Murders for August
What masterpieces hide on tired and musty shelves?
The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett (1952, British Crime Classics, 2021, £8.99), follows the 2020 republication in that series of her excellent The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955). Bennett (1912-80) was a wide-ranging writer who produced a small number of excellent detective novels. The Man Who Didn’t Fly has a more satisfying plot than The Widow of Bath, but both are characterised by superb writing, with well-judged phrases and witty reflections. The characterisation of the principals in The Widow of Bath is good, with a particularly fine etched narrator, Hugh Everton, and a femme fatale, Lucy, from whom he will not keep away: “she had never had taste, only greed … She kept such queer company that many people assumed she kept some of it in bed.” Some of the lesser lights are vividly summed up: “Perhaps he had been a horse in the Charge of the Light Brigade.” And then we are off with put-downs to the left and put-downs to the right: “retired professional men like to live by the sea, even when the sea means an inland suburb of Bournemouth… Bath, like most judges, mellowed under the influence of his own wit… I’m nearly experienced with corpses… It’s almost like breathing diamonds… Even my ears have walls… Halfway back to the town, just before they reached the splash of boarding houses… He’s always been a smooth man with no crevices for dirt to get into. No crevices for new ideas, for doubts, either. But something in his texture seemed to change… I can smell lies like garlic in my shaving water… She seemed immature, undeveloped, as though she had been brought up on bread and jam instead of the meat and milk of prosperity… Inspector Leigh’s politeness was so thin that an autumn leaf would have fallen straight through it… [of swimming in the Channel] It surprised him that he didn’t bruise himself on the hard, frozen fish on the way… [of waiters] Two who don’t serve although they stand and wait… Hatred destroyed with the speed of a bonfire in a wooden house… [of macaroni cheese in a hotel] I don’t think I’ll eat this. I’ll keep it for sticking wild flowers in my album.”
As Bennett has Everton note, “It was the reverse of the sealed room murder” with many entrances, all ground floor rooms accessible to the encircling veranda, and all the first floor balconies climbable. All the obvious suspects have alibis, but with clues (and deceptions) multiplying, bodies hard to track down, and plots aplenty jostling for attention in the quest to confuse, this is a jolly tale with plenty of improbability. Only very occasionally does the writing fail: “Porterhouse was a solid, savage man, with a pallor about him, like a torch with a weak battery.” There is a sense of social change: “behind this respectable English dream the small mean houses grew like thistles in an abandoned field” or “Most of the cases I [Inspector Leigh] run into nowadays are more of the old woman in the back shop type. Money in the tea caddy, you know. Servants! … There is a housekeeper, isn’t there? It will be like the old days with H.G. Wells”. Ingenious (but silly) reveal; the writing is a dream. Read it.
The idea of nudity as a form of courtship is arresting
The pleasure of reading new editions of past masters leads to an eager quest for other works not thus treated. What masterpieces hide on tired and musty shelves? Alas, and let us be honest, there is also disappointment. In the search for such works, reading detective novels for the first time or others again after many years is not always a pleasure. Edmund Crispin’s Holy Disorders (Gollancz 1946; Penguin 1958) is a case in point. Set in 1940 in the fictional Devon cathedral city of Tolnbridge, which is located most closely to the Dart, this is a Gervase Fen mystery that does not bring out Bruce Montgomery at his best. Or, indeed, second, third, or fourth best. The plot offers a confused jumble of pro-German espionage by Fifth Columnists, witchcraft (including a black mass), and clerical tensions. The characterisation is monotone, with the exception of the reveal at the close, which was no great surprise. The writing is often poor, as in:
“Geoffrey afterwards looked upon it as the day when, quite suddenly and as if at a signal, the talk ended and the final struggle began. Hitherto they had dealt with characters single, isolated from one another, mere waxworks lined up for questioning. When they had turned their backs one of those figures had moved, and there had been killing. But now some sixth sense told him that the end was near, that the pretence could no longer be kept up. He felt that they stood at a cavern-mouth, waiting for some creature to spring at them from the darkness, and yet now knowing what kind of thing it would be. And there was no more time for conjecture now; they were committed, at last, to fight.”
The 1950s were far from stuffy and that everything did not begin with the 60s
Fen is more sprightly, offering erudite witticisms: “Life in the insect world is all melodrama — The Revenger’s Tragedy without any of the talk”, and there are some good observations, as of Paddington: “Railway officials controlled the scene with the uneasy authority of schoolmasters trying to extort courteous recognition from their pupils after term had ended”, “Fielding regarded gloomily an aged porter who was prodding tentatively at a trunk in the hope, apparently, of provoking it to spontaneous movement”, or “The Cathedral clergy are great readers — they have little else to do”. The idea of nudity as a form of courtship is arresting. Yet, this novel is a poor mess. En passant, Montgomery offered a choice of detective novels: “John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham, and Gladys Mitchell.” Conspicuously not Christie or Sayers.
Phillips Oppenheim’s Sir Adam Disappeared (1939; Hodder and Stoughton, 1952) is a ridiculous account of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the elderly and wealthy bank owner Sir Adam Blockton from the Norchester County Club. Inspector Snell, “a man of method”, settles the matter. A missable tale. So also, and there is a link in “the sort of thing that would have been nuts to Mr Oppenheim”, with The Blind Barber by John Dickson Carr (1934; Penguin, 1952). Although Gideon Fell brings, with his “great book-lined room above Adelphi Terrace”, a welcome air of normality after the Bencolin novels, the trans-Atlantic liner Queen Victoria makes for a different form of closed-room, and there is rapid dialogue and copious alcohol and cigars, the plot is absurd, the caricature characters poorly developed, and Carr could, and did, do much better.
Fell proves better than Professor Fenn in his wit and appeal, and Carr does not throw together ingredients in quite such a slapdash manner as Crispin, but the liner works as a set without menace in a novel that is more Hollywood Thin Man in tone than the lurid neo-Gothic of Bencolin’s Paris and London. A rereading does not improve the novel. A useful reminder that consistency in quality is a very high standard indeed.
Not well-known today, James Byrom was the pseudonym of James Guy Bramwell (1911-95), author under this pseudonym of Or Be He Dead (1958), Take Only As Directed (1959), and Thou Shouldst Be Living (1964), but also of other works, including the mystical Going West (1935) about a Mediterranean utopia, as well as the non-fiction Lost Atlantis (1937), and his interesting autobiography The Unfinished Man (1957). A conscientious objector who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in North-West Europe in 1944-5. He gave up detective novels because crime did not pay.
Take Only As Directed (Chatto and Windus, 1959; Penguin 1964) reminds us that the 1950s were far from stuffy and that everything did not begin with the Sixties. There is drink, drugs and sex aplenty, as well as the description of a homosexual pickup in a Turkish bath and a senior police officer who does not think homosexuality criminal between consenting adults, alongside elements of a continuing social order, notably servants (moderns, who have “cleaners” or “helpers” or “carers”, see servants as very past). Kenya is still a prospect for colonial life, and the Mau-Mau are described as murderous thugs, which they were, but you are not allowed to say that today. Some of the comparisons do not work for me, for example “the ash fell right between us like a lump of fragile excrement,” but I liked “the slough of phish” in a nook of a Knightsbridge bar, and the description, in another bar, of “a thick atmosphere of well-heeled banality”. A good story, well-paced, ably plotted, with one element prefiguring that of Lord Lucan. Some very good twists. Deserves a read.
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