In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Great TraditionRobert Barnard
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Plaster Sinners 
by Colin Watson.
Eyre Methuen, 160 pp., £5.95, September 1980, 0 413 39040 3
Show More
Photo-Finish 
by Ngaio Marsh.
Collins, 262 pp., £5.95, September 1980, 0 00 231857 1
Show More
The Predator 
by Russell Braddon.
Joseph, 192 pp., £5.95, October 1980, 0 7181 1958 4
Show More
Show More

‘What is this but a Thirties detective story?’ asks the London policeman who finds himself in the thick of the latest Flaxborough murder. It’s a piece of miscalculated self-consciousness on Colin Watson’s part – almost the only miscalculation in the book. The Flaxborough Chronicles embody a great many of the virtues that make the golden-age detective story still one of the most widely read literary forms. They have their share of cosiness, with menace lurking underneath; they exploit class-consciousness – humorously, with none of that deadening Thirties snobbery; they use traditional humours, and gently mock traditional humours, and gently mock traditional mores.

What they represent, in fact, is a highly intelligent adaptation of a faded literary form to contemporary needs and audiences. The English village of the model has become a modestly thriving country town: an enlargement which was necessary to avoid monotony over the series, but which also underlines the death of the village as an independent entity. Flaxborough has gone beyond the simple class-classifications of St Mary Mead and its like: gentry, fringe gentry and the rest. Here we have circles that overlap, intersect, just barely touch, while remaining discrete circles. The class area he likes best is not that of the golden-age writers: it’s as if the cameraman had lowered his sights by about 25 degrees. Plaster Sinners is unusual in numbering the landed gentry (admittedly on the financial and psychological rocks) among its characters: usually Watson is concerned with the better sort of tradesman, though the detective trail often leads down into the seedier stretches of the lower middle class as well.

The traditional Christie village exists in some sort of geographical and temporal no man’s land, whereas Flaxborough is recognisably a town not too far from Norwich or Ipswich, and a late 20th-century town at that. The family grocer, offering slivers of cheese and slitting tins of Bath Olivers with his knife, has given way, not merely to supermarkets, but to supermarkets in pedestrian precincts. The difference between motorists and pedestrians in Flaxborough is merely the difference between those who have found a place to park the car and those who have not yet done so. Watson’s Barset is a thriving, bustling, nosy community, with the confidence of its prejudices and its vulgarity.

There are no robots in these novels, no class stereotypes, as there were in Watson’s models, and few comfortable middle-class certainties. In Flaxborough the butcher has a human face. We hear his bedtime conversations with his wife, and know he eats suet-pudding for lunch. This is a world of trivial rivalries, ludicrous jealousies, shabby ambitions, but in its unadventurous way it is comfortable, knowable, even likeable.

From time to time, however, the urbane, witty surface of the stories is pierced by a sudden, sharp twinge of nausea: a character will arouse in Mr Watson a rush of loathing which marks him off from the rest of Flaxborough’s fallible humanity. One such here is Mr Wellbeloved the unlovable superintendent of the Twilight close municipal old people’s home (the pun in the name could be Mr Wellbeloved’s doing). At other moments, the books take wing towards Dickensian grotes-querie. In Hopjoy was here, a barber, poised over his customer with the scissors, offers a further tonsorial service:

  ‘The nostrils, now?’ he inquired eagerly.

  ‘Certainly not.’

  ‘Ah, you’re very wise, sir: clipping does tend to stimulate. I personally find the best answer to what we might vulgarly call the hairy nose-hole is to fire it a couple of times a year.’ His eyes wandered to a jar stacked with wax tapers. ‘Like a railway embankment, you know.’

Colin Watson is not alone among detective-story writers in writing well, but he is not in a particularly large company either. There is no pretension in the writing, no straining, merely an immensely pleasing surface that easily accommodates wit, riotous exaggeration, admirable throw-aways. Purbright, introducing the London detective into his hotel, notices the room number:

  ‘Ah, you’ve got the room that Dr Meadows’ murderer occupied.’

  Bradley glanced at the key, then slipped it into his pocket. He shook his head. ‘Spoiling me.’

The texture of the book is not jokey, but jokes are never too far away. Watson recognises that if you take murder too seriously in the classical detective story, you endanger the finely balanced artificiality of the form. The humorous undercurrent also does its work in establishing Purbright – a detective with presence, weight, ironical self-possession. The speech is the man: he is never described, nor is he endowed with the peculiarities that are like nervous tics in other fictional detectives.

It is Purbright’s side-kick. Sergeant Love (he surely ought to be married by now), who starts off Plaster Sinners. Love ‘had that happy degree of appreciation of works of art that is unlikely ever to become soured by scholarship ... As an aesthete he was an all-rounder; honest and unpretentious: a sunset man, not soppy over gnomes, but ever ready to be pleased by a waterfall.’ Love’s examination of a plaster plaque at a dingy auction earns him a crack on the head and starts the ball rolling: the lot in which the plaque figures fetches well over £300, and the trail leads to a body in a weir, peppered with shot. Apart from the hard-up and hard-as-nails gentry already mentioned, we meet a one-legged retired seaman, a shifty solicitor (are there any straight ones in Flaxborough?), a thoroughly repulsive doctor and his teenage dolly-bird, and a rabbit-faced crook of well-tried incompetence – all good Flaxborough figures.

