Christina Koning

Novelist and short story writer.

Dial ‘M’ for Murder – the telephone in twentieth century fiction

Having just published a novel – Line of Sight (Arbuthnot Books, 2014) – in which the telephone plays a key role, I’ve been thinking about the significance of this particular piece of technology, invented (or at least patented) in 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, but only in common domestic use for around a hundred years. It wasn’t until after the First World War, that the telephone became ubiquitous in middle-class households; right up until the late 1960s in Britain, there were still those who, for reasons of economy, were obliged to make their calls from public telephone boxes. I can still recall when these were activated by the magical pressing of ‘Button A’, followed by the insertion of the necessary coins, to connect the call. ‘Button B’ could be pressed to return the coins, if it wasn’t possible to connect the call (i.e. if no one answered).

 

As late as the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for people to share a ‘party line’ with another subscriber, affording regular opportunities of ‘listening-in’ to others’ conversations – a privilege of which the switchboard operator could always avail herself (and they were nearly always female), if she felt so inclined. Calls could be – and frequently were – ‘cut off’ at a crucial moment. Love affairs could be thrown into crisis, financial ruin precipitated, and even murder committed, by means of this most seductive, but also potentially treacherous, instrument.

 

All this offered rich potential for novelists and film-makers – in fact, it’s hard to imagine how the literature and cinema of the mid-to-late twentieth century could have managed without the telephone – the deus ex machina whose ringing could herald delight – but more often, meant disaster. Think of any Humphrey Bogart film – The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye – and you think of Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe, sitting in his office, with his feet on the desk and a fifth of whisky in the side-drawer, talking on the phone to whichever dimwitted police sergeant or duplicitous dame he’s currently trying to outsmart.

 

Think of Grace Kelly, in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, hearing the phone ring in the study, and going to answer it – unaware that she is about to confront her would-be murderer. Or, skipping forward a couple of decades, but staying with the film-noir mood, think of Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, in Chinatown, with sticking-plaster on his nose and a telephone receiver clamped to his ear, trying to make sense of the lies and half-truths he’s been fed about the Mulwray case. Yes, the telephone and the murder mystery were made for each other.

 

There are a number of reasons for this. One (to stay with cinema a moment) is that the telephone and the cinema are roughly contemporaneous. Both represent the ‘modern’ world of change, speed, transience. A letter takes time to write – and read. A phone call can be made in a few minutes. Similarly, the narrative pace of a novel can seem slow, by contrast with the quick-fire cutting between scenes to be found in cinematic story-telling. And one other obvious reason why phone calls are so important a part of most screenplays is that they offer a very condensed way of imparting information. When the plot is a thriller, this is all the more essential. Keeping the suspense going means not slowing down your story with unnecessary explanations. Dialogue – in films and novels of the 1930s and after – is markedly crisper, snappier, and more concise than that to be found in, say, your average nineteenth century novel.

 

Which brings me to my ‘top ten’ of fictional telephone conversations. It’s no accident that they all belong to the same period: from a few years after the First World War to a decade or so after the Second World War (roughly, 1925 – 1965) – a Golden Age, when the telephone was essential to communication. And what telephones they were! None of your flimsy little hand-held devices, but large, sculptural Bakelite objects – usually black – the sound of whose ringing was full of foreboding and whose receivers felt heavy as lead in the hand. These (and the ‘Candlestick’ instruments which preceded them, one of which features on the cover of Line of Sight) had a dramatic presence in their own right. No wonder they so often appeared as harbingers of doom in the darker films of the inter- and post-war periods.

 

So here’s Chandler, in The Long Goodbye (1953):

 

I was about ready to hit the hay when Detective-Sergeant Green of homicide called me up.

‘Thought you might like to know that they buried your friend Lennox a couple of days ago right in that Mexican town where he died. A lawyer representing the family went down there and attended to it. You were pretty lucky this time, Marlowe. Next time you think of helping a pal skip the country, don’t.’

‘How many bullet holes did he have in him?’

