Murders for April
From the golden age of crime fiction to the modern day, Jeremy Black recommends seven books to see you through April
At least twice daily I pass the injunction “The Passage of Time Will Devour Us All” beneath the sundial Michael Joy has erected outside his house along the Crescent. It vies with the statue of a naked woman in the recess outside number four. What a variety for those wending their way to Waitrose which squats on what used to be nurses’ residence opposite the entrance to the road.
But back to the injunction and its statement of the obvious. In this piece we are pulled in two directions: murder speeds up this devouring in what is regarded as an even more unacceptable fashion than other means of killing, but, as time is short, we do not have an opportunity to read-all. This critic thus throws themselves forward between the parapets of books for the sake of others. Well no, but here goes for this month’s read. I have tackled seven detective novels, but they do not all deserve your attention unless you are fascinated, as I am, by the inherent variety of the genre. So, six historic works published in the British Library Crime Classics reprint series, all for £8.99, and one modern work.
The six appeared between 1930 and 1947, but they vary enormously, indeed capturing the mistake of ever assuming that the “Golden Age” offered uniformity. Lois Austen-Leigh in The Incredible Crime: A Cambridge Mystery (1931) presents the city in terms of an antediluvian social order focused on the university, and does the same for her account of Lord Wellende’s feudal position in Suffolk. Hunting and shooting are discussed in much detail, and the wooing of Prudence would have struck readers of eighteenth-century fiction as dated, let alone those in the age when women had got the vote. But maybe the news had not reached East Anglia. In contrast, Raymond Postgate brings Verdict of Twelve (1940) to life at once with Victoria Mary Atkins’ account of the medieval wretchedness, darkness and dirt of Coronation Street, Cambridge. [Spoiler alert] Victoria gets away with murder and sits on the jury as one of the many who are not what they seem in this novel without illusions. The trial is told from the perspective of the jurors and very successfully so.
[Spoiler alert] Drug smuggling is the root of the mystery in The Incredible Crime; well, the mystery in the story, for the real mystery is why the British Library published such a poor novel (no comedy) of manners. Smuggling into East Anglia and to a milieu in which the landed élite again dominates had been attempted the previous year in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham. This is better than The Incredible Crime in all respects until it succumbs to a silly (and totally unnecessary) bout of occult cultism. Not one of his better books would be a good conclusion.
That leaves three with a degree of intentional comedy in them. The funniest, in a slapstick, easy-to-read, fashion is the first half of John Bude’s Death Makes A Prophet (1947). Set in Welworth Garden City, this deals with Cooism, which, as you know if you have visited Welwyn (I grew up nearby), is part of the dark side of life there: the sect of the Children of Osiris founded by Eustace K. Mildmann. In a brilliant series of revelations (all involved are now dead), Cooism is revealed as a fraud in which corruption, sex, drugs, blackmail, deceit and mumbo-jumbo all play a role. A couple of characters are disguised, but the brilliant writing takes us along. The characters are introduced with economy as with [Spoiler alert] Sidney Arkwright, the chauffeur and “smart, slick-haired lady-killer”: “When finally he was transferred to Welworth to drive for the High Prophet, he was selected as one of the two Temple Sistrum-Shakers. As, at one time, he had served as assistant behind Charlie’s Cocktail Bar at Southend, he could shake a very pretty sistrum behind.”
In the second half, we decamp in order to camp in Sussex where it rains and there is murder. The humour is lost and Inspector Meredith offers an implausible solution that depends on Arkwright being unperceptive. There is also some lazy anti-Semitism which contrasts with Postgate’s far more mature approach to the plight of Jews in this period.
Family Matters (1933) provides a grimmer setting but a more profound humour: the dryly sad fun of the total lack of self-awareness of the victim, and the wit of his being the target of several, with poisons counteracting each other, to mutual confusion. Well worth reading.
So also for George Bellairs’ Death of a Busybody (1943). The war plays a very small role indeed, and this is a conventional murder story but written with ably drawn caricatures — notably the Reverend Ethelred Claplady — witty dialogue, and an interesting plot in which fraudulent deceit catches up and makes Miss Tither a necessary victim. A good novel that delivers both rural satire and a satisfying plot, even if the split-minute timing is implausible. The attempt to get rid of the body, however, is based on a good idea and repays consideration.
The modern story, Lucy Foley’s The Guest List (HarperCollins, 2020), has been ecstatically reviewed and carries a blurb that compares her four times with Agatha Christie. Christie it is not. There is not the ingenuity of her stories or the role of detection. Instead, it is a novel that moves back and forth across a weekend from the perspective of a number of participants. This is a story about the grimness of a certain tranche of the British élite — schoolboy rituals, adult bullying and one-upmanship, the cult of celebrity, emotional and sexual cruelty to women, and the desire for revenge. At that level, the story works well, and is well-done, but Agatha Christie… no.
Jeremy Black has just brought out England in the Age of Austen (Indiana University Press).
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