Thursday, September 21, 2017

Back in the Bushes: The Christopher Bush Detective Novels Reissued

"Chris" (Christopher Bush)
 in military dress 

Things continue to move in vintage mystery news as we head into the fall of 2017.

First up, we have developments with two of the most reliable and prolific British Golden Age detective novelists, both of them, like Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas BlakeGladys MitchellAnthony Gilbert and the recently revived E. R. Punshon, Thirties inductees in the Detection Club (indeed, they were among the last inductees before the Second World War): Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), who published 71 detective novels as ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac, and Charlie Christmas Bush (1885-1973), who is better known to classic mystery fans as Christopher Bush, author of 63 detective novels.  (Besides detective fiction, Charlie Bush also wrote regional mainstream novels and war thrillers under the name Michael Home.)

Two of Carol Rivett's ECR Lorac three score and eleven detective novels are being reprinted by the British Library in the spring, I hear, and the first ten Christopher Bush detective novels are being reissued in just under two weeks by Dean Street Press, who is going reissue the whole series.

For this Bush series I have written a sizable general introduction, as well as shorter introductions for individual titles. Years ago I had named Cut-Throat as one of my favorite Golden Age detective novels, but I have concluded over the years that Bush contributed additional classics to the genre, as did Carol Rivett, a longtime favorite of mine. (I'll have more to say about her soon.)

The first ten titles Christopher Bush titles are as follows (scroll down for further discussion):


Through the generosity of a private collector, the incredibly rare The Plumley Inheritance is now back in print, for the first time in 91 years.  It's the novel in which debuts Christopher Bush's series sleuth, the lanky and bespectacled Ludovic "Ludo" Travers, who appears in all 63 of Bush's detective novels.  Travers and his entourage likely will remind readers heretofore unfamiliar with the series of what they find in the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, creators of, respectively, Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. 

Travers is another member in the swank ranks of well-born and independently-wealthy gentleman detectives, though he is also a successful author of simultaneously learned and popular treatises on economics.  He is single (in the first ten books), but happily has a most devoted "man," the raven-like Palmer, to take care of him.  Over the first ten books Travers slowly moves to dominate the series, elbowing out (politely of course) two other characters: Geoffrey Wrentham, an old school friend of Travers, and private detective John Franklin, Travers' colleague in the great advisory firm of Durangos, Ltd.  Remaining with Travers in the series for many years, however, is Scotland Yard's Superintendent George "The General" Wharton, who in my view is one of the more significant and credibly conceived policemen in British Golden Age detective fiction. 

Christopher Bush was a stalwart of the Golden Age of detective fiction, popular with critics and the public alike.  Charles Williams, with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis one of Oxford's distinguished "Inklings," once approvingly commented that "Mr. Bush writes of as thoroughly enjoyable murders as any I know."  Additionally, modern authority Barry Pike has aptly summarized the appeal of the detective fiction of Bush, whom he calls "one of the most reliable and resourceful of true detective writers," as "Golden Age baroque, rendered remarkable by some extraordinary flights of fancy."  More recently blogger Nick Fuller has noted the frequent ingenuity of Bush, comparing him as an adept of the alibi problem to the great lord of the locked room, John Dickson Carr. 

The Plumley Inheritance is a lighter treasure hunt mystery (though murder makes it way into the picture as well), but three years later Bush scored a great hit with The Perfect Murder Case, which has some resemblance to a serial murder novel (though it really isn't one, in my view).  The device of the letter taunting the police that a perfect murder is going to be committed seems to have been inspired by the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, which took place when Bush was living in London as a very young boy.

Dead Man Twice, which in my opinion should be considered the third, not the fourth, novel in the Travers series (there's a disagreement about this), concerns the mystery of the double deaths of a gentleman boxer and his butler, while Murder at Fenwold (in the US The Death of Cosmo Revere) is a full-fledged country house and village mystery, with all the trappings.

A classic Christmas season crime, Dancing Death, followed.  It takes place mostly during a snowbound country house party, a classic situation that never fails to appeal to fans of vintage mystery.

Next there was Dead Man's Music, which takes advantage of Bush interest in classical music, a love that was shared by his son, the late composer Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998).  And then the excellent, seemingly time-altering, Cut-Throat, influenced by contemporary British politics.

Finally there are the first three of Bush's "The Case of" mysteries (this was the title format for the rest of the series): The Unfortunate Village, The April Fools and The Three Strange Faces.  As the title indicates, Village is another one of Bush's takes on the rural mystery, in a story bearing certain resemblance, in my view, to Miles Burton's The Secret of High Eldersham, recently reprinted by the British Library, Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders and Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy.

April Fools is another country house murder story, a highly ingenious one making use of the conventions of April Fools' Day, while The Three Strange Faces is partially a train mystery, set in France--the first, though not the last, of the Bush detective novels with this setting.

I'm very excited about this new vintage mystery reissue series, as it concerns one of the most important Golden Age British mystery writers who had remained out of print.  Making all these books accessible again to fans of British mystery is another significant step in the ongoing recovery of Golden Age detective fiction in all its splendor, something that was almost unimaginable, at least in this scope, only five years ago.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Baffoonery: Murder at Liberty Hall (1941), by Alan Clutton-Brock

the "English race" at play: stoolball
I have arranged with about half-a-dozen of the most intelligent [Cambridge] undergraduates I know, to visit you in the guest-room....I thought it might help, if I told you a little about them....Clutton-Brock is the son of his father; nice, quite clever and much improved since he came up, when he was the silliest young man I've ever seen.

          --F. R. Lucas to T. S. Eliot, undated letter (undated, but presumably February 1926)

Your men all turned up and I liked them all very much indeed.

          --T. S. Eliot to F. R. Lucas (12 February 1926)

That clever and much improved young Cambridge man, Alan Clutton-Brock (1904-1976), was the son of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868-1924), an Oxford-educated critic, essayist and journalist who once had taken T. S. Eliot to task (bold man!) for having proclaimed Shakespeare's Hamlet "an artistic failure."

Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, Alan had established himself as a popular art critic when in 1941 he published Murder at Liberty Hall, his stab at a detective novel, then still the preferred literary plaything of the Western intellectual classes, although some of the genre's allure from a decade earlier had diminished in the eyes of some of the highbrow types.  T. S. Eliot himself was a great fan of detective fiction (as I have previously discussed on the blog and in an essay, "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," in Mysteries Unlocked), however equivocal Clutton-Brock's old schoolmate and friend George Orwell may have been about the stuff (another subject I have tackled t the blog).

Murder at Liberty Hall is set at a progressive, co-educational English school.  So-called "progressive education" attracted increasing interest in teaching circles in the UK and US in the 1930s, as the study of child psychology intensified.  Education reformers began to call for curricula not tied to subjects, but rather relating more closely, as one study put it, "to the natural movement of the children's minds."

Dark clouds have gathered over Scrope House.
But don't worry, nothing is taken too seriously.
Traditionalists, as is so often their way, scoffed at such revolutionary notions, and British detective fiction--in many ways, it must be admitted, a conservative branch of literature in the between-the-wars period--tended to go along with this criticism, with mystery writers lampooning progressive education, right along with other seemingly queer and comical innovations of the era such as vegetarianism, nudism, abstract art and Freudian psychology.

Demonstrating that not all skepticism about progressive education came from the political right, however, a half-dozen years before the publication of Murder at Liberty Hall the socialist intellectual couple GDH and Margaret Cole had amusingly mocked ultra-modern schooling in one of their better received detective novels, Scandal at School. (In all likelihood the novel was written mostly by Margaret.)

