Sunday, July 7, 2024

Shinju: The 1939 Deaths of Sir William and Lady (Beatrice) Reid and the Genesis of Agatha Christie's Elephants Can Remember (1972)

"Did her mother kill her father or was it the father who killed the mother?"

--Bossy Mrs. Burton-Cox badgers Ariadne Oliver about the deaths of General Sir Alistair Ravenscroft and Lady Ravenscroft in Elephants Can Remember

"I never can remember what years are, what dates are.  You know, I get mixed up."

--Dizzy Mrs. Oliver dithers to Hercule Poirot in Elephants Can Remember

"All these dates are so difficult."

--Young Celia Ravenscroft has trouble with her memory too in Elephants Can Remember

"So many things are difficult to explain."

--Hercule Poirot's little grey cells falter momentarily in Elephants Can Remember

"All this is very, very difficult, isn't it?"

--Mrs. Burton-Cox chimes in with the general confusion in Elephants Can Remember

"What we've really got to do is to get at the people who are like elephants.  Because elephants, so they say, don't forget."

--Ariadne Oliver suggests their best recourse to getting at the Ravenscroft problem in Elephants Can Remember

Death in Durford Wood

Based on a comment from my old mystery fan internet pal Nicholas Fuller (I think we first "met" 25 years ago, when he was young and I was, well, somewhat shy of middle-aged), I researched the real-life historical case concerning the shooting deaths of Sir William and Lady (Beatrice) Reid, which took place nearly 85 years ago in England on November 21, 1939, nearly three months after the commencement of the Second World War.  As Nick stated in his comment, the Reid case bears marked similarity to the fictional deaths of General Sir Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife Lady (Margaret) Preston-Grey that are investigated by Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver in Elephants Can Remember (1972), the final Poirot detective novel which Agatha Christie wrote.  

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I had resolved not to reread Elephants (I had read it twice before over the last thirty years, neither time feeling it was very good at all) after feeling discouraged by the first two chapters.  However, the novel's seeming connection to a real life case of unnatural death intrigued me and drove me onward.  I am glad I persevered: the book is not quite as unbearable as I thought it would prove on a third reading and its connection to the real life tragedy of the Sir William and Lady Reid lends it some melancholy interest.  

former factory in Fulham (see below)

The real life William James Reid was a born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1871 and educated at Glasgow High School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He served as a magistrate and civil servant in India, eventually becoming acting governor of the province of Assam in the years 1925-26, and was knighted for his services to the Empire after his retirement at age 55 in 1926.  

Returning to England, Reid and his wife, the former Beatrice Marion Edwards, daughter of John Hyde Edwards, an assistant engineer with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, India's first passenger railway, settled at a substantial brick home, Durford Rise, in an affluent neighborhood located by Durford Wood in the vicinity of the town of Petersfield in the southern central coastal county of Hampshire.  There the couple lived, seemingly harmoniously, until another outbreak of global hostilities in 1939.  

For the last few months the well-off, childless couple, who at their deaths were worth about 1.4 million dollars in modern value, had taken into their home three boys, aged 13 to 8, who had been evacuated from London: Donald, William and Alfred Tomes.  

These boys were the youngest children of Catherine Tomes, a 54-year-old widow who resided at 1 Silvio Mews in Fulham, London with five older children: Frederick, 30, a roof tiler's mate (Catherine's late husband, Henry Tomes, had been a slater); Florence, 20, a bottler at a brewers; Katherine, 19, an assistant at a laundry; and Reginald and Ronald, 17 and 15, assistants respectively to a fishmonger and greengrocer.  Clearly this was a family where everyone did their bit.  

The trio of younger Tomeses whom Sir William and Lady Reid took into their big house at the edge of Durford Wood were but a tiny part of the mass of city youngsters--some 1.5 million school-age children eventually--who under the mission known as Operation Pied Piper were evacuated from London and other British cities in waves, beginning with the declaration of war with Germany on September 1.  

youthful city evacuees in Operation Pied Piper

In one way, at least, the routine at Durford Rise did not alter with the war.  Every afternoon Lady Reid, who at 64 was four years younger than her husband, would exit the house to take her black spaniel--a "favored dog" of the couple's--out for a walk in the woods around the big brick house.  However, on the afternoon of Tuesday November 21st, 1939, Sir William uncaracterisitcally accompanied his wife and their spaniel on the daily round.  

By sunset neither the couple nor their spaniel had returned to Durford Rise.  A search for them was commenced, which ended 36 hours later when Sir William and his wife were discovered together in the woods, both of them dead from gunshot wounds.  Their bodies were found by the gamekeeper, James Hall, who also spied the spaniel lying between the couple, off his lead, which was still held in Lady Reid's cold, lifeless hand.  Lady Reid was lying on the path, Sir William in a ditch five feet away from his wife.  

Accounts varied as to whether the dog had been shot as well, or had merely been asleep.  I tend to think the dog was still alive.  "Dog Guards Bodies in Woods for Two Days" and "Dog Kept Vigil over the Dead" read maudlin newspaper headlines, which doubtlessly appealed to the sentimental, dog-loving British public.  

the dog kept vigil over the Reids

Whether or not it was the dog that died along with his mistress and master was a mere fal-lal for the felony file, however.  The really important question was, who killed the husband and wife and why?  And here, regrettably for real-life mystery fans, the answer seems to have been clear cut.

The coroner's inquest that assembled on Saturday the 25th (they moved quickly in those days) concluded that the culprit was none other then Sir William himself, who had shot his wife in the back of her head and then himself in the chest.  

What motivated this dreadful deed?  Well, for one thing, Sir William had been very troubled and depressed by the war.  The housekeeper, Grace Cunningham, testified that Lady Reid had told her that the conflict had hit them hard financially and that her husband was much worried about it.  

The late Lady Reid's brother-in-law, F. Hyde Edwards, who also lived in the vicinity at a house named Landfall, told the coroner that since the war had commenced Reid had become obsessed with cheeseparing to save money, though he had both a civil service pension and private means.  Asserted Edwards of Reid: "He said he must live more cheaply, give up his house and car."  Sir William would not even allow his wife to lay a fire in the house until six o'clock in the evening, owing to his perception of the couple's straitened financial circumstances.  

Lately Sir William had become much vexed with the matter of those London evacuees--the trio of young Tomes boys--whom he and his wife had been legally compelled to shelter.  In the days leading up to his death he had told a friend and neighbor, a retired tea planter named Charles Prettejohn, that he wanted these children out of his home.  Prettejohn thought his friend "had largely lost his sense of proportion" about things since the war had started in September.  

"It was owing to his intense fondness for his wife that he attempted to get rid of the evacuee children billeted with them," Prettejohn explained to the coroner.  "He told me that he was quite sure that his wife could not carry on.  He said she would break down."

Sir William had asked Prettejohn to accompany him when he visited the authorities to plead, "on behalf of his wife," for the removal of the young evacuees from Durford Rise.  Prettejohn drove the fretful Reid, who presumably was saving his petrol, eighteen miles to the town of Midhurst, which itself had taken in about 400 urban evacuees, and there he stated his case for evicting the Tomeses.  

Reid, however, had been "very dissatisfied" with the outcome of his errand into Midhurst, Prettejohn reported, because "he got rather short shrift" from the authorities.  There were people with rather less than the Sir William, it must have been generally felt, who were doing more and complaining less.  

