It seems like an eternity ago now, but it is almost four years since I wrote about
the Anthony Rolls
crime novels on my blog. (See also this post
.) As you will see from the comments, these posts caught the attention of John Norris
, and he followed with his own Rolls rave at his blog shortly thereafter
. Two of the Rolls crime novels, Scarweather
and Family Matters,
have since been reprinted by the British Library and I assume both The Vicar's Experiments
) and the wryly witty and wonderful Lobelia Grove
, will soon follow.
Also in 2014 CADS: Crime and Detective Stories
published a 4000+ word piece by me on Anthony Rolls (Welsh writer Colwyn Edward Vulliamy
), which I reprint here for people who may not be familiar with the CADS
article and the internet genesis, who are now able to read the once very rare Rolls books for themselves. In the piece I closed with the hope that these novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed today by a modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century crime fiction fans.
And so they have been. (See my previous Blast from the Past here.)
Anthony Rolls (C. E. Vulliamy)
Master of the Golden Age Crime Novel
In his influential mystery genre survey, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to
the Crime Novel
(1972, rev. eds. 1985 and 1992), Julian Symons attributes
the development of the psychological crime novel during the Golden Age of
detective fiction in England primarily to the influence of the crime fiction of
Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971), specifically the first two books he wrote
under his “Francis Iles” pseudonym: Malice
(1932) and Before the
In both of these
novels, in the first of which a man plots to murder his wife and the second of
which a wife grows to apprehend that her husband is planning to murder her, the
emphasis is on psychological suspense rather than classical detection.
Noting that both these novels were extremely
well-received by contemporary critics, Symons asserts that “Iles had several
followers, who faithfully copied his avoidance of the classical puzzle and tried
hard to catch his particular blend of cynicism and realism, but for the most
part only succeeded in being casual about murder.”
One of the four authors Symons lists as
having written crime novels “under the influence of Iles” is Colwyn Edward
Vulliamy (1886-1971), who between 1932 and 1934 published four mysteries under the
pseudonym “Anthony Rolls.”
Yet of the
four 1930s Anthony Rolls novels Symons seems aware of only the first, The Vicar’s Experiments
(in the US Clerical Error
Concerning The Vicar’s Experiments
, which details the murderous activities of
a vicar who suddenly goes mad, Symons writes: “A good deal of what follows is
very amusing, but the story falters sadly once suspicion of the clergyman has
Of Vulliamy’s later crime
writing Symons notes only that there were some inferior novels by him
“published twenty years and more after The
He concludes that
during the Golden Age “the Iles school, including its founder, showed a certain
lack of staying power.”
It is my contention,
however, that Symons underestimated both the quantity and quality of
psychological crime novels published during the Golden Age of detective
fiction, both those that likely were influenced by Iles and those that probably
In the case of C. E. Vulliamy
specifically, Symons crucially missed the three additional 1930s Anthony Rolls
crime novels: Lobelia Grove
(1932), Family Matters
(1933) and Scarweather
All three of these books are excellent crime
novels, superior to as well as more original than The Vicar’s Experiments
, and together they establish C. E. Vulliamy
as more than a Golden Age student of the Iles school.
He was, rather, a master, eminently deserving
of modern revival.
Although mostly forgotten today, C. E. Vulliamy enjoyed
a variegated career as a writer over four decades, crime fiction being, in
actuality, a relatively minor focus of his.
Born in 1886 at Glasbury House in the village of Glasbury in southern
Wales, Vulliamy was descended from a prominent family of English clockmakers
Francois Justin Vulliamy
(1712-1797), the founder of the English branch of the family, migrated from
Switzerland to England in the 1730s and started what has been called the
“Vulliamy clockmaking dynasty.”
son Benjamin (1747-1811), was appointed Clockmaker to the King in 1771.
Benjamin’s son Lewis (1791-1871), was a
notable Victorian-era architect, most admired for his designs for Westonbirt
House and Dorchester House.
Edwin Papendick Vulliamy (1844-1914), who followed in his father’s footsteps as
an architect, married Edith Jane Beavan, and with her produced one son, Colwyn
Edward, the subject of this essay.
Like another Golden Age crime writer, Agatha Christie,
who was four years younger than C. E. Vulliamy and also hailed from the British
hinterland (in Christie’s case, Devon), Vulliamy was privately educated.
Between 1910 and 1913 he studied art with
Stanford Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) at the art colony in Newlyn, a fishing
village outside Penzance, Cornwall (Forbes was a founding member of the colony).
When the First World War broke out, he took
a commission in The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, serving over the next
four years in France, Macedonia and Turkey.
He later transferred to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was demobilized
with the rank of captain.
On 29 April
1916, he wed Eileen Hynes at St. Mary’s Church in Penzance.