I am not aware of Alan Clutton-Brock's politics, but the attitude toward Communism expressed in the novel is consistent with the views of George Orwell, who, as I have discussed previously, some people believe may have played a role in the composition of Murder at Liberty Hall.  Clutton-Brock also does not seem so heavyhandedly dismissive of progressive education as the Coles do in Scandal at School.  (See my book on the detective fiction of Henry Wade and the Coles, The Spectrum of English Murder.)  In fact he has a lighter touch all round.

Murder at Liberty Hall was well-received by reviewers not only in the UK but in the US, where the "Englishness" of the story did not prove a turnoff, though the pace was deemed rather on the slow side.  In the Saturday Review William C. Weber commented approvingly on the novel's "sly humor and good puzzle," while Kay Irvin in the New York Times Books Review gave the book a rave notice:

This is one of those gleefully cerebral thrillers.  It is full of quips and cranks and wanton wiles, from the moment the authority on identical twins opens the letter urging him to investigate the mysterious outbreak of pyromania at England's most renowned libertarian boarding school.  It pokes its fun at cricket and at communism, at crime investigation and exhibitionist romanticism, and at all rigid conventions of unconventionality, in education or social life. 

When the romantic poet's wife (herself an earnest and innocent radical) is murdered, a newspaper man assures the scientist detective that "we don't think it fair to give the impression that just because a school's a modern one it's the sort of place where the staff go about murdering one another."  But Mr. Clutton-Brock's owns no repressive proprieties.

The author's burlesque proceeds, however, by slyness, apparent irrelevance and suggestive understatement rather than, say, such horseplay as Elliott Paul's [another witty and learned mystery writer of the period].

The effect is always amusing, even when the method veers a bit to the precious side.  And oh, yes, there's a perfectly good mystery. In fact, as already hinted, there are two. Who killed Susan Dawes, and how, and why?  And ditto with the fires set at Scope Hall.


In Middle America, meanwhile, Ray Wingfield of the Nashville Tennessean praised Murder at Liberty Hall as a superlative example of what he termed "baffoonery" (this a cute play on baffle and buffoonery): "The hyphenated surname is not misleading--'Murder at Liberty Hall' is English, psychological, scholarly, and as a mystery story quite up to standard in baffle, and in this case baffoonery de luxe."  Wingfield allowed, however, that the novel "isn't one of those breathlessly told tales."  It most definitely is not a breathlessly told tale, but you should simply sip and allow yourself to savor the subtle satire.

                                                                  *****

A friend of mine, a psychologist, often tells me that in his opinion my notoriety has not come by chance. Character, he says, is destiny, whatever that may mean, and if I had not been the kind of exhibitionist who inevitably gets known in Fleet Street, I should never have hit on so exquisitely felicitous a combination of subjects.  I must, he thinks, have instinctively wished to satisfy the mysterious tropisms of journalists with such a talent....Naturally this is not my opinion, but there it is, and I have given this perhaps too lengthy explanation partly as a relief for my feelings and partly to show how it was possible for me to be consulted about a crime, how I came to be invited to Scrope House school, and why I spent some time there posing as a detective.

Murder at Liberty Hall is set shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in May 1939 to be precise, as German refugees are streaming into England to escape the horrors of the Hitler regime.  The novel is narrated by James Hardwicke, scientist and authority on twins, who rather to his professed mortification has acquired what he calls a "Fleet Street reputation" as an expert on criminal tendencies in identical twins.*

*(The theory that a demonstrable criminal propensity in one identical twin indicates the likelihood of the same in the other plays a major role, incidentally, in The Far Sands, a middling Andrew Garve crime novel I reviewed in the summer.)

When the novel opens, James has been invited by wealthy reformer Mrs. Rachel Eakins to the progressive co-educational school Scope House (a pet project of Mrs. Eakins) to investigate a case of apparent pyromania among the student body.  As Mrs. Eakins explains in her rambling letter, "[T]here is no reason to think that the patient necessarily is a twin, nevertheless we try to think of the unfortunate boy or girl as a patient, and we do need someone who will view the whole problem of crime in the light of really modern science."

James is inclined to ignore this odd invitation (he gets so many of them), but he is pressed into accepting it by his lady friend Caroline Fisher, an enthusiast of the school.  (She hopes to get a post as a schoolmistress there.)  Concerning Caroline, James explains, with splendid British diffidence, "at that time I suppose I was more or less in love [with her]."

refugees were not always welcomed
with wide open arms by segments of
a native populace who didn't believe
that the newcomers would "fit in"
So off James goes with Caroline--his woman Watson, if you will (though Caroline is much less deferential than the dear doctor)--to investigate to the matter of the arson at Scrope House.  There they discover that the headmaster worries about the ramifications of a refugee child being the culprit, which leads to this exchange:

"[W]e've got a lot of refugee children in the school, and goodness knows it's natural enough if one of them should have broken down under the strain....it might give a handle to all those ridiculous people who want to stop refuges coming into the country.

They're mostly Jewish children, but we've got several children of intellectuals or left-wing politicians who managed to get away in time. Friedrich Schmidt's boy, for example--he's the most perfectly Nordic creature I've ever seen...."

"Then it's probably him," I said.  "Perfectly Nordic people, without any Jewish blood to keep them sane, are often hopelessly unbalanced."


This exchange should make sufficiently clear that we are dealing with something pleasingly different from  the typical British mystery of its day.

Soon enough, however, James's rather desultory investigation at Scrope House encompasses murder too.  Susan Dawes--onetime novelist ("she's very left-wing now, and that gives her no time for writing") and the wife of poet, essayist and emotional exhibitionist Richard Dawes--expires from a spot of atropine in her sherry (obviously a very die one). 

All is not quite cricket at Scrope House--though you get a lot of the sport in the book!

There is quite a decent murder plot at the heart of Murder at Liberty Hall, but there are also, as in Dorothy L. Sayers's mammoth college mystery opus Gaudy Night, quite a few digressions.  Yet the digressions make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, I think.

I might except the cricket match, which was to me was much more inscrutable than the murder.  However, the idea that some of students at the ostensibly freethinking and nonconformist Scrope House are desperate to play cricket, because they want a taste of what the normal schools do, is an amusing notion:

I was surprised [declares James Hardwicke], and could not help saying so, to learn that the emancipated children of Scrope House should indulge in what, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "may be called the national summer pastime of the English race."

netball
"Oh, it's not my idea, of course," Edgeworth [the headmaster] said, "but the children wanted to play cricket and I didn't see there was anything I could do about it....I very much hoped they wouldn't try to persuade any children to play cricket who mightn't really want to.  Naturally that's what I was afraid of."

"I don't really see," I said, "why there should be more chance of tyranny in connection with cricket then with net-ball, or stool-ball, or whatever it is they play at progressive schools."

"Nevertheless it is so," said Edgeworth, "though I admit there's no obvious reason why."

"Perhaps," I said, "it's because of the immense moral importance attached to cricket and all it's rules....cricket is a ritual which binds the upper-middle classes together, inducing a feeling of both solidarity and virtue.  Rulers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your wickets.  And, naturally, if you won't play, it's as bad as being a Trotskyite in Russia or a Calvinist in Rome.  It's a communion, a sacrament, a love-feast, in which the participators are enabled to perform the most delicate acts of sacrifice for the greater good of the community, the congregation, or, as the cricketers themselves would put it, of the game."

Admittedly this is the kind of improbable speechifying you get from elite characters in PD James mysteries, but it's more entertaining to read in the tongue-in-cheek Murder at Liberty Hall, or at least I found it so.