Back at Durford Rise Reid's mental state deteriorated further.  Hyde Edwards divulged that on one occasion his sister told him that she had becomes terribly frightened of her husband, whom she feared had become mentally unbalanced.  "I really believe he is going out of his mind," the distraught woman told her brother.  

The coroner's court agreed, concluding that Sir William had murdered his wife and then shot himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed.  The case then was closed and the one-week wonder was dropped by the press, barring one postscript.  What was to become of the Tomes boys?  Where were they to go after the deaths of the couple who had taken them into their home?  

Over a week after the jury rendered its verdict on the Ried deaths, the Sunday Mirror reported, under the banner headline "Mother Fears Gossip--Not Bombers," that the boys' incensed parent, Catherine Tomes, had personally traveled some sixty miles southwest to Petersfield and taken her boys back with her to Fulham. She complained volubly to the Mirror:

wartime evacuation poster

It hurt my feelings when I read what was said at the inquest.  The tragedy was not the fault of the boys, and I brought them back because I believed it would harm them to stay on.  You cannot expect me to keep them down there with a lot of gossip going on around them.  It is not fair to the children.  Some of the allegations which have been spreading round might do my children harm.  They will remain at home until after Christmas.  Then perhaps they will be billeted somewhere else.  

For their part, the boys piped up that they had enjoyed their stay in pastoral Hampshire.  One boy told the Mirror: "Lady Reid often took us for car rides in the country" [think of the petrol!].  We were very happy down there.  We miss the lovely fields."  

Upon learning of Catherine Tomes' chagrin over the inquest testimony, another neighbor and friend of the Reids, Lady (Flora Macbeth) Rigsby--wife of Sir Hugh Mallinson Rigsby, the former Sergeant-Surgeon to the King, who had had famously operated on George V when the king was suffering from life-threatening empyema in 1928--wrote Mrs. Tomes, assuring her of the district that "no one connects the boys with the tragedy."  

Lady Rigsby offered to take the boys into her and her celebrated husband's own home if they returned to the district from London to escape the dangers of the impending German Blitz.  Did Catherine Tomes take Flora Macbeth Rigsby up on her kind offer?  

the Blitz in Fulham

Unfortunately, what the outcome was to this acrimonious postscript to a couple's tragic demise seems to have gone unreported; and the deaths of an aged British knight and his wife were soon forgotten in the rush of bad news that buffeted the Empire seemingly on every side in 1940.  But there was someone who didn't forget the strange story: the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, then 49 years old.  One of her homes, Winterbrook House, was located seventy miles north of Petersfield in Wallingford.  

Christie seems to have tucked the Reid tragedy away in a corner of her mind for more than three decades before making use of it.  32 years later, when she was 81 years old, Christie clearly employed the murder-suicide as the basis for her book Elephants Can Remember (1972), the final Hercule Poirot novel that she ever wrote.  

Admittedly Elephants as a detective novel is eminently forgettable, being but a poor thing compared to the work from her heyday, like those two non-series mysteries from 1939, the year of the Durford Wood tragedy, Murder Is Easy and the incomparable And Then There Were None (the latter the bestselling mystery in history and arguably the best thing the author every did). Although in 1972 Elephants received good, sometimes gushing, reviews, especially from indulgent Anglophile reviewers in the United States, at least one reviewer was willing to call it like it was, despite the octogenarian Christie's status as a n international bestseller and beloved literary institution. 

In the Manchester Evening News, reviewer Brian Bearshaw, a crime writer himself, under the headline "Tired and Weary" wrote sadly of Elephants that he much preferred to remember the author's better books from better days:

A gun, dog, wig and an
elephant add up to...what?

Agatha Christie books abound in our house.  Hickory Dickory Dock, 4.50 from Paddington, Dead Man's Folly, Ordeal by Innocence [apparently Bearshaw began reading Christie in the Fifties]--they and many more sit on the shelves, regularly read and as baffling at a third reading as the first.  

But the latest, Elephants Can Remember, will not be joining them.  If it had been written by an unknown novelist, I could not have finished it.  The plot is poor, the characters, including Mrs. Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot, weak and for once unconvincing.  

It is an up-to-date story in an out-of-date style, tired and wearisomely drawn out.  A mystery involving wigs and [spoilerish] that falls apart halfway through.  The book will sell because Miss [sic] Christie's name is on the cover. It is a pity it is there at all, for it falls far short of the consistently high standard that had marked Miss [sic] Christie's work for so many years.

I agree with this blunt yet honest criticism.  However, when one is interested in Christie as a person, one can still find pleasure in her last books discerning what they tell us about the author.  In Elephants we find yet another case of Christie in her work drawing on a real life crime (murder/suicide), like she did in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934).  (In the case of Mirror she denied that she had done so, but I don't see how anyone can possibly believe her.)  

As I discussed in my immediately previous blog post, Elephants opens with Christie's scatty mystery writer surrogate, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, at a literary luncheon encountering the imperious matron Mrs. Burton-Cox, who, upon ascertaining that Mrs. Oliver is the godmother of one Celia Ravenscroft, demands of her to know: "Did her mother kill her father or was it the father who killed the mother?"  

Celia, you see, is planning, perhaps, to marry Mrs. Burton-Cox's son Desmond, and the lady apparently is concerned that Celia may have spouse-killer genes in her DNA.  It's an arresting question, the import of which, however, largely escaped me; yet the characters seem to lend some credence to the notion that it would be worse for Celia if her mother killed her father, apparently based on the notion that a mother is more likely to pass the killer gene to her daughter than would be the father.  (And I suppose fathers, by this reasoning, would be more likely to pass it on to their sons.)

This starts a most vexing memory maggot in Mrs. Oliver's inquisitive mind that Ariadne simply can't shake, so she does what she always does in these situations: she pays a call upon her friend Hercule Poirot, still ensconced at his London fastness at Whitehaven Mansions with his secretary Miss Lemon and manservant George, waiting for visitors to present him with nice murder problems for his little grey cells.  

Elephants presents Poirot and the readers with a murder problem, for sure, but it's hardly one worthy of his powers.  At the beginning of Book II, about three-fifths of the way into the story, we receive some information about two characters that had been previously withheld from us; and after that there should be no mystery left to the mystery.  

The narration is prolix and dithering, particularly in Book I, which largely consists of Mrs. Oliver wandering about, visiting old "elephants" (people who remember things), and asking them about the deaths of Celia Ravenscroft's parents.  Their memories wander all over the place, with numerous loose threads left that have no functional place in the fabric of the case, and only two or three clues amid the welter of irrelevant data that really matter--though these are so obvious, one in particular, that surely upon presentment they give the game away to most readers.  


So, what is the case, exactly?  Well, it concerns the unnatural deaths of General Sir Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife Margaret, or Molly, Lady Ravenscroft, both of whom were found fatally shot on a cliff overlooking the Channel by their country house (named Overcliffe, appropriately enough), located somewhere in coastal southern England.  Only the fingerprints of the general and his wife were found on the gun, so the case seemed open and shut, either a murder suicide or double suicide/suicide pact--what Japan calls shinju, or love suicide.  

