Diamond Daggers

Stephen Wall

  • Death’s Darkest Face by Julian Symons
    Macmillan, 272 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 333 51783 0
  • Vendetta by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 281 pp, £12.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 14332 6
  • Gallowglass by Barbara Vine
    Viking, 296 pp, £13.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 670 83241 3

Death’s Darkest Face is Julian Symons’s 27th crime story, and its appearance coincides with an award (the Diamond Dagger) for his long service to the genre. This isn’t quite enough for his publishers, keen to promote the book as a proper novel rather than another addition, however distinguished, to their crime list. The implied claim that, despite the format, it’s serious stuff not only revives old and no doubt perennial problems about how to take this sort of fiction, but also echoes the author’s concluding comment that, in this case, he’s been less interested in puzzle than personality. There’s some disingenuousness here, since the mystery is quite elaborately contrived and its solution, or solutions, artfully withheld. All the same, the appeal of Death’s Darkest Face goes well beyond eventually finding out how the crime actually happened and who done it.

It would be too severe to say that most thrillers aren’t worth reading because it’s in their nature to self-destruct, imploding with their terminal expositions of motive, means and opportunity. It’s true that, once the problem has been worked out, there’s not often much point in going back over it – as Edmund Wilson almost said, who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd afterwards – but good examples of the form have other attractions. They usually seem to owe their durability to elements in them that are gratuitous, strictly speaking. The sleuths don’t really need all those fetching idiosyncrasies: Holmes’s violin-playing is as investigatively beside the point as Morse’s addiction to his gramophone. Chandler lavishes on his mean and not so mean streets a lyric attentiveness far in excess of the facts as they need to be cleared up. Maigret’s characteristic self-immersion in a given milieu is too imaginatively entranced to be accounted for by the almost regrettable need to nail the culprit.

When crime fiction aspires to cross over into respectability, however, it risks ending up in no man’s land. As Julian Symons himself says, a writer of crime stories assumes that ‘every problem must have a rational answer.’ In such a climate there isn’t much room for the random contingencies that life offers since they would run counter to the prevailing logic of cause and effect. The tyranny of plot means that awkward complications of character are likely to be suppressed. The necessary demands of detection take over space that might otherwise be given to less mechanical matters, like the study of morals or the evocation of memory. Such things do, in fact, have a place in Symons’s narrative but they have to be kept within bounds, so that while for a crime story it’s more interesting than usual, for a novel it feels less filled-out than it might be.

The detection in Death’s Darkest Face isn’t in the practised hands of a never-quite-hardened professional, but is amateurishly taken up by a middle-aged actor belatedly trying to discover what crime or crimes his father may have committed long ago. Geoffrey Elder is introduced as a former friend, now deceased, by Julian Symons himself, who purports merely to have edited the thespian’s posthumous ms. Symons admits to shaping and sharpening the presentation of Elder’s findings, and to cutting out extraneous personal matter not relevant to the enquiry (but which in another sort of novel the reader might have been glad of). The main result of this intervention is an adroit series of time-shifts, so that we oscillate between the Sixties, when Elder tries to pick up the long-faded scent, and the Thirties, when as an adolescent he played a minor part in a drama he didn’t then understand. The desire to make more sense of the past than one was able to when it happened is sympathetic enough, and Elder’s (and Symons’s) re-creation of his childhood in one of the better parts of Kensington has sound novelistic virtues. So also have the descriptions of the seaside resort where the Elder family have a holiday house; details of pre-war decor and ambience are touched in surely but unobtrusively. However, what with obtuse local bobbies, drunks found dead in caravans, blackmailing letter, and people arriving for lunch in old Daimlers, we might also be in a typical detective story of the period, expecting, say, Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French to look in at any moment.

Technically, what has to be explained is the disappearance of the bohemian and not over-scrupulous poet Hugo Headley. His clothes are found on the shore, but he is known to be a strong swimmer and a bathing accident seems unlikely. Hugo is not a great loss to society, nor – to judge by the one stanza from his oeuvre that’s quoted – to English poetry either.

When you and I together lie,
Lip to lip and thigh to thigh,
And I press, and you sigh,
What thunderclaps of eternity shake us ...

He seems to have had some kind of hold over Elder père, but thirty years on he remains unaccounted for. Did Geoffrey’s father kill him? It’s a question on which, finally, character and author disagree, but it comes to seem less important than the one which really fuels Geoffrey’s retrospective researches, which is simply what sort of man – behind his impassive Keatonesque demeanour – was the older Elder? This voyage towards his father not only leads the son to reassess and – in the light of new evidence – to reinterpret his memories of him, but also for the first time to understand what their unarticulated feelings about each other actually were. To Geoffrey, and to us, criminal justice gives way to familial understanding.

