Great Tradition

Robert Barnard

  • Plaster Sinners by Colin Watson
    Eyre Methuen, 160 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 413 39040 3
  • Photo-Finish by Ngaio Marsh
    Collins, 262 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 00 231857 1
  • The Predator by Russell Braddon
    Joseph, 192 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1958 4

‘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.