But what would have caused one spouse to shoot the other, when they were a seemingly happy couple according to all the evidence?  Was it a true love suicide, with both man and woman wanting to die?  Or is there some completely different explanation for the calamity?  Poirot, old and sighing a great deal (with boredom, like the reader?), investigates, with the "help," if so it may be called, of Mrs. Oliver.

You can already see, I imagine, the similarity to the Reid case, with the real life Reids, dead in the dark woods in Hampshire, altered to the fictional Ravenscrofts, dead on a cliff somewhere in coastal southern England.  In both cases the explanation seems to be either murder suicide or double suicide.  (Actually in the Reid case, it was determined that there was no way that Lady Reid could have shot herself in the back of the head; hence the conclusion that Sir William was the murderer.)  

But, wait, there is more.  We learn, for example, that the Ravenscrofts spent time in Malaya, recalling the Reids who spent decades in India.  Both Sir Alistair and Sir William were in the diplomatic service.  

Additionally there is the matter of the dogs. In several of her books Christie characters allude to a couple of cases of Sherlock Holmes: the one concerning the parsley that sank into the butter on a hot day (never detailed in a story) and the other, which is highly relevant in the famous horse racing mystery "Silver Blaze," the matter of the dog that didn't bark in the nighttime.  

In Elephants, when Poirot is having lunch with good old Superintendent Spence of Mrs. McGinty's Dead and Hallowe'en Party, and Chief Superintendent Garroway, who had headed the Ravenscroft investigation, Garroway alludes, like clockwork, to the cases, prompting Poirot to ask whether the Ravenscrofts had a dog.  

This leads to the following exchange:

what the spaniel saw

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said did they have a dog?  General and Lady Ravenscroft?  Did they take a dog for that walk with them on the day they were shot? The Ravenscrofts."

"They had a dog, yes," said Garroway.  "I suppose, I suppose they did take him for a walk most days."

"If it had been one of Mrs. Oliver's stories," said Spence, "you ought to have found the dog howling over the two dead bodies. But that didn't happen."

Garroway shook his head.

"I wonder where the dog is now?"  said Poirot.

"Buried in somebody's garden, I expect," said Garroway.  "It's fourteen years ago."  [Actually it's twelve, though at a later point, Poirot, exhibiting the poor memory of the other characters, says it's fifteen or twenty."]

"So we can't go and ask the dog, can we?" said Poirot.  He added thoughtfully: "A pity.  It's astonishing, you know, what dogs can know."

Well, that dog plays an important role in the elucidation of the mystery (Poirot always knows!), though we never actually meet it.  (Likely it is buried in a garden by now.)  I don't believe we ever find out what breed it was, nor do we ever discover whether it accompanied its master and mistress--or father and mother as we would say in these doting days--on their last earthly walk together.  But the similarity to the Reid case, in which a dog prominently featured, is obvious. 


Durford Wood

Agatha Christie set the year of the Ravenscroft deaths as 1960, though her characters seem needlessly confused about the matter, just as they are about the ages of the Ravenscrofts themselves and the ages of two children. At one point in Book Two Poirot himself confusedly thinks that the murders took place fifteen or even twenty years previously, which would set them as far back as 1952.  

The novel's Book One and Book Two contradict each other, as if they were written at different times and the author had become confused in the interim between their composition about what she had written earlier.  

Yet we know that the Ravencroft deaths took place in 1960 because late in the novel Poirot visits the cemetery where they lie buried and reads their headstones, which give the date for both as October 3, 1960.  There cannot be doubt about this, at least.  

In Book One, General Ravenscroft and his wife are stated to have been around 60 and 35, respectively, at their demises.  Their daughter Celia would have been about 14, her younger brother around 10.  

In Book Two, however, the General is stated to have been a young man when he fell in love with Molly, and Mrs. Oliver, who could barely remember the case or her goddaughter Celia in Book One, tells Poirot in great detail about how she and Molly had been students "in a sort of pensionnat in Paris together.  People used to send girls to Paris then to be finished."  [This sounds like Christie herself; see pic below.]

Agatha Christie getting "finished"
in Paris around 1906

Yet if Molly and Ariadne were close contemporaries, assuming Molly was 35 at her death in 1960, she would have been 47 in 1972, when the book is set.  That means that Ariadne would be around 47 too.  I won't get into the fact that Mrs. Oliver first appears in the Christie canon back in the 1930s and had been regularly featured in the Poirot series over two decades.  

There simply is no way that Mrs. Oliver, as she is depicted in Elephants, could not be at least in her late Sixties.  It also means, by the by, that the two "girls" would have been at the Parisian finishing school in the early Forties, when France was occupied by the Nazis--now that would make an interesting tale to tell!  Ariadne Oliver, secret agent

Mrs. Oliver far more likely would have been General Ravenscroft's contemporary.  But Molly herself would then have had to have been around 60 when she died and around 46 when Celia was born, which doesn't work either.  

To me it seems as though Christie originally wanted to make both spouses in their sixties, like the real life William and Beatrice Reid, but then she realized that the math was way off in that case with Molly and her children and she tried to straighten things out but only succeeded in making them messy in a different way.

So the whole book is a chronological farrago.  It's amazing to me that her editors didn't bother to try to square any of this, but evidently most reviewers and readers did not care anyway.  They were reading a Christie with good old mustachioed, sirop quaffing Hercule Poirot, and that was good enough.  Nobody had more loyal fans than Agatha Christie--or was as deserving of them, after all those decades of pleasure she had given.  


A story more directly based on the real life Reid case--one about a murder investigation at a provincial country house in the early days of World War Two when three rambunctious young cockney evacuees were present--actually would have been more interesting than the one which Christie produced in Elephants Can Remember.  All the suspects we might have had: Lady Reid's brother F. Hyde Edwards, living nearby at Landfall; the neighbors Cecil Prettejohn and Sir Hugh and Lady Rigsby; the gameskeeper James Hall; the housekeeper Grace Cunningham; the Tomes boys themselves, those little buggers.  

Yet the similarities that we have between the real life case and the novel are sufficiently telling as things are.  By 1971 did the octogenarian Christie actually realize that she was incorporating elements from the Reid case into Elephants Can Remember, or had she forgotten the thing?  At another point in the novel the author seems to recall the Reid case and the discontent and fear that fatally gripped the troubled couple during the early months of the war.  

"For some reason those two didn't want to go on living," wonders Poirot to Mrs, Oliver.  "Why?"   To which Ariadne, reflecting a strongly held Christie credo, chattily responds:

I knew a the war--the second war, I mean--they thought that the Germans would land in England and they had decided if that happened they would kill themselves.  I said it was very stupid.  They said it would be impossible to go on living.  It still seems to me stupid.  You've got to have enough courage to live through something.

Sir William Reid's courage seems to have failed him in November 1939, as he saw--or imagined he saw--problems surmounting everywhere around him and his wife.  Lady Reid seems to have been engulfed by fear to--fear of her mentally deteriorating husband.  Though her brother and others around them knew that there was something rather wrong at Durford Rise, no one stepped in to take decisive action with Sir William in his funk, with tragic consequences.  

Will we ever find out anything more about the deaths in Durford Wood now, 85 years later?  What did the Tomes boys know?  Of the three evacuees then staying at Durford Rise, I know that the middle boy, William, died back in 1997.  What of Donald, who would be 98 this year and Alfred, who would be 93?  Could they still be around to tell us something?  If so, are they elephants?  As Mrs. Oliver observed, it's the elephants who remember.  