‘What’s that?’ he barked. Then he was silent for a space. Then he said rather too carefully: ‘One, I should say. It’s usually enough when it blows a guy’s head off…’

 

This hard-bitten, laconic mood is even more pronounced in Simenon’s 1931 story, The Bar on the Seine. Here, as in other police procedurals of the era, conversations – whether carried out on the telephone or otherwise – have a staccato, minimalist quality. These are not people who waste words, or indulge in fancy phrase-making. For them, the telephone is the perfect medium to convey the bleak truths they need to convey. In this story, Maigret finds himself defending a man condemned to the guillotine:

 

Maigret was talking to the examining magistrate on the phone.

‘Hello! Yes! Just give me another ten minutes… His name? I don’t know yet… Yes, of course I’m serious. Do I ever joke about these things?’

He put down the receiver and started walking up and down his office.

 

That’s as emotional as Maigret ever gets. And – just to round off this trio of thrillers, before moving on to other kinds of telephone calls in fiction, here’s Le Carre’s 1964 novel, Call for the Dead, in which George Smiley makes his first appearance, investigating the mysterious death of a former agent:

 

The telephone was ringing upstairs. Smiley got up.

‘Excuse me – that will be my office. Do you mind?’

Smiley walked slowly upstairs in a state of complete bewilderment. What on earth should he say to Marston now?

He lifted the receiver, glancing mechanically at the number on the apparatus.

‘Walliston 2944.’

‘Exchange here. Good morning. Your eight-thirty call.’

‘Oh – Oh yes, thank you very much.’

He rang off, grateful for the temporary respite.

 

This call – like many to be found in detective fiction – turns out to have a bearing on the plot, which isn’t always the case in every novel. Some telephone conversations seem to have no apparent point at all, other than to tell you what kind of characters you’re dealing with – and that they do very well. Take this passage from Vile Bodies, Waugh’s 1930 satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ of Jazz Age London. We really learn all we need to know about Adam and his inamorata, Nina, from this bright, seemingly vacuous, conversation:

 

Presently the telephone by Adam’s bed began ringing.

‘Hullo, yes.’

‘Lady to speak to you… Hullo, is that you, Adam?’

‘Is that Nina?’

‘How are you my darling?’

Oh, Nina…’

‘My poor sweet, I feel like that, too. Listen, angel. You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to see my papa to-day, have you… or have you? I’ve just sent him a wire to say you’re going to lunch with him. D’you know where he lives?’

‘But you’re coming too?’

‘Well, no, I don’t think I will if you don’t mind… I’ve got rather a pain.’

 

Or consider this very different, but no less eloquent, piece of character description – from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel, The Heat of the Day, in which the loving, if slightly exasperated, relationship between a mother and her grown-up son, on leave from the war, is conveyed entirely through one side of a telephone conversation:

 

‘Hullo?’ she said – to be checked; whoever it was had failed to press Button A. Then – ‘Oh – you – oh, darling!… You are, are you? For how long?… However, that’s better than nothing. But why didn’t you tell me? Have you had any dinner?… Yes, I’m afraid that might be best: I don’t think I’ve got anything in the flat. How I wish you’d told me… And directly after that you’ll come straight here?… Of course; naturally; don’t be so idiotic… Yes, there is just at the moment, but there soon won’t be… No, no one you know… Soon, then – as soon as ever you can!’

She hung up, but remained to black-out her bedroom…’

 

Of course this passage tells us a great deal more than the fact that Stella loves her son. Because the conversation is being overheard by a man she has every reason to fear – the government agent, Harrison, in charge of delving into the past of Stella’s lover, Robert. Harrison, it transpires, is in love with Stella. All, or at least some, of this is conveyed in that superbly understated ‘No, no one you know’, in answer to her son’s (implied) question as to whether anyone is there with her at that moment.

 

It’s nuances such as these which make telephone conversations in books and films (and plays) so compelling. There are so many layers of meaning, and shades of intonation – all put across to the listener, and of course the reader, in the fewest possible words. Still sticking with the mood of wartime paranoia, consider this telephone conversation from Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943), in which a man driven half mad by guilt after the death of his wife, reaches out to another lost soul:

 

‘I want to speak to Miss Hilfe.’

