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.)
There was, I’m sure, much rejoicing among the vicarages, shires and airport concessionaries, that James was back to form, up to speed, delivering death for Christmas. The Children of Men was an aberration, an underpopulated dystopian fable whose bloodless homiletics never really found an audience. The necessary dynamic of anger was absent. The pepper of spite. James, too decent a cove to become involved with apocalyptic mania, had always been more at home with the Book of Psalms than the Book of Revelation. Orwell had Eton and the military police to draw on for 1984, and Alan Moore (V for Vendetta) had Orwell. What’s interesting is that for this ‘entirely new departure’ James stayed so close to the sense that runs through all her work of the horror of human intimacy, of touch (‘a collection of bones loosely held together by a stained glove mottled skin’); the sounds and smells of those who invade private space. Theo Faron, the disengaged Oxford don with his ‘empty inviolate house’, reprises Kate Miskin whose great fear, in A Taste for Death, is that her grandmother should came to share her hard-won flat, her hideaway. (Both books have painful scenes where a geriatric is ‘half-carried’ to the lavatory.) Miskin, it’s true, relents, getting in touch with her essential humanity, and accepts Gran (who dies without further delay). Faron, who shares the tight-arsed poet’s taste for solitary pleasures, is almost as creepy and prophylactic as Adam Dalgleish. ‘Normally he would now begin planning his route with care; a good pub for an early lunch, an interesting church to visit, a detour to take in an attractive village’ (Faron in The Children of Men). ‘To lunch alone in a strange place ... was a rare pleasure ... There would be no time for a solitary walk or for exploring an interesting-looking church’ (Dalgleish in Original Sin).
Dalgleish, if he doesn’t watch it, will find himself taken up by the Modern Painters crowd, the disciples of the late Peter Fuller. As a high-profile poet with atrophied tastes, he can expect a commission to do something tasteful on Glynn Williams. The Commander has become the ashy residue of Neo-Romanticism, out there in the Fens, a John Piper with backbone, silhouetted against lowering skies, fretting to escape the inconvenience of some vulgar stiff and get at those rough flint churches. Philip Larkin (sans bicycle clips) with a Byronic makeover. Larkin reimagined by Barbara Cartland, all scowls and flashing coattails, piercing glances.
This wholesome, outdoorsy Englishness, bracing weather and privatised mayhem between consenting adults, has a tendency to thrive at times of social unrest. There’s nothing like a good hunger march to upgrade the country-house mystery. The Thirties were the golden age of the crossword-puzzle murder, the lethal spinster. Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh: the only writers ever likely to be block-booked for honours. A coven equivalent in status to today’s theatrical knights. They conjured compensatory fantasies, parallel worlds where bluestockings, erudite medics and village busybodies stood alone against a conspiracy of social climbers, artsy-fartsy pinkos, dagos with garlic breath, Hebrew financiers and allround wrong’uns. Finding Original Sin the flavour of the month should alert us, at once, to coming waves of envy among the other ranks, Criminal Justice Act riots, rudderless government, and plots brewing across the Channel.
At the heart of the classic English murder mystery is a privileged enclosure where the plot can be rehearsed over a leisurely lunch, where some well-connected amateur can lobby the professional, schmooze with the judiciary. P.D. James’s Cadaver Club is just such a place. (‘The lamb had arrived, pink and succulent and tender enough to be eaten with a spoon.’) It’s the Cadaver Club, bib and braces, rather than any malign conjunction of Masons, Mafia and bent cardinals, that rules the world: prep-school grub, an ex-matron to dish it up (and, when requested, dish it out), ‘all the volumes of the Notable British Trials’, and the rope with which Crippen was hanged on display in a mahogany showcase. (‘A trifle morbid, perhaps, but barbaric is going a little far.’) And how quaint that the member who signs Dalgleish in should be called ‘Conrad Ackroyd’, a double blue plaque moniker. After Dalgleish has finished miming his usual prunelipped disapprobation for the morbid memorabilia, he shuts up and listens to Ackroyd, who ‘although he could be facetious, was seldom dull’. He was, after all, ‘one of the most notable and reliable gossips in London’. Ackroyd, like Mrs Demery the Cockney char, is a ‘turn’, the liveliest thing in the book. His name, taken in conjunction with the club’s ‘few first editions of Conan Doyle, Poe, Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins’, is enough to invoke, by conditioned reflex, the Agatha Christie cornerstone, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Or as Derek Raymond (Robin Cook) frequently proclaimed, paraphrasing Edmund Wilson: ‘who gives a fuck who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ Raymond, attempting in The Hidden Files to define the ‘black novel’ in which he specialised, glossed the Jamesian school as ‘pretentious escapist crap for the well-heeled middle-class market’. A conventional put-down by a man distancing himself, quite reasonably, from his disadvantaged background as an old Etonian with a family pile in darkest Kent.