Japanese netsuke elephant--oh, what it could tell

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Elephant Talk: Some Observations about Digressions in Elephants Can Remember (1972), by Agatha Christie

"I was really thinking of elephants....what we really have got to do is to get at the people who are like elephants.  Because elephants, they say, don't forget."--Ariadne Oliver in Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Earlier this year I devoted some time to considering later novels by Agatha Christie and the sharp decline that manifested itself in her work in the late Sixties, becoming a near collapse by the early Seventies.  On my rereads I really noticed it with By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), the first of two geriatric Tommy and Tuppence mysteries, reviewed by me here.  While it's better, certainly, than the later Postern of Fate (1973), reviewed by me here, the plotting is none too good, getting quite cluttered and confusing at the huddled ending. Over and over Tuppence laments to her husband Tommy that it's all so difficult trying to remember anything, to piece together fragments of faded memory from one's mind.  

In At Bertram's Hotel (1965) and Third Girl (1966) and Endless Night (1967), Christie tried, not entirely without success, to stay abreast of present times.  These are good books, I think, offering fresh and original treatments of the modern world from the author.  Beginning with Thumbs, however, her books largely become about dithery elderly people trying to remember things--a situation which her biographies indicate reflected her own deteriorating mental state at the time.  Poor Tuppence is passing scatty in Thumbs and by the time Postern of Fate rolls around you might well suspect that she is afflicted with dementia, the way she childishly babbles on and on about inconsequential episodes from her past while struggling to remember any pertinent details from the present day. 

In the last six books Christie wrote--Thumbs, Hallowe'en Party, Passenger to Frankfurt, Nemesis, Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate--memory is so important.  Poignantly so, because like the author herself, so many of her characters have trouble remembering anything.  

Hallowe'en Party (1969), a somewhat underrated book in my opinion, and Nemesis (1971) stand out as comparative oases in this desert of arid memory, but even those books concern murders in the past, like Thumbs, Elephants and Postern.  Near the end of her life Christie in her books was utterly obsessed with the past and the struggle to recall it coherently.  

Memory fades....
Elephants Can Remember, the final Hercule Poirot novel which Christie wrote, concerns, yes, a murder in the past.  Not one that far off--twelve years, maybe, though people don't seem even certain even of that, despite the fact that it was a famous case, an apparent murder-suicide of a knighted British general and his wife.  

Like other Christie books from this period, the opening chapter is coherent and deceptively promises more than the book delivers.  Starting with Endless Night, I think, Christie (or her hapless editor) started rather grandiosely dividing her books into "Books"; and Elephant's first two chapters, before Book One and Book Two, would seem to be a sort of prologue, though they aren't called that, just chapters one and two.  

Anyway, in Chapter One, Christie's own stand-in, mystery writer Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, attends a literary luncheon.  This is a wryly amusing chapter, clearly based on the modest and retiring author's own experiences, with Mrs. Oliver lamenting having even to go to the damn thing, because she hates these sorts of soirees.  

Agatha Christie with her
feathers hat on the occasion
of her 80th birthday in 1970.
She wrote Elephants the next year.
"I can't make speeches," complains Mrs. Oliver, reflecting the attitude of the author herself, who hated making speeches.  "Now it's all right with words.  You can write words down or speak them into a machine or dictate them."  Christie was famously dictating her own books by this time.  It shows in their terribly prolix garrulity.  

Over everything, however, is a miasma of confusion.  "Why on earth am I going to it?" Mrs. Oliver fretfully asks herself of the luncheon.  "She searched her mind for a bit because she always really liked knowing what she was going to do instead of doing it first and wondering why she had done it afterwards."  

Fortunately she has a maid named Maria to help her out with these matters. There's a funny page where the two women pick one of Ariadne's four hats for her to wear.  

One hat is clearly inspired by one of Christie's own (see pic at upper left):

On the top shelf of Mrs. Oliver's wardrobe there reposed four hats....One, in a round bandbox, was of feathers. It fitted closely to the head and stood up very well to sudden squalls of rain....

Eventually Mrs. Oliver with Maria's help makes it to the luncheon, where she sits worrying about what to do when people come up to her, as they inevitably will, and praise her books, which always makes her uncomfortable:

It was women who gushed....She was not unduly modest.  She thought the detective stories she wrote were quite good of their kind.  Some were not so good and some were much better than others.  But there was no reason, as far as she could see, to make anyone think that she was a noble woman.  She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read. Wonderful luck that was....

This is charming stuff, amusing and self-deprecating, like when Mrs. Oliver worries about what she can eat with her artificial teeth.  "Lettuce was a difficulty, and salted almonds...."  In real life Christie wore a plate and struggled with her food, frustrating because food was one of her great pleasures as she aged.

Christie around the she wrote Elephants Can Remember,
looking rather bored.  Was she at a literary luncheon?  
But then an imperious, matronly woman named Mrs. Burton-Cox shows up to badger Mrs. Oliver and we are off to the mystery races, which immediately are mystifying--and not in a good way.  Mrs. Burton-Cox, after ascertaining that Mrs. Oliver is the godmother of a certain Celia Ravenscroft (good name), demands of Mrs. Oliver: "Did her mother kill her father or was it the father who killed the mother?"  

Well, this is a startling and arresting question, like the infamous "Was it your poor child?"  But it only leads Mrs. Oliver and the bedazed reader into a meandering maze of misty remembrance.  Initially Ariadne has trouble even remembering Celia:

[S]he couldn't remember them all [her goddaughters] had to remember to think when you had seen them last, whose daughters they were, what link had led to your being chosen as a godmother....The christening.  She'd gone to Celia's christening and found a very nice Queen Anne silver strainer as a christening present....Yes, she remembered the strainer very well indeed.  Queen Anne.  Seventeen-eleven it had been.  Britannia mark. How much easier it was to remember silver coffee pots or strianers or christening mugs than it was the actual child.

Sometimes memory is strained beyond capacity.  

Easier than remembering a little thing like a murder too, for that matter:

"Mrs. Oliver's brain was working desperately....Extraordinary, one couldn't remember these did forget so...."

She ditches Mrs. Burton-Cox, but the question nags at her so she decides to pay a visit to her old pal Hercule Poirot.  Where does he live?  "I think it's Whitefriars Mansions.  I can't quite remember the name of it....Whitehaven, Ariadne.  

This all gets tedious fast, but writing about it seems to have been very important to Christie.  Therapeutic, perhaps, all this gabbling about memory loss?  Did going out of her way to have her characters forget everything make the author feel better about forgetting things herself?  Memory loves company--if it can only recall who it was that got invited.  


In Chapter Two Mrs. Oliver begs Poirot's help looking into the Ravenscroft affair.  God knows she needs it.  "I never can remember what years are, what dates are," she explains desperately to the aged Belgian sleuth.  "You know, I get mixed up. I know 1939 because that's when the war started and I know other dates because of queer things, here and there."  Um, yes, dear.  Maybe you just need a nice nap.

"Oh dear, how very difficult," Ariadne babbles as she plunges into the mystic mire of her memory and tries to explain about that Ravenscroft murder: "I can't remember if it was in Cornwall or Corsica....I think it was abroad but I can't remember."