Sport of smiths?
George Orwell, incidentally, played cricket in school and had, according to Orwell authority  Peter Davisson, "a real affection for the game." It's interesting to compare Orwell's defense of cricket, found in his 1946 review of Edmund Blunden's Cricket Country, with that of Clutton-Brock's in Murder at Liberty Hall, given the fact that, as I have previously discussed, some have argued Orwell might have influenced the writing of Clutton-Brock's detective novel or perhaps even have ghosted it.

In his review of Cricket Country, Orwell complained that cricket "has been denounced by left-wing writers, who imagine erroneously that it is played chiefly by the rich."

For his part Orwell passionately defended informal village cricket, "where everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and sometimes, about the time when the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary." (Now there is excellent writing.)

Orwell's emphasis here on humble village cricket--the kind Golden Age mystery writer Christopher Bush played and also nostalgically recalled--seems rather different from that of Alan Clutton-Brock in Liberty Hall.

on the march
However, in Chapter 9 of Murder at Liberty Hall a James and the refugee teacher, Rosenberg, discuss Communist Party tactics. This conversation is Orwellian, if you will.

When Rosenberg speculates to James that the deceased Susan Dawes as a committed Communist might have denounced him as a Nazi spy in order to punish him for having left the Party, James, a gentle English liberal, is incredulous. He is schooled by Rosenberg:

"But surely," I said, "you can't think Susan Dawes would be so inconceivably base.  The worst you could say about her, I should have thought, was that she was a rather silly enthusiast."

"My dear Hardwicke," Rosenberg said, "That's where your innocence comes in.  Once you get the idea that any action is justifiable if it's for the good of the party anything can happen.  The ordinary rules mean nothing at all; it's quite incredible, until you see it happen, how quickly a charming, perhaps rather silly enthusiast, as you put it, will develop into a ruthless Machiavellian."

This sort of thing I find much more interesting, and convincing, then the more typical bombast and broadsides against Communism in the British mystery from the period, because one senses in this instance that the author actually actually has some personal experience of the subject.

I don't know that I've gotten across the humor of the novel well, but though that humor is on the dry side, it is most definitely present in the novel.

There was something wrong with Joseph Smith....
On George Joseph Smith, he of brides-in-the-bath infamy:

[E]xperts, so I understand, always say that murderers are just like anyone else, whatever that may mean.  No doubt this is true, though one cannot help feeling that only his presumable imbecile victims could have failed to see that there was something wrong with Joseph Smith.

On a food faddist faculty member:

"I can't imagine why she stays on here," I said.  "It's quite obvious that her nonsense doesn't suit the nonsense of the rest of the people here."

On teaching the schoolchildren the birds and the bees:

"The farm is some way from the school," she said, "but the children often go there when they feel like it.  There's some idea that it's good for them and they're encouraged to pay visits there, even if they don't actually go to work there, as some of them do.  I think the idea is that they should learn the facts of life from watching the farm animals."

The murder plot, incidentally, may have been influenced, I suspect, by recent events in Clutton-Brock's own life--a most intriguing notion to me, but, well, spoilers, don't you know.

Although owing, I think, to its detached first person narration Murder at Liberty Hall has limited emotional impact, in spite of material that offers ample scope for it, the novel nevertheless is an amusing and literate example of late Golden Age mystery; and it would seem to me a natural candidate for reprinting today.  Any takers out there? 

Recommended.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Detective Fiction and the "Public School Man In Revolt"

What I don't seem to cotton on to is the affectation of gentility which does not belong to the job, and which is in effect a subconscious expression of snobbery, the kind of thing that reached its high-water mark in Dorothy Sayers.  Perhaps the trouble is that I'm an English Public School Man myself and knew these birds inside out.  And the only kind of Public School man who could make a real detective would be the Public School man in revolt, like George Orwell.

                                                 --Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 31 October 1951

I quoted this interesting passage in my essay "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do": Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction, published in 2014 in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, and L. J. Hurst includes it in an online essay, "Raymond Chandler, George and Sonia Orwell," found here, at the Orwell Society blog.  It raises some interesting questions, one of which, concerning what I deem Chandler's equivocal attitude toward British detective fiction, I addressed in my essay, but another of which concerns George Orwell: If the author of 1984 and Animal Farm could have made a "real detective," could he as well have written a real detective novel?

Some suggest that he may have done just that, or at least have contributed to one.

George Orwell
Under the headline "Did George Orwell Ghost at Liberty Hall?", the Orwell Society blog has reprinted a 1996 letter from L. J. Hurst to Geoff Bradley, editor of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, which Bradley published that year on the magazine.  In the letter L. J. Hurst (again!) queries, "how much input did Orwell have into [Alan] Clutton-Brock's only mystery?"

This mystery being Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published to good reviews in the US and UK in February 1941. 

Hurst points out that in Chapter Seven of Liberty Hall, the narrator of the novel asks

Why is it, by the way, that although England normally has one of the smallest armies in the world it has the largest number of retired colonels?


And that on June 20, 1940, Orwell had written in his Wartime Diary (which was not made public until 1968)

A thought that occurred to me yesterday: how is that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?


The quoted passage in Liberty Hall comes, notes Hurst, just after the narrator mocks the self-promotion of Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), "who was also," Hurst adds, "one of Orwell's bugbears as a right-wing intellectual.

Colonel Lawrence
Hurst obviously found all this highly suggestive, but he allowed that, despite the fact that Orwell (1903-1950) and Clutton-Brock (1904-1976) had been friends--in fact they were schoolmates at Eton, where Orwell secured a place in 1917 and stayed until 1921--he could not find "references to [Clutton-Brock] in any biographies of Orwell or in other people's recollections of Orwell or his wartime milieu."  (Hurst was aware, however, that in a couple of letters from 1936 Orwell alluded to the death of Alan Clutton-Brock's wife in a car collision--the other casualty in the collision being her passenger, Norman Dyer Ball, the husband of mystery writer Josephine Bell, see here).

Yet since that time an account of a wartime meeting which took place between Orwell and Clutton-Brock has emerged, as I have discussed here.  According to D. J. Taylor's: Orwell: The Life (2003), in March or April 1941, in the recollection of a contemporary of the two men, Orwell met with Clutton-Brock, who was head of the Air Ministry's Public Relations Department, about obtaining a position with the department. 

Murder at Liberty Hall had been published in the UK about a month earlier, on February 27, 1941.  (It did not appear in the US until the late summer.)  However, it is possible that Orwell and Clutton-Brock might have discussed Murder at Liberty Hall when it was being written the previous year, or that Orwell might even have read the manuscript. 

This is as close, as far as I know, as Orwell ever got to writing a detective novel, although his first known work of fiction was in fact a mystery story, "The Vernon Murders," probably written during his first year at Eton in 1917 or 1918, when Orwell was around 14 or 15 years old.

Old Master: R. Austin Freeman
As I discussed in my last post, as an adult George Orwell wrote rather dismissively concerning what today is termed Golden Age detective fiction: that great body of work which was published between the two world wars. 

Yet Orwell also expressed warmly nostalgic feelings for some of the mystery writers of his youth, repeatedly citing with approbation a trio of old masters, all of whom had first published tales of Great Detectives solving fiendish mysteries in the pre-WWI era: Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman and Ernest Bramah.  (The stalwart Freeman continued publishing mystery fiction throughout the Twenties and Thirties as well, much of which, apparently, Orwell read.)

While Orwell for the rest of his life retained great affection for these three authors, he was, as I discussed, rather dubious indeed about the reams of mystery fiction that was being mass produced, as he disdainfully put it, during what became known, ironically in Orwell's view, as the "Golden Age of detective fiction."  (His own blunt term for the mysteries that poured off the presses at this time was "torrents of trash.") 