“Owing to the war,” declared the notice in
the Brecon and Radnor Express
wedding took place very quietly.
invitations were issued, but on account of the popularity of the young couple,
the well-known colony of Newlyn artists were present in full force.”
also avowed of Vulliamy: “He himself is a man of artistic and literary abilities.”
It was during the time Vulliamy spent in the Mideast that
he became interested in archaeology.
the 1920s he published several books on the subject, including Our Prehistoric Ancestors
(1925) Unknown Cornwall
(1925) and Immortal Man
(1926), a study of burials
and funeral customs (he would later draw on his archaeological expertise for
his 1934 crime novel Scarweather
With the 1930 publication of a biography of
Voltaire he turned to writing about historical subjects. During this decade he also
produced biographies of Rousseau, John Wesley, James Boswell, William Penn,
Hester Thrale and George III, as well as studies of the Crimean War and British
Imperialism in South Africa.
discussing Vulliamy’s historical and biographical writing a friend recalled
that throughout the author’s life his religious “standpoint was fundamentally
agnostic” and that his “political sympathies between the wars might fairly have
been described as left-wing, though he kept clear of extremism.”
These attitudes can be discerned in
Vulliamy’s Golden Age crime fiction as well.
The first Anthony Rolls crime novel, The Vicar’s Experiments
, which appeared
in 1932, one year after Francis Iles’ Malice
, does seem to show the influence of the first Iles tale, not
only in its sardonic tone but in its plot structure.
Whatever we may think of Experiments
now, it was quite well-received in its day.
The only Anthony Rolls crime novel published
in the United States, Experiments
was placed on the recommended list of the English Book Society, a rare
distinction for a mystery story.
Twenty-three years after the book’s original publication, Anthony
Boucher, the dean of American crime fiction critics, warmly recalled Experiments
(under its US title Clerical Error
), as an “admirable ironic
Symons’ language by seventeen years, Boucher the same year placed Rolls among
the “brightest prefects” in “headmaster” Francis Iles’ “school” of
“ironic…murder novel, suavely literate and rich in subacid observation of human
mores and motivations.”
opens with a meeting between the Reverend Mr. Virgil Pardicott, vicar of Lower
Pydal, and Colonel Cargoy, an ultra-conservative member of the parish council,
in which the cheerfully ignorant and bigoted colonel opposes every innovation
supported by the long-suffering country parson (the latter man is hopeful of
removing from Lower Pydal to King’s Pydal).
During Cargoy’s befuddled explanation of why he opposes replacing the colored
glass installed in the church chancel in 1869--“I should be sorry to see the old
windows taken away.
I don’t like the
notion of plain glass at all. Plain glass doesn’t seem right in a church
somehow. Looks too much like a Baptist chapel.”--Mr. Pardicott’s mind abruptly
snaps; and, in “a dizzy moment of revelation,” the vicar comprehends that he
has “been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel
This is a brilliant line, justly quoted as
well by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder
and the next few chapters, in which Mr. Pardicott plans and accomplishes the
destruction of his nemesis Colonel Cargoy, are quite entertaining, with some
excellent English village satire.
However, Colonel Cargoy is eliminated all too soon and Mr. Pardicott’s
murderous attentions focus elsewhere--Colonel Cargoy’s widow is quite fetching,
but Mr. Pardicott is, regrettably, married--with diminishing results.
The debt to Malice Aforethought
seems all too evident.
Were The Vicar’s
the only Anthony Rolls thirties crime novel, as Julian Symons
and Anthony Boucher evidently believed, we might be justified, despite the
praise earlier accorded the novel, in dismissing Vulliamy merely as a minor
student in an Iles school.
three Anthony Rolls crime novels that soon followed Vulliamy’s Experiments
(rather aptly-titled, in
this context) are superior works. Lobelia Grove
, which was published the
same year as The Vicar’s Experiments
is a splendid tale of murders committed in Lobelia Grove, a neighborhood of
Kipperly Park, an English suburban Garden City not far from London that is
every bit as painfully proper and stiflingly conformist as any fictional English
village from the period (Lower Pydal, for example).
The novel’s second chapter, in which the
author describes Kipperly Park and a number of its “highly respectable, even
eminent, persons,” is wonderfully wry:
If the reader is not one of the 7,416 fortunate persons who are now
living in Kipperly Park, it is necessary that he should be given some idea of
that delightful garden suburb and of the people who live there….Certainly it
was a place where those who were ascending and descending on the social and
economic scale tended to meet each other upon a common level of suburbaninity.
We say advisedly that they tended to meet
each other, for in actual practice they were careful to keep out of each
Chapter One describes the disconcerting discovery, one
evening in Lobelia Grove, of the fatally stabbed body of a man, local resident
Victor Macumbrae, in the middle of the street; and the rest of the novel
details the (frequently foolish) reactions and responses of the Kipperly Park
denizens, including a couple of gung-ho retired military men, some prim matrons
and much-decayed gentry, a compulsively conformist production department clerk
(the memorably named Bertie Quirtle), journalist, a doctor, an academician and
two men of faith, one a most robustly Christian Anglican minister and the other
a fervent, if sadly misunderstood, adherent of spiritualism.