All this dithering is anathema in a book, particularly a detective novel, but Christie, once the greatest of mystery plotters (not plodders), can't seem to help herself.  Still, it's Mrs. Oliver, we may tell ourselves hopefully.  She's always been kind of scatty.  Let's hear from Poirot, that delightful, clever little mustachioed Belgian with the egg-shaped head and the incisive little great cells.  

With horror we discover that Poirot now talks like this too.  Actually if Mrs. Oliver sounds exactly like an addled and scatterbrained Tuppence from Postern of Fate, Poirot sounds like an agonizingly long-winded Tommy from the same book.  Poirot actually delivers this horrifically long-winded soliloquy:

Human curiosity....Such a very interesting thing....To think what we owe to it throughout history.  Curiosity.  I don't know who invented curiosity.  It is said to be usually associated with the cat.  Curiosity killed the cat.  But I should say really that the Greeks were the inventors of curiosity.  They wanted to know.  Before them, as far as I can see, nobody wanted to know much.  They just wanted to know what the rules of the country they were living in were, and how they could avoid having their heads cut off or being impaled on spikes or something disagreeable happening to them.  But they either obeyed or disobeyed.  They didn't want to know why. But since then a lot of people have wanted to know why and all sorts of things have happened because of that.  Boats, trains, flying machines and atom bombs and penicillin and cures for various illnesses.  A little boy watches his mother's kettle raising its lid because of the steam. and the next thing we know is we have railway trains, leading on in due course to railway strikes and all that.  And so on and so on.

Letter from 1972, when an 82 year old 
Christie wrote her last, muddled novel
Postern of Fate, signed simply with 
the initial "C."  The effort of writing 
that book about killed her,
it was later said.
For years people had been saying of the Great Man in his mysteries things like: "Poirot, is he still alive?  He must be gaga by now."  Here, for the first time, Poirot confirms those speculations.  But when you have dementia, your mind can latch onto anything and then you do go on and on about it for a time before trailing off into silence.

This strikes me as poor writing indeed for a detective novel, however interesting it may be as a glimpse into an author's decayed mental state at the time.  Yet when people are attached to someone, even someone they don't know, because they love the person's writing or acting or singing or their politics, they often will stubbornly look past such things and insist everything is just fine, really.  Elephants actually gets a 4.4 rating on Amazon, with 59% of the reviewers incredibly awarding it five stars.  Why, it's a perfect mystery!  

Only 5% give the novel one or two stars, which is surely what it merits, while just 11% settled for three, which is generous.  Devotion is a tender emotion, one not always attached to unhappy reality.  Even Postern of Fate, the very worst book Christie ever wrote, gets four stars on Amazon.

Having finished rereading the first two chapters of Elephants, do I want to go on and read the remaining eighteen?  I think not. on the whole.  Sometimes you have to write a book off and move on to a better one.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Into the Woods: Dean Street Press is Reprinting the Detective Fiction of Sara Woods (Eileen Mary Lana Hutton Bowen Judd), 1916-1985

Today I am most pleased to announce that Dean Street Press is reprinting the Antony Maitland detective fiction of Anglo-Canadian mystery writer Sara Woods (1916-1985), aka Eileen Mary Lana Hutton Bowen Judd.  


As the decade of the 1960s approached, the work of the quartet of English Crime Queens most associated with the between-the-wars Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, still seemed to be going relatively strong.  

To be sure, one of these murder monarchs, Dorothy L. Sayers, was now dead, having expired in the last month of 1957 at the age of sixty-four.  A week before Christmas that year newspapers reported that, like a character out of one her own detective novels, she had been discovered by her gardener lying dead in the hall at the foot of her staircase at "her country home in Witham."  Sayers had just returned from a Christmas shopping excursion in London and had seemed perfectly well, according to her secretary.  The cause of death, however, was neither lethal letter opener nor curare nor a simple sharp shove in the back, but, rather, more prosaically if no less tragically, coronary thrombosis.  

At her death Sayers in fact had not published a new Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel for two decades, In the 1950s one American newspaper reviewer complained that in the years after World War Two, "Sayers' books simply disappeared from bookstalls.  They became practically collector's items, with your only chance of obtaining one a criminal chance, either by the use of blackmail or of theft."    

Two years before her death in 1955, however, American publisher Harper and Brothers began reprinting all of Sayers' Lord Peter mystery fiction in hardcover in an attractive uniform edition, a project which continued for a few years after her death.  By 1958, it was being reported that Wimsey's "old friends are being joined by hosts of new ones who are refreshing themselves with a whole series of detective stories without even the mention of a half-clad femme fatale or a trenchcoat sleuth with a cigarette addiction."  I don't believe that Sayers since has been out of print, either in the United States or United Kingdom, to this day.  

Meanwhile, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh were still plying their fictional murder trade.  Allingham had slowed down, producing one of her Albert Campion mysteries only every three or four years. Hide My Eyes appeared in 1958, three years after The Estate of the Beckoning Lady, though five years elapsed before The China Governess made it into print in 1963.  

Christie and Marsh were more prolific.  Marsh managed a Roderick Alleyn detective novel every two or three years.  False Scent appeared in 1959, followed by Hand in Glove in 1962.  Old reliable herself, Agatha Christie, almost always had a new detective novel, a so-called "Christie for Christmas," ready for her readers, sometimes an Hercule Poirot (Cat among the Pigeons, 1959), sometimes a Miss Marple (4.50 from Paddington, 1957), sometimes something non series (Ordeal by Innocence, 1958). 

Yet, with that impish upstart Time observing no deference to royalty, the original crime queens were undeniably getting older, just like everyone else in their turn-of-the-century generation.  In 1960 Christie would turn seventy, Marsh sixty-five and Allingham fifty-six.  Allingham, the youngest of the group, would follow Sayers into life's surcease in 1966, dying at the age of sixty-two.  Her widower husband briefly continued the Campion series until his own untimely death, but two books in, in 1969. 

Christie lived on until 1976, but her crime writing began a decline in the Sixties, one which perceptibly accelerated by the end of the decade.  Of the last four mystery novels she wrote in the early Seventies, when she was being affected by memory loss, three of them, in my opinion, are nearly unreadable, though some adoring Christie fans, ever loyal to the queen, will tell you otherwise.  Only Ngaio Marsh kept up a pretty uniform standard with her crime fiction until her death in 1982.  

Though it was evident in the Sixties that the crime queens could not go on forever, the happy news in that decade was that there were new crime queens--ladies in waiting, as it were--in the offing.  All of these women wrote detective novels in the classic vein,with puzzles, precise writing and series sleuths.  First off was Patricia Moyes (1923-2000), whose Inspector Henry Tibbett series was introduced with Dead Men Don't Ski in 1959 and ran until 1993.  

PD James (1920-2014) and Ruth Rendell (1930 to 2015), the most lastingly famous of the second generation of British Crime Queens of what might be termed the Silver Age of detective fiction (around 1960 to 2000), debuted their Adam Dalgliesh and Reginald Wexford mysteries series in 1962 and 1964 respectively.  These critically lauded series respectively ran until 2008 and 2013, to much acclaim. 


