The famous ‘Seven Sisters’ chalk cliffs in the South Downs, East Sussex
Artillery Row Books

Murders for late May

From psychological character studies to witty and fast-paced detective novels, Jeremy Black rounds up the best crime fiction for late Spring

“At the bookstall the students bought detective novels with blood-curdling covers – skeletons, hanging bodies, creeping shadows, knives, poison-bottles and huge impressions of mysterious feet. He wondered if any of the problems within those garish covers were as difficult of solution as his own; no doubt they were all more fantastic. A domestic murder can be made to sound very tame to those not intimately connected.”

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith, British Library Crime Classics

In Portrait of a Murderer (1933; British Crime Classics, 2017; £8.99), Anne Meredith, the pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973), produced a very fine novel that is rich in psychology as well as plotting. We are told in the first sentence who is killed, and that it is by “one of his own children,” and then move to a skilful depiction of character in this very precariously well-off family, before a series of different narrators take the story forward. Malleson, who also wrote under the name of Anthony Gilbert, was clearly interested in personality, and she paints them deftly, including minor characters such as Lessing, whose fear of developing roots meant that she adapted circumstances to her needs rather than being moulded by them. The book closes with a series of well-handled psycho-moral conundrums, and Meredith does not pull her punches: “People never blame themselves for being fools.” There is also a tough rejoinder to much of the cultural world:

“When one remembered the army of artists and writers and poets who laboured in the pathetic self-delusion that industry can replace genius, who insisted on bombarding the public with work after work long after inspiration was dead, desperately clinging to their ancient reputation (and their royalties)…”

I would prefer to see their interplay for both murderer and solver as a fascinating key to the appeal of this well-constructed novel

Dorothy L. Sayers, in her review of this novel, pointed out an emphasis on character, and not clues, but I would prefer to see their interplay for both murderer and solver as a fascinating key to the appeal of this well-constructed novel.

Alan Melville’s Death of Anton (1936; British Crime Classics, 2015, £8.99) is very different in its tone. It is witty, engaging and fast-paced. Seeking an encyclopaedia entry on the habits of tigers in a library, the nearest the detective can get “was a novel by a Roberta M. Pottersleigh entitled Claws of Desire,” while he compares the patched-up Norman ruins to “the inner-tubes of motor-car tyres with a number of new and pink spots attached to cover up the punctures.” The seating plan combination at Dodo’s supper-party is slap-stick in its humour; as the Reverend Robert Minto does not know how to take his neighbour’s “blowing wetly into his ear,” et al: Horace is a sea-lion. Values are clear: “Minto [the detective; brother to the cleric] studied his morning paper. Wars and rumours of wars; revolutions and uprisings; the breaking-up of conferences and the hatching of new ones to take their place; most important of all, Yorkshire out for less than a hundred runs on a sticky wicket.” [Readers abroad may need a glossary; this is a reference to what Kipling noted of the English male.] Food is a running gag, and not only hotel breakfasts:

“… the aged waiter came up to the table, and waited patiently until the question of fruit salad, steamed ginger pudding, tapioca and figs, and/or prunes and custard was satisfactorily settled by all concerned. All concerned wisely decided to overlook the sweet course and have biscuits and cheese … a Gorgonzola which looked about the same age as the waiter.”

And so at the very close with Minto skipping a hotel lunch.

Detective novels also play a role in the dialogue, the protagonist explaining the likely guilt of the circus-owner: “Because you haven’t any reasons for wanting him dead. Don’t you ever read detective novels?,” a theme that is repeated. Or again “It’s always considered correct for a detective to explain the crime and solution once the thing’s over.” Oh, and murder, tigers, drugs. A breeze of a novel.

The Sussex Downs Murder, by John Bude British Library Crime Classics

John Bude’s The Sussex Downs Murder (1936; British Library Crime Classics, 2015, £8.99) is a steady-as-she-goes story in the characteristic fashion of its author Ernest Elmore: Bude was his pseudonym. This is more vigorous than his The Lake District Murder, which is also in the reprint series. Superintendent Meredith takes the lead in a well-plotted, ably written, tale in which suspicions are adroitly directed as murder successively takes two forms. The writing can be fun, as in the discussion of the gossipy post-mistress Miss Kingston, “Fate’s Travelling Representative,” the ludicrous Tim Thornton, or “a recognised symbol of pessimism”: wearing both belt and braces.

The comments on detective fiction are instructive to any discussion of the Golden Age stories

The tone is sober. Unlike Christie, Bude does not strive for moral impact when citing Shakespeare. Police routine is presented as “tiring and uninteresting” and Meredith’s Sunday is domestic: “Mrs Meredith packed up a sandwich lunch and the family took a bus into Brighton, where Tony [their son] insisted on taking out a boat.” The comments on detective fiction are instructive to any discussion of the Golden Age stories. Aldous Barnet, a detective-story writer, is one of the characters, Meredith commenting: ‘his Inspector Jefferies gets a darn sight more luck in his investigations than usually comes my way! The chap seems so brilliant that he doesn’t need to worry over the details of routine work. I envy him.’

The thriller approach is satirised in Tony’s views: “John Rother had been “slain” (to use his pet expression) by a member of the Russian Ogpu because he was writing a secret treatise on the Soviet atrocities during the Revolution. It transpired after a time that Tony had just read a sensational article on the subject in a lurid weekly.”

Through Meredith, Bude gives his views on detective fiction, and, buried half-way through, it is an important approach to the genre:

“I think every yarn should be based on a sense of reality…. Intuition is all very well, but the average detective relies more on common sense and the routine of police organisations for results…. Half the work of a detective is not to find out what is but what isn’t!…. As for the crime itself, choose something neat but not gaudy. The gaudy type of murder is more easily found out. The neat, premeditated crime is by far the most difficult to solve and will provide your readers with a load of neat detection…. Let your readers know just as much as the police know…. Not guess-work, mark you, but a certainty based on proven facts. That’s only fair to us because we can’t arrest a chap just because we think he’s guilty. Of course a thriller’s a different type of story. But when it comes to a proper detective yarn give me something that’s possible, plausible, and not crammed with a lot of nice little coincidences and “flashes of intuition.” Things don’t work that way in real life. We don’t work that way.”

Sound advice in a deft and neat story. One to enjoy.

Professor Jeremy Black has recently published: A Brief History of Britain 1851-2021: From World Power to ?

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