Inquest by Loel Yeo

August 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

Loel Yeo’s ‘Inquest’ is one of the best stories to appear in the anthology, Detective Stories from the Strand edited by Jack Adrian.

Anthologies are often disappointing. The anthologiser make claims (of research and selection) which we do not feel can be supported by the stories he has chosen because we have seen them collected elsewhere. Another anthology of anthologies?

Or perhaps the anthologiser tantalises us with a statement like, rather than the much-anthologised ‘X’ story of author ‘Y’, I have chosen ‘Z’ story instead. We have read ‘Z’ story and have never heard of the much-anthologised ‘X’ story.

Despite the fact that Jack Adrian has selected his stories from one magazine only, the anthology itself is the best, as far as I recall, that I have read. In good anthologies, there is usually only a handful of really good stories, in an average anthology, one and in some anthologies, limited perhaps by year, none.

Another failing of editors of anthologies is in not telling us about the writers, save perhaps what he or she has copied from another anthology. Jack Adrian does not belong amongst such lazy anthologisers. He introduces all the writers, and even where he cannot identify them still makes elucidating remarks.

Of Loel Yeo, Jack Adrian says: Whoever he was, and whether or not Loel Yeo was his real name (anagrammatically, it doesn’t make much sense), he could write. And not merely competently, either. There is assurance in the style, an authoritive building-up of tension, convincing characterization, a telling use of irony. No wonder Dorothy L. Sayers, a fine judge of good writing, snapped ‘Inquest’ up in 1934 for her third and final volume of Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror.

Loel Yeo was PG Wodehouse’s beloved step-daughter, Leonora. PG Wodehouse in a letter* (April 8, 1932) to his friend Denis Mackail:

I am so glad you like Snorky’s story. I thought it was marvellous. It’s such a pity she writes with such difficulty. Have you seen a Snorky M.S.? She sits in bed with a very thin-paper pad and one of those pencils that makes the faintest possible mark, and in about four hours produces a page. Then she writes another page next day and puts ring round it and a hieroglyphic on page one, – that is to show that part of page two goes on page one, then you read the rest of page one and go back to page two, in the meantime inserting a bit of page four. All in that filthy, obscene handwriting of hers. Still, the results are good. Do egg her on to writing some more. I am so afraid this beastly dress business of hers will absorb her.

 

*From Sophie Ratcliffe’s P. G. Wodehouse A Life in Letters.

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The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Storylines are revealed in this review.

Lucia Holley’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Beatrice, has become involved with a disreputable older man, Ted Darby. Lucia does not want Beatrice to see him any more. But the ‘worldly-wise’ Beatrice, believing her mother to be wrong about Ted, will not listen to her.

Lucia has no one to advise her. She won’t trouble her husband, Tom, who is away at war. And neither does she confide in her father, Mr Harper, who lives with them. It seems that he would be unable to bear the knowledge of his granddaughter’s involvement with a louche type.

Lucia visits Ted, in his seedy hotel, and appeals unsuccessfully to him. Although Lucia forbids Beatrice to see Ted, Beatrice arranges for Ted to meet her at their boat house. It is night time when he arrives; Lucia manages to prevent Beatrice from going out to him. Mr Harper catches the tail end of their argument. He learns of a bothersome man, but not his name or his relation to his granddaughter. Mr Harper goes out to deal with him.

When Mr Harper returns, rather pleased with himself, he reports that he has pushed the man into the water. The water is no more than four feet, not deep enough for anyone to drown in.

Early next morning when Lucia goes out to swim, she discovers Darby’s body impaled on an anchor in the moored boat. To protect her family, Lucia brings the body to a nearby island.

But the matter does not end there. Mr Nagle, one of Ted Darby’s creditors, comes to the Holleys. As he has not heard from Ted since he arranged to meet Beatrice, he thinks they might have information about him. Lucia fobs him off but for how long?

Lucia tells her father that he pushed a German man into the water. Therefore some days later when Ted Darby’s body is discovered, Mr Harper has no idea that he killed Ted Darby.

The newspapers reveal that Ted Darby dabbled in pornography. Beatrice declares that she is ruined. Her association with Ted will destroy her. But as no one who counts is aware of Beatrice’s relationship with Ted, it can be covered up.

