [Osbert's] books there were ten who knew something of him and his family.  Today the ratio would probably be more like one to a thousand.*

Though the status-conscious Sitwells did not stress the fact, the family fortune was built not on the land but what lay under it, their 17th century ancestor George Sitwell, builder of the lavish family seat in Derbyshire, Renishaw Hall, having been an extremely wealthy collier and ironmonger.  Among other things, George Sitwell was the world's largest manufacturer of iron nails. For the want of some nails, the Sitwell fortune might well have been lost, or at least substantially diminished.

Osbert Sitwell
Osbert Sitwell's first novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), was a critical success, his later ones less so, though one of his works, the short ghostly tale A Place of One's Own (1940), was adapted as a film starring a young James Mason and an even younger Margaret Lockwood.  He also produced five heavy volumes of autobiography.

Osbert met David Horner in 1921, when the exquisitely decorative and well-pedigreed young man was still an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.  The pair hit it off rather well, though for much of the Twenties they were personally involved with other individuals, Osbert with future art critic Adrian Stokes and David with the Vicomte Bernard d'Hendecourt, with whom he lived for several years in Paris and from whom he inherited a competence. 

Osbert, writes biographer John Pearson (The Sitwells: A Family Biography), "was inclined to be romantically protective to good-looking, well brought-up young men," and the slim, blond and exquisitely profiled David offered no exception in this regard.  Osbert rapturously termed David "orchidaceous," a word denoting, as Nero Wolfe no doubt would know, exotic or luxuriant beauty.  David's looks, agrees Pearson "were literally his fortune.Continues Pearson:

[David] dressed superbly, had an amusing line of gossip about all the best people, which he recounted in an engagingly basso profundo voice, and after leaving Cambridge was soon floating, as unattached, good-looking, upper-class young Englishmen could float in those more gentle, far-off days, through a rarely failing world of dinner-parties, long weekends and holidays abroad.  He was the perfect guest, the ideal ornament for any party, charming to women and agreeable to men, better connected and far better read than the usual run of gilded social butterflies, and equally at home in the best society in Paris or in London.

David was like the man-about-town you often see in Golden Age mystery, though with rather more substance and sophistication than usual and a sexual orientations that typically remained encoded in books.

the orchidaceous David Horner
Accounts I have seen indicate that David, who was the youngest son of a youngest son, was left little patrimony at his father's death in 1923, though his father actually had accumulated a sizeable estate.  Was there acrimony within the family over David's life choices?

David thus was possessed, as he left college, of little more than those celebrated orchidaceous looks of his and an "immaculate french accent" (and, one might add, a BA degree in History and Modern Languages, though he seems to have had no plan to employ that degree in an actual career).

David trumpeted throughout his life his descent from the ancient Horner family of Mells Manor.  "The Horners are probably one of the few Saxon families still extant," he (half?) joked to Osbert. "I am rather bored with the Normans and consider them nouveaux riches."  David could bask in the fact that he was included in the Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal.

The back flap author bio on The Devil's Quill, published when David when 59, makes mention of his service in his forties as a Squadron-Leader in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but devotes more time to the author's Mells Manor connection, David himself writing:

I am directly descended from Little Jack Horner (Henry VIII) who was lampooned in the nursery rhyme--the  "Plum" being the property of Mells bought by my ancestor when the monks were kicked out of Glastonbury Abbey--his enemies said that he had stolen the title deeds: Mells, which now belongs to my first cousin Katharine [Horner] Asquith, is once again in the hands of a Catholic.

Mells Manor
For decades Osbert and David resided together in Derbyshire at Renishaw Hall; there was also a  London flat, and before and after the second World War the couple wintered at the Sitwell's Italian seat, the Castello di Montegufoni. During the war David's author sister Edith Sitwell, who like her brother had also loved, even adored, a gay man (Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew), moved in with Osbert and David at Renishaw, when David was serving in the RAF. 

