Sunday, July 22, 2018

Out of Africa 2: Death on the First Tee (1957), by Herbert Adams

Recently in a newspaper interview a prominent American visitor to Britain commented concerning immigration, with his characteristic dully repetitive speech, "I think it's a very negative thing for Europe.  I think it's very negative."

Although he may not have been aware of it, this American visitor was but echoing sentiments about immigration that have been expressed from time immemorial.  The Anglo-Saxons, I daresay, weren't so crazy about all those Normans coming into their country in 1066--though we must admit the inconvenient truth that the Normans came armed and dangerous. 

Indeed, "foreigners" are perennially unpopular in classic British crime fiction, a "little English" sentiment which writers of the era sometimes pandered to and sometimes satirized (some of them, like Agatha Christie, did both).  "Foreign" targets of poisoned pens in the Golden Age of detective fiction included, like an inverted Disneyland attraction--it's a small-minded world, after all--Jews, Slavs, Italians, French, Spaniards, East Asians, Russians, even--gasp!--Americans.  Perhaps the good people of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein were left unscathed, I don't know for certain.

People of native African descent didn't make all that many appearances in between-the-wars British mystery (though, it must be admitted, the portrayals of them typically are abysmal when they do appear.)  One assumes this is because, in contrast with the United States, blacks were not much of a presence in the UK before the Second World War and its aftermath.  In 1914 there were only an estimated 10,000 black people residing in in England, most of them in London.  In much of England at this time, as PD James observed, you still could grow up never seeing anyone who looked much different from yourself.

By 1961, however, there were nearly 200,000 blacks living in the UK, just under .4% of the population.  This was presence enough for still active Golden Age generation British mystery writers to sit up in their chairs and take notice.  Probably the best known depiction of racial dynamics from this time by a Golden Ager in his/her Golden years is found in Agatha Christie's Hickory, Dickory Dock, of which there is a review article coming soon.  In an earlier blog piece I promised to look at Ngaio Marsh's take on race relations in Black as He's Painted (1974) (coming soon as well, really).  However, here I want to discuss another book, by a Golden Ager even older than Christie: Herbert Adams (1874-1958).

In 1957 Herbert Adams, about whom I just published a piece in that most excellent journal CADS, was nearing the end of his mystery writing  career. That year, at the age of 83, he would publish his penultimate detective novel, Death on the First Tee--the 27th of 28 investigations by his best-known series sleuth, Roger Bennion, son of a baronet, man-about-town, golf enthusiast and amateur sleuth.

Outside of Agatha Christie's onetime mentor Eden Phillpotts, who at the time was staggering on to his centenary, Herbert Adams must have been about the oldest British writer of detective fiction in the late 1950s.  To his credit, he was able to produce, at the age of 83, a vastly more coherent novel than Agatha Christie at the same age did with the last mystery she wrote, a right muddler of a murder tale called Postern of Fate (1973).

Like Christie in Swinging Sixties mystery Third Girl (1966), Herbert Adams evinces an interest in modern trends in England in the Fifties.  In Death on the First Tee he rather astonishingly--some would say ill-advisedly--decided to address head-on Britain's so-called "color bar" (social barriers excluding blacks from equal participation in society). Christie included--some would say ill-advisedly--black characters in Hickory, Dickory, Dock, set at a London student hostel, and John Street mentioned (blink and you'll miss it) the color bar in his final Miles Burton novel, Death Paints a Picture (1960); yet only in Adams' First Tee is race elevated to the major theme of the novel.  How does Adams handle the subject?

newlywed British couple 1948
Daily Mail
Well, first, let's discuss the plot.  It concerns the intention of do-gooder medical student Monica Darlington to marry Rega Obobo, only son of the paramount chief of the Bongo tribe in the fictional British African colony of Nerubia, located near Uganda and Kenya.  Monica's mother is the widowed Honorable Lady Darlington, herself the "daughter of a peer of ancient lineage, but slender means," who "judiciously married William Darlington, the proprietor of the Bulls-Eye Advertising Agency, who had been knighted for his war-time labours for the country."

In the fourth line of the novel austere and unpleasant Lady Darlington makes crystal clear her dim view of the idea of Monica marrying Mr. Obobo--or Bobo as Monica and his friends call him--when she declares vehemently: "For my beautiful white daughter to lie in the arms of a Negro to me is utterly repulsive.  Horrible.  Indecent. Your father would have felt the same."

