The Cadaver Club

Iain Sinclair

  • Original Sin by P.D. James
    Faber, 426 pp, £14.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17253 9
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 282 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 1 85619 507 4
  • The Hidden Files: An Autobiography by Derek Raymond
    Warner, 342 pp, £5.99, December 1994, ISBN 0 7515 1184 6
  • Not till the Red Fog Rises by Derek Raymond
    Little, Brown, 248 pp, £15.99, December 1994, ISBN 0 316 91014 7

Baroness James, making a rare visitation to a blighted metropolitan zone, downriver of Tower Bridge, has written a very useful book, a book on which I will be happy to draw for years to come. That was back in 1972. Title? The Maul and the Pear Tree; co-authored by T.A. Critchley of the Police Department at the Home Office, where James then earned her crust as a Principal in the Criminal Policy Department. She had previously produced four well-received mysteries and this was her first work of non-fiction (apart, presumably, from interdepartmental memos, annual reports and the like). The Maul and the Pear Tree was a spirited, effectively researched account of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811; an account which offered, as an additional benefit, when the compulsory gloating over the crimes was accomplished, a persuasive sketch of the districts of Shadwell and Wapping in their maritime pomp – brothels, grog shops, provisioners, the bustle and fret of a crowd in perpetual motion, oysters at midnight, and all of it ‘bounded to the south by London’s dark blood stream, the Thames’. The book (a modest 234 pages) was anecdotal, speculative, inhabited. There was something going on. The past blistered seductively like the golden skin on a good Welsh rarebit. The project was a live one, working hard, after paying its respects, to defuse the purple excesses of Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. This is P.D. James at her best; the fastidious dabbling in horror, the forensic eye finding order in chaos. Now, 22 years later, with the oven-ready blockbuster, Original Sin, she returns to cover the waterfront, and the question has to be – what went wrong?

Surely, it can’t just be the absence of T.A. Critchley’s guiding hand? Or the weird Balkan alliances of Liberal Democrats, property developers, hotshot essayists and art brokers that have, in the intervening years, stomped the riverside? This emphysemic essay in historical revisionism, the acceptable face of entropy, is a pantomime that’s all Dame and no Demon Queen. A Thatcherite pestilence has descended on the dead hamlets – but without the intervention of the Great Handbagger. Wapping is posthumous. It has bottled the fizz of its lowlife past, the aliens, the parrots, the peglegs: all press-ganged upstream with Adam Dalgleish’s impersonator, Roy Marsden, for the Long John Silver show at the Mermaid. James is left with a heritage trail of selective quotations, a London Dungeon of waxwork crimes exhibited in authentic locations. This is an empty set, a set defined by its architecture (where even Mandy the Temp, in her anachronistically fab gear, seems to be trying to catch the eye of Gavin Stamp). An increasingly silly catalogue of deaths and suicides announces the final surrender of the Golden Age Murder Mystery: Agatha Christie force-fed on Pevsner and the humbug of Kenneth Baker’s latest flag-waving anthology. A sub-genre that has always been profoundly conservative (hence its popularity, up there with P.G. Wodehouse, in America) is reduced to editorialised sound-bites from a phantom Smith Square manifesto. Two coppers can’t sit down for a swift half without debating the morality of capital punishment. (‘I happen to believe that the death penalty does deter, so what I’m saying is that I’m willing for innocent people to take a greater chance of being murdered so that I can salve my conscience by saying that we no longer execute murderers.’) Autopilot opinions suggesting that the author has donated far too much of her time to media book-gabble and the smokefree backrooms of power. Indeed, she could be said to have invented a new form of fiction – whereby the promotional interviews are conducted within the text. The phobia about the Thames flooding through the Greenwich foot tunnel suffered by the wimpish Frances Peverell signals the obvious prompt to Dame Phyllis (obligingly picked up by John Walsh in the Independent magazine). The drag, for this reviewer, was being caught up in an unforgiving ‘Garlands of English Literature’ quiz set by a bright, time-warped 16-year-old from the Cambridge High School for Girls. You daren’t skip-read for fear of being ticked off by Commander Dalgleish for misquoting Jane Austen.

Despite (or because of) all this, Original Sin has been a notable success as far as that freakish segment of the population, the purchasers of hardback novels, is concerned. Dame Phyllis is back where she belongs, at the top of the charts, after a nationwide publicity tour that swept her from a lunchtime engagement at Hatchards in Piccadilly to an evening spot in Birmingham, and then, on successive days, a progress through Manchester, Norwich, Cambridge, Chester. With her usual good humour, she pitched product, defacing virgin title pages with her neat holograph signature. Punters, publishing flotsam in red suits, local press – all treated with courtesy, all equally ‘dear’. It works. Reviewers purr and dutifully recycle the plot survey cobbled together by the relevant Nicola: ‘a puzzle of extraordinary ingenuity and complexity ... characters who will remain in the mind’. (Not much room left on the A4 Press Release, actually, after the six inches it takes to scratch at the honour roll of awards, appointments, TV spin-offs.) The originality of the riverine setting is stressed and the dutiful hacks and hackettes fall over themselves to make the book sound as exotic and off-limits as Thomas Burke’s Chinatown or the paranoid subterranea of Sax Rohmer. (Hugo Barnacle in the Independent was the brave exception, risking lèse-majesty by exposing Original Sin as unoriginal detective fiction: clunking ‘homages’ to Margery Allingham, lousy craftsmanship, and evidence doctored in the best tradition of Agatha Christie.)

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