How odd of God/To choose the Jews--William Norman Ewer (attributed)
The presence of antisemitism in the Golden Age British detective novel is well-established (for example, see my post on it here), but it's comes as a jolt to come across it as late as 1956, in Josephine Bell's fifteenth or sixteenth detective novel, The China Roundabout, which seems to have been one of her best reviewed books. (For examples, see Nick Fuller's page on the novel at his vintage mystery blog.)
Bell's publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, was particularly fortunate in being able to "blurb" a seeming rave review from highly regarded Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. Perhaps the ellipses left out some negative criticism, but what's quoted is pretty damn ecstatic:
With an opening demure, domestic as a page from Jane Austen, The China Roundabout has an end like an Elizabethan tragedy. More and more mystery, tinged with violence, accumulated in what seemed, that first afternoon, a drab but highly respectable Hampstead house...Full marks for atmosphere.
For his part longtime mystery reviewer Maurice Richardson pronounced that the novel was "[n]icely written as usual in Miss Bell's careful, concise style" and "in its best moments" had "affinities with the Victorian mystery masters, even the great Wilkie Collins." Wow!
The person who threw the stink bomb into this praise party was Christopher Pym, who while conceding that "Miss Bell writes competently, and sometimes beautifully," nevertheless expressed "pity that her plot should be quite so old-fashionably improbable, and that she should make it so patent that such of her own creations who aren't English, upper-middle-class, Gentile and chaste are 'horrors,' 'curious' or 'abnormal.'"
While the novel is well-written, it's also the most dismayingly antisemitic classic British detective novel from the hand of an intelligent crime writer that I have encountered from the Fifties, a time when there really should have been no excuse for it to exist at all in such a form. What in the world was publisher Hodder & Stoughton thinking when it published Josephine's parade of hateful stereotypes? (Of course H&S gave us Sapper, but even he somewhat cleaned up his racist act before his premature death in the Thirties.) Or, frightening thought, had they actually toned Bell's book down before publishing it?
I say this as someone who likes Josephine Bell's mysteries, while recognizing that she was a wildly inconsistent writer and that even some of her best books have notable flaws. Setting the antisemitism aside (if you can), you might well enjoy The China Roundabout. But it's a shame that it had to be there in the first place.
|"characters human and likable" |
pronounced The Times
The novel concerns a mother and daughter, Mildred and Eileen Forrestal, who have come to stay in the Hampstead house of Mildred's late brother, Major Monte Beresford, who passed away suddenly, leaving his only sibling the house and its belongings and a substantial amount of money. There's also a much beloved object from Mildred's youth, an exotic family heirloom: a china roundabout, a miniature music box and merry-go-round, as we would say in the States, which was gifted to a nineteenth-century Beresford Indian Army ancestor by a certain maharajah whom he had served.
Unfortunately, the china roundabout proves to be of great interest as well to all the tenants of Monte's large Hampstead house, which he had divided into flats. These tenants are:
Advertising model and kept woman Amanda Powell
Mrs. Pickard, whose mostly absent husband is in something by way of commercial traveling
And, most revolting of all, the Rosenbergs, mother, daughter Sarah and son Heime. ("He is in the National Service call-up, poor Heime," explains Mrs. Rosenberg, disloyally, of his absence.) There's also an uncle, Ernst Meyer, who owns a local antique shop.
Mrs. Pickard seems okay to the genteel Forrestals, and the very smartly dressed and heavily made up Amanda Powell, though "a bit tartish" looking is not "repellant, like Mrs. Rosenberg." Oh! that Rosenberg clan! Here is how Josephine describes that first meeting, seen though the discriminating eyes of Eileen Forrestal:
As she opened the first door she came to, which she took to be the kitchen, the door next to it opened, and a short, stout, greasy-haired woman came out.
"Oh," said Eileen, and she could not think how to go on.
But her visitor was not at a loss. She offered a plump, dirty hand, bowed jerkily from the waist, and said, in a markedly foreign accent, "Rosenberg."
Eileen avoided the hand by stepping back a little.
Remember, Eileen is the supposedly sympathetic "nice girl" focal character. Her mother, admittedly, is presented as not all that likable (but still genteel and proper, which are all-important things in Bell's world). So when the mother scoffs, "What a dreadful name, Heime!" maybe we should let that pass.
The problem is that Eileen sticks her nose up in the air nearly as much as her mother, always deeming people, in her words, repellent and revolting, like Mrs. Rosenberg. It's interesting that an author who was a doctor, who must occasionally have dealt with unclean, poorly groomed and smelly people, should present her ostensibly sympathetic focal character this way. Josephine must have hated her day job! Of course she relocated from London to Guildford, Surrey in 1936. (Maybe there weren't any Jews there.) Freeman Wills Crofts, who grew to hate the big city too, was a neighbor.
Some of Bell's experience as a doctor in London went into her Thirties crime novels Murder in Hospital (1937) and The Port of London Murders (1938), which are better books. The latter book, which as I recollect is an impressive example of Thirties social realism in the detective novel, is being reprinted by the British Library.
