The Times recently published a list of Top 50 Greatest Crime Writers. Great! A list! A chance to indulge in the sort of thought-free analysis only normally allowed down the pub! I will pause, leaning on this five-bar gate, and chew over it as my dog chews over a satisfying looking but in fact rather annoyingly shaped bone.
I was pleased, of course, to see John Dickson Carr there.
Above all, he should be read and remembered for the unmatched imagination and inventiveness of his mysteries and their brilliant solutions.
Seems reasonable. Although quite what else you would be doing reading a detective story is beyond me. What’s that? Gritty portrayal of low lifes? Away wi ye tomfool trendiness! Psychological motives? Never darken my door again! Artistically textured dialogue and grim realism with a troubled and in all likelihood corrupt cop? Whistle for it you impenitent heretic! An exploration of the thin line that divides the criminal from the crime solver, both requiring each other so that they may exist, crime not really being crime, but a plea for understanding from the true criminal, the authoritarian detective? Go boil your head!
Jim Thompson aside.
In fact, just thinking about Jim Thompson has made me want to read all of his books again immediately, with their ineluctable nexus of police, media, psychological delusion and small town envy, the complicated plots all delivered in the simplest and most hard-boiled prose. Yes – I said ineluctable nexus. According to his brief entry
Thompson is one of the most revered of pulp writers, with new academic studies and books proliferating.
What no GK Chesterton? How did the Father Brown mysteries not get on there? Some sort of MASSIVE JOURNALISTIC BLUNDER clearly. Not least among the virtues of these wonderful short stories is Chesterton’s remarkable ability to describe landscapes and skies.
A stormy evening of olive and silver was closing in, as Father Brown, wrapped in a grey Scotch plaid, came to the end of a grey Scotch valley and beheld the strange castle of Glengyle. It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in steep roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scotch chateaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple-hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens. This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, was no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than on any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist.
From The Honour of Israel Gow, one of his finest. The ‘olive and silver’ evening seems to sum up that is good about the Father Brown stories – the painter’s hand, the verve and daring, the poetic accuracy, the ability to capture unique skies and moods, landscapes and mysteries, the mixture of the mundane and the apocalyptic and yes, also the cleverly articulated Catholicism, and the mostly deft and amusing sententiousness. Depending on your taste the latter are the most quickly wearing parts of his writing. But he does do them very well.
Anyway, that’s all by the bye really. He should be on the list.
I was pleased, well perhaps mainly surprised, but also pleased, to see Bruce Montgomery on there as well. Unlike Chesterton I’m not really sure that he could be described as a good writer, but I’m interested in him for a few reasons. The first of these is that I think I own a book once owned by him; a first edition of Paleface by Wyndham Lewis, bought for £15 back when I was a bit cuckoo for Lewis. As you open the spartan cover, you are presented with a lovely Lewis-illustrated page (why couldn’t he get the strange loveliness of his painting into his writing? Or at least very rarely) and inside the front board of this particular edition is written, in a sharp but neat and sloping hand
Bruce Montgomery, 1942
Here’s another reason I’m interested in him; this would be when he was at St John’s, Oxford, hanging out with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin –
I must first have seen Bruce Montgomery on my first morning in St John’s in 1941 coming out of his staircase in the front quad to go to the bath-house. […] I felt rather like a recruit getting his first sight of a full colonel in red tabs, spurs, etc.: here was an undergraduate, the real thing. This man, along with an indefinable and daunting air of maturity, had a sweep of wavy auburn hair, a silk dressing-gown in some non-primary shade and a walk that looked eccentric and mincing, though I found out later that it was the result of a severe congenital deformity in both feet that could still result in a joint going ‘out’ without warning.
That from Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs, in its chapter on Montgomery. It’s well worth reading. Montgomery seems to be one of those people who display precocious talent, in his case for music and writing, but who, almost wilfuly it can seem, fail to live up to other people’s expectations of them. Montgomery wrote numerous quite successful detective stories, and as well as more serious compositions, wrote music for some of the Carry On films.
According to Amis, of all people, Montgomery became an exceptionally heavy and tiresome drinker towards the rather premature end of his life. I suppose people will choose the metaphor they wish – compensation, oblivion, replacement, but maybe he just liked drinking a lot.
I had more or less forgotten that he wrote under the name Edmund Crispin but was browsing the green-spined crime and detective fiction Penguins in a charity shop when I found a book by him called Buried for Pleasure. I snaffled it up. The blurb was promising:
Edmund Crispin’s real name is Bruce Montgomery, and he is a composer as well as a writer. His recreations are swimming, excessive smoking, Shakespeare, the operas of Wagner and Strauss, idleness, cats. His antipathies are dogs, the French Film, the Renaissance of the British Film, psychoanalysis, the psychological-realistic crime story, and the contemporary theatre. His favourite detective novelist is John Dickson Carr.