Such a conclusion might seem to tilt the book decisively towards the novel proper, but – and especially towards its close – a good deal of crime story apparatus is resorted to: documents come to light, a skeleton is turned up, petty crooks trying to cash in fall out over a transvestite colleague, the dim duo from the Constabulary reappear to ask a few more unsubtle questions. This flurry of generic activity distracts from what has been emerging as the book’s other underlying subject – the lasting effect of earlier events on Geoffrey Elder himself. Not the least of these is the moment when he witnesses the discovery by his father of his mother in flagrante with another man. Given the undemanding nature of the cohabitation that he has settled down to in middle life, a Go-Between-like trauma may be suspected, but the matter is not gone into as much as one would like. Perhaps, too, there is more significance than is elicited in Geoffrey’s choice of profession, with its chronic and necessary vagueness about one’s own identity when there are so many others to be assumed. He’s the sort of actor whose career peaks in a good Enobarbus, is obliged to do voice-overs to pay the rent of his Pimlico basement, is scornful of television and the slovenly diction it promotes, and thinks that real acting can only happen in the theatre. It’s a perfectly plausible portrait, but any further possibilities it may suggest can’t be followed up because of his detective duties. In the event – and despite the author’s expressed preference – the demands of the form prevail, and person is inevitably upstaged by plot.

Michael Dibdin’s Vendetta marks the reappearance of Aurelio Zen, the Venetian cop who cleared up an unsavoury kidnapping in Ratking (Gold Dagger Award, 1988), where the unsparing exposé of depravity among the powerful of Perugia was matched by a command of local detail that became almost too much for the thriller’s purposes. In the new story Zen finds his career in Rome somewhat becalmed. His American girlfriend has given him up and gone home, and his rather tepid interest in the wife of a colleague hasn’t got very far. Someone seems to be tailing him, however, and his ageing mother is worried by odd noises in their flat. As a result of high level pressure, he’s sent to investigate a sensational murder in Sardinia, and it’s clear that his prospects depend on his coming up with a solution that’s politically helpful. Dibdin clearly doesn’t take an encouraging view of standards of integrity in Italian public life.

In Sardinia a rich and corrupt architect has turned a derelict farm into a villa with every luxury and protected by the best available security systems. This hasn’t stopped someone getting in and gunning down him and his wife in full view of the automatic video monitor. When he gets to the island Zen doesn’t find the locals keen to co-operate, despite his pretence of being a wealthy Swiss looking for a property, and they are even less impressed when they find out who he really is. Policemen from Rome are not welcome in the Sardinian hinterland. Meanwhile, an old lag Zen put away years ago has caught up with him and is looking forward to levelling the score. Both strands of plot intertwine in an extended chase across wild terrain which provides a strong climax to a story that earlier has its sluggish passages.

Michael Dibdin writes convincingly where locale is concerned and, as a thriller, Vendetta is a superior and well-informed performance. At times, however, the dialogue reads as if it has been subtitled into gangsterese, and it’s hard to get sufficiently interested in Zen himself. In Ratking Dibdin tried to give him a credibilising background of memories, but here his ground-down middle-aged state may be all too recognisable but doesn’t do much to energise our sympathies. As his private life only goes to show, he’s not an involving man.

The novels she writes under the name Barbara Vine seem to be Ruth Rendell’s out-patient department, and certainly in Gallow-glass little Joe – as his enigmatic friend Sandor calls him – looks like a deserving candidate for community care. Illegitimate and unlovingly fostered, he doesn’t know much but he knows about depression. Sandor pulls him back from the edge of the platform and the oncoming train and, in gratitude and love, he becomes Sandor’s creature and the agent of his plans. Sandor is a kidnapper, initially for money, and then for love. The first time was in Italy, naturally, where he made the mistake of falling for his glamorous model captive. The man she is now married to offers her security in every sense of the word – his East Anglian house is almost as heavily fortified as the Sardinian retreat in Vendetta – but it isn’t enough. The man he hires to protect her becomes as besotted as Sandor still is.

This parallelism is typical of the crafted symmetries of the book’s construction, but – as Trollope complained when reading Wilkie Collins – it’s difficult to lose the taste of the construction. Motivation is too exactly tailored to produce the results required by the plot; the very proficiency with which the characters function in what is admittedly an effortless read makes them fictionally suspect. When they’ve done what the author wants, they have little life of their own and nothing left to give: cause has been swallowed up by effect.