‘Who is that?’

‘A friend of hers.’ A disapproving grunt twanged the wires. He said sharply,’Put me through please,’ and almost at once he heard the voice which if he had shut his eyes and eliminated the telephone-box and ruined Holborn he could have believed was his wife’s. There was really no resemblance, but it was so long since he had spoken to a woman, except his landlady or a girl behind a counter, that any feminine voice took him back… ‘Please. Who is that?’

‘Is that Miss Hilfe?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

He said his name as if it were a household word. ‘I’m Rowe.’

There was such a long pause that he thought she had put the receiver back; he said, ‘Hullo. Are you still there?’

‘Yes.’

‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘You shouldn’t ring me.’

‘I’ve nobody else to ring…’

 

The bleakness of the last line is characteristic of Greene’s style, of course, but it is also typical of many such moments of communication – or non-communication – in works of fiction of the period. Wartime London (note the glancing reference to ‘ruined Holborn’ in the above) was a place of darkness and shadows; of transients, ‘passing in the night’, on their way to unknown destinations. Here, from Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, published in 1941 and subtitled, with grim humour, ‘A story of darkest Earl’s Court’ – is the following exchange between the hapless and hopeless George Harvey Bone (one of those characters who is always referred to by his full, and rather awkward, name), and Netta, the mercenary minx with whom he is desperately in love:

 

He pressed button A and heard his pennies fall. He said ‘Hullo.’

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘Yes!’

She was in a temper all right. He could tell because there was an exclamation mark, instead of a note of interrogation, after her ‘Yes’. Funny how she got into these tempers – after being so peaceful and saying ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s so big that he’s so silly’ the night before – but oh, how characteristic! He knew his Netta all right by now.

‘Oh, hullo, Netta,’ he said in studiedly polite and and gentle tones, though of course this would only add to her fury. ‘This is me.’

‘What? Who is it?…’

‘This is me. George.’

‘Oh.’

‘Have I interrupted you in your bath or something?’

‘No, I was asleep. What do you want?’

‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry. I was ringing up about today – that’s all.’

‘What do you mean – “today”?’

‘I mean this evening.’

‘What do you mean – “this evening”? What about this evening?’

 

And so the ghastly conversation drags on, with poor George getting himself increasingly tied in knots, and the poisonous Netta pretending not to understand what he is trying to say, but understanding it all too well. As often as not, telephone conversations in films and books can show us relationships that are not working, as well as those that are. In this passage, from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), the ringing of an – unanswered – telephone says all there is to say about a marriage that has gone sour:

 

The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy scepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind…’

 

The unanswered call is of course from Tom’s mistress, about whom the ‘sceptical’ Jordan Baker has just been telling Nick, the narrator. Sometimes, a telephone only has to ring to bring about a change of mood – sharply conveyed, in this instance, by Nick’s irrational desire to look his fellow guests in the face, ‘and yet avoid all eyes’.

 

Even though the ‘shrill metallic’ sound of the telephone seems made for such moments in fiction, bringing with it unwelcome news, as often as not, it would be a pity to end this little survey of best telephonic exchanges in novels without a couple which aren’t to do with murder or mayhem. So here is a typically winsome exchange, from E.F. Benson’s Lucia’s Progress (1935), in which the eponymous Mayoress of Tilling and all-round social butterfly, Emmeline Lucas, talks to her darling friend and confirmed bachelor, Georgie Pillson, (who is feeling rather out-of-sorts):

 

‘I’m beginning to see my way,’ she thought, and the way was so absorbing that she had not heard the telephone bell ring, and now Grosvenor came in to say that Georgie wanted to speak to her. Lucia wondered whether Foljambe had seen her peeping in at his window this afternoon and had reported this intrusion, and was prepared, if this was the case and Georgie resented it, not exactly to lie about it, but to fail to understand what he was talking about until he got tired of explaining. She adopted that intimate dialect of baby-language with a peppering of Italian words in which they often spoke together.