The real Ackroyd, Peter, it is felt, has also peaked at the right time, in cabbing alongside James into riparian London for this season’s retrieval, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Ackroyd has, among other sources, filleted De Quincey (as well, I’d guess, as The Maul and the Pear Tree), but his page-turner only sports with mystification. It has none of the lugubriousness of James, the procedural longueurs. His detective is a marginal presence, cohabiting in Pooterish domesticity with a nice young man. Ackroyd doesn’t burden his narrative with the tedium of a convincing topography, or nostalgia for the lost decencies. He’s busy, with this Post-Modern Sweeney Todd, reviving the shilling shocker – which, thanks to the confusion of the current publishing scene, appears between hardcovers and is reviewed in all the best places. The glory of Dan Leno is its relish for music-hall, the London crowd: stinks and shocks and songs. The hanging of a female artiste, a child of the streets, is like something cranked in a penny slot-machine. These wharves and rat runs are not colonised by liturgical gloom but lurid with torchlight; gamey, sentimental, obliging. Sites of sexual tourism and risk, sweating with grease paint, horseshit, moonlight on the razor.
Original Sin does for Wapping what the Docklands Development Board did for the Isle of Dogs. Commander Dalgleish arrives on set, exuding ‘the moral rigour of Torquemada’, as John Walsh puts it, at the head of a positive discrimination posse (one troubled Jew, one feminist), to sort out a bit of bother in a publishing house so surreal in its work practices that it’s almost believable. James has always been most comfortable with in-house crime, the bunkers of the Establishment, hierarchic worlds of the hospital, the nuclear power plant, the research laboratory. (I would assert, as a personal prejudice, that she works best under four hundred pages, when her titles aren’t lifted from the Book of Common Prayer or Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Something as functional as An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.) In Original Sin the only substantial character is a cod Venetian palazzo that overlooks the old hanging dock, serviced, regardless of tides, by a private riverbus. Mere humans, fatalistically bottling it before the advancing chill of Murdochian brutalism, commit suicide in complicated ways, or arrange to have themselves strangled with draught-excluders shoved in their mouths (presumably to stop them screaming ‘red herring!’). None of this stuff gets in the way of the dialogue, which comes in two forms: sponsor’s messages and awkward summaries of the plot so far. What P.D. James does not do is the police in different voices. High and low, male and female, the same bureaucratic paragraphs. A slender yarn has been loaded with gravitas until it lumbers along like a ruptured Victorian three-decker. Wilkie Collins by correspondence course. Themes of the moment – Aids, urban regeneration, yobs on the loose – are scattered like serpents’ teeth, in the hope that some of them will thrive. (‘Don’t talk to me about unemployment. They may have been unemployed but they could afford expensive motor-bikes, and two of them had cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.’) The narrative, after several pages of convoluted actuarial prose, comes to life with a burst of scene-setting worthy of Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. ‘He was wearing a yachting cap set well back on a mop of black curls and his eyes were bright slits in the weatherbeaten face.’ The strain of delivering a text worthy of the censorious Dalgleish cruelly exposes a gush of generic clichés that would be inoffensive in a work with fewer pretensions. (‘His eyes were narrow, sleepy under heavy lids, but they were eyes which missed little and gave nothing away.’) Edgar Wallace, dictating to a harem of secretaries, didn’t feel the need to blather on about how ‘the criminal justice system has favoured criminals for the last forty years.’
Neither was he stuck with a hero who is increasingly embarrassed at being spotted in a work of fiction he would never permit his housemaid to take out from Boots’ Library. Dalgleish’s cameos are now as unconvincing as Charlton Heston’s hairpiece. He clearly models himself on the Duke in Measure for Measure, kitted out in priestly drag, sticking his skull around the curtain and sneering at a city going to buggery. It’s not hard to like Dalgleish: it’s impossible. The higher he rises, the more insufferable he becomes. Which is P.D. James’s major achievement: that one of the great and good, a woman universally admired, a diamond geezer, should prove capable of creating such an unmitigated herbert. Dalgleish peaked early in a landscape James caught as well as any mainstream novelist: Ely, the Suffolk coast, bleakness everywhere. Empty churches, disappointed lives. Modest Sapphic alliances, inactive adulterers, and, representing hope, some feisty young woman with decent A-levels and an ‘aureole of hair tumbling around her shoulders’.