Sara Woods portrait, 1961
the next year Collins would
coronate her as a new British
Queen of Crime

The series mysteries of Silver Age Crime Queens Moyes, James and Rendell remain in print today, years after their deaths.  Surprisingly, however, the work of another praised, prolific, second generation British crime queen, a close contemporary of the criminous female trio discussed above, has been out of print for over thirty-five years.  This is Anglo-Canadian writer Sara Woods (1916-1985).  

Sara Woods' forty-eight Antony Maitland detective novels appeared over a quarter century between 1962 and 1987.  (The last three were posthumously published.)  That is an average of almost two books a year for twenty-five years.  Not long after moving to Canada in 1958 with her electrical engineer husband of a dozen years, Woods, a native Yorkshirewoman, began writing the first of her Antony Maitland novels, Bloody Instructions.  

Over the next couple of years, probably 1960-61 she followed Instructions with Malice Domestic, The Third Encounter (The Taste of Fears) and Error of the Moon.  Finally satisfied with her work, in 1961 Woods, then forty-five years old, packaged a quartet of murderous manuscripts into a deadly detective fiction parcel and posted them to prestigious English publisher Collins' Crime Club mystery imprint, the impressive stable of which included both Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. 

Collins accepted all four of Woods' manuscripts with alacrity, sending the nascent author a cablegram with the happy news, which Woods received while sitting at breakfast with her husband early one morning.  By this time she was writing a fifth Antony Maitland adventure, Trusted like the Fox, which before the end of the year she finished and sent to Collins, who promptly accepted it with the same enthusiasm as they had her previous four works.  

Sara Woods
this fantastically industrious
Yorkshirewoman at heart
moved to Canada in 1958 
with her husband when she was  
42 and launched a prominent
crime writing career

"We've got a bonanza out there in Nova Scotia," declared Crime Club editor George Hardinge (Lord Hardinge of Penshurst) of Woods, who was seemingly a one-woman crime fiction factory.  Despite its near 200 year association with the British Empire and Commonwealth, Canada for whatever reason had not proven a fertile native ground for mystery writers, with some very notable exceptions like Margaret Millar and Ross Macdonald, a criminous writing couple who had moved to the States before commencing their crime fiction careers.  

Collins confided to newspapers that already they were thinking of their new Canadian transplant acquisition "in terms of those formidable female giants of the field, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh."

George Hardinge warmly invited Woods to pay their offices a visit in London, where Collins could discuss with her their plans for her enticing future and introduce her to the United Kingdom's mystery reading public.  On her return to her native country in February 1962, Collins feted Woods, warmly welcoming her, as the Guardian reported, "to their cosy (and very talkative) circle."  

Collins published the first of Woods' books, Bloody Instructions, in June 1962, thus preceding into print P. D. James (over at Faber & Faber) with her own first detective novel, Cover her Face, by six months.  "[W]ith pride and enthusiasm" Collins heralded their new find as an injection of new, rich blood into the somewhat decayed corpus of classic crime fiction:

The Crime Club confidently introduces a new writer of whom we believe a lot will be heard....Sara Woods is the pseudonym of a writer who has never had a book of any kind published before.  We believe that Bloody Instructions introduces an outstanding new writer of detective fiction.  

When Bloody Instructions appeared in England in June, Francis Iles, aka Anthony Berkeley, the self-professed Golden Age founder of that holy sanctum of classic mystery, the Detection Club, was filled with criminal delight, writing: 

The Crime Club is to be congratulated on its discovery of Miss Sara Woods.  Her first novel, Bloody Instructions, is a most accomplished piece of work: a genuine detective story along classical lines brought up to date, with very human characters, and told with a kind of amused detachment which is most engaging.  Altogether, warmly recommended.  

It was as if another new crime queen had been ceremoniously crowned by a past master.  By this time the industrious Woods was completing a sixth Antony Maitland detective novel, This Little Measure.  (You may have already deduced that the lady had a great fondness for Shakespearean titles.)  

The author used this likeness on her book jackets
for years.  It became until recently the only known
image of a rather reclusive mystery writer.  
Recently I discovered two other likenesses,
shown above

In the United States prominent editor Joan Kahn at Harper & Row accepted three of the first five Woods novels for publication in her "novels of suspense" series.  Woods made a hit in the States as well, though unsurprisingly she proved especially prone to appeal to Anglophile American readers, with her precise prose and pristine puzzle plots, populated by a genteel cast of series characters, complete with an imperious butler.  

Wrote a Yank reviewer of Instructions: "Nicely styled, and enlivened with deft touches of restrained, upper-class British humor, this is a mystery tale likely to please sophisticated who-dunnit fans rather than those who favor rough-and-tumble yarns." Observed another: "The characters are real and humorous and oh, so British.  Even the murder is committed over a cup of tea."

To these enchanted American reviewers, Woods' books seemed almost a throwback to prewar days across the pond, when no killer subs patrolled like sharks beneath the waves and the multi-talented Golden Age Crime Queens had first crafted the gloried English detective novel of manners, in which Lord Peter and his suave company of ingenious sleuthhounds had gaily captured all manner of not quite clever enough crooks in posh art deco cityscapes and quaint Tudor villages.  


Sara Woods' genteel series detective--attorney Antony Maitland, whom some reviewers dubbed the Perry Mason of English mystery--was based on none other than one her own elder brothers, also named Antony, a promising young lawyer who had been tragically killed as an RAF pilot in the Second World War, his plane having been shot down in Egypt in 1941, when he was only 33.  

It was as if Woods envisioned with Antony Maitland what her beloved brother Antony Woods Hutton might have become had he survived the war.  She had been employed in his London office as a legal secretary until the commencement of the war, when she prudently left the beleaguered and blitzed City to work as a bank clerk in Shrewsbury.  

After the war Woods wed electrical engineer Anthony George Bowen-Judd in 1946 and for the next dozen years the couple rusticated, owning and operating a series of farms in Woods' native Yorkshire.  In 1958 the couple abandoned rural English life, moving to the city of Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia, where her husband, whose parents had lived in Canada, resumed engineering work and she became registrar of St. Mary's University.  After she achieved success as a mystery writer, Woods left this position to devote herself fulltime to writing.

Despite the initial fanfare of publicity Collins gave her, Woods in the long run proved a rather publicity-shy individual; and very little today is known about her, her books having been out of print for nearly four decades.  (How fast time passes!)  However, in the forthcoming Dean Street Press editions of her books, readers will find a good deal of new information about her from me.  

Dell pb eds. from the early Seventies
For one thing, Woods' birth year has long been given erroneously as 1922, making her two years younger than PD James, when in fact she was born in 1916, making her in fact four years older than James, and four years younger than Silver Age crime writing stalwarts Julian Symons and Michael Gilbert. Thus she was not, like PD James was, in her fortieth year when her first detective novel was published but was, rather, 46.  

Woods died in 1985 at age sixty-nine and was laid to rest at Niagara-on-the-Lake in the cemetery of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, the oldest surviving Catholic Church still in use in the province of Ontario.  Being such a prolific writer, she left three completed Antony Maitland mysteries behind her, which were duly published in hardcover editions in the UK and US in 1986 and 1987, while at the same time the American paperback publisher reissued over a dozen of her Maitland novels in attractive softcover editions with cover art by much-in-demand illustrator Dave Calver, whose droll depictions of sundry murder victims combined Eighties pop sensibility with an appreciation of the formal conventions of classic English crime fiction.  (I'll have more on Calver on the blog soon.)  