Irishman Martin Donnelly, Nagle’s partner, an altogether different kind of man to Nagle, calls on the Holleys, equipped with the letters Beatrice wrote to Ted. Beatrice’s letters are the security for the money Ted owes them. Neither he nor Nagle can afford to lose the money they lent Ted Darby. Lucia must pay 5,000 dollars to retrieve the letters.

While involving herself with criminals, Lucia continues her role as respectable housewife. She passes Martin Donnelly off as an old colleague of her husband’s. Beatrice is kept out of things. She is now making friends with a nice boy from the rich and respectable Lloyd family. It becomes all the more important for Beatrice to retain her reputation. It is assumed that if Mr Harper is charged with killing Darby, Beatrice’s entanglement with him will come out, and the Lloyds will drop her.

The investigating Lieutenant Levy, nice though he is, is not so nice as to overlook the incriminating evidence Lucia left behind her when she disposed of the body.

Lucia, however, is not alone. The resourceful Sylvia (the Holleys’ cook), who has been masking Lucia’s inefficiencies for years, is on her side, and so, oddly enough, is Martin Donnelly. But one wrong leads to another and it gets harder to turn back.

The Blank Wall is a special book. One of those books you feel affection for when you see it on your shelves and can only wish that enough time had passed since you read it last, so you could read it again.

However, The Blank Wall has one great flaw: the author appears to suggest through her characters that it is most acceptable for the rich man to be in his castle, and the beggar at his gate. You might read ‘respectable’ for ‘rich’ and ‘criminal’ for ‘beggar’.

He [Mr Harper] was getting old in such a clean, fine way, his silver hair cropped close, his nails so neatly clipped, his necktie pressed that morning, a brown and yellow check . . . (Chapter 8)

Not all of us will get old in such picturesque way, does that mean we are less entitled to freedom from harassment? Mr Harper has done a very dangerous thing; it could amount to manslaughter. He pushed a man, whose swimming abilities he knew nothing of, into the water and then did not check if he had come to any harm.

All Beatrice has done is involve herself, mildly, with a louche type whose loucheness she did not even spot. She wrote a few letters, which were more innocent than otherwise, to him. She let him kiss her but that was all. Is she indeed ruined? The story is set in 1940s not in 1870s. She has not lost her virginity. In what way is she ruined?

Are the Lloyds entitled to drop Beatrice when they discover where her naivety has led her? The Holleys do not seem to query their right to do so. Who are the Lloyds? From where have they derived their fortune? Who is the Lloyd boy to quibble about a few kisses? What has he been up to?

The Lloyds, like the Holleys, are nice people: it is enough. And all these nice people should be allowed to go on being nice, unimpeded by criminal associations. Does it matter what we do, so long as we appear respectable?

A man, Murray, is arrested on suspicion of the killing but Martin Donnelly advises Lucia to let him, if necessary, be electrocuted for it. Murray is guilty of enough else. Lucia feels that reticence in this matter would be a sin. But she has all the more to hide, and one wonders if she would have, or could have, come forward. At this point, Lucia has covered up a killing, disposed of a dead body and involved herself with blackmailers. Lucia hesitates. Fortunately for her, she is not put to the test: Murray is released.

They’re so very criminal. Why should people like Father and Bee [Beatrice] have to suffer, just to clear a man like that Murray? (Chapter 11)

Should Lucia covet so much, for her family, respectability? Why prize respectability when it is is so easily lost? If the Lloyds would be so quick to condemn Beatrice, are they worth bothering about?

Yet the characters’ feelings of entitlement (which appear to be shared by the author) are not what lingers in my mind. I  forget about them, and I almost forget about Beatrice and Mr Harper too, but I do not forget Lucia, Sylvia, or Martin Donnelly. These are three great characters: great because we remember them. They are realistic, their actions are not predictable but they are fitting. They linger in the memory after characters in greater books have faded.

Lucia married straight from school, and soon after had children. She has seen little of the world. Beatrice almost despises her for it. Yet it is Beatrice that is the more typical character. She’s had her rebellion and bitten off more than she could chew. Now we anticipate she will marry the Lloyd boy; she is certainly keen to keep in with the family. She has quickly lost her taste for the bohemian.