Orwell suggested that calling a book by shocker king Edgar Wallace--The Four Just Men, actually a prewar crime novel, though Wallace really made his name and his fortune as a mystery writer in the Twenties--a "good thriller" simply made hash of the word "good," while he dismissed Dorothy L. Sayers's higher-toned mysteries as offputtingly snobbish and fatally lacking in plausibility.

Agatha Christie and friends
Yet in 1949, the last year of his altogether too short life, Orwell kept a reading list that is quite interesting, from the standpoint of the mystery reader, in its inclusion of a not insignificant body of crime and detective fiction. 

Of the 144 books Orwell listed as his having read that year, about ten percent can be classified as criminous in nature.  These mysteries include works that are examples of the hardboiled, noir and classic detection subgenres, by authors such as Sayers, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.  (I'm posting the list separately.)

What was up with this, we might ask?  If Orwell was so dismissive of what was then "modern" detective fiction, why was he wasting his precious remaining mortal time reading it?  Some ideas suggest themselves. 

One: Orwell's physical health was extremely poor and he was in frequent pain, not far, indeed, from death; and mystery fiction has long been hailed as escapist reading of choice for the bedridden. 

Two: Orwell was checking out the enemy camp, so to speak: one of the books he read, James M. Cain's nasty noir text The Postman Always Rings Twice, he derided as an "awful" book in a letter to Julian Symons.

Another Freeman fan
(who did not like James M. Cain either)
Three: Like Raymond Chandler--a reader and admirer of the British mystery fiction of, to cite three examples, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey and R. Austin Freeman (though you rarely hear about this from the many authorities who insist that Chandler loathed all British classic crime fiction)--Orwell may have liked the stuff more than he cared to acknowledge, either publicly or to himself. 

Which certainly would explain why he was reading, during his final months of existence on earth, books like Sparkling Cyanide, The Little Sister and The Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery Omnibus (composed of The Five Red Herrings, Strong Poison and Lord Peter Views the Body.)

This latter hypothesis would be supported by Orwell's having played some role, however minor, in the composition of Alan Clutton-Brock's Murder at Liberty Hall, which, believe it or not, I'm finally reviewing in the very next post here.  Please check it out!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

From Sweet Delight to Sheer Dross? George Orwell on the Transformation of British Detective Fiction, 1890-1940

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war.  The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk.  You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by a suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood.  Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight. The air is warm and stagnant.  In these blissful circumstances, what is it you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder....


                              --George Orwell, The Decline of the English Murder (1946)

It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid.  Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel--the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novels--seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories.  [Emphasis added--TPT.]  But their consumption of detective stores is terrific. One of our subscribers to my knowledge read four or five detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got from another library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read the same book twice.  Apparently the whole of that frightful torrent of trash...was stored for ever in his memory.

In a lending library you see people's real tastes, not their pretended ones....


                              --George Orwell, Bookshop Memories (1936)

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.  In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be "This book is worthless," while the truth about the reviewer's own reaction would probably be "This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to." But the public will not pay to read that sort of thing.  Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation.  But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.  For if one says--and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week--that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"?

The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books, and to give very long reviews--1,000 words is a bare minimum--to the few that seem to matter....


                              --George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer (1946)

By his own declaration, George Orwell (1903-1950) was not a fan--to quote one of the favorite cliches of the most recent American president--of the Golden Age mystery novel, either in its puzzler or thriller variants. (Neither Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, see above, nor Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, see below, met with his approbation.) This fact makes it odd to me that it has been speculated that Orwell might have "ghosted" Murder at Liberty Hall, a 1941 detective novel by an old school chum, art critic Alan Clutton-Brock. (Review coming!)

Yet Orwell for all his adult life retained great affection for the detective writers he had read in his youth: Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), R. Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke), Ernest Bramah (Max Carrados).  In 1949, less than eleven months before his death, he passingly wrote his childhood friend Jacintha Buddicom of his fondness for Freeman, asking her:

Do you remember our passion for R. Austin Freeman?  I have never really lost it, and I think I must have read his entire works except some of the very last ones.  I think he only died quite recently, at a great age" [RAF in fact had passed away six years earlier, having reached his 81st year, which may well have seemed quite an advanced age to the 45-year-old, grievously ill Orwell]

In a 1945 essay, Good Bad Books, Orwell classified under this heading--which he defined as "the kind of book which has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished"--the crime tales of Doyle, Freeman and Bramah, as well as the Raffles stories of E. W. Hornung.


His longest statement on the subject is found, however, in "Grandeur et decadence du roman policier anglais," an essay originally published in 1943 in the Free French journal Fontaine that has remained obscure for decades (perhaps because it first appeared in the French language, or perhaps because Orwell authorities simply have not been interested in a somewhat lengthier exploration by Orwell of this topic).

In this essay Orwell again praises the trio he read in his youth--Doyle, Freeman, Bramah--while condemning that which was then "modern" crime fiction.  Appallingly to admirers of between-the-wars, or Golden Age, detective fiction, Orwell pinpoints precisely this era as the period when detective fiction declined into the "frightful torrent of trash" to which he had referred so scathingly in Bookshop Memories:

It was between 1920 and 1940 that the majority of detective stories were written and read, but this is precisely the period that marks the decline of the detective story as a literary genre.  Throughout these troubled and frivolous years, "crime stories" as they were called (this title includes the detective story proper as well as the "thriller" where the author follows the conventions of Grand Guignol), were in England a universal palliative equal to tea, aspirins, cigarettes and the wireless. These works were mass-produced, and it is not without some surprise that we find that their authors include professors of political economy [this presumably a reference to the leftest English academic GDH Cole, one of the subjects of my book The Spectrum of English Murder] and Roman Catholics [apparently a reference both to Ronald Knox, a priest, and to G. K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown detective tales seem to receive short shrift, or no shrift whatsoever, from Orwell, whose 1945 essay Antisemitism in Britain accused Chesterton of engaging in "literary Jew-baiting...of an almost continental level of scurrilty"] as well as Anglican priests.  Any amateur who had ever dreamed of writing a novel felt capable of tackling a detective story, which requires only the haziest knowledge of toxicology and a plausible alibi to conceal the culprit.  Yet soon the detective story started to get more complicated; it demanded more ingenuity if its author were to satisfy the reader's constantly growing appetite for violence and thirst for bloodshed.  The crimes became more sensational and more difficult to unravel.  It is nevertheless a fact that in this multitude of later works there is hardly anything worth re-reading.  

Things were not always like this....

Orwell then goes on to contrast this current dismal state of affairs, as he saw it, with the detective fiction of the years of his youth (the 1910s):

a spot of violence, surely
Entertaining books are not always bad books. [How about "good bad books"?--TPT]  Between 1880 and 1920 we had in England three specialists in the detective story who showed undeniably artistic qualities. [Orwell then cites, once again, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah] The Memoirs and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Max Carrados and The Eyes of Max Carrados by Bramah, The Eye of Osiris and The Singing Bone by Freeman are, together with the two or three short stories of Edgar Allan Poe which inspired them, the classics of English detective fiction.  We can find in each of these works a quality of style, and even better an atmosphere, which we do not usually find in contemporary authors (Dorothy Sayers, for example, or Agatha Christie or Freeman Wills Croft [sic]).*

*(In a review of Sayers's Gaudy Night, Orwell wrote:

By being, on the surface a little ironical about Lord Peter Wimsey and his noble ancestors, she is able to lay on the snobbishness ["his lordship," etc.] much thicker than any overt snob would dare to do.  Also, her slickness in writing has blinded many readers to the fact that her stories, considered as detective stories, are very bad ones.  They lack the minimum of probability that even a detective story ought to have, and the crime is always committed in a way that is incredibly tortuous and quite uninteresting.)