The book is bizarre; the crime and detection plot frequently seeming mere framework for Montgomery’s many obsessions and irritations. His detective is the Oxford don Gervase Fen, and a large part of the beginning of the book is taken up with his decision to run for parliament in a small, insular borough of an inderterminate rural location, purely it seems to provide a bit of 1930s-ish scenery and also the closed society necessary to this type of crime thriller; you know the thing: weekend at manor house, small village, international train journey with sleeping compartments and dining car, exclusive holiday resort, remote castle.
After quite a lot of Fen arriving, eyeing up the local female talent, getting the machinery of his campaign into place, with plenty of digressions to give room for flippant humour, the reader begins to wonder, at least this one did, whether this was intended as a crime and detection novel at all, the only thing designating it as such being the reassuring green and white bands of the cover.
The writing is uncontrolled and self-indulgent, bearing every sign of having been hastily written. It’s disastrously facetious, knowing, cliched, careless, unconvincingly artificial, with absolute no indication of editing or revision at all.
It was clearly more fun for him to write than it is for us to read. But taken as an expression of personality it is extremely entertaining. The plot is risible – the murder is committed using the hackneyed device of sending poisoned chocolates. Although in a sense this device is crucial, it was already so worn that a character in John Dickson Carr’s White Priory Murders uses it as a method of egregious misdirection.
In fact, all this is merely to allow Montgomery to address any issues weighing particularly heavily on his mind. At one point Fen comes across a crime writer testing out the practicalities of a scene in a local field. Fen suggests that doing this must enable him to some extent to get ‘inside the mind of the murderer’.
An expression of mild repugnance appeared on the man’s face. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no, it doesn’t do that.’ That subject seemed painful to him, and Fend felt that he had committed an indiscretion. ‘The fact is,’ the man went on, ‘that I have no interest in the minds of murderers, or for that matter,’ he added rather wildly, ‘in the minds of anyone else.’ Characterization seems to me a very overrated element in fiction. I can never see why one should be obliged to havev any of it at all, if one doesn’t want to. It limits the form so.’
Admirable sentiments, for nothing is as inimical to adventure and excitement than characters, and the same goes for science fiction and thrillers. The exploration and development of character in such books creates aesthetic disproportion, like putting a trailer on a sports car, and encumbers the writing.
The haphazardly accomplished electoral elements of the book are clearly only present to allow a rather enjoyable rant about politics:
What is referred to as the political good sense of the British,’ Fen continued, ‘resolves itself upon investigation into the simple fact that until quite recently the British have been politically apathetic, paying as little attention to the bizarre junketings of their elected legislators as they decently could. It is this which accounts for the smoothness of our nation’s development in comparison with the other countries of Europe; and our fabled spirit of compromise – now virtually extinct – has derived from nothing more obscure or complicated than a general indifference as to the issue of whatever controversy may have been in hand; though we, of course, have in our vanity ascribed it to tolerance. Propaganda, however, has altered all that, and politics nowadays engender heat, dismay, fury and a variety of other discreditable emotions in every section of the populace. We are forever at each other’s throats; the safety-valve of our apathy is twisted and broken beyond repair. Only here and there does it survive, and I am happy to note that this constituency is one of its last strongholds. I congratulate this constituency on the fact. And I strongly advise this constituency, when confronted with the reformers-by-compulsion who assert it is everyman’s duty to take an interest in politics to kick those gentry downstairs. For such an asseveration there is no single justification to be found, whether in morality, metaphysics, expediency or sense. Do not allow yourself to be cajoled into supposing that political apathy is dangerous. Dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are raised to power, not by apathy, but by mass fanaticism. That, darlings, is the danger, but you are so busy gaping up at me and wondering if I have gone out of my mind that I could talk for a week without convincing you of it.
The are elements, sadly infrequently displayed, of what would be the hallmark of Kingsley Amis’s humour; a sort of hyperaware cynicism as to the minutiae of people’s behaviour. Here a psychologist named Boysenberry is trying to recruit Fen to help him find an academic placement at Oxford:
‘Then I must wish you the best of luck,’ Fend responded with as much heartiness as he could muster.
‘Ah, but it’s not all a matter of luck, is it?’ By now Boysenberry’s unyielding cordiality had grown positively macabre. ‘A lot of good can be done, you know, by a word in the right place.’ And with this insinuation the effort of tactfully shooting his bolt became too much for him, and from sheer nervousness his voice rose to a kind of shout.’
However, genuinely hilarious moments such as this are few and far between, and the comic urge is confined by and large to a somewhat wearing persistent atmosphere of high spirits of farce – perhaps his main debt to John Dickson Carr.
The book lacks coherence of tone and is in all honesty totally gimcrack, but despite this, no, because of this, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve just got out Love Lies Bleeding from the library, and a biography as well, and leave this pleasant spot with a promise to report back when I’m done.