The tough talking daughter is not half the woman her mother is. Her mother has had a sheltered life but when it comes to this crisis, she proves tougher, and more resourceful than all the others, including the criminals.  Elizabeth Sanxay Holdings illustrates well the truth that some people with little experience of the world understand its workings far better than those with more experience.

Martin Donnelly is not a low criminal type. He falls in love with the thirty-eight-year old Lucia. She is the woman who comes nearest to his ideals. He is far from bad. He went wrong somewhere but he has more nobility than many a respectable person.

For Lucia’s sake, Donnelly does things he would never have done. But does Lucia care for him? What will her life be like when Tom, her husband, returns from the war? Tom doesn’t sound interesting. I imagine him to be a pleasant, dull man who does not know Lucia. But would anyone have known her as went about her motherly and wifely duties, duties which represented the life she was so keen to cling to, at almost any cost?

It is still a mystery to me how Lucia feels about Martin Donnelly. I hope that she loved him. It seems the least she could do.

The romance is of the best kind: thwarted, high-minded and unconsummated. Ah, if only . . .

“Can I see you once more?” he said. “When I’ve settled all this, would you have lunch with me, the way it was today?”

She did not answer.

“Just the once, when it’s all settled? he asked. “I know how it is with you. You have your family and your—social  position to think of. But if you’d give me just one more sight of you . . . ?”

There were people moving and hurrying all around them; a prodigious voice was announcing trains but they were somehow isolated. He did not urge her any more; he simply waited in a dreadful humility. The gate of her platform was opening, but she stood there with her lashes lowered. Suddenly she held out her white-gloved hand, and looked at him.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be very pleased to have lunch with you some day.”

(Chapter 15)

The Blank Wall deserves a place in the Crime Writers Association (CWA) top 100 crime novels (1990) and the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) top 100 (1995). It is not listed in either. The lists are found on the same page, the CWA one first, and the MWA one underneath.

The Blank Wall (1947) has been made into two films, The Reckless Moment (1949) and The Deep End (2001)

Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke talk about self-publishing on Kindle at the London Book Fair 2013

April 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Where should we begin Mel Sherratt’s story?

We could start it here. In December 2011, Mel Sherratt published Taunting the Dead on Kindle. In one month, she sold 40,000 at 99p a copy.

It went on to be a number 1 Kindle bestseller, in three different fiction categories, and ultimately a number 3 bestseller in fiction. Not bad at all. However, when this one month comes after 12 years of writing, part time until 2010, it’s not such a great story for those seeking instant success.

Mel Sherratt nearly secured a traditional publishing deal. She had an agent, and her book Taunting the Dead had got to acquisitions stage: then everything fell through. What had she to lose by publishing Taunting the Dead on Kindle?

Publishing on Kindle was not Mel Sherratt’s first choice, nor would it be today. In a way it was a last resort, or perhaps the only way she could see herself being published quickly. And despite her success, she still wants to be published traditionally. Why? Because that was her goal when she set out. All the same, she would rather self-publish on Kindle than not publish at all.

Three books of Mel Sherratt’s ‘Estate’ series (psychological suspense) are also available on Kindle.

Before self-publishing, Tim Cooke wrote for television. Tim Cooke published Kiss and Tell in October 2012, and his second book Defending Elton this month, April 2013. Although Kiss and Tell was the first to be published, it was not the first to be written. Tim Cooke wrote a draft of Defending Elton first. So no, he did not whizz off a complete novel in six months.

Three top literary agents had worked with Tim Cooke. Yet even with their help, Tim Cooke did not secure a publishing deal. His books had been professionally edited (by agents). Like Mel Sherratt, he had gone far down the road to a publishing deal.

We, unpublished writers, know how hard it is to interest agents. Is it comforting to know that getting an agent will not necessarily lead to a publishing deal?

For neither writer did things happen quickly. And it seems likely that neither of them would have been as successful on Kindle if they had got to it sooner. In the time they were waiting to secure publishing deals, they were able, with the help of their agents, to improve their books.

More than once, Tim Cooke said that a book should be as good as it could be, before you self-publish it.

Mel Sherratt found, after hours of searching online, an image, a rose for Taunting the Dead. Before Taunting the Dead was published on Kindle, a writer friend of Mel Sherratt’s put the finishing touches on the cover.