Was Orwell like the users who haunt music upload pages on YouTube, lamenting--albeit in his case most eloquently at 1500 to 2500 words at a time--how today's songs are so much worse than the wonderful tunes of their youth?  I can imagine admirers of Dorothy L. Sayers scoffing at the notion that R. Austin Freeman's works--which crime writer and critic Julian Symons, a friend of Orwell's (see below), compared the reading of to chewing straw--have more "atmosphere" and "quality of style" than Sayers's.  (Of course Symons had some dismissive things to say about Sayers as well.)

Whatever you may think of Orwell's criticism, however, it is clear that he thought crime fiction from the between-the-wars period was far from representing, to borrow a recent term, a "Golden Age of Murder."  In his view, as he expressed it, Golden Age crime fiction was not golden but rather, dross--the so-called Golden Age being a time when, as he saw it, sensation and over-complication overtook the genre, to its grave detriment.

Dorothy L. Sayers: an extremely
morbid interest in corpses?
In  a letter written to Julian Symons in 1949, at about the same time he was writing Jacintha Buddicom extolling the merits of R. Austin Freeman, Orwell urged Symons to send him a copy of Bland Beginning, Symons's latest mystery "thriller."  "I'm rather an amateur of detective stories," Orwell confided to the younger author, "although, as you know, I have old-fashioned taste in them.  I recently by the way read for the first time The Postman Always Rings Twice--what an awful book...."

Given his consistently expressed repulsion for violence in crime fiction, Orwell's distaste for the shocks and horrors that James M. Cain's Postman delivered hard on the nose is not a surprise (though perhaps the fact that he waited fifteen years after the book's publication to read it is).

In one of his more famous essays, Raffles and Miss Blandish (1944), Orwell, drawing on the tales of Hornung's hero and James Hadley Chase's crude Sanctuary knockoff, the crime novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), again contrasts English crime fiction "then and now," condemning what he deems the sadism and authoritarianism of the modern stuff. 

"Some of the early detective stories do not even contain a murder," notes Orwell, again drawing on his sacred trio, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah. "Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited. Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses."

Orwell is one of my favorite writers and a brilliant and brave essayist, but I can but conclude that in the paragraph above he is rather talking out of his hat, which certainly is not the first time a carping intellectual has done so about detecitve fiction.

Part of the problem here is Orwell's loose language in this context. Just what does he mean by "stories"? In the pre-WW1 period, mystery writers like Doyle, Freeman and Bramah wrote primarily longish short stories, while in the postwar period the novel became unquestionably the more popular form for mystery.

During the Golden Age the ratiocinative detective novel was considered the province of murder, not because of morbidness or sensationalism, as Orwell suggests, but because it was believed that murder was the only crime worth the candle, so to speak--the only sin that was sufficiently serious to justify lengthy fictional investigation. Jewelry thefts and financial frauds were all well and good, and they continued to crop up with considerable frequency in the short stories of the Golden Age, but they were merely appetizers to the main course of murder in most people's eyes. Similarly pre-WWI crime novels (as opposed to short stories) by Doyle and Freeman, like later ones by Sayers and Christie, most often concerned not lesser crimes, but murder. (I am sure some fans out there could provide some exact statistical breakdowns.)

Of course Orwell was perfectly free to dismiss the modern thriller, including the hard-boiled and noir variants, on the grounds that they were too coarse and sensationalistic for him (many modern fans of classic mystery feel the same way); but I think Orwell erred in so sweepingly condemning the Golden Age's true detective novel.

To be sure, there were plenty of hacks churning out hack work and even, let's be frank, flat-out rubbish in that era, but then so too were there in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Freeman and Bramah were undoubted aces from that age, but the "rivals of Sherlock Holmes," as they have been termed, also included some pretty pale imitations, individuals who were not producing genre gems but rather pure paste.  Yet both periods deserve ultimate judgment based on their better writers, surely.

a good violent murder with lots of blood
However, Orwell professed not to like first stringers Sayers or Christie or Crofts either. I think Orwell went through a process some of us go through, when we feel we have "outgrown" detective fiction upon reaching adulthood and attending college--though Orwell still retained a nostalgic fondness for his childhood favorites, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah. 

I know this happened with the late James Yaffe and the author and critic Michael Dirda, who has charmingly written about this subject in his work, and it definitely happened with me as well. Some of us, like Yaffe and Dirda (and myself as well, obviously), later returned to mystery fiction with a renewed passion for it, recovering for it the zest of our youth, tempered in a fashion by time.

With this in mind, I suspect that Orwell was frequently more tempted by detective fiction than he preferred to acknowledge (just like Raymond Chandler had more of a liking for classic British detective fiction than he cared to admit publicly--he shared Orwell's admiration for austere R. Austin Freeman, for example, though neither man liked Sayers's more posh stuff).

There is something rather puritanical about Orwell's attitude toward crime fiction: touch not the unclean thing, it's escapist entertainment!  Like Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), the American writer and critic of "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" infamy (to vintage mystery fans), who also had derived pleasure from the Sherlock Holmes tales in his youth, Orwell thought there were better and more important books to read in the insufficient mortal time we are all allotted on this earth.

So, while I doubt Orwell actually wrote Murder at Liberty Hall, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he talked about it with Alan Clutton-Brock--a bit of a vicarious thrill, as it were.  But I'll be talking more about this matter in my review of the novel, coming soon as mentioned!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Debbie Downer: Double Doom (1957), by Josephine Bell

This is a deplorable book, full of preposterous characters, not one of whom can be admired even for his vice.  Professional detection is nil, and the amateur halfhearted; the real heroine, if any, is mentally deficient; and the three murders are uninteresting and crudely carried out.

         --Review of Josephine Bell's Double Doom (1957) in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime

Well, I liked it!  Double Doom, I mean.  I liked it both times I read it, the first more than a decade ago and more recently this summer.

As inflexible aesthetic ideologists of the traditional, ratiocinative detective novel, academic Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) and his longtime friend and colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor (1905-1985), were loath to allow into the form too much of that which savored of the depressing real world.  In their favored "light" reading the two men intensely disliked perpetually depressed characters and downtrodden detectives, so it is not surprising that Double Doom got two decisive thumbs down from the pair.

However, at the time of the publication of Double Doom, a period when mystery critics were avidly embracing greater realism in tales of crime--after all, crime frequently is rather a sad and degrading thing in real life--he novel received generally good notices. 

For example, Kirkus Reviews found Double Doom "tempting," the Manchester Evening News praised its "tension, fine characterisation and good writing" and the London Observer its" most complicated puzzle.

The review of Anthony Boucher, dean of American crime fiction critics, was not, in a way, so far removed from that of Barzun and Taylor, except in that what the two academics saw as contemptible, Boucher deemed praiseworthy.  In Boucher's eyes Bell's "portrayal of a 38-year-old woman with a mental age of 12" was "extraordinarily moving." He believed that this portrayal gave "rewarding substance to an otherwise dullish puzzle."

In essence Boucher's review concedes the central criticism of B&T while putting it aside by praising the mystery for a purely novelistic quality: the depiction of the plight of someone with a developmental disorder. To this B&T would have responded, no doubt, that had they wished to read about developmental disorders in a work of fiction, they would have sought out a "true" novel, not a detective story.  Never the twain shall meet, was the motto of B&T, but they were fighting against the temper of the times.*

*(I should note that Agatha Christie's own depressing genteel Fifties family dysfunction novel, Ordeal by Innocence, was published the next year and that the ever-reliable B&T didn't like it either: "A very unpleasant group of ill-assorted adopted children, finding that one of their number must have murdered their 'mother,' spend most of the book wondering which one did it.  Detection nil, entertainment ditto."  Once again I beg to differ with this B&T assessment.)