‘Is zat ‘oo, Georgino mio?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Georgie in plain English.

‘Lubly to hear your voice again. Come sta? Better I hope.’

‘Yes, going on all right, but very slow. All too tarsome. And I’m getting dreadfully depressed seeing nobody and hearing nothing.’

Lucia dropped dialect.

‘But, my dear, why didn’t you let me come and see you? You’ve always refused.’

‘I know.’

There was a long pause. Lucia with her psychic faculties alert after so much Bridge felt sure he had something more to say, and like a wise woman she refrained from pressing him. Clearly he had rung her up to tell her something…’

 

And here, from a novel whose actual publication date of 1960 doesn’t prevent its belonging unquestionably to the 1920s – P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves in the Offing – is the way that telephones ought always to be answered:

 

I was about to reach for the marmalade, when I heard the telephone tootling out in the hall and rose to attend to it.

‘Bertram Wooster’s residence,’ I said, having connected with the instrument. ‘Wooster in person at this end. Oh hullo,’ I added, for the voice that boomed over the wire was that of Mrs Thomas Portarlington Travers of Brinkley Court, Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich – or, putting it another way, my good and deserving Aunt Dahlia. ‘A very hearty pip-pip to you, old ancestor,’ I said, well pleased, for she is a woman with whom it is always a privilege to chew the fat.

‘And a rousing toodle-oo to you, you young blot on the landscape,’ she replied cordially. ‘I’m surprised to find you up as early as this. Or have you just got in from a night on the tiles?’

I hastened to rebut this slur…’

 

It’s passages like these, with all their economy and wit, which make one regret the passing of the Golden Age of Telephones. A rousing toodle-oo to you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing a different book every time – why I can’t seem to stick with a ‘brand’….

‘All your books are different,’ said a friend who’d just read the latest one. He meant it as a compliment, but I’m afraid that – given the way that the book world is these days – it’s a serious disadvantage. A cursory glance at the ‘three for two’ tables in any bookshop, or at the best-seller lists in any national newspaper will tell you this much: to be a successful author, you have to turn yourself into a ‘brand’. This, in a nutshell, means that everything you write has to resemble everything else; your best-selling book (which is usually, although not always, the first one) has to be the template for all the books that follow.

 

There’s a certain sense to this, of course – it’s much easier for publisher to market a series of broadly similar titles, rather than having to treat every book as a new departure. Easier, too, for book reviewers who’ve read an author’s earlier work to produce a snappy response – I should know, I’ve had to do it often enough, in my days reviewing for the Times. Still, I can’t help feeling that there’s something to be regretted about all this. Was fiction always this predictable, I wonder, or is it a recent phenomenon – another symptom of the much-lamented decline in publishing standards?

 

Certainly things have become more difficult in the past few years, if – like me – your books don’t fit neatly into one category or another. Of my five published novels, one might be (loosely) categorized as a ‘campus’ novel, one is a ‘coming-of-age’ novel set in 1950s Venezuela, another is a black comedy, and the most recent two might be called historical novels – the first being about war, with a nineteenth century setting, the second about science, set in the eighteenth century. I’m about to publish my sixth novel, and it’s different again: a murder story, set in 1920s London.

 

Yes, writing a different book every time can have its drawbacks. But for me there’s never been any other way to go about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that, far from being a random thing, there’s a specific reason for this. Because what interests me most about writing about any historical period – whether it’s the 1970s, as it was with my first novel, A Mild Suicide, or the 1780s, as it was with Variable Stars, my last – is getting the language right. This means immersing myself in the period, and particularly in the literature of the time.

 

So with The Dark Tower, which is set in South Africa in 1879, my reading of the novels of Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and the early novels of Henry James, offered valuable insights not only into how people of the late-nineteenth century spoke, and wrote, and thought, but also gave me a sense of the kind of books they read. When my heroine, Laura Brooke, is packing to go to Africa to find the grave of her lost love, she includes volumes of poetry by Tennyson and Browning, and a just-published copy of Hardy’s The Woodlanders; later, we learn that she has been reading another of Hardy’s novels: The Hand of Ethelberta, but ‘cannot get on with it’. These references are not meant to be just ‘period’ window-dressing, but to point to one of the novel’s themes, which is the way that people of the time (and indeed of every time) construe their experience according to prevailing literary and cultural models.