Police are mostly in the background and, although
there is a nice young couple that does some amateur detecting, the solution to
the murder (and another that follows it) comes to the couple by way of an unexpected
There are subtle indications
in the story as to who the murderer may be, but it takes quite a keen reader,
in my opinion, to catch them.
interest in the novel lies not in providing a fiendishly developed murder
problem, but rather in wickedly satirizing an English suburban community of the
The high point of the novel, in
terms of satirical treatment, probably is Vulliamy’s description of the meeting
of the Kipperly Park Literary Society, “held in the new parish hall, a tin
building of the most horrible aspect”:
It was the custom of the Literary Society to appoint on these occasions a
hostess, who arranged the lighter and more social side of the entertainment,
and provided biscuits and lemonade.
you are not to suppose that such details were unimportant.
Although a number of serious people came to
read papers on Shakespeare or Tennyson or Carlyle, or to listen to such papers,
most of them came for biscuits and lemonade.
In Bloody Murder
Julian Symons has memorably avowed of Golden Age mysteries that the “social
order in these stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas.”
Yet with Lobelia
, much of the satirical force of the novel comes from the fact that
the social order is unfixed
their polite facades people are uneasy because they are not confident about
where they “belong” socially.
confident that Symons would have been surprised but pleased by this aspect of Lobelia Grove
, as well as by Vulliamy’s
jabs from the left at the conservative political sentiments of certain Kipperly
Park residents, who are alarmingly quick to point fingers of suspicion at
foreigners, Jews, Communists and the unemployed (there is, incidentally, one
wonderfully spirited Jewish resident of the community, a Mrs. Gillystein, the
widow of a tobacco merchant, who has the temerity to believe that “commerce was
the proper occupation of those who were honest and respectable”).
(1933), Vulliamy’s third Anthony Rolls’ crime novel, is an altogether darker
murder affair than either The Vicar’s
or Lobelia Grove
It both circumscribes and intensifies the
author’s sardonic focus to, as the title suggests, a single household, along
with some friends and relations.
the best of Vulliamy’s four Anthony Rolls novels, Family Matters
brims, like the first two tales (especially Lobelia Grove
), with mordant humor and
intelligent observation; yet it also dares to more seriously probe the problems
of extreme mental and emotional dysfunction that provoke real life murder
I found the novel strikingly
reminiscent of Julian Symons’ first period mystery, The Blackheath Poisonings
, which was published in 1978, forty-five
years after the appearance of Family
, both in the virtuoso fictional use of poison to dispatch
objectionable individuals and, more significantly, in its inducement in the
reader of a powerfully claustrophobic sense of familial dysfunction.
This surely would have been a Golden Age
crime novel that Symons himself would have admired.
Vulliamy dedicated Family
to Osbert Guy Stanhope (O. S. G.) Crawford, a pioneering
archaeologist who became enamored with Marxism in the 1930s and believed that
the “traditional British way of life” was doomed.
The novel takes place in Shufflecester, a
town, like Lobelia Grove
Park, located within the vicinity of London.
Unlike the modern Kipperly Park, however, Shufflecester seems more a
Vulliamy opens the
novel with an aerial view of Shufflecester (recalling O. S. G. Crawford’s
pioneering use of aerial photography in archaeology), before focusing on the
troubled household that will be the center of events:
If you fly over the town of Shufflecester at an altitude of ten thousand feet
you see a town below you like a dirty grey splash on the variegated patterns of
brown, purple and green which mark the level landscape of the great
middle of the town run the gentle sinuosities of the River Shuff like a white
Seen from a lower altitude Shufflescester
has a most fantastic and irregular appearance, reminding you a lot of grey and yellow
bricks thrown at random upon a carpet by some heedless child.
The builders of the town seem to have been
sobered or restrained by the wide levels of the country; their houses are flat,
uniform, depressed, with hardly a tall building among them.
Only the towers of the cathedral suggest a
vertical idea, and even these are square and heavy.
Outside the town are purple masses of timber,
green or dun streaks of arable land, flowing towards the misty line of the
Wyveldon Hills, above the sea.
Even this aeroplane view gives the impression of a
placid, agricultural place, resisting innovation, unmoved by the hustling
spirit of the age….All the inconvenience, though not the charm of antiquity, is
preserved in [Shufflecester’s] narrow streets….There is no plan or
regularity….The same absence of intelligent planning gives a perverse and
unhappy appearance to those parts of the town which are termed “residential.”