For my part, I thought the Double Doom had a better puzzle than B&T and Boucher allow, and I also found the characterization and dramatic situation in the novel quite interesting.  I think the accusation that the book is "deplorable" is absurd. What is deplorable, one might argue, is the implication that one ought not write about "mentally deficient" characters in a detective novel.

Double Doom gets its title from the dual deaths of twins Hugh and Hilary St. John Strongitharm, gentlemen siblings of Marsden House, in the village of Farthing-on-Hone.  When the novel opens Hilary Strongitharm has died unexpectedly in hospital, while Hugh has only just expired from exposure to deadly fumes in the family's greenhouse.  What the twin deaths disturbingly have in common is that they were in fact mortal exits precipitated by malign human agency.


Double Doom
is basically a country house and village mystery (though where you have a Josephine Bell book there usually will be, as here, a prominent place for a hospital and its personnel as well). As such, I found Double Doom an excellent example of the subgenre from the 1950s, when country house tales were becoming rather  thinner on the ground, so to speak.  The postwar years were not a great era for country houses in fact, and English crime fiction, once the glorifier of the country house, reflected the times.

Since the late world war the genteel Strongitharm brothers--born, like the author, shortly before the turn of the century--basically had just amiably pottered around at Marsden House, where they lived off their inherited income with their blind octogenarian stepmother and her late-in-life daughter, Joyce, the aforementioned 38-year-old with the mind of a 12-year-old.  Then there are old Mrs. Strongitharm's redoubtable personal maid, Mabel; two dailies, a cook and a housemaid, from the village; and Mrs. Stringer, who comes in three days a week to do the "rough." Nary a butler in sight!

There is also Mrs. Strongitharm's attractive but brassy village neighbor and reader, Diana Fawcett, called "Mrs.," though a husband is not anywhere in evidence.  Others who come around to Marsden House are the bespectacled Strongitharm family attorney, Lionel Pusey, and kindly Fiona Goddard, wife of Bill Goddard, the doctor who treated Hilary Strongitharm. Fiona effectively functions as the reader's surrogate, though good chunks of the novel are seen instead through the rather hazy perceptions of the nearly middle-aged but perpetually childlike Joyce.

 I think Josephine Bell displays a fine eye for social detail in this milieu, as when she notes Diana Fawcett's lack of ease around 'perfect maid" Mabel, whom she suspects views her as a vulgar and common interloper at Marsden House:

She was always a little afraid of Mabel.  It was totally beyond her power to get behind that perfect facade of willing, respectful service.  She had never in her life employed a well-trained, superior servant, only a succession of half-competent daily helps, who treated her with the easy familiarity of modern social conditions.  Mabel was an anachronism, like her mistress, but none the less formidable on that account.

Doubtlessly B&T found this novel unpleasantly offputting because it is offputting--or at least the characters are.  Josephine Bell had an unnerving tendency to "tell it like it is"--at least, let me emphasize, tell it as she saw it; and this tendency is evident in Double Doom.

What I find striking in Double Doom is how simply vexing most of the characters deem the existence of Joyce--even the ones who actually try to sympathize with her.  Some are frankly only appalled by her, like lawyer Lionel Pusey:

A little wave of disgust swept though him.  All this fuss, all this thought, about the future of that scatty object.  Why didn't they allow them to be put quietly away as children?  'They had no future, anyway.

This is a chilling passage, and I don't mean to suggest that Bell shared the sentiment, but everyone-- even as I wrote above, the more sympathetic people--view Joyce not so much as a person but as a problem.

Bill Goddard, the tale's main doctor, once refers to Joyce offhandedly as "the nit-wit," while another physician, Dr. Matthews, admits, "I feel ashamed of myself for resenting her, but I do resent knowing there is absolutely nothing to be done to help her."  Later on, he reflects of Joyce, in a passage that seems to regret the social mobility which took place in the UK during the late Victorian era and the twentieth century:

If she had been born of humble parents a hundred years ago it [her "mental deficiency"] would have been overlooked.  She would not have been expected to reach a high standard of academic knowledge.  Not even to read and write.  Her parents would not have achieved any of those skills.  She would have learned housework and cooking and the care of children, and she would not have felt inferior, or not often.  We have very exalted standards now.  We do not approve of people who must be termed "simple."  There is no place for the unfortunate Miss Morleys.

When Fiona meets Joyce, she is aghast to discover that Joyce has normal romantic/sexual feelings:

Fiona was speechless, and against her will, against her true feeling of compassion, repelled.  She could accept Miss Morley, plain, thickset, middle-aged, as a child, an innocent child; but as an adolescent, and a knowing one at that, no--it was too much, it was repulsive.  

Then there is this brutally frank exchange that takes place between old Mrs. Strongitharm and Fiona:

"You are very kind to my poor child," murmured Mrs. Strongitharm.

Fiona was honest.

"I keep reminding myself how young she really is, and then it isn't difficult.  For a short time, anyway."  She paused and went on.  "It is usually easy to follow a principle for a short time, isn't it? Keeping emotional prejudice out of the way.  Like the colour bar.  I mean, I think it's wrong, and I don't feel it, if I meet them only for a short time.  We get a lot of different races of foreign doctors as residents at the hospitals, and foreign surgeons coming from time to time to talk to my husband and the other specialists.  Bill brings them out to out house occasionally, and it all goes off very well.  But I know it would be different if there were more at a time, or I lived where they were in a majority.  I should still believe the principle was right, but I might not follow it emotionally.  So if I lived with Miss Morley, or if one of my own children--"

She broke off, afraid that she might have gone too far.

"Yes," sighed Mrs. Strongitharm.  "Time does not make it  any better.  Rather the opposite."

large scale racial tensions emerged in
Fifties Britain
What a bleak passage this is: "Time does not make it any better.  Rather the opposite."  One would love to sympathize with the obviously suffering Mrs. Strongitharm in this novel, but she's such a stiff upper-lipped, emotionally shuttered Englishwoman, it's challenging, I suspect, for the modern reader (perhaps even the Fifties one). 

And, oh! Fiona, darling.  I note the line "Fiona was honest," followed by those casual "thems" and "theys"--damning signifiers of ever-so-nice, educated and progressive Fiona's underlying, and perhaps unconscious, racism.

Does Fiona voice the author's own views here?

Given Bell's portrayals in her first detective novel, Murder in Hospital, which I reviewed here four years ago, she may well be doing so.  Certainly, Fiona, with her doctor husband and three children living contentedly in the country sounds a lot like Josephine Bell, who before her husband's death in an auto collision, it appears, had moved with him and their four children to a village near Guildford, Surrey.  But, on the other hand, Fiona may simply be a realistic character for her time and place.  (There are similar depictions of characters in Christie's Ordeal by Innocence.)

Or, more insidious thought yet, Fiona may be a realistic character for this time too, given recent events in the US and UK.  Should we fault Bell for portraying people as they can be, and all too often are--i.e., flawed and not always moved by the better angels of their natures? 

And Bell is right about one thing: the issues that Joyce presents to people are not easy ones with which to deal, not by a long chalk.  To be sure, Bell is more of a Debbie Downer than a Suzy Sunshine for pointing this out, but sometimes it's Debbie's writing rather than Suzy's which we want (some of us anyway).