 

Looking back, I can see that what I was reading at the time had a shaping effect on the novel I was writing. Because while The Dark Tower certainly couldn’t be classed as a Victorian ‘three-decker’ (it’s much too short, for one thing), it does bear a resemblance, if only in the way the narrative unfolds, to some of those late-nineteenth century novels I had read and admired over the years. I hope it isn’t stretching a point to say that, with this novel as with all my books before and since, the form was as important as the style or subject; in fact, they were inextricably linked.

 

It was very much the same with Variable Stars, where the ‘models’ were drawn – naturally enough – from the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Richardson’s Clarissa, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia were just some of the books that influenced, not only the style of the novel, but the way it was constructed. Again, I make no claims to having written anything as formally experimental as Sterne’s wonderful ‘shaggy dog’ tale, but there was certainly an element of Gothic romance in my story of star-crossed lovers.

 

Which brings me to my latest book. I’ve said in earlier posts that for me, the detective story is the quintessential literary form for the post-First World War generation. This is, incidentally, not to overlook the more experimental, and ‘difficult’, Modernist works of the period – by Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, E M Forster, Virginia Woolf and the rest – it’s just that the murder mystery was (and is) a popular form. Detective stories were read by everybody, from university professors to that mythical figure, ‘the man in the street’. Even Bertie Wooster had a passion for them.

 

And so it seems to me, in writing about the 1920s, in the immediate aftermath of ‘the war to end all wars’, I could have found no more fitting a genre than the ‘whodunnit’, in which death and destruction has a more manageable form. And I’m content to go on writing each book as a new departure, because for me that’s part of the fun. Although, ironically enough, Line of Sight is to be the first of a series. Maybe I can turn myself into a ‘brand’, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

The Discreet Charm of Murder – why the ‘country house’ whodunnit retains its power to enthrall…

 

 

In his review (Guardian 12.04.14) of a 1946 novel by Gladys Mitchell (Here Comes a Chopper, published by Vintage’s new crime fiction imprint), Nicholas Lezard considers the enduring – and, to some readers, baffling – appeal of the English country house murder mystery. Alluding to Chandler’s celebrated distinction, in The Simple Art of Murder, between realistic or ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction – of the kind Chandler himself wrote – and what the latter saw as the contrived mechanisms of many English murder mysteries of the same era, Lezard concludes that, sixty years after Chandler’s essay was first published, ‘there is room in the world for both the hard-boiled and the soft-boiled.’ The fact is, says Lezard, that – ‘hackneyed’ or not – these novels by Agatha Christie and her peers, of which Mitchell was one, are ‘simply enjoyable’. Like P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, they reflect a world that is long vanished, and yet whose elements are intimately known to us through the medium of the written word.

Given that I am midway through the second of a proposed series of detective stories, set in the late 1920s, I could not be more heartened by this vote of confidence in a genre which has always been a favourite of mine as a reader

http://www.christinakoning.com/archives/category/detective-fiction

- and to which I am now about to add. I have to confess here to a conflict of interest. Because much as I love the classic ‘whodunnit’, with all its ingenuities – and occasional improbabilities – of plot, I don’t really see my books like that at all. For while Line of Sight (published this month by Arbuthnot Books) is about a murder – and one, moreover, which occurs in a country house – I like to think it is as far from being a traditional ‘cosy’ as… well, as one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Chandler, who saw himself as pre-eminently a realist, portraying the ‘mean streets’ of mid-twentieth century urban life in all their violence and squalor, was also a brilliant (and much parodied) stylist. It’s this combination of tell-it-like-it-is realism and literary virtuosity that has become the default setting for much contemporary crime fiction, up to and including the recent publishing phenomenon of ‘Scandi-Noir’.