The designer that Tim Cooke asked to do the cover for Defending Elton agreed because he had liked the book. He also designed the cover for Kiss and Tell; he did not charge his usual fee. Tim later learnt that the designer had done covers for Irvine Welsh and Stephen King. (Books will advise you that knowledge is power, but if Tim Cooke had known of the book-cover designer’s prestige, he probably would not have asked for his help.)

Taunting the Dead had been structurally edited but not copy edited when it was first published. So there were mistakes. Mel Sherratt has had her other books copy edited as they were published (she’s since had Taunting the Dead copy edited too). She wouldn’t recommend that any writer omitted this step. You can’t copy edit yourself, she told us.

Publishing on Kindle appears easy. You can self-publish, but will your book sell? Buyers of ebooks seem to look for the same things as buyers of hard copy books, a well written book, and a good cover.

We hear great success stories in self-publishing, of ebooks that have not been edited and of readers who (happily?) point out all sorts of mistakes to the writer so that she can correct them. Collaborations between readers and writers? How long can that last for? We can only presume that such writers are lucky. If becoming an ebook bestseller were that easy, who could resist self-publishing a book?

I heard Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke speak at the Authorlounge  (The London Book Fair on 15th April 2013).

Jane Austen’s advice, applied to ‘Untimely Death’ by Cyril Hare: 3 to 4 families in the Country the very thing to work on

March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Francis Pettigrew travels to Exmoor for a holiday with his wife – an area in which as a young boy he was traumatised by coming across a dead body on the moor. In an attempt to exorcise this trauma, Pettigrew walks across the moor to the place where the incident occurred – only to find another dead body.

Moreover, when he returns to the scene with the police, the body is gone. Did he really see a body – or is it a hallucination conjured up by his return to the scene of the crime that has haunted him since childhood? (Faber & Faber’s blurb for Untimely Death by Cyril Hare)

Some years ago I read Cyril Hare’s With a Bare Bodkin: it was not at all as good as Tragedy at Law. Having recently reread Tragedy at Law, and read within a few days Untimely Death, I feel there is about the same gap in excellence between them as between Tragedy at Law and With a Bare Bodkin.

Tragedy at Law gained so much from its rich legal setting that we feel the thinness of the setting of Untimely Death. Exmoor is not to Untimely Death as the circuit was to Tragedy at Law.

Why did Cyril Hare bother to marry Pettigrew? He was well into middle age. His marriage has not done much for him except give him a wife. Faber & Faber don’t name her (Eleanor) in the blurb. She is not significant enough. She may be very busy in the background, tending to Pettigrew’s meals and laundry and making beds: doing all those very thankless things that a wife might do in real life but they are to little purpose in the story. The story might have gone on well enough without her; her contributions to the plot could have been taken over by someone else.

If Cyril Hare gave Francis a wife, would it not have been useful to have given him a child as well: a boy of about ten who could have been the one to find the body? And the boy could have enriched the story with his own problems. If the Pettigrews were unable to have children, perhaps the boy could have been the child of deceased relatives and they, his newly-appointed guardians.

Hester Greenway, does wonder (aloud) why Eleanor didn’t have children, but Eleanor no more satisfies our curiosity on this point than Hilda does about why she married Barber in Tragedy at Law.

When Jane Austen talked about 3 or 4 families in the country as a good amount of people to write about, she was on to something. Many modern novels are more likely to be spoilt for having too few than too many people in them. Think of the number of people in Tragedy at Law. There are not only more characters but they are more particularised too. We learn a bit about the clerk, the servants, Derek and his romance, the Barbers etc. The characters in Untimely Death are less memorable than those of Tragedy at Law. Once read about, they fade quickly from the mind: Joliffe (he’s mean) Jack (the irresistible male, a type so often met with in fiction, so little in real life) and Hester Greenway (the forthright friend). This book would have benefited from two more characters that could have been to Untimely Death as the Barbers were to Tragedy at Law.

Untimely Death seems inferior to Tragedy at Law in all respects: the story is not as dramatic, the setting as significant, the characters as well-developed, the humour as evident, the writing as good, nor the plot as intricate.