Joyce is poignantly aware, after her own manner, of the problem she presents to everyone around her and the concomitant shying away from her emotionally:

"Why are you so kind to me?" she asked, with a certain awkward dignity.  "You can't like me.  No one does.  I'm too different."

How about the mystery, some may be asking--We thought that you, Passing Tramp, author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, cared first and foremost about such things?  Well, guess what, I found the mystery plot an engaging one, with suspense and clues and the whole bag of tricks. One of Bell's better plots indeed.  All this make Double Doom one of my favorite mid-century British detective novels, certainly on par with efforts by some of her better-known compatriots at the time, like Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Strongly Recommended.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Collision: Norman Dyer Ball, Shelagh Clutton-Brock, Alan Clutton-Brock, Josephine Bell and George Orwell

"I suppose you heard about Alan Clutton-Brock's wife?  A bad job, & he has two small kids, too."

"I used to see Alan Clutton-Brock in 1928--just recently his wife was killed in a motor smash."

                                                          --1936 letters from Eric A. Blair, aka George Orwell


On January 7, 1936, some sixty years before a rather more famous fatal car crash, Dr. Norman Dyer Ball (1895-1936), the husband of Dr. Doris Bell (Collier) Ball (future crime novelist Josephine Bell, 1897-1987), died in a hospital in Dartford, Kent from grievous injuries which he had sustained earlier in the day when the car in which he was riding collided with a lorry on Rochester Road, in the southeastern London borough of Bexleyheath.

The other occupant of the horribly mangled car was Shelagh Mabel Stoney (Archer) Clutton-Brock, wife of Alan Clutton-Brock (1904-1976), who in the 1930s was a Times art critic and author of popular art books. Shelagh, who was killed instantly in the collision, was also the daughter of the Anglo-Irish George Johnston Stoney Archer, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Ethel Mary Beauchamp. 

The accident that claimed the lives of Norman Dyer Ball and Sheilah Clutton-Brock took place about seven miles down Rochester Road from the district of Blackheath, where the Clutton-Brocks lived with their two young children, Juliet (1933-2015), the late prominent archaeozoologist, and Francis, in a Georgian house overlooking the Thames, "among beautiful objects and chaos overlaid with dust and cobwebs."  (The Clutton-Brocks were "given to a Bohemian lifestyle," notes author Robert Cumming.) 

Stately! Chastleton House
After Shelagh's death, the Clutton-Brock children were sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe, where Francis died from polio.  I assumed these relations were Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock, the famous Rhodesian liberals and racial reformers (in the Thirties Guy was also a social worker in London's East End), but it appears that Alan had only two brothers and that neither of them was Guy.

Later in 1936 Alan married Barbara Mitchell (1912-2005), a young woman who "combined an enthusiasm for party-going and night-clubs with a dedication to radical politics." From 1954 until Alan's death in 1976 the couple resided together at Chastleton House, a "near-perfect example of early 17th-century architecture" which Alan inherited from a distant cousin.  (I always wanted to have such a distant cousin myself.)  In 1955 Alan was made Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge (a three-year term).  One could say that the mid-century smiled upon him!

For some time after their marriage in London in 1923, Norman Dyer Ball and his wife Doris (aka Josephine Bell) appear to have resided at Warwick Mansions at 37 Pond Street in Hampstead and additionally they are said to have practiced medicine in Greenwich, which is very close to Blackheath, where Alan and Shelagh Clutton-Brock had lived in the Thirties, until Shelagh's death.  However, Norman's will stated that he was a resident of Headley, Hampshire, a village near Guildford, Surrey, where Josephine Bell is stated to have moved with the couple's four children only after the death of her husband.

Whatever the case, it seems likely that Josephine Bell and Alan Clutton-Brock were, like their late spouses had been, acquainted at some point in London.  They shared at least a couple of additional points in common, namely their interest in mystery fiction and a certain connection to a much more noted writer, it must be admitted, than either of them: George Orwell

Readers of this blog will know of my interest in Josephine Bell's prolific crime writing, but Alan Clutton-Brock in 1941 contributed a notable mystery to the genre: Murder at Liberty Hall, which I will be blogging about in the next day or so.  It has actually been contended that George Orwell ghosted Murder at Liberty Hall, a claim that seems overdrawn to me, considering, for example, Orwell's professed disdain for the genre.  But it is true that Orwell knew Alan Clutton-Bock, who was an old Eton contemporary of his.

In letters, as quoted above, Orwell noted the tragedy that struck Alan when his wife was killed in the terrible auto collision (without mentioning Normal Ball's presence and demise), and the two men seem to have run into each other from time to time over the years.  In March 1941, according to D. J. Taylor's Orwell: The Life (2003), Orwell wrote the Air Ministry about obtaining a position with the Public Relations Department, a "popular berth for literary men in wartime" that was then being administered by no less than Alan Clutton-Brock. 

A contemporary coworker recalled that Alan, looking "resplendent in his blue squadron-leader's uniform," informally interviewed Orwell at his digs about the position; and he reproduced this amusing scrap of the supposed conversation:

ACB: I can't say anything about the work, of course, but I assure you it's tedious beyond belief.  And the dreadful people you meet!

GO: I wouldn't want a commission, you understand.  I'd be quite happy in the ranks.

ACB: And you have to do six weeks of foot training first--insufferable!  In fact, until it occurred to me to think of the whole thing as a kind of ballet I didn't think I'd survive it!

GO: But I like drills.  I know the Manual by heart.  I need the discipline.


I don't know whether or not this conversation--so reminiscent, on Alan's part, of the comment attributed to the great camp English actor Ernest Thesiger about his service in the Great War ("Oh, my dear!  The noise!  And the people!")--really took place, but, gosh, I sure hope it did!

Unfortunately, Orwell didn't get the job Air Ministry, but he kept busy writing reviews and essays. Some of Alan's Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published in the summer of 1941, may reflect in part the interaction between himself and Orwell that took place around the time of its writing, but see my future post on this.

Josephine Bell's connection to Orwell is more speculative, to be sure, but in 1934-35 Orwell himself lived in Warwick Mansions, in a room in a flat at the top of the building occupied by the owners of Booklovers' Corner, the bookshop on the ground floor where Orwell worked at this time (and which inspired his great, mordant essay "Bookshop Memories," which I quote in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.)

Were Josephine Bell and her husband neighbors of George Orwell, or had they left Warwick Mansions by this time?

George Orwell worked in the former bookshop on the ground floor.

Two decades later after the horrific collision that claimed the lives of their respective spouses, when Alan Clutton-Brock had become Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge, Josephine Bell published her final David Wintringham mystery (of a dozen, extending back to Murder in Hospital, 1937): The Seeing Eye (1958).  The book concerns the murder of a celebrated art critic.  Coincidence? 

In 1935, not long before Alan's and Josephine's personal tragedies, Kenneth Mackenzie Clark (1903-1983), a postwar Slade professor of fine art at Oxford, wrote, with a certain quantity of poison in his pen, to the American art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) that "[Clutton Brock] is a perfect ass in the flesh (also grubby and querulous) but rather good on paper."  We'll see soon how Josephine Bell felt about her fictional (?) art critic in The Seeing Eye!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Death Can Be Dynamite: Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964), by Rex Stout

Anthony Boucher, longtime dean of American crime fiction critics, opined that Rex Stout's best productions in mystery fiction after the Second World War were not the Nero Wolfe novels but rather the Nero Wolfe novellas.  I don't know that I agree with this, in fact I'm pretty certain I don't, but I have to admire Stout's mastery of this shorter length, which many people have considered ideal for the mystery form.(See the long detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman.)

Some of the Stout novellas are better than others, to be sure, but the quality level of these works is remarkably high, given the author's fecundity for more than three decades.  Of course he had ample incentive to produce these works, as the serializations were quite lucrative!