Dalgleish thinks best in motion. The London of A Taste for Death, with its dim vestries and fetid canals, is a city seen through the curved window of a ‘claustrophobic’ Rover. The Commander, staring out in silence, is himself gazed on by Kate Miskin; a fetishistic bonding of narcissist and voyeur. ‘She saw in his face a look with which she was familiar; a stern withdrawn self-absorption as if he were stoically enduring a private pain.’ There are obsessive descriptions of seat-belts, driving gloves, ‘sensitive hands lying lightly on the wheel’. It’s rare for the now deified AD (‘probably the most intelligent detective in Britain’) to suffer public transport. He did let the train take the strain once, but that was strategic, so that he could, like John Major, boast of how he had ‘settled down to re-read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now’. Re-read! Potboilers are acceptable, it seems, as long as they are Victorian.
It’s the poetry that worries me most – who publishes this man? A snow job, services rendered, a way of laundering secret state blood money? Quite uncanny. A couple of hundred copies sold, tops, and yet everyone – politicos, fellow spooks, middle-management suspects – they’ve all kept up with the Dalgleish output. The dude’s better known than his double, Roy Marsden. Which must be why Marsden picks up all those voice-overs. Oral harassment. Like eavesdropping on the confessional. Most versifying coppers have been something short of officer class: Edwin Brock springs to mind, John Arlott in his youth. You can understand that: pounding the beat, up on the toes, good black notebook. Time to brood. But Dalgleish? He’s too grand somehow for Faber. Probably sponsored by C.H. Sisson at Carcanet. The right credentials. What does he write about? Obviously, the job helps: ‘his next book of poems contained that extraordinary one about a murdered child.’ Otherwise? John Betjeman in subject matter, D.J. Enright in style. Meditations in strict metre – rather like pared-down paras by P.D. James.
A wide expanse
of heavy sun-speckled water
which, as she watched,
was flicked by the strengthening breeze
into a million small waves
like a restless inland sea.
Anorexic enough to pass unnoticed as a filler in the LRB. English poetry. Poetry as a hobby, conferring sensitivity on the man of action. When James talks of poets and poetry, as she frequently does in Original Sin, disbelief is not so much suspended as mugged in broad daylight. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to swallow Gabriel Dauntsey, with a couple of pamphlets back in the Forties, when he was shaping to be World War Two’s Wilfred Owen, keeping a seat on the board, and grandstanding as the ‘advertised star of the evening’ at a pub show, ‘off the Waterloo Road’.
Derek Raymond, like P.D. James, is fascinated by poetry. He’s the leading light of another Establishment, the official opposition, the Compendium mob; favourite copy for rudeboy journalists. Jonathan Meades (‘Robin behaved badly before anyone else did’), Ian Penman, John Williams, Elizabeth Young – they’ve all done him. And been stretchered back to the cab. A Cook tribute is the contemporary equivalent to the apprentice’s passing-out ceremony. In both cases, you’re likely to end up legless in a Clerkenwell dustbin. The great survivor, the boho icon. Photo-call in the Coach and Horses: bat beret, thermometer cigarette, leather jacket, skin like Tutankhamun. Cook/Raymond was always snapped indoors. Dame Phyllis, like a secondary Kray in Vogue, budget reflecting status, gets the polo neck and cashmere coat on the foreshore at Wapping.
But now, sadly, it’s official. Derek Raymond is dead. Cook had preceded him in 1971, after The Tenants of Dirt Street. Vanished into the vineyards as a day labourer, his name fought over by a medical shlock-buster and a diminutive but perky Scottish politician. Jonathan Meades noticed at once how Raymond always ‘alludes to himself in the third person just like, in fact, he was dead’. Which is what the Factory novels are, the eloquent dreams of a dead man. A lost England remembered from abroad. Raymond was as romantic as Shelley, but he had seen it all and done most of it. He was definitely the sort Dalgleish would leave to his Jewish sidekick. Perpetual rain, rucks in New Cross pubs, flesh rotting beneath the floorboards of rooming houses: Derek Raymond was an out-of-the-body experience from the start. Fabian of the Yard shot through a Dostoevsky filter. Sexton Blake ghosted by Jean-Paul Sartre. The ‘General Contract’ Cook called it, the vulture on the shoulder. Vulture ventriloquism. Death and poetry. Raymond doesn’t write about poetry, he is poetry. Although, like James, he’s fond of a good quotation – Eliot, or sometimes Auden. Jamesian themes abound, the country going down the khazi: but from an entirely different viewpoint. From the taproom floor, the one-bulb bedsitter. The individual butting against the crowd. The metaphysics of a necropolis; tracking shots in and out of clubs and drinkers, day-for-night, booze raps, bad music. A 24-hour nightmare. Raymond was hooked on philosophy, always dropping in at Henrietta Moraes’s drum for a bit of a barney on logical positivism. His books are narratives of self-erasure, chirpy despair. He never shakes free of the romance of the Spanish Civil War, Esmond Romilly. The good die young. The dead are good. That’s his sentimental side. The side that has Gust, his latest psychopath, mugging up on Dylan Thomas in prison.