Unfortunately Edith did not take well to David, nor he to her.  With Osbert and later David, once seemingly the perpetual golden boy, suffering increasing health problems, the relationship of the two men began to deteriorate in the 1950s and they became estranged in the 1960s, several years before Osbert's death in 1969.

Renishaw Hall
In his biography of English author LP Hartley, with whom David was a good friend for many years, Adrian Wright has complained that the Sitwell biographers "have sometimes suggested there was little more to Horner than his machinations among the Sitwells and his sex-seeking escapades."  Adrian Wright challenged the Sitwell supporters, however, asserting that David is due credit as a "man of taste and literary ability.

Having read The Devil's Quill, I would agree about the matter of David's literary ability--it was not insignificant by any means.  It is a shame that he did not write more fiction. 

Before the advent of The Devil's Quill, David published two other books, both of which, like The Devil's Quill, drew on his life in France: Through French Windows (1938), a combination travelogue and novel that one British reviewer presciently praised for its "Sitwellian sensibility to detail" ("he describes the interior of a bathroom better than a landscape or a church.") and Was It Yesterday? (1939). However, The Devil's Quill, which followed these two novels after a lag of two decades, is David's only crime novel--if we choose to term it such.

David Stuart Horner
Why was their such a lag between the publication of David's first two novels and his last, and why was his last a murder tale?  Intriguingly, David's next elder brother (he had two elder brothers as well as five sisters), Maurice Stuart Horner, was brutally killed in 1943, at the age of 49, and his murder remains unsolved today.  Though married, Maurice Horner in fact was gay like his brother, and he was beaten to death by a Canadian soldier he had brought home with him while his wife, who apparently knew about his sexual predilections, was out driving an ambulance. (For his part, Maurice, editor of Commercial Motor magazine, was a lance corporal in the Middlesex Home Guard.) Certainly this event, something of we have seen all too much, would have brought David up close to sordid murder in civil society.

Apparently inspired by a real life criminal case, The Devil's Quill, which is set a few years before the occurrence of the First World War in 1910, concerns an outbreak of poison pen letters (aka doxing in the pre-internet era) that afflicts Bellerive, a smug provincial French town not far from Lyons.  Before the novel is over social relations will be seriously disrupted and there will be murder done as well, though the murder is not dovetailed into the plot with the seamlessness of Agatha Christie in her own poison pen mystery novel, The Moving Finger (1942).

However, The Devil's Quill is not meant to be a Golden Age homage, a Christie-like clue-puzzle detective novel.  It is, rather, a mid-century crime novel, giving great attention to Balzacian social detail.   (It is not a crime novel demeueble!)  Atmosphere is the novel's greatest strength; as one reviewer noted, Horner "reproduces the atmosphere [of a small French provincial town] with a masterly sureness of touch.

the Sitwell siblings
Osbert, Edith, Sacheverall
David Horner paints a broad yet minutely detailed canvas of his little town, capturing the country gentry, the bourgeoisie, the servants, the police and the clergy equally well, something that cannot always be said of Golden Age detective fiction.  However snobbish David himself--not to mention the Sitwells--may have been, his novel never fails to incisively satirize its many snobbish characters, who are so preoccupied with their petty gossip and little scandals and social competition. 

The Devil's Quill
is not only a suspenseful novel, but an amusing one, in a sardonic way.  Social prejudices remain, even as envenomed letters fly around town:

"Not that I have anything against Odile, but the trouble is they have bad blood.  Etienne is quite different, but you must remember that the Girodets were in commerce.

"But, after all, your Aunt Louise's husband was in commerce."

"There you are entirely wrong.  To begin with, he was no blood relation of mine, and in addition to that he was not in commerce, he was in industry, and that makes just all the difference."

What a relief this must have been to the Sitwells!

For more on David Horner and Osbert Sitwell, see:

David Horner and Sir Osbert Sitwell

"The Golden Squirrel": The Esoteric Snap of the Day! The Week of Sitwelliana! June 11 2013, The Esoteric Curiosa

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