And while my writing is nowhere near as graphic in its depiction of violence as that of, say, Jo Nesbo, I would place it in a realist tradition. In writing about the period immediately after the First World War, I’ve tried to show a society deeply damaged by that conflict, in which people still carried the scars – physical and psychological – of the hellish experiences they’d been through. Like Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, my central character has been directly affected by the war, and is living, to some extent, ‘among the ruins’ (in D H Lawrence’s resonant phrase). Nor is he the only one of my characters to have been thus affected; all of them, in one form or another, are seen to have been casualties of ‘the war to end all wars’ – from the woman (a minor character), whose shellshocked husband has to be left with a neighbour, while she goes out to work, to the war profiteer whose nefarious activities have made him a target for murder.

In writing Line of Sight, I wanted to show the world as it was then – very close to our own in many respects, as well as being, in others, light years distant from it. Nuances of language, as well as details of clothes, cars and setting, were important to get right. I wanted to show how these people thought and felt, as well as how they looked. Nor was I interested in writing pastiche: the murder mysteries of the ‘Golden Age’ cannot be improved upon, in my view. To write ‘in the style’ of Christie, Sayers et al would only be to invite invidious comparisons. What did seem worth illustrating was the connection – obvious once you look for it – between the wider social disintegration brought about by the Great War and the more specific social break-down evinced by the act of murder. The ‘discreet charm’ of the murder mystery for readers of the 1920s and afterwards owes something to this, I feel. After the ‘cataclysm’, with all its millions of deaths, what more comforting kind of fiction could there have been than one in which individual death takes precedence – in which bodies are found in the libraries of country houses, butlers are suspected, and in which, with a little ‘order and method’, the perpetrator can be brought to justice, and the status quo restored? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of The Dark Tower – or Why You Should Avoid Literary Allusion and Choose a Descriptive Title

A recent article on the BBC website brought it all back: what I’ve come to think of as ‘the curse of the Dark Tower’. The allusion is to my fourth novel of that name, which was published by Arbuthnot Books in 2010.  The Dark Tower deals with that particularly bloody episode in British colonial history known as the Anglo-Zulu Wars, whose bloodiest battle took place in what is now KwaZulu Natal, on a bleak stretch of ground beneath a conical hill, the name of which – Isandhlwana – would thereafter be associated with the worst defeat the British Army had ever suffered.  A hundred and thirty years after the ‘defeat that stunned Victorian Britain’, as the BBC article puts it, the site has become a shrine to the memory of those on both sides who fought and died there, and a symbol of Zulu resistance to the colonial forces that set out to crush them.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25728231#story_continues_2

 

Just as the battlefields of the First World War have become places of pilgrimage, so Isandhlwana, and its companion site, Rorke’s Drift, have achieved a similar fame. An entire industry has grown up around the Anglo-Zulu Wars, with tours of the battlefields in which you can see for yourself the spot where Colonel Durnford made his last stand at Isandhlwana, and the now-restored hospital at Rorke’s Drift so bravely defended by the men of the 24th Regiment. And of course there are numerous books on the subject – although not, to the best of my knowledge, any other novels. In this sense at least,  The Dark Tower can be said to be unique.

 

If only the same could be said for its title, which – even at the time I was writing the book, I knew had already been ‘taken’ – by Stephen King, no less. This was for a series of seven fantasy novels whose overall title – like that of my own novel – alluded to Robert Browning’s haunting 1855 poem about a doomed quest for the Holy Grail. Even though it was obviously a risk, giving a literary novel the same title as a work by one of the most popular and prolific writers of the era, it was one I was prepared to take – after all, our respective readerships could hardly be said to overlap…

 

And it wasn’t as if there hadn’t been other ‘Dark Towers’ before this – a fact discussed in a piece I wrote at the time, which traces the origins of the dark tower legend in ancient myth, and considers some of its more recent manifestations – from Shakespeare’s King Lear to WB Yeats’ 1928 collection of poems, ‘The Tower’; from the ‘Dark Tower’ section of JRR Tolkein’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings, to the twentieth anniversary episode of Doctor Who, featuring five Doctors, and a Dark Tower.

 

http://www.christinakoning