If the writer has devised a good story, is it likely that the rest will follow? Or is the number of characters critical, more people, more stories and ultimately a more satisfying novel? Julian Symons writes of Cyril Hare’s gifts coalescing in Tragedy at Law, and I agree with him. What is it that makes them coalesce?

Why do few writers produce one good novel after another? Great ones do, but the novels of lesser writers can astonish in their disparity.

What is the matter with Cyril Hare’s Frank Pettigrew (‘Tragedy at Law’)?

March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

Hare showed from the first an agreeable liveliness in writing dialogue, and an unusual capacity for using his legal knowledge. In his fourth book, Tragedy at Law (1942), his gifts coalesced, and the account of the life of a judge on circuit is done with a sense of comedy and a feeling for character that keeps one totally absorbed in the misadventures of the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, Justice of the King’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. Julian Symons in Bloody Murder

I feel indebted to the late Julian Symons for bringing Tragedy at Law to my attention. I first read Tragedy at Law (borrowed from Highgate Library) about three years ago. I recollect reading the start with a great deal of pleasure, but feeling dissatisfied with the end.

The plot was not entirely satisfactory. But that would not have been a cause for dissatisfaction: the resolution of a crime novel rarely is satisfying.

Last Autumn I bought my own copy of Tragedy at Law from Oxfam. In January, I chanced to pick it up, intending to read only a few pages. All the same, I carried on reading until I finished it. Not only does Cyril Hare write well but he writes with a particular kind of English good-humoured humour that I take great pleasure in. Those who knew Barber best used to say that whenever he was particularly faddy or exacting he invariably excused himself by referring to the high standards set by his colleagues or, in their default, his predecessors. One had a vision of a great company of masterful beings, in scarlet and white, urging on the modest Barber to abate no jot of his just dues in the interests of the whole judiciary of England, past and present. Certainly Barber usually showed no reluctance in obeying their summons. (Chapter 1)

Cyril Hare shows a fine management too of the long sentence: a type that the writer can so easily lose control of. In place of the monastic seclusion of the Canon’s house in the Close, the Judge’s household was lodged in a gaunt Victorian mansion, with vast ill-furnished rooms which contrived to be at once chill and stuffy, whose huge plate-glass windows gave on to a wilderness of smokey chimneys by day and raised perpetual difficulties over the black-out at night. (Chapter 9)

There are so many good things, the atmosphere, the personalities and the real sympathy we feel towards an intelligent barrister like Frank Pettigrew who has not had so successful a career as it first promised to be. Looking back at the confident, and—he could fairly say it now—brilliant young man who had opened his career at the bar beneath that self-same flaking plaster ceiling, he fell to wondering what had gone wrong with him. Everything had promised well at first, and everything had turned out ill.  [Then Pettigrew thinks less about blaming other things and more about acknowledging some deficiency in himself.]  Something that he lacked and others, whom he knew to be his inferiors in so many ways, possessed in full measure? Some quality that was neither character nor intellect nor luck, but without which none of these gifts would avail to carry their possessor to the front? (Chapter 1)

Pettigrew is intelligent and good-humoured but he didn’t attract Hilda, William Barber’s wife. She, we infer, had a chance to marry Pettigrew (the long drawn out agony of his pursuit of Hilda, and What a dance she had led him on!) but she didn’t take it. Why? It is hard to see why William Barber attracted her unless it was because he made a lot of money at the bar (before he became a judge) or she wanted to vicariously enjoy a legal career by manipulating her husband’s. (Hilda had been called to the bar, but, in those days, her career was hampered by the fact that she was a woman.)

We are not the only ones who wonder why she married William Barber. He is not a nice man. Independently, her brother and Sebald-Smith (the victim of the pivotal car accident) both wonder aloud, to her face, about her choosing to marry William Barber. She does not satisfy their curiosity or ours. (Was this a novelist’s sleight of hand? In the sense that Hare decided to deal with the strangeness of the marriage by showing us he was aware of it.) Do we just accept the marriage. There are marriages which the imagination, even the most practised literary one, cannot conceive. You must just accept them, as you do in the theatre when you see the ancient and doddering married to the beautiful and gay, as the given premises on which the farce is mechanically built up. (Little Lizzy by Thomas Mann)

The marriage between Hilda and William is not, in truth, farcical, we simply feel dissatisfied by it. As we are, in real life, when we can’t account for marriages between certain people.