Avon pbs reprinted shortly after Sara Woods' death

Around this time, mystery fiction authority Jacques Barzun declared of Sara Woods (with a backhanded slap at PD James' much-publicized desire to transform the detective story into more of a serious mainstream novel):

If critics really put their minds on what they say, they would call Mrs. Woods, and not some other lady, the new Agatha Christie.  For here is a writer playing virtuoso variations on a  formula without stepping outside a medium range of familiar and respectable existence--no nonsense about turning the tale into symbolism or psychology or 'a true novel'."  

After her death Barzun added sadly: "[T]he pleasure she has given will be much missed."

Then, unaccountably, the publishing world forgot Woods in one of mystery fiction's strangest vanishing acts. Not all mystery fans have forgotten her, however, and hopefully new ones will enjoy her work, beginning with her first five Antony Maitland novels, which will be published later this year by Dean Street Press.  

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Uneasy Rider: The Night Digger (1971), by Roald Dahl

The Night Digger (1971), tagged a tale of the strange and perverse on contemporary posters, is one of those downbeat, deglammed crime films that proliferated in the seedy and sexploitive Seventies.  At first blush you might think it's as far removed as imaginable from a bright, cheery, escapist Agatha Christie murder confection like Evil under the Sun, recently reviewed by me here, but the script is by British fiction writer Roald Dahl, so you might expect a few wickedly sardonic curveballs along the way--and you indeed get them.  

into the night

Dahl wrote the screenplay for the film expressly for his wife, the great American actress Patricia Neal, who despite being nominated for an Oscar for the 1968 domestic drama The Subject was Roses, had not been offered any film work since.  Neal had suffered a near fatal series of strokes in 1965, from which, with her husband's help, she had made an impressive recovery--though at age forty-four when she appeared in the film she still suffered from some noticeable impairment.  

Dahl expressly wrote into the story that the protagonist, Maura Prince, is a stroke survivor, but even with that Neal later said that some of the people on the set made sneering comments ostensibly behind her back when she forgot lines and such.  I really admire Neal and her struggle to keep acting under such conditions.  

In the film Maura Prince is the adopted daughter of, Mrs. Edith Prince, a rather horrid, decayed, blind, elderly, imperious, widowed gentlewoman (wonderfully played by the British actress Pamela Brown), who keeps Maura yoked to her run-down country mansion as a put-upon house servant, cook and caregiver.  

In real life Pamela Brown suffered from severe arthritis and despite being only seven years older than Neal, who as discussed above had her own physical problems, credibly comes off as Neal's mother (though the fact that Edith is stated to have adopted Neal's character gives the film some leeway concerning age).  

Mrs. Prince begrudges her daughter even the few hours a week that she spends working at speech therapy with stroke victims at a hospital in the city.  The handsome, kindly doctor there wants Maura to take on a permanent job with them but her mother predictably goes into histrionics when Maura floats that little idea to her. 

The local church organist Mr. Bolton--a gossipy, insinuating gentleman who has "impending pedophile scandal" written all over him (great performance by Scottish actor Graham Crowden; he lived until 2010 appearing in episodes of Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders before his death)--has a nephew whom Mrs. Prince was going to hire as a live-in gardener (the gardens are in terrible shape), but he backed out of the deal.  Providentially (or not), an insinuating young man on a motorcycle shows up out of nowhere, seemingly, to offer the Princes his services around the house and grounds.  

How much is that doggy in the window?  

Maura's not interested (or is she).  You just can't trust strangers these days.  

Mrs. Prince is charmed.

But her daughter is dubious.
A churchgoer!  Mrs Prince is pleased.  Maura knows he's bullshitting Edith.

Whimsically, to say the least, Mrs. Prince decides that this young man, who gives his name as Billy Jarvis, is probably a family relation and he seals the deal when he convinces the formally devout old lady that he is a regular Church of England devotee.  

Maura thinks this is all nuts but she has no say so in this or any other matter concerning the house.  Her mother even gives the young man's Maura's bedroom to sleep in.  (Maura sleeps downstairs to be near her mother, but hates the violation of her upstairs sanctum by this upstart newcomer.)

Contrary to Maura's expectations, Billy proves a hard and enthusiastic worker around the house and estate.  But when Sunday arrives, Billy does not want to go to church.  At first Maura looks at this amusedly, thinking you made your pew, boy, now sit in it; but then she realizes that Billy is genuinely terrified--so much so that he hides cowering in a wardrobe closet.  What is going on?  

On his motorcycle are all the poor boy's worldly possessions.

already hard at work around the house

Can she bake an apple pie, charming Billy?

Yes, and more.  Maura blushes becomingly at a compliment.

Late to church! (love the composition with the beatific painting on the left)

Mrs. Prince does not approve.

Something's up.

He doesn't want to go to church.

He really doesn't.

What's wrong with Billy?

Something quite terrible is up with Billy, it turns out.  Billy does make it with the Princes to church, but in its sadly underpopulated congregation he spies a fetching girl and....

Soon Mr. Bolton is telling Mrs. Prince and another eagerly prying, censorious widow, Edith's bestie in bitchery, Mrs. Millicent McMurtry, that there has apparently been another one of those nasty sex murders, some ten miles away, of a pretty young brunette women, her body evidently carried off and disposed of most ingeniously by the murderer.  

For church, Billy has been forced to wear
Mrs. Prince's dead husband's best suit from the laying out.  Along with Billy's tennies.
Eh, who's this new boy?

Departing Billy gets a glimpse of...

...a pretty young woman!
(seemingly the only young adult there besides himself).

What's wrong with Billy?!
The mills of gossip grind exceedingly small.

It seems that, unbeknownst to Mrs. and Miss Prince, nice, young, boyish Billy, sweet and handsome and hard-working and only twenty years old, is a serial killer!  What makes it worse is that Maura, a repressed spinster for so many years, now seems to be falling for him, whatever the consequences.  

Roald Dahl adapted his screenplay from the recent first book Nest in a Falling Tree by New Zealand author Joy Cowley, adding a serial killer element to the tale.  (I do wonder what the author thought of this?)  

there's a devil in the summerhouse

not this guy

getting closer

Billy has great plans for the place.

Wearing his new pink shirt, bought for him by Maura
Billy gets lavished with two lamb chops
while she and dear Mother have to make due with one apiece.

bared torso

mustn't look

The Edgar Award winning Dahl is known not only for children's, but macabre fiction, having penned a goodly number of classic short suspense tales, like "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Man from the South," which often were adapted for television.  Those two short stories, directed respectively by the Master himself and the late Norman Lloyd, were filmed as two of the best episodes of the great Fifties/Sixties television suspense anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

So it's not surprising to me that Dahl put a creepy twist on what was apparently originally a mainstream novel about the affair between a lonely older woman and a younger man.  Watching the film, however, I came to the conclusion that it could have stood on its own without the murder element.  Neal is quite moving in the role of the middle-aged "spinster" who had given up on love (just her facial expressions do volumes), while Clay--only twenty-four at the time of filming (two decades younger than his co-star)--in his film debut as an adult actor (as a child he appeared with Oliver Reed in the Hammer fright flick The Damned), is very good indeed as the troubled (okay, very troubled) young man.  