Back to Roundabout, however, here are the adjectives associated with the book's Jewish characters so far:
short, stout, greasy, dirty, foreign
Mrs. Rosenberg's daughter, Sarah, is better, but not much: "She had a handsome, sulky face, framed by too much dark, curly hair." Her accent is "Cockney, overlaid with traces of B. B. C." A "vicious flash of rage" appears in her "dark eyes" when Eileen asks her a question she doesn't like, then she summons her mother, who appears, "rubbing her hands on a dirty apron."
Heime of the National Service call-up never appears in the book, but old Uncle Ernst does; and though he looks better than his niece, he's obviously a scheming crook too. As is Amanda Powell's Jewish sugar daddy, upon whom Bell lavishes the most hostile description of all:
Mrs. Forrestal introduced the stranger. A Mr. Mackenzie; obviously from that branch of the clan whose chief headquarters originally were from Palestine. His suit fitted his well-fed figure too closely, and its pin-stripe was too wide. He wore three rings. His blue-black hair was carefully oiled. Eileen, passing thoughtfully to the windward of him, put down the tray near her mother.
Later he flashes a smile full of "well-fitted" teeth.
Well-fed, flashily-dressed, rings, oiled hair, false teeth--Josephine really got them all in here! Well, she did leave off his wearing a fur coat, but then the book is set in late summer.
One has to wonder whether Bell chose the surname "Rosenberg" as a nod to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed for pro-Soviet espionage in the United States in 1953. I mean, would she really have chosen that surname coincidentally, when she was writing the novel but two years later?
To be fair to Eileen, she's repelled by a non-Jewish character as well, a shady lawyer named Mr. Digby, whom she finds a "frightful little tike." Eileen realizes to her abject horror that Mr. Digby bites his nails (!) and she make a strenuous effort "not to look at Mr. Digby's fingers."
All this brings to my mind, minus the actual antisemitism, Ngaio Marsh, who often seemed more appalled by poor breeding and physical appearances (see her epic fat-shaming in Black as He's Painted) than the moral fact of murder. Seemingly bad manners, in the eyes of these hyper-sensitive and desperately superior British mystery authors, are worse than an evil character. This may be one reason why many writers in the hard-boiled school, like Raymond Chandler, had no use for genteel mystery.
No doubt Josephine Bell would have countered that she just "called things like they are." (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today.). However, when you include several Jewish characters in your novel and make them all highly objectionable, in many respects drawing them in the most "repellent" stereotypical fashion, and you're doing all this not long after World War Two and the Holocaust, to me it seems not a matter of overzealous "political correctness," but rather something that is simply, well, repellent. Even Bell herself seems to recognize that there may be an issue here, only to immediately dismiss it, in a conversation between two of her characters, old Mother Forrestal and Mrs. Pickard:
You mean the Rosenbergs? Not quite--Refugees, originally, I believe. Her husband was left behind, and died in a concentration camp. You can't help feeling sorry, but all the same--"
Amid all those delicate pauses and polite hesitations, I get the feeling that these two "nice" ladies are thinking maybe Hitler wasn't all that far on the wrong track, actually.
|Score one for Old England|
Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge
If you can get past all this revolting garbage, there's actually a decent little story here. The mystery around the roundabout is compellingly presented and Bell maintains a high level of suspense throughout the first half of the novel, when a memorable death occurs. "It sound like the worst kind of Victorian melodrama," pronounces one character, but if you are a mystery fancier, Victorian melodrama can be a lot of good fun. I'm not surprised that at least one critic invoked the spirit of The Moonstone.
There's a plateau in the second half of the novel, as Bell gets a little tangled up in complications (as she often does), yet all is brought to an enjoyable finish, when a valiant, old, sensible Englishwoman (Mildred's old friend and companion, Amy Henderson) faces down the deepest-dyed villainy, like Miss Pross valiantly fending off Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. With the appearance of Bell's amateur detective, David Wintringham, to help sorts things out, this is a lot more like a Thirties mystery than a Fifties police procedural, although Bell's presiding policeman, Superintendent Steve Mitchell, is on hand and active as well.
Admittedly it doesn't help the case for authenticity when David, after a crazed drug addict tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, attributes this attack to "a typical advanced case of marijuana poisoning." Bell would get better on modern crime and police procedure after she exiled David Wintringham from her books. As for the antisemitism, I hope Bell bade it adieu by the 1960s. It really was way past time for it. A a person on another blog post of mine commented of Bell, "She's a good writer, but in some ways she makes even Christie look like a free-loving liberal." Too true! Christie in her books seems to me to have been much less hidebound than Bell.
The China Roundabout, incidentally, was not published until 1965 in the United States, in a paperback edition by Ballantine, under the title Murder on the Merry-Go-Round. It's an awful title, but obviously "roundabout" was a no-go in the United States. I don't know what was done with the rampant antisemitism. I will have to get a copy someday and see.