But these wonderings are beside the point: why didn’t I enjoy Tragedy at Law more? I lay the blame on the character of Frank Pettigrew.

Pettigrew took his defeat [at the hands of William Barber] with resignation, with good humour even. He put up a semblance of a fight, but he knew he was beaten, and it was not his habit to prolong the agony in hopeless cases. In this, perhaps, he was unwise. Clients are human, and derive much consolation from “a good fight”, however vain. (Chapter 6).

But perhaps Cyril Hare made a mistake in the drawing of Frank Pettigrew’s character. There is room in literature for the brilliant man and the bitter unsuccessful man, but the mild unsuccessful man appeals less. We are human too and we want something more than a middle-aged, unsuccessful barrister. From my first reading, I remembered Pettigrew only as a recessive middle-aged man disappointed in love, unsuccessful there as well as at the bar.

When I came to the book again I was surprised to find that he was so humorous, intelligent, feeling and sympathetic. We don’t see very much of him in the second half of the book. As a main character, he should have appeared more. He begins even then to fade in our minds.

Frank Pettigrew’s personality is overcast by his failure. In recollection, he is far less interesting than he really is. His failure dims him too much.

Justice Barber did not act fairly by Frank Pettigrew. Some of Barber’s actions are deliberate, some, perhaps, impersonal and no more than the actions of a man who is not admirable. We are to understand that Justice Barber was deeply influenced by Hilda  that she, in fact, wrote his judgements for him. Why didn’t Frank Pettigrew resent Hilda a little more? His career needed a boost not judgements from Williams Barber that were made more damaging by her meddling.  We would have had more sympathy for Pettigrew, if he had liked Hilda (the person who is harmful to him) less. We can’t feel for him if he doesn’t feel for himself. Most people, when they have been bitten, do not put out their hand to be bitten again, and we don’t respect them when they do.

Why was Frank Pettigrew hanging around unmarried all that time? Later he marries, so why did Cyril Hare make him wait so long? We can only hope it was not because of Hilda. His constancy to Hilda when she had made her life with another man, and one Pettigrew did not like, seems neither natural nor admirable. What was he waiting for? Characters who don’t feel enough for themselves have a neutralising effect on the emotions of readers. We don’t want them to wallow in self-pity but we want them to feel something so we can identify with them. Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore produced a similar but more pronounced reaction in me; he seemed to be abnormally passive. In such cases, it is hardly my place, as a reader, to usurp the functions of a fictitious character and experience emotions which that character neither can nor will experience.

Tragedy at Law does deserve a place in the top 100 crime novels of all time. But I would consider that no. 85 is too low.

The impossibility of the puzzle-type crime novel: writing crime novels

February 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The writer of the classic puzzle-type crime novel is attempting to reconcile some irreconcilables, so it is expected that something should fail.

The crime writer is bound to have a mystery: the solution thereof should not jump into the reader’s mind straight off. And this mystery must be plausible. Someone must be murdered, the murderer must have a strong motive, and then several eligible murderers must converge (or must possibly have converged) at the time and place of the murder.

The murderer, if we are to be puzzled at all, while having a strong motive, must seem quite unsuspicious or so suspicious that we count him out. The crime writer has a tall order to fill: I don’t expect her to fill it, and I am quite willing to make allowances.

Ivy Compton-Burnett said real life is of very little use in helping you to formulate plots. Real life is rather plotless. Equally real murders are of very little use to the crime writer. They, too, are rather plotless. Motives can be feeble, suspects rather scare—and therefore obvious from the outset—and real-life detectives never display Sherlock Holmes’s brilliance.

Judges do not throw murder cases out of court because of the feebleness of the murderer’s motive. But readers do reject crime novels because of a murderer’s inadequate motive. As there is something essentially fantastical about the puzzle-type crime novel, the writer can never completely get over its hurdles. Crime novels rarely have satisfying denouements. So the crime writer must offer some pretty good things along the way, to distract the reader from the fact that the novel’s resolution does not really past muster.

Both Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare) and The Widow of Bath (Margot Bennett) offer many compensations.