Trio for Blunt Instruments [TFBI], the last collection of Nero Wolfe novellas, appeared in 1964, in between the novels Gambit (1962) and The Mother Hunt (1963) and A Right to Die (1964) and The Doorbell Rang (1965), a time when he seemed to be responding the the times by introducing some more overt "youth" references and political content into his works.  (Heads up: a review of The Doorbell Rang is coming this month, I hope.)

The three novellas in TFBI are Kill Now-Pay Later, which was first published in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1961; Murder is Corny, original to the volume and the last novella Stout wrote; and Blood Will Tell, originally published, two years after Kill Now-Pay Later, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

I often hear people dismiss Stout as a plotter--"he's no Agatha Christie," etc.--but a serviceable plot with genuine ratiocination is something I always look for in a work billing itself as a true detective story; and Stout rarely disappoints me in this regard.  He certainly doesn't disappoint in TFBI.

First Instrument: Kill Now-Pay Later

"I must tell you.  To my father you are a great man, the greatest man in the world.  I must tell you."

There are few men who would not to like to be told they are the greatest in the world, and Wolfe isn't one of them....

The first novella in the collection, Kill Now-Pay Later, is very much in Stout's classic mid-century mode, with Wolfe pursuing a case involving some high-toned corporate shenanigans.  The first murderee in the novella is Dennis Ashby, vice-president of Mercer's Bobbins, in charge of sales and promotion. He was quite the whiz kid, and had elevated the company's fortunes in the ever-spinning world of bobbin manufacture, but he was disliked by rather a number of people as well.

Ashby dies from a fall from his tenth-story office, though he had been bashed on the head first, which I suppose adheres to the title of the collection, if only barely.

Next to go is Nero Wolfe's shoe shiner, Pete Vassos, who also shined shoes foe the execs at Mercer's Bobbins; he's dead from a fall from a cliff, a suspiciously similar death to that of Ashby. The easily (mis)led police conclude, however, that Pete killed Ashby (believing that his daughter, Elma Vassos, a secretary at the Bobbin concern, had been "seduced"--their word--by Dennis, who had quite the roving eye), then, with the cops closing in, killed himself.

Elma shows up to hire Wolfe to exonerate her father and find his killer (and incidentally Ashby's), touchingly offering all her father's savings from his shoeshine jobs for Wolfe.  Archie warns her, not to get up her hopes, confiding, "It's December, and his tax bracket is near the top": but Wolfe, whose heart is not entirely stone it seems, agrees to take the case--though he glares malevolently at Archie for bringing this doom upon him:

I had let her in, I admit that, but from his look you might have thought I had killed Ashby and Pete and had seduced her into the bargain.

Admittedly, Wolfe later avows that he took the case to spite his egregious series semi-nemesis, Inspector Cramer, but I think Wolfe is a bit softer than he allows.  An interesting aspect of this story is the way it highlights how a "small" man, a hardworking Greek immigrant who believes in the American Dream, is abused both by the corporate world and the police yet finds an avenger in the man he so admired.  Wolfe himself enjoyed talking about ancient Greece with Vassos, though Wolfe did most of the talking on the subject, as he is wont to do.

"Wolfe's line," explains Archie, "was that a man who had been born in Greece, even though he had left at the age of six, should be familiar with the ancient glories of his native land, and he had been hammering away at Pete for forty months."  Later on he wisecracks, "Pete and I would have known each other a lot better if it hadn't been for ancient Greece."

Wolfe finds the solution to the crimes through some solid deductions.  The mystery is fair play and satisfying.  In essence, Kill Now-Pay Later reads very much like a shortened Nero Wolfe novel (one of the better ones) with some nice characterizations (the Vassos father and daughter and the tipsily pithy widow of Dennis Ashby) and good byplay among the crew of regulars, including Fritz, Wolfe's superb and devoted chef, who at one point has to serve as a sort of reluctant hall monitor, if you will, shepherding suspects in Wolfe's brownstone while Archie has been away:

Mr. Wolfe...said to put them in the office and stay in the hall.  I told him I was making glace de viande, but he said one of them is a murderer.  I want to do my share, you know that, Archie, but I can't make good glace de viande if I have to be watching murderers.

A delightful tale.  Read now--You'll enjoy it both now and later.

Second Instrument: Murder Is Corny

"Mr. Cramer.  Knowing your considerable talents as I do, I am sometimes dumbfounded by your fatuity.  You were so bent on baiting Mr. Goodwin that you completely ignored the point I was at pains to make."  He pointed at the piles on his desk.  "Who picked that corn?  Pfui!"

"By God.  Talk about stubborn egos."  Cramer shook his head.  "That break you got....You know, any normal man, if he got a break like that, coming down just in the nick of time, what any normal man would do, he would go down on his knees and thank God.  Do you know what you'll do?  You'll thank
you...."

Murder Is Corny
is the second mystery story concerning corn I have reviewed here. (Make sure you check out the first, since reprinted by Coachwhip.)

This one's the story of the farmer's daughter who implicates Archie in a murder and how Archie gets extricated from Inspector Cramer's clutches--by Nero Wolfe, of course, to whom Archie, it musr be conceded, is even more useful than was Pete Vassos.  It's an enjoyable enough tale, though the suspects are forgettable and the farmer and his daughter much less interesting, I would say, than Pete and Elma from Kill Now-Pay Later. The daughter, Susan McLeod, now a New York model (!), is an amiable egoist played for laughs but, like Archie, I got a bit tired of her.


The stand-out part of this book for me concerns, yes, corn.  Farmer Duncan McLeod of Putnam County, New York supplies Wolfe with sixteen just-picked ears of corn every Tuesday from July 20 to October 5; and Wolfe is rather particular about this corn.  Wolfe's following "corny" exchange with Cramer is, I think, one of the best in the series (including novels and novellas):

"Do you eat sweet corn?"

"Yes.  You're stalling."

"No.  Who cooks it?"

"My wife.  I haven't got a Fritz."

"Does she cook it in water?"

"Sure.  Is yours cooked in beer?"

"No.  Millions of American women, and some men, commit that outrage every summer day.  They are turning a superb treat into mere provender.  Shucked and boiled in water, sweet corn is edible and nutritious; roasted in the husk in the hottest possible oven for forty minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and salted, nothing else, it is ambrosia.  No chef's ingenuity and imagination has ever created a finer dish.  American women should themselves be boiled in water...."


All this superb harumphery leads up to some excellent deductions on Wolfe's part.  This one was televised in the Maury Chaykin-Timothy Hutton series.  The literally explosive climax of the tale is well-suited to television drama. (I'm not giving anything away here, as the image of dynamite mixed with ears of corn has been used on the covers of paperback editions of the book for a half-century now.)

Third Instrument: Blood Will Tell

"She deserved--No, I won't say that.  I believe it, but I won't say it."

"Pfui.  More people saying what they believe would be a great improvement.  Because I often do I am unfit for common intercourse."

In Blood Will Tell, Archie's receipt in the mail of a bloodstained tie leads to another murder case for him and his boss.  Anthony Boucher proclaimed this possibly the finest Nero Wolfe case since the excellent Prisoner's Base (Out Goes She in the UK), from a dozen years earlier. (At least I presume this is the book of which Boucher was thinking.)

Although the case is rather simply solved, what gives this story the resonance to which Anthony Boucher responded so strongly is the character of a man who is desperately, inarticulately in love and very grateful indeed to Archie Goodwin.  The last two lines pack an emotional punch unusual for the series, paying fine tribute to one of the finest characters in American mystery fiction.