- A Coat of Varnish by C.P. Snow
Macmillan, 349 pp, £5.95
The date of that evening was Tuesday, 6 July. That particular day had no significance in anything which was to follow; but there came to be some significance, which strangers didn’t completely understand, in the actual neighbourhood.
Yes, you’d better read that again. Not all of C.P. Snow’s sentences are as fruitlessly demanding as this pair, but quite a few of them (certainly the longer ones) do tend to move with a similarly elephantine tread. Throughout his work there is the steady thump of the single-minded plodder, the constant sense of a weightiness that’s merely heavy, of an intelligence that’s certainly retentive, but … and so on. Ever since Leavis did his job on Snow, there has been a generous tendency to praise the civil servant for his remorseless readability, for a kind of cumulative, hypnotic dullness, a sturdy going on and on. But I can’t pretend to be susceptible. It seems to me (as one of Snow’s more splendidly gruff types would put it) the chap really is something of a bore.
But still, he’s not a bounder and we owe it to his decently-based intentions in this book to ‘take the matter further’. A crime novel with a difference, we are told – but what’s the difference? The plot is straightforward police-procedural: grand old lady is battered to death in Belgravia, dogged but unusually imaginative policeman works his way through the half a dozen or so sure-fire suspects, and gets a bit of help on the side from our hero, a ruminative, world-weary ex-spy called Humphrey Leigh. But as a straight suspense tale, it doesn’t begin, or seem to want to, work. For example, it is clear to us a few pages after the murder that the ‘random thug’ theory can be discounted: there are no fingerprints, the killer knew the layout of the house, and anyway the old dear wasn’t really battered to death, she was strangled and then beaten. Apart from knowing that there wouldn’t be a novel if the killing wasn’t done by one of her already-introduced neighbours, we also know from the evidence that it could not have been an outside job. But on we plod, listening to the police weighing this or that implausible theory, dropping into forensics to witness, in detail, the post-mortem, sitting in on briefings in the Murder Room, making patient but perhaps purposeful house-to-house inquiries. By page 174 we are thoroughly persuaded that Snow has gone to the trouble of finding out how a murder inquiry, any murder inquiry, is conducted. But what, we are beginning to whimper, about this murder, this inquiry? Then suddenly, on 175, Superintendent Briers pays an unexpected call on Humphrey Leigh:
‘You know what I think.’ Briers gave a terse smile. ‘And I know you know.’
‘And I know that you agree.’
‘I should think less of you if you didn’t.’
‘When did you?’
Humphrey said: ‘Quite early on.’
‘It didn’t seem right to me. All this talk about burglars.’
‘What didn’t seem right?’
‘He found his way about the house rather well, it seemed to me. These houses do take a bit of knowing. If it was a burglar, wouldn’t there have been more of a struggle? So far as I was told, there was no sign of anything – until right at the end. It looks to me that she didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t help a rather obvious thought, she was most likely killed by someone she knew.’
Briers, a yard away on the window-seat, gave a hard chuckle. ‘We shall make a detective of you yet!’
So much for the suspense. But does one need suspense, if what makes your novel with a difference different is that it has Themes? For C.P. Snow, it should be said, a Theme is only slightly distinguishable from a Topic. Thus, he will introduce the topic of, say, Capital Punishment, and arrange for a group of characters to meet for dinner and discuss it. Each will hold a different view, so that the whole range of current opinion on the matter is represented. So far, so good, but still merely a topic. For full theme-status to be achieved, at least two other similar discussions must take place at fairly well-spaced intervals: the substance of the discussion needn’t vary or develop – what matters is the repetition, the thematic link. Snow never fails us here.
Other themes in A Coat of Varnish include Mind versus Matter, Law and Order in the Seventies, and The Decay of Aristocratic Values. With this last, a topic on which straight opinions are not so easily distributed among the cast, Snow cannily adopts the topographical method: elaborate descriptions of the history and current state of Belgravia, visits to one or two of the better London clubs etc. A complete chapter is devoted to a dinner for two at Brooks’s. The actual table-talk advances the action by perhaps a millimetre; what matters is that we get inside the club, note its furnishings, run through the menu, hear a bit about its history, and so on. All stuff that contributes to the Theme.
With this kind of work on his plate (and I lost count of the number of meals that get eaten in this book) it’s perhaps not surprising that Snow has only half an eye on the dramatic side of things. Once or twice he does try to animate a topic by dramatic representation, but these efforts invariably fail because he has no idea how to make people do things. He can describe what they look like, in an identikit sort of way, he can furnish their houses, photostat their pedigrees, put words (albeit none too convincingly) in their mouths. But, apart from taking them for a walk round Eaton Square once in a while, or hailing them a cab, he permits a minimum of physical activity. Not surprising, this, because for Snow characters are merely sums of attributes; each of them is categorised as if the author were interviewing him for a responsible job – the job of life, no doubt, but if that’s the case, nobody gets it. A small, but significant, slice of Snow-style drama will illustrate. Humphrey is having a ruminative drink in a pub with a friend; they are on the brink of a discussion – capital punishment, or mind versus matter – when a band of yobs bursts in, chanting and swearing. They set about smashing the place up, punching the barman in the face, breaking bottles. The police arrive and the yobs disperse. The barman, although bleeding, had managed to get to a phone. Humphrey and his friend sit there stunned for a second, then begin clearing their throats for the inevitable discussion of law and order: ‘ “Not to be expected in this part of London.” Humphrey was beckoning the barman to clean up the table. His glass had been broken and he was asking for another drink.’
Now this is literally seconds after the punch-up, the barman is presumably still bleeding, his bar is certainly wrecked. Would anyone, let alone Snow’s supposedly decent, considerate, ruminative Humphrey, simply beckon the poor chap over and order another drink? There is no hint here that Snow means us to start looking at Humphrey differently because of this callous behaviour. The fact is that, within the space of a few lines, he’s forgotten that he arranged for the barman to be punched, indeed has forgotten the whole incident, except as yet another peg for yet another theme-enhancing round of chat. The barman never appears again; oddly, though, he stays in the mind as the book’s most human human.