It's interesting to compare Clay's Billy in this film with his character of Patrick Redfern a little over a decade later in Evil under the Sun.  Patrick is so suave and smooth and posh, a total contrast with Billy, who though by no means stupid, utterly lacks sophistication and has a shaggy early Seventies hairdo, mutton choppish sideburns and beetle brows that bring out what one blog reviewer called his "caveman" aspect.  No one would ever liken Patrick Redfern unto a caveman.  

To me Clay's Billy resembles one of the members of the Sixties English rock band The Animals.  I guess you could say that Clay, who in films also played the famous literary figures Sir Lancelot and Mellors the gamekeeper, had range.  (He also played Shakespeare's implicitly queer patron the Earl of Southampton in the Seventies British series Will Shakespeare, starring none other than Tim Curry, a few years after his awesome trans turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as the Bard.)

set photo of the film's two stars

The small supporting cast is terrific too.  Dahl has great wicked fun satirizing the backbiting churchgoers of the community, so eager to stick the knife in their neighbors, figuratively speaking.  Somehow it makes Billy, who seems literally not to know what he is doing when he murders and is genuinely an anguished soul, more sympathetic.  

There's a running joke where gossip, getting out of hand, runs wild with the tale that the mild, effeminate vicar (Peter Sallis, Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame) is getting a sex change operation to become a woman and that his forceful, mannish wife (Yootha Joyce, Mrs. Roper of Man about the House fame) is having another one to become a man.  Millicent wonders worriedly whether "she" will become the vicar then.  This little side bit has surprising relevance today, over fifty years later, with the influencer-promoted panic over gender transitioning.  

the Reverend and Mrs. Pallafox
According to rumor they will soon exchange sexes and gender roles.

The good widows disapprove of this whole sex change business. 

Because of Dahl's genre alterations, it is as a crime film that we must analyze The Night Digger, however.  The film has effective macabre touches, but overall the conventional elements rather slow the story down in my opinion.  Patricia O'Neal, who probably really did not want to do a serial murderer film at all, bitterly complained after seeing the film that it was "pornographic,"  while Dahl was incensed about what he deemed deviations from his script.

Perhaps Neal saw the original x-rated cut, before thirteen minutes were excised from the film.  In the edited version there is absolutely no explicit sex or violence, though one of Billy's victims is seen dead with her bare breasts exposed, while Nicholas Clay, looking like an even more muscular David, bares his own ample naked bottom in one scene.  

Clay only did a small number of films, but the four with him I have seen--Night Digger, Excalibur, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Evil under the Sun, have been remarkably buttocentric, ass it were, where the actor is concerned.  In each of the first three films he exposes his naked bum, while in the last one he appears in a black bathing suit that can barely contain his "roundness," as the "tired old queen" youtube film reviewer Steve Hayes amusingly put it.  

Other scenes in Night Digger are shot with Clay squatting down in tight pants that you have to be amazed didn't split during filming.  All this cannot be an accident; apparently both Clay and the filmmakers realized the actor had a lot going on down there and determined to take advantage of it, like actress Bo Derek with her breasts (though Clay is a vastly better actor).  And I daresay maybe they would have done the same thing with Laurence Olivier had Larry been that thicc, as the young people say!  After all filmmakers did just that with Kirk Alyn in that Charlie Chan film I reviewed back in April.  

How does he ever fit into them?

Billy spies the pretty district nurse.

holding the door for a lady

a very pretty lady

cleaning up his bike after a deadly ride

But, butt me no butts, to slightly twist an old saying! Getting back to the story, despite the star's view that the film was Seventies sleaze, if anything it is, to the contrary, quite tastefully done, though obviously the murders by their nature are morbid and distasteful.  The problem really is that they aren't very thrilling.  

If you compare Night Digger to an older Thirties film it resembles to a degree, Night Must Fall, or one that began filming just a few weeks after Night Digger opened in the United States, Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 suspense flick Frenzy, you can see how it's comparatively lacking in thrills.  Both the older film and the more modern one are much more suspenseful, but then neither of those movies purports to be anything "more" than genre entertainment.  This is why the old aesthetic theorists of detective fiction used to say that you can't combine mysteries and thrillers with serious character studies.  Mysteries are all about escapism and pleasant diversion, they insisted.

I don't believe this is true inherently, but it is a challenge.  I'm not sure that Night Digger succeeds.  Still as a character study of a repressed middle-aged woman and a sadly troubled young man I rather enjoyed it. I think I would even have enjoyed it without the murders.  

Mr. Bolton is seriously creepy in this film, arguably rather more so than Billy.

Edith isn't a piker in the creep department either...

nor Millicent

Which isn't to say that Night Digger does not have some impressive eerie scenes.  When Billy's lovely blue eyes go blank as he enters some sort of murderous fugue state, he's genuinely frigtening.  His night biking scenes evoke menace, and the way he disposes of his bodies recalls one of John Rhode's ingenious Golden Age Dr. Priestley detective novels.  

There are some scenes that even made me wonder whether they influenced Hitchcock with his comeback film Frenzy.  The great director of course was well-familiar with the work of Dahl from his television series.  Night Digger even has a score by Bernard Herrmann, Hitch's shamefully discarded composer.  Apparently Herrmann didn't get along with Dahl, who wanted the screenplay altered to suit his scoring.  

The film's use of closeups is very effective too, both in eerie and non-eerie scenes.  (I think the pics give some indication of that.)  It was filmed by Alex Thomson, then early in career like the movie's director (see below).  Thomson was later nominated for a cinematography Oscar for the gorgeous film Excalibur, which, starred, incidentally, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, literally a knight in shining armor in that film.  

He also later shot the Shakespeare films Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost for Kenneth Branagh, Alien 3, The Scarlet Letter, Black Beauty, Cliffhanger, the Eighties fantasy films Labyrinth and Legend, and, for horror fans, the 1978 remake of that old dark house chestnut The Cat and the Canary and Seventies Vincent Price horror classic Dr. Phibes Rises Again.  He was no slacker in this department.  

Watching Night Digger you might well be reminded as well of one of Ruth Rendell's psychological crime novels built around the murderous activities of a psychopathic killer, of which there are quite a few in her oeuvre.  I was!

the end of a decidedly Frenzied sequence with a corpse in The Night Digger

The film received mixed reviews from critics (though the acting was generally praised) and it died a quick death at the box office.  In the US it played for a few weeks at New York art house theaters, suggestively on a billing with the pioneering gay prison drama Fortune and Men's Eyes.  (Bet that audience enjoyed Nick Clay.)  In 2011 Warner Bros. reissued Night Digger on an archive collection dvd, leading to its getting some attention on film blogs, but it deserves to better known.  

The film's young director, Alistair Reid, later went on primarily to television work, directing the praised crime series Gangster and Traffik (the basis for the Oscar-winning film) and a couple of episodes of Inspector Morse.  There was a lot of talent that worked on this film, and it should be better known than it is.

Billy as a young schoolboy
A flashback scene of some ghastly gypsy women to explain how Billy ended up the way he did
is probably the most frightening thing in the whole film.  Today this would be chalked up as 
ethnic/racial stigmatization by the scripter, Roald Dahl, whose children's books
recently were edited for indelicate language.