Gladys whispered

John Bayley

  • The Billiard Table Murders by Glen Baxter
    Bloomsbury, 248 pp, £13.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0749 X

Two cowboys in slouch hats and part of a (presumable) horse. ‘To me the window is still a symbolically loaded motif,’ drawled Cody. We are in Glen Baxter country, where the weekend shopping is done by electric launch through swamps full of piranha, and a very Thirties young man with brilliantined hair takes his beloved in his arms and gently squeezes her goatee. Romance in the Baxter context is seldom wholly, or even partially, satisfactory. ‘On the night of our honeymoon ... Rebecca proved to be something of an enigma.’ The picture shows Rebecca in her underwear, over which she has thrown a mannish black dressing-gown piped with white, matching her three-quarter-heel shoes and an immense curtain negligently draped in the left background (or is it in front of her?). The open dressing-gown reveals a stylish Fifties-type corset, which happens to be made of flush-riveted duralumin panels, in the style of a Second World War fighter aircraft. A rather fetching glimpse of pantie at the centre, but the panties appear to be constructed out of chainmail, as are the stocking-tops and an undergarment visible through two louvres below the bust. Rebecca is absently swinging a spiked lead ball at the end of a length of stout chain, but the expression on the dreamy features under the upswept hair is seductive, even tender.

This apparition appears in answer to ‘Tyler, my love, were there many other women in your life?’ whispered Gladys. (Neither sex ever speaks in the Baxter world, but whispers, gasps, rasps, rumbles, hazards, breathes or drawls.) Gladys herself is not what she seems, for since leaving Crodlands school under a slight cloud, she has taken up with Tyler Granthe, an inventor assisted by a tin robot called McNally, and is involved in a trail of mayhem associated with poisoned billiard tables. Tyler consoles himself by quaffing an occasional ‘Hoboken trembler’, and he must need it. On the trail of the pair is the stubborn Inspector Trubcock, of Scotland Yard, latterly assisted by officer Mulheardy of the New York Police Department: but back home Trubcock’s seemingly dissatisfied wife Edna, whose first chore on rising in the morning is to turn off the kitchen stove, is steadily preparing new recipes against his return. It is as well that chance has prevented sampling them hitherto.

As Thurber opined (or hazarded perhaps), you will like all this if this is the sort of thing you like. There is joie de vivre, an eerie freshness, even in the mechanics of Baxter whimsy. But philosophers, artists and even reviewers should beware: intellectual standards on the Baxter campus are high, and they may come up against unshaven desperadoes in short waistcoats draped with six-guns, pointing stubby fingers demandingly in their direction. (‘The way I figger it – truth is un-truth insofar as there belongs to it the reservoir of the not-yet-revealed, the un-uncovered in the sense of concealment’, reasoned McTaggart.) Even the lethal Gladys was extraordinarily gifted academically, although often unpopular with her peers, as her headmistress discloses retrospectively. ‘Her essay, “Hidden Symbolism in the work if Vittore Carpaccio, with special reference to the vision of St Augustine”, brought tears to the eyes of Miss Plangbourne, the External Examiner, but only groans from her fellow students, and I dare say more than a little resentment.’ Challenges everywhere abound. An upstanding young feller, in a pair of enormous furry chaps, reels back before a blank canvas with a small spot in one corner. ‘It was Tom’s first brush with modernism.’ Notice the two-way prosopopoeia in ‘brush’: and even a proleptic third, for someone like Tom, in nautical garb and with a furry tail, will soon be addressing a sceptical crew. ‘I suppose you are all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today,’ whispered the Bosun.

After The Impending Gleam, His Life: The Years of Struggle and Jodhpurs in the Quantocks, the present murder mystery is more ambitious narratology-wise, and exploits to even more dazzling effect a fixation not just with the art of 1920-50-style comics, but with a specific sort of ‘innocent’ illustration once found alike in school stories, thrillers, Science Fiction and pulp romance. As a draughtsman, Baxter is incomparably more accomplished than his usually anonymous predecessors, but he achieves (as it were) the same nerveless outline – an effect of melting bakelite and overstretched rubber bands – and the same indecisively granular texture. The relation between picture and narrative caption is perfectly adjusted, although there are signs here of the Monty Python syndrome. If humour be the food of laughs, play on: but excess of it can depress the appetite. Like poems or birds, jokes have to be caught as they fly. A band of outlaws in Lincoln green gather in the forest round a bulky radiogram struggling to look like a TV set. ‘Robin was certainly impressed with the simulated teak finish.’ More of this could begin to diminish the effect.

His peer and contemporary Handelsman does it with Greek myths, folk tales and ‘moments from history’ freaked with verbal witticisms, but Baxter needs to be deadpan. Hence the timeless atmosphere of a style purporting to be trapped helplessly in a period. Handelsman has his crusader fling a missal (missile – get it?) at a Saracen, who then floors his opponent by quoting Corinthians 4 at him. Such a relevance would be lost on the Baxter world: but both cartoonists succeed by a process of recycling routine romance and convention and fashioning out of it what looks briefly like reality. One of Baxter’s more explicit devices is to reverse Thurber’s technique with sex. There can be no war between men and women in his world because the difference between them is often unclear. ‘Now which one of you is Mrs Bloyard?’ snaps a moustachioed French police inspector to a shingled lady and a man in a Charvet scarf. Wimples, however, are only worn by males, who must also be untidily clad in tweed jackets and grey flannels. Baxter’s art may not prove able to resist for much longer the critic’s urge to interpret and to categorise. All those gestures, artefacts and expressions, caught in his pages like the snaps in Larkin’s young lady’s photograph album, await the attentions of some researcher. A D.Phil. on the significance of snoods (or antlers) in the earlier work is due any day now.