If a sense of humour is like a piano keyboard, then mine has two dud notes, farce and black comedy: Looking at ‘The Journeying Boy’ by Michael Innes.

February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

Apart from The new Sonia Wayward (1960) and The Journeying Boy (1949*), I have forgotten most of what I read by Michael Innes. But, for me, memory is no yardstick when it comes to testing literary merit: I forget everyone’s work, Jane Austen’s, Henry James’s, Leo Tolstoy’s . . . The only novels I remember are those I have read more than once.

However, a body of work leaves an impression and we can recall its terrain. My recollection of Mr Innes’s work is that there was more humour than could be realistically contained in serious crime novels, and characters displayed more learning than their equivalent in real life were likely to.

Michael Innes is a good writer, and an amusing one but his humour has a dangerous tendency to teeter over into farce; at that point, Mr Innes and I are no longer in sympathy.

On the 100 best crime novels list, The Journeying Boy finds a place at no. 54. Does it deserve a place on the list?

Sir Bernard Paxton was a scientist of International repute and considerable wealth, Mr Thewless [Clueless?] was a private tutor of modest repute and no wealth. He was therefore pleased and flattered to have the chance of becoming tutor to Sir Bernard’s wayward son Humphrey, who was in some ways normal, and in others horribly advanced.

But Mr Thewless didn’t get the job – it went to an intellectually limited field-sport enthusiast, Captain Cox. Or rather it would have gone to Captain Cox if the latter had lived long enough to start it. Taken from Penguin’s blurb (1964).

For Humphrey’s protection, Mr Thewless takes him to Ireland to stay with the Bolderwoods (some unknown and distant relatives). Various misadventures, en route and in Ireland, follow. On the journey over, they meets a Miss Liberty who is apparently going on holiday. Miss Liberty, we think, is not telling us the full story. I can’t believe in Miss Liberty any more than I can believe in the criminals who are in hot, and ham-fisted, pursuit of Humphrey. Their villainy is that of characters in a child’s cartoon.

You must choose whether you are going to plump for drama or comedy. (You can’t have both unless, of course, like Shakespeare, you separate dramatic scenes from comic ones. ) When the two are intermingled, an author writes a farce. At least, this is my understanding of a farce. Farces don’t work for me because they pull me in two different directions: Is it funny? Or is it dramatic? My reactions are confused. The dramatic aspects mute the comic ones and vice versa. Farce makes me anxious rather than amused.

The obvious villains in The Journeying Boy can’t frighten us—they are too absurd—but neither do they succeed in amusing us because we have the expectation of being kept in a state of suspense, and we are not. So we neither feel one thing nor the other and the reading experience is spoilt.

For all that Miss Liberty and the criminals fail as characters, Humphrey, Mr Thewless and the Bolderwoods succeed. Although the Bolderwoods are marvellous, I can’t help being disappointed in the use Mr Innes made of them. But, I think, other readers will not necessarily share my feelings about that. The point is: if Mr Innes can portray such believable characters, why have unbelievable ones? Is he so irresistibly drawn to farce that he must introduce unrealistic characters to carry through the farcical elements of his plot?

When Mr Thewless rises in the middle of the night to investigate some strange goings-on in Killyboffin Hall (applause for Mr Innes’s portrayal of the Irish), Mr Innes out Henry-James Henry James. I skipped ahead at this section to see how many pages were before me and then—with a terrible sense of being imposed upon—I read them. Michael Innes can be long-winded.

The new Sonia Wayward is much shorter than The Journeying Boy and has fewer flaws. Yet I would not consider it to be a better book. We have, amongst other things, to believe that one character was able to successfully pass herself off as another. Whereas, whatever the weaknesses of The Journeying Boy, its strengths far outweighed them. Perhaps the most important thing for a reader is to be able to like, or take an interest in, some of the characters. Some of the characters appealed to me a great deal in The Journeying Boy but none did in The new Sonia Wayward.

Where Mr Innes is successful in The Journeying Boy, he is very successful. And he can be very amusing, so long as he falls short of farce: the ending was an inexcusable piece of farce. However, I am willing to accept that the limitations of my sense of humour make me incapable of judging this book fairly.

In conclusion, The Journeying Boy deserves a place on the CWA’s 100 best list.

* Originally published by Victor Gollancz

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