As does Monica's insipid brother, Gerald, and her younger sister, Pat.  Gerald is particularly vehement on the subject, when he gets the dark tidings from his mother:

"Mother!  Have you seen him [Obobo]?  He is as black as they are made....We must put a stop to it before anyone hears about it."

"....He no doubt is a fine specimen of his kind
 [says Mother] but I never dreamed such a thing as this could happen."

"His kind!  The gorilla kind! 
[retorts Son] She must be mad....How can I ask a girl to marry me if it means she is to have a black brother-in-law?...There is Pat, too.  How can she hope for a decent husband when he knows he may be the uncle to a brood of blackamoors?  We must make her see sense.  What are we to do?...In the good old days I could call him out and shoot him."

Leaving aside the question of whether an Englishman born around 1930 would really say, in all seriousness, "blackamoors"--I can better believe this of the generation of Herbert Adams, who was 27 when Queen Victoria died, even though he was still writing when Little Richard scored a top ten hit in the UK with Good Golly Miss Molly--I urge you not to give up on this book yet, however tempted you may be to do so, for it is more nuanced than the above lines make it appear.

Little Richard and fan
Herbert Adams was a great golf player (in fact it was a stray golf ball that inspired his first detective novel--see my CADS piece), and shortly golf makes its way into the story, as the title might already have tipped the wink.  It seems that the local Golf Club is having a mixed foursome tournament and the management has been thrown into consternation by the revelation that Monica wants to play--with Obobo as her partner. This is simply too mixed for some in the Club!

Yet despite the protests of some members--"Are we to open our course to n-----s [spelled out in the book], and force our women to play with them?"--it is decided that, having gone this far, the Club in fairness must allow it.  Amateur sleuth Roger Bennion, a member of the Club, urges this pacific course of action.

Unfortunately at the first tee of the foursome Obobo falls down dead--he's been poisoned!  By a substance evidently administered via a cocktail he ingested at the Club shortly before the match.  Not long afterward another black member of the Club dies in similar fashion, by the same poison (more on this below).  Is some racist at the Golf Club trying to extinguish the black members?

I found, actually, quite a lot of interest in this book, despite the hydra-headed horror that was Monica Darlington's family.  The discussion in the novel about the race issue and the color bar among the various white characters offers an interesting window on conservative white thinking on these matters in Fifties Britain from one who probably knew what they were really thinking.  (Monica is the only white character in the novel who might be deemed a progressive liberal.)

I think it is fair to say that Herbert Adams (through his presumed surrogate Roger Bennion) thought racial intermarriage generally ill advised, but he doesn't treat Monica Darlington as a terrible woman for planning to marry a black man--quite the opposite in fact.  She is portrayed, rather, as a noble woman, yet one whose altruistic desires--she wants to return with Bobo to help the masses in Africa--has blinded her to the problems of "mixed marriages."  I'll let Roger speak for himself (and, probably, the author), in  a conversation with Monica, the novel's lone voice of progressive liberalism:

You and [Obobo] are alien not only in colour but in race and in your upbringing.  That is not merely prejudice.  We all believe in evolution, but there is no reason to believe that evolution, which is a slow process, has proceeded at the same pace all over the world.  While Europe and some parts of the East developed a high standard of civilization, Central Africa was still in a state of barbarism."

"You mean they were several stages nearer the ape?" [Monica] asked angrily.

"Put it that way if you like.  When we went to Nerubia, barely a hundred years ago, the conditions were absolutely primitive....

"It is to their credit that they have learned so much so quickly."

"Or to ours.  But they still have much to learn before an English girl should become one of them."

Elsewhere Roger pronounces that "There are exceptions...but white girls who marry black men generally have a hard time."

Notting Hill Couple, 1967
Photo by Charlie Phillips, V&A Collection
taken a decade after the publication of
Death on the First Tee
Adams presents his sleuth as an essentially conservative person who yet seems somewhat open- minded at times, admitting, for example, that black Africans have been cruelly exploited by English extractive industries.  (In the novel the officers of the Nerubia Development Corporation are presented as self-serving, racist individuals.)  As the quoted example above shows, Roger does not outright reject the notion of racial intermarriage, though he argues that it would be better advised at some hazy point conveniently set in the future. 

Desiring to preserve the Empire as much as can be done and to oppose the worldwide advance of Communism, Roger believes blacks should be granted by their colonial overlords the natural birthright of all humanity: full equality of opportunity.  Inevitably much of this novel would offend readers today, however, particularly the indulgent attitude exhibited toward many of the more racist characters.