Blocks, curves and angles of grey and yellow brick, with roofs of lilac slate,
produce an effect of morose, impregnable respectability….We are particularly
concerned in this drama with a house in one of the less fashionable
quarters—Number Six, Wellington Avenue.
It is like all the other houses in the Avenue, small, with a slate roof,
a grim bit of grass between the front and the pavement, and a scrubby garden at
In this house lived Mr. Robert
Arthur Kewdingham, his wife, his young son, and his venerable father.
Vulliamy’s Robert Arthur Kewdingham is a masterful
depiction of querulous middle-class, middle-age failure.
“Poor Mr. Kewdingham had not been lucky,”
writes Vulliamy, though he “came of a good middle-class family, of the sort which
is capable of producing anything from a bishop to a broker—his father had been
estate agent to the Duke of Tiddleswade.”
Let go from his engineering firm in 1925 at the age of 45, he has been
out of work for a couple years when the novel opens, but happily for himself he
has several hobbies—“science, politics, mysticism”—with which to occupy his
“Perhaps it was for this reason,”
speculates Vulliamy, “that he thought so little about his wife and family.”
Kewdingham’s wife Bertha—attractive and more than a
decade younger than her husband—is growing increasingly restive over her life
with her eccentric and cantankerous spouse.
Most of the Kewdingham kin, including Robert Henry, Robert Arthur’s
“ancient father,” have a hearty, if misplaced, family pride, and resoundingly
disapprove of Bertha, considering her insufficiently supportive of her husband
(the octogenarian Robert Henry has an especially annoying habit of hurling
admonitory literary quotations at Bertha).
Add to this situation a spiteful bit of flirtatious
feminine fluff, one Mrs. Pam Chaddlewick, an attentive but subtly sinister
family doctor, Wilson Bagge, and a handsome Kewdingham cousin (a writer, no
less), John Harrigall, and you have a poisonous mixture indeed.
preserves the form of the detective novel, Family Matters
is much more a tale of psychological suspense.
For two-thirds of the tale we tensely await
for a death to occur, and when it does it is quite a doozy.
In addition to its fascinating exploration of
fatal family dysfunction, Family Matters
offers what is surely one of the most fascinating cases of poisoning in the
literature of crime fiction.
find that the novel’s scant epilogue ambiguous, but in my view Family Matters
is one of the great Golden
Age crime novels, unquestionably fit to stand in the company of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought
and Before the Fact
The book was justly praised by Dorothy L.
Sayers in her review of it in the Sunday
, Sayers pronouncing: “The characters are quite extraordinarily
living, and the atmosphere of the horrid household creeps over one like a
The last Anthony Rolls crime novel, Scarweather
, which appeared the next year, in 1934, is a worthy
successor to the earlier tales.
story is told retrospectively by John Farringdale, a somewhat staid lawyer, eminently
qualified to act as a Watson for his brilliant friend Fredrick Ellingham, a
reader in chemistry at Cambridge.
Ellingham the admiring Farringdale declares, with positively Watsonian
devotion, “I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of
narrative, which takes place over fifteen years, from 1913 to 1928, details the
fateful consequences of the meeting of Farringdale’s handsome cousin, Eric Tallard
Foster, with Professor Tolgen Reisby, who occupies the Pattervale Chair of
Genetics at the University of Northport and is keenly interested in archaology,
and Professor Reisby’s beautiful, much younger wife, Hilda (“Scarweather” is
the name of the Reisbys’ isolated dwelling in northern England).
In the main the novel is, like Family Matters
, quite serious; yet there
is, as in Vulliamy’s other crime novels, ample scope, particularly in the final
section, for the author’s characteristic satire, which this time is directed
primarily against academics and antiquarians (there are also some acid remarks
about the late Great War).
denouement is original, as far as I am aware, as well as remarkably macabre.
“As a study in criminal aberration [the
Reisby case] is…of particularly interest,” pronounces Ellingham in the opening
lines of Scarweather
, “while in
singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably
All quite true in my judgment.
Most regrettably, after Scarweather
C. E. Vulliamy published no more Anthony Rolls crime novels.
Vulliamy remained interested in his Anthony
Rolls books, however, and during the Second World War he keenly negotiated
their republication with Martin Secker (1882-1978) of The Richards Press.
(under its American title Clerical Error
) and Family
were reprinted by The Richards Press in 1946.
Under his own name Vulliamy produced a new
run of crime novels in the 1950s and 1960s (there were six of them between 1952
and 1963, to be precise), but these are, as Julian Symons indicated in Bloody Murder
, inferior works,
resembling Michael Innes at his most meandering and archly whimsical.
Yet Vulliamy’s earlier Anthony Rolls crime novels
constitute one of the most notable bodies of crime fiction produced during the
It is to be hoped that these
novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed someday by a
modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century
crime fiction fans.