Saturday, September 23, 2017

Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), aka ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac

As ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac, Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) was one of the reliable "second-string" of British writers of the Golden Age generation for nearly three decades.  Like John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Christopher Bush and Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), for example, she was published on both sides of the Atlantic (with some unfortunate gaps that make some of her titles very rare indeed today) and was a member of the Detection Club.

Since her death nearly six decades ago, Rivett has become one of the most sought after vintage mystery writers by collectors, with only a few of her titles ever popping up in reprint edition, the most common being Dover's Murder by Matchlight.  A few titles produced by Ramble House also popped up for a time.  Now I understand that the British Library is reprinting the author's Bats in the Belfry and Fire in the Thatch, which likely is a prelude to others by her coming your way--major news in vintage mystery.  Since Carol Rivett is an author I have read and researched (I was attempting to get all of her books reprinted), I thought I would discuss her on the blog.


First off, I have to admit that I agree with those esteemed pure puzzlists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor's criticism of Bats in the Belfry in their Catalogue of Crime.  I don't want to quote their entry on the book, because of spoilers, but let's just say they nailed the book's issues as a puzzle in just three sentences.  However, the book has, as Martin Edwards has noted, a lot of the appealing milieu of classic crime fiction from the 1930s (who wouldn't love a place like "The Belfry"?), and for many modern fans of vintage mystery that may well be plenty.  It's also, to be sure, a great title for a mystery novel.  And the old Collins jacket is simply smashing.

After Bats in the BelfryFire in the Thatch is the very next entry in Barzun & Taylor's COC, and B&T are much higher on this one, again I think justly.  However, were I making recommendations for future reprints to the BL (which I'm not, unless this blog post counts), my choices would be, among the postwar Lorac titles, Policemen in the Precinct (previously reprinted in the 1980s by Collins with a nice introduction by HRF Keating), Murder in the Mill Race and Murder of a Martinet. Among the prewar titles which I have read it would be Murder in ChelseaMurder in St. John's WoodA Pall for a Painter, and Death of an Author.


I also would love to see The Organ Speaks reprinted, as it is an extremely rare title that I have not read and one that Dorothy L. Sayers, then on her own church musical kick with The Nine Tailors, praised rather highly, though Martin does not like that one as much as Bats in the Belfry

The early, prewar Carnacs also are fantastically rare, and it would be nice to see those reprinted too. Among the Carnacs that I have read my favorite is The Double Turn. (Another one I like a lot is It's Her Own Funeral.)  Reviewer Anthony Boucher was of the opinion that Rivett's best work dated from the Fifties, and she certainly had some good titles in that decade. However, whatever I think--or Martin, or Anthony Boucher, or Barzun & Taylor--ideally all of Rivett's detective novels (71 of them, and one that was never published, according to Martin) should be reprinted, so that the vintage mystery fans out there can judge for themselves.

Paddington Station
Surprisingly little has been written, to my knowledge, about Carol Rivett, as she was known.  Even Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder, for example, gives Rivett and her work little attention, particularly in light of the extensive coverage afforded many other writers.  In the book there is much more about GDH and Margaret Cole, for example, who were much less consistent (and committed) detection writers than Rivett, one of the consummate British mystery genre professionals of the era.

To be sure, the Coles led rather more interesting lives, both politically and personally, at least as far as we know.  But just what in fact do we know about Carol Rivett?

Carol Rivett was born Edith Caroline Rivett in Hendon, London in 1894 to Harry and Beatrice (Foot) Rivett.  Harry Rivett was a commercial traveler in silver goods (I'm reminded of the line in Bertolt Brecht's unfinished novel The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar, as translated by Charles Osborne, "How often do I have to remind you lot that we waged war in Spain; we didn't do business. Now he wants to march back into town like a commercial traveller in silver goods!").  Harry's wife, Beatrice, was the daughter of Edward Smith Foot, who worked first as a railway cashier for the Great Western Railway (of Paddington Station fame, bringing to mind John Rhode's The Paddington Mystery and The Murders in Praed Street) and later as a rate collector in the district of Marylebone.

