Recently the library got in some reprints of the work of Margery Allingham, a British mystery writer in the grand tradition who was roughly contemporary with Agatha Christie but carved out her own niche with books featuring her detective Albert Campion, an elegant ratiocinator who you could imagine sharing drinks with Lord Peter Wimsey, though not necessarily at the same club. It’s been a while since I perused a good mystery from that time period and I’ve heard enough about Allingham to give a Campion book or two a go — there was a series of adaptations of them for British TV that showed up over here in the mid-nineties or so which were all right, what little I saw of them.
British mysteries as genre fiction have not been an overwhelming interest of mine but they’ve been a softly steady one over the years, an inheritance from my mom, who is the true addict in the family (I’ve already been promised all the Christie hardbacks she has around). Conan Doyle and Holmes are long-time favorites, helped by the magnificent Jeremy Brett adaptations, but the stories themselves remain fine products of their time, a preserving of Victoriana as a mental setting as powerful as anything by Dickens or Gilbert and Sullivan. Jumping ahead many decades and many changes in writing style and subject matter, I was first introduced to the work of David Peace by an early music crit heroine of mine, Cathi Unsworth (who has gained a good reputation herself with her mysteries), and I hope to read his Red-Riding Quartet in full at some point here. There’s a lot of ground that can be covered in between — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett (besides her ‘straight’ mysteries, the Lymond books in particular might as well be a massive historical mystery cycle) and Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael roxors).
However, before taking the plunge I’m indulging in a reread of one of my favorite books to get me used to the pitfalls of the genre as much as the pleasures — Bill Pronzini’s hilarious work of popular scholarship Gun in Cheek. Inspired by his own admission by the early work of the Medved brothers on movies, Pronzini in this book and a later followup, both done in the 1980s, sought to focus a clear eye of celebration on what he slyly termed ‘alternative crime fiction’ — ie, the garbage, the trash, the really bad stuff, regardless (and in some cases because of!) its popularity. Pronzini himself is a well-known scholar of the field as well as an established writer in it — and he’s readily able to laugh at himself, always a good sign — and so he was well established to tackle both of these books, which he did with gusto.
He looks to all kinds of Anglophonic crime fiction in particular, American and English both, as source material for the two collections, and happily does a number on ‘classic’ English mysteries in both. The chapter in Gun in Cheek on them has one of the best titles — “The Goonbarrow and Other Jolly Old Corpses” — and begins with a perfect summary of their appeal:
RIDDLE: What do sex and the British mystery novel have in common?
ANSWER: When they’re good they’re terrific, and when they’re bad they’re still terrific
From there he notes rightly that a sense of the classic English mystery has for the reader is its predictability, its comfort zone. From Doyle and Holmes on in particular, there’s a sense of something which, for American readers in particular, is as familiar — but also, ultimately, as stereotypical and limiting — as are all the other images in his country of what England is ‘really’ like, the fantasy of stiff upper lips, pleasant village greens, God in heaven and all right with the world. It’s not the specific focus of his study so he doesn’t play it out, but he’s right to foreground it with the air of someone who both appreciates the appeal and is sharp enough to recognize it for what it is — a constructed and increasingly pre-sold fantasy.
But more on this for another time and another blog post — what he then does in the chapter is to hold up some great examples of terrible writing, and LORD are some of them wonderfully bad. Some samples he quotes:
A remarkable girl, thought Tolefree, while rubbed up his small talk.
A crafty expression glimmered across Dykeminster’s face.
“Then he’ll get what he deserves as soon as he passes the lodge-gates,” he said with a gross chuckle.
Pedmore hopped from one mis-shapen foot to the other; and again he tapped Dykeminster’s arm with the fractious gesture of a petulant child.
“But the warning, master!…The letter! Don’t forget that! I feel it in my hump that something is going to happen!”
“In plain English, Patterson,” said Pye, “nix on the gats!”
(I will one day find a use for that last bit.)
Now of course I hardly will claim to stylistic brilliance with my own fiction — hey, there’s probably a reason none of it is published. Yet, at least. But stuff like this I enjoy for the same reason I love bad movies — inadvertant entertainment. And Pronzini, like any kind of good gatekeeper from the Medveds in their early years to MST3K, provides an easy entry for this sort of merriment.
Since I am expecting a lot more from Allingham I’m mostly using this reread of Gun in Cheek for a bit of lightness after a full week, and as a good way to ease into a calm weekend. I’ll conclude by quoting a bit that’s used as an epigraph for the chapter, a selection from a novel called Who Killed Charmian Karslake? by Annie Haynes. So moved was I by these words which open the book in question that at one point I was able to dig up the original novel and enjoy its galumphing Englishness in full:
“Beastly mess the place seems to be in,” grumbled Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton, looking round the room with a disgusted air.
“Well, if you will give balls, you have put up with the aftermath,” said Dicky, his younger brother, screwing his monocle in his left eye as he spoke.