Raymond, as he insists in The Hidden Files, was first and last a writer. ‘Writing is what I understand by living.’ He didn’t do committees. He never signed things. He couldn’t last through Kaleidoscope without shooting outside for a drag. His honours were all foreign, kept in the drawer. The man was a premature European, shunted, iffy suitcase in hand, from Spain to Italy to France. What he did was work, or live, or sit for the 18th time through the video of the Brian De Palma/Al Pacino re-make of Scarface. ‘Remember, Tony, every day above ground is a good day.’
The posthumous Raymond novel, Not till the Red Fog Rises, moves with that same remorseless video drive, frenzy (just) under control: like a drunk walking on razors without breaking the skin. Red Fog has all the modest desperation of the best American pulps, Jim Thompson, David Goodis. Depression literature. Orphan books written to be abandoned. Dream logic without the luxury of revision. Even the cover illustration is pastiche Gold Medal: it doesn’t illustrate anything in the book, but gloats over a top-heavy blonde. There are certainly no worries about Raymond’s characters keeping shtum in the motor. They rabbit like speed freaks, speech bubbles of rancid vernacular. Raymond’s cold turkey memories of mini-cabbing at night: the lunar landscapes of Canning Town, Willesden, Deptford, with other people’s paranoia crackling over the intercom like the alien voices of the restless dead. The novel keeps the foot down, advancing by the classic Chandler form of serial confrontation. An aphoristic head-to-head every time Gust takes five for a wet one.
Red Fog twins London with Moscow, Warsaw, East Berlin in meltdown, integrating their ripe dementia into an Eliotic, multilayered wasteland. Fifties gangsters, greyhound fanciers marooned in Brockley, foot-soldiers from Poland Street (masochistic with integrity), decent tarts, incompetent hitmen: an anthology of urban myths to plague Gust, the dead man, the fugitive on licence from hell. The book reeks with the pervasive stench of excrement. ‘Busybodies ... I shit ‘em.’ ‘Eyes the colour of old shit’. ‘Dry sphincter where he took her doggy fashion’. ‘The shit’ll come flying out of you.’ ‘Wouldn’t give you the skin off his shit.’ ‘Ten thousand kinds of shit and I’m in it all.’ Incontinence as the universal condition. The drip and dribble of brown fear. Raymond knows we are all trapped in that apple-green room ‘where people wait to be told if it was cancer’. X-ray machines, with no operatives, blistering the city. The fated protagonist has no choice but to get the business done before ‘quitting his shape’. And with what relish Raymond outlines that business, an escalation of spellbinding set-pieces. There is, for example, a shoot-out in a Chinese restaurant that tops anything in Scarface. Beyond the mayhem, Raymond manages to take a pop at a couple of baggy-suited art pseuds talking up a bogus triptych. A sideswipe in the direction of another dead bohemian, Francis Bacon?
Gust, with £17,000 in fifties tucked into his pockets, sleeps rough in Soho Square. No change for the buses, guv. ‘Democracy these days is just a show.’ Derek Raymond is the laureate of these special-needs citizens. That’s what gets him going, abnormal brain chemistry. Anything to explain this compulsion to write. Dead Man Upright, the last of the Factory novels, was an essay in psychopathology, not a thriller. P.D. James, on the contrary, has made it very clear she has no truck with freaks. ‘Motiveless murders don’t interest me. I can’t see the fascination for serial killers like Dennis Nilsen ... They’re not susceptible to logic.’
Logic? James’s fiction, beginning with a bleakness to equal that of Derek Raymond, has given way to the institutionalised anonymity of a quango text, ghosted by civil servants. The prose-in-translation feel of Original Sin invites an impertinent speculation: could the Dame, like the Queen Mum, already have passed over into another dimension? Has the grave news been held back for a time when even threats of Cabinet suicide won’t keep the ship of fools afloat? This language is cryogenic, left on ice to perpetuate the fantasy of a Thatcherite revolution. The chaos of the free market, James seems to be saying, must be tempered, not by state intervention, but by the disinterested justice of a poet/policeman with a good tailor.
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