If Colin Watson enjoys abundant affection from crime-readers but not quite the esteem that Mesdames Rendall and James reap, it may be because his solutions are sometimes less than convincing. We don’t always get the feeling that in his beginning was his end. The solution to Plaster Sinners does not seem inevitable, and is not particularly surprising. Added to that, the mystery would have been cleared up in Chapter Three if Purbright had done a half-way thorough investigation of the objects in the auction-sale lot. It is the genteelly awful Chief Constable Chubb who ‘solves’ the case by his clumsy handling of the vital exhibit. This wouldn’t have happened in Christie.

But that is to quibble. The Flaxborough Chronicles (or ‘novels’, as they now seem to be called, which is surely unwise) sit comfortably, invitingly on our shelves, demanding periodic rereading.

The list of Ngaio Marsh’s works at the beginning of Photo-Finish omits several books published in the mid-Thirties, which are still in print and are far from shame-making. Miss Marsh must by now have written something like thirty crime stories – one of the oldest and arguably the best living practitioner in the traditional style. She was never quite the consistent performer, or the dazzling deceiver, that Christie was in her prime, but she has several claims to a distinctive place in the tradition: she humanised the gentleman detective (Alleyn’s descent from Lord Peter is clear in the early Enter a murderer), she provided varied, and usually convincing, settings, and she let a consistent good humour (seldom a wit) play over her characters and events – a good humour that is more to many readers’ taste than the hectic high spirits of the early Allingham, for example. Sometimes in early days she could be plodding, particularly once the investigation got under way, but in her best work (Death at the Dolphin, say, or False Scent) she soars effortlessly above routine.

It was the habit of some (not all) crime reviewers to salute the last feeble efforts of Agatha Christie, to say that the old magic was still there, the old hand had not lost its cunning. It wasn’t, and it had, and though it was very gallant of them to keep quiet, it must have made readers suspicious of the reviews of crime writers well past what is normally thought of as their prime. It’s a pleasure, then, to be able to say that Ngaio Marsh – now in her eighties and recently reported dead, to her great delight – is still doing very nicely. After some laboured efforts in the first part of the Seventies (Tied Up In Tinsel, for instance, and Last Ditch), she came back strongly with Grave Mistake, and in Photo-Finish is continuously entertaining.

The title does not mean she is taking a trial canter round Dick Francis’s paddock. The demise in question is that of an operatic prima donna of Italian-American extraction, in conception (and in physique) somewhere between Callas and Caballé. The lady, who has been pursued for months by a malicious paparazzo, is found stabbed in the house of her fabulously rich protector (somewhere between Onassis and Mr Merdle) on a lake island in the South of New Zealand, after a performance of an opera by her protégé lover. It is an example of the old lady’s cunning (she is wiser in this, surely, than Keating in his Death of a Fat God) that she makes the opera an obvious lulu. ‘Menotti and water,’ sniffs someone, and we know she has got it exactly right: if Caballé or Sutherland were ever to risk their throats in a contemporary opera, that is precisely the sort of piece they would choose.

So here we are again, as a freak storm cuts off the island, back in the good old British closed-circle tradition, with many of the old ingredients, expertly mixed: the overpowering grande dame, the breathless young idolator who suddenly loses his rose-coloured specs, the devoted (but is she?) dresser, the ambiguous secretary, and so on. And here too are Troy, being painterly, and Alleyn being the gentleman ’tec – still handsome enough to raise an appreciative eyebrow from the ambiguous secretary, which is much to his credit.

It’s all good, middle-range Marsh, and if it is not quite as good as her last one, this may be partly due to her setting. New Zealand, oddly enough, has never found her at her best. Then again, though its principal export (as we know from Bernard Levin) is Kiri Te Kanawa, it has been through most of its history a land without opera. Nor is it easy to see New Zealand as a millionaire’s playground or the resort of the cultural jet-set, unless things have changed radically since my time in the Antipodes. So there is something just a little forced about that operatic premiere on the South Island lake, with the world’s greatest soprano. Ngaio Marsh apparently got her damehood for creating from nothing a New Zealand theatre. Now she has done the same for opera.

Opera seeps in around the edges of The Predator, a thriller by Russell Braddon, perhaps as a sort of residue of his long-ago biography of Joan Sutherland. In fact, Mr Braddon finally lost me around page fifty, where a duet from Bellini’s La Straniera is played and all his characters are said to be perfectly au fait with the details of the opera’s plot and libretto. But then, credulity has been strained from the beginning. This is, in intention, one of those screw-turners about a collection of people shut in a private plane flying (God knows why) from South America to Africa, one of whom is an intending murderer, another the intended victim. All these high-flyers are wildly ‘brilliant’: they not only recognise lesser Bellini without batting an eyelid, but their talk has the leaden glitter of an Any Questions? team on one of the nights when politicians have been left out, to prove they have no monopoly of dullness. In fact, I seem to recognise some of the talk from Mr Braddon’s contributions to such sessions.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.