Characters in the novel are concerned with England's place in the postwar world, when the country had a new young queen and seemed beset everywhere by challenges to its once great might.  Muses Superindent Yeo, Roger Bennion's  current police minion (this is the sort of archaic Fifties British mystery where police remain happy to have brilliant amateur sleuths who did a spot of intelligence work in the last "show," don't you know, solve their murder cases for them):

West Indian immigrants in London, 1956
We are constantly urging our best people to go to Australia and Canada and New Zealand because we are overcrowded.  Then we let these Jamaicans, Nerubians and others pour in here.  Some of them are decent enough, some a damned nuisance.  But they marry our girls.  What sort of mongrel breed shall we become?  I am not sure South Africa is not right.  Keep the races apart and teach them all to be proud of being what they are.

Roger confides that an elite black friend of his thinks the problem facing the world today is universal education, the bane of entrenched elites everywhere:

He holds that here [in Britain] we give free education and universal suffrage.  So the privileged classes rapidly disappear--which he, as one of them, thought regrettable....Can we educate the coloured peoples and still keep them in subjection in places where they outnumber us by hundreds to one?...Obobo...thought something of the sort was possible.  Others foresee the day when Britain shorn of all its dominions and colonies will be back where it started--a small island in the North Sea about as important as Iceland!

Adams is surprisingly up to date as well in the novel in his dalliance with sexual subjects.  Aside from the topic of racial intermarriage we learn that the deadly poison in the case is cantharides, aka Spanish Fly.  Derived from the Spanish Fly, an emerald-green bug that is a member of the noxious blister beetle family, cantharides is not only used in aphrodisiac concoctions but is also a highly toxic poison when ingested in unadulterated form. 

Another black character in the novel, we learn, has a collection of nude photos of young women, his great ambition being to collect one such from every country.  Although his landlady is outraged over the existence of his blue photo album, Roger and the police seem entirely unfazed by the matter.

Notting Hill riot
Death on the First Tee holds interest both for its political and social aspects as well as its teasing little mystery, which you should be able to solve for yourself after the second murder.  As a window on the mind of a conservative English crime writer born five years before the Anglo-Zulu War who lived to to see the end of the English empire in Africa, I found it especially fascinating. 

Yes, there is also a spot of golf, including a deduction--or more a psychological inference--based on the game made by Roger Bennion, but non-golfers shouldn't be overwhelmed.  You'll find less golf here than there is bridge in Christie's Cards on the Table.

A year after the publication of Death on the First Tee, which includes a race riot in its plot, there occurred the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, which raged five days and nights over the August bank holiday 60 years ago.  Thuggish "teddy boys" and others, inflamed by far right groups such as the Union Movement of Oswald Mosley (he never gave up, did he?) and the White Defence League, started an anti-black riot in Notting Hill--a once (and again to be) fashionable London district that was then rundown and jammed with overcrowded tenements populated by West Indians--ostensibly after an altercation between a white Swedish woman and her Jamaican husband.

Interestingly, Herbert Adams' paternal grandfather, Ralph Adams, was a brick maker and builder who owned a sprawling brick field in Notting Hill which so came to dominate its vicinity that the whole area became known as the Potteries.  Notorious for its dismal living conditions, the Potteries was denounced by no less a chiding voice of mid-Victorian social conscience than Charles Dickens, who lambasted the seething slum as "a plague spot, scarcely equaled for its insalubrity by any other [neighborhood] in London.

This criticism notwithstanding, Ralph Adams became an important figure in the development of Notting Hill as a fashionable nineteenth-century upper middle class residential district.  Still standing today, on Notting Hill's Pottery Lane, is a survivor of the Notting Hill race riots: a single beehive brick kiln once used by Ralph Adams' exploited workers at the Potteries.

See John Norris' review of Herbert Adams' first detective novel, The Secret of Bogey House (1924), here.


  1. A few years earlier there was outrage when Seretse Khama, an African student, planned to marry his London landlady's daughter. In this case, there was snobbery involved as well, as he was a member of a royal family. In the event, they married happily and he became Sir Seretse Khama, President of Botswana.
    The author Malcolm Gladwell mentioned that when his English father planned to marry his West Indian mother his father's - progressive - family tried to discourage the marriage. Malcolm Gladwell's existence is proof they failed.

    1. The Seretse Khama case may have been what Adams had in mind, though that has a unique international connection in the South Africa connection. And of course Adams raised the social status of the would-be wife!

    2. And of course you're right, racial intermarriage would have tested the convictions of many a progressive family of the day too, I'm sure, when it was all in the family, so to speak.