Carol Rivett wrote about London rather well, as Martin notes, because she knew London rather well indeed. Her parents were lifelong Londoners, Harry and Beatrice both having grown up in Marylebone, where Harry's father, John Charles Rivett, owned a china and glass shop, and Beatrice's grandfather, Edward Smith Foot, Sr. served for 35 years as Superintendent of the Marylebone Baths and Wash-houses.

at the baths
a dirty job, but someone had to do it

John Charles Rivett moved to London in the 1850s, but he was born in the village of Carlton, Cambridgeshire, the son of John Rivett, a farm laborer originally from Heddington, Suffolk, where the Rivetts seem to have lived in obscurity for generations. (Their immediate forbears seem to have been an Aaron and a Moses Rivett, suggesting a Biblical influence on the family.)  In the Rivett's case, as in so many others, the move from country to city was a hugely significant event for one branch of the family.

The Foots--or the Feet, recalling the Proudfoots/Proudfeet debate in Tolkien's saga--also moved from county to city, though their roots were in trade, not in the land per se.  The father of Edward Foot, Sr., Joseph Button Foot, was a saddler in the small Cotswold town of Cricklade, Wiltshire, who after his marriage moved with his wife to the market town of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, where in 1817 he tragically drowned at the age of 26 while bathing in the River Churn, a tributary of the Thames.  The family returned to Cricklade, where daughter Frances Foot wed John Hopkins, a tailor, and son John Foot became a draper's assistant, but Edward headed for London, again markedly changing family fortunes.

For much of the 1840s Edward worked as a saddler in London, but in 1849 he and his family moved into the newly-constructed Marylebone Baths and Wash-houses.  There Edward would serve as superintendent until his death in 1885 and his wife, Frances (a cousin, I believe), as matron until her death in 1875, when she was succeeded by Beatrice's Aunt Annie.

The Rivetts, in the 1890s, probably
shortly before departure for Australia
Gladys upper left, Maud upper right
Carol seated
Beatrice Foot's 1890 marriage with Harry Rivett produced three daughters, but the union was destined to prove sadly short-lived, with Harry a decade later dying at sea from tuberculosis on a months-long voyage from Australia to England.

This voyage was detailed over six decades later in "An Account of a Sea Journey," a memorable short memoir by Carol Rivett's sister Maude Rivett Howson, republished with addenda by her nephew-in-law George Howson, in Contrebis, the journal of the Lancaster Archaeological and Historical Society. (See here.)

The Rivett family originally set out from London for Australia in 1898 aboard the Oroya, arriving on December 9 in Melbourne, where Harry's older brother, William Charles Rivett, who had been employed in England as a clerk in a wool brokerage business, had previously settled. 

Sadly, Harry did not get better in the warm Australian climate, and a little over a year later the family booked a slow passage back to England, the terminally ill Harry hoping to die at sea.

Harry, Beatrice and their three young daughters, Gladys, Maud and Carol, left Australia on March 2, 1900 for England on the Illawarra, "an iron-built, three-masted, full-rigged sailing ship," commencing a sea-journey of 15,000 miles and five months around southern Africa that Harry would not survive. In telling this story Maud Howson speculated that future generations might have difficult believing that "an ordinary family, in the opening months of the twentieth century," could make such a journey

with only the wind as their motive power; with only paraffin for their lighting; with no heating for the small cabins and saloon in which they had to shelter from tempestuous weather; with only small signal flags as a means of communication with passing vessels, who alone could report their news or condition to a land-based port.

Oroya
Illawarra

It is a fascinating short account that I urge you to read.  Concerning the baby of the family, Carol, who was about six years old at the time, Maude mentions that despite the supervision of their mother and a merchant navy cadet "who was absolutely devoted to her," the young child "took the opportunity of climbing on the taffrail" when the crew were signalling another ship as the Illawarra neared South Africa:

Mother, happening to look around, just saved her from going overboard, when the ship began to move again.  We elder ones all climbed on the taffrail at times, though we were forbidden to: it must have been about 3 ft or 3 ft 6 ins from the deck and a most insecure perch.

off St. Helena

On June 6 the ship reached St. Helena, once remote home to the exiled Emperor Napoleon and at the time home to some 2000 Boers, prisoners of the then ongoing conflict with Great Britain.  Down to L5 in cash and with her husband near death, Beatrice stayed on board with her children, though she did mail the letters home that were later consulted by Maude when she wrote her travel memoir. 

Three days after the ship left St. Helena on June 9, Harry died and was interned in the ocean, 55 miles from Ascension Island.  The crew, Maude notes mordantly, was rather glad to see Harry shuffle off this mortal coil:

[T]hey had regarded my poor father as a man with death in his face, ever since he had boarded the ship at Melbourne; and, according to the superstitions of their calling, they regarded him as the bearer of the ill-luck which had beset the voyage.  When he had been safely buried, the crew said that the luck would change; there appears to have been something in it [as we had] good weather and no serious setbacks in the North Atlantic.

wide sargasso sea
Not long after passing the island, the Illawarra crossed into the North Atlantic, giving the crew occasion to prank Maude and her sisters, who

were all hoodwinked by the officer holding up a thread across binoculars at the noon sight, so that we could say we had seen the Line when we crossed it.  I think I was suspicious, but Carol said that she boasted for years that she had seen the Equator.

The same month the ship passed into the seemingly boundless Sargasso Sea:

[T]he surface was like a meadow, so thick it was with golden-green seaweeds.  Of course, all the children were violently excited, and acquired (or made) hooks and lines of every kind to fish up the seaweeds from the water and land them on the deck of the ship; again, why we never went overboard in our excitement, I cannot imagine.

The soon-stinking mess that accumulated on the ship deck was met with something less than pleasure by the crew and officers, however: "We got into more trouble...over this business than over anything else on the whole voyage.  Luckily, we did not know what bad language meant, but we were often threatened with a rope's end."  (Here I am reminded of the title of one of Carol Rivett's detective novels, Rope's End, Rogue's End.)

underground at Baker Street
Their home in London, after they finally arrived in the City on August 3, 1900, was 13 Marlborough Place, St. John's Wood, where resided in Victorian patriarchal majesty Beatrice's father, as well as his unmarried children, sons Edward and Herbert and daughters Chloe, Janet and Annie.  With widowed Beatrice and her three daughters joining the household, there were ten individuals all told, along with one, no doubt very busy, house-servant. 

Maude and her sisters found their arrival in London bewildering indeed:

However, my mother was a Londoner, born and bred, and off we went by rail to Fenchurch Street and thence by the old sulphurous Underground Railway to Baker Street.  There, Mother's last pennies had given out and we all packed into a hansom-cab, knowing that there would be someone to pay the fare when we arrived.

It was streaming with rain and heavily overcast when we reached "home."  I can remember the crowd of aunts and uncles who greeted us, but only very faintly.  My clearest recollection of that night as we all sat around the supper table is Grandpa saying "It's dark; turn on the light": somebody pulled the string of the 'by-pass' light on the fixture of an old-fashioned incandescent gas burner. 

I was nearly blinded by the sudden illumination and stared in amazement: it seemed miraculous after the dim oil lamps of Illawarra.  I did not know that such an indoor light existed anyway on sea or land.  This must have been what Mother meant by "home."
As part of her father's household, Beatrice was put on the government payroll (joining her sister Chloe) as an assistant to her borough rate collector father, while another of Beatrice's sisters in the household, Annie, worked as a draper's assistant.

Athabasca Hall
where Maud Rivett lived when a teacher
at the University of Alberta
The Foot family may seem rather conventional and "bourgeois," if you will, but one of their number, Beatrice's brother Herbert, in 1903 was an actuary who was elected to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce of Arts, which puts him in company with William Hogarth, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.  (There's even-handedness for you.) 

Another of Beatrice's sisters, Edith Maud Foot, married James Edward Forty, a freemason and the beloved headmaster, from 1893 to 1926, of Hull Grammar School.  They sometimes were visited by Carol Rivett.

Beatrice's middle daughter, Maud, went into education herself, obtaining a B.Sc. degree in botany the Royal College of Science, Imperial College London and teaching for a short time at the University of Alberta before in 1922 marrying John Howson, headmaster of Bicester Grammar School in Oxfordshire. A native Lancastrian, Howson upon his retirement in 1941 returned to Lancashire with Maud, where the couple was active in local community affairs.  This move greatly influenced Carol Rivett and her later detective fiction, as we will see.

The oldest Rivett sister, Gladys, appears to have become a private nurse.  The youngest, Carol, was educated at South Hampstead High School, one of the first girls' day schools in London, and the Central School of Arts and Crafts

As she did not publish her first detective novel, The Murder on the Burrows, until 1931, when she was 37 years old, I am not clear how she supported herself up to that point, but her mother Beatrice, with whom she may have lived in London up to the outbreak of the Second World War, seems to have made Carol her primary heir when she died in 1943.

Thurlstone Hotel
For part of the war Carol Rivett was evacuated from London to the Thurlstone Hotel, a luxury establishment in Devon still in operation today.  There Carol shared space with students from Ravenscroft (this possibly the boys' prep school at Yelverton, Devon, which was requisitioned as an officers' mess in 1941), causing her to remark in a letter that "the combination of boarding school and luxury hotel is even more fatuous than the establishments separately!" (See here.)

After the war, Carol moved away from the world of "fatuous" luxury hotels to an isolated locale in rural Lancashire (where her sister Maud and Maud's husband John already had gone), having fallen in love with the countryside there.

Although many of Carol's prewar detective novels were set in London, her postwar books more often take place in rural England, frequently in the north country. Several novels are specifically set in Lancashire's picturesque Lune Valley, along the River Lune.

Indeed, one of her later detective novels is named Crook O'Lune (Shepherd's Crook in the US), after a picturesque turning in the river that was painted by JMW Turner.  It is a sequel of sorts to her novels Fell MurderThe Theft of the Iron Dogs and Still Waters.

"Crook Of Lune, Looking towards Hornby Castle" (c. 1816-1818)
by Joseph Mallord William Turner

By the 1950s Carol Rivett lived at a much-loved stone cottage named "Newbanks" in the Lancashire parish of Aughton.  The house itself served as the setting for her novel Crook O'Lune.  Sadly, however, Rivett died at the age of 64 in 1958.  She left an unfinished novel behind her (and one unpublished one, apparently completed years earlier).  An extremely prolific author, Carol produced 71 detective novels in 27 years. (There were two mainstream novels as well, published under her own name.)

In 1958 alone there appeared, under her two pseudonyms, Death in Triplicate, Murder on a Monument and Long Shadows, followed in 1959 by two posthumously published novels, Death of a Lady Killer and Dishonour among Thieves (as stated above what was evidently intended to be her third 1959 novel was left unfinished). 

Had Carol Rivett been granted the same more generous spans of life as Agatha Christie (1890-1976) or Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983), say, and lived until the late 1970s, she might well have published well over 100 detective novels, rivaling John Street as perhaps the most prolific of true Golden Age detective novelists. It's strange to think that she might still have  been publishing into the Thatcher Era.

St. Savior's Church, Aughton, copyright Ian Taylor
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2710861

Carol's sister Maud survived her by a decade and both sisters are buried, along with eldest sister Gladys, on the grounds at St. Savior's Church, Aughton.  Although I do not believe, as some notable authorities of the day urged, that Carol Rivett belongs in quite the same rank with Christie, Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Georgette Heyer and Christianna Brand, she is nevertheless most definitely one of the more notable figures in the second tier of Golden Age British mystery, and I hope that soon enough all of her books will be back in print, for fans of vintage mystery to enjoy. 

Coming soon: a discussion of the matter of Carol Rivett's pen names, and a review of one of her novels.

Graves of the Rivett sisters (Edith Caroline Rivett on the right)
http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMFZF2_Edith_Caroline_Rivett_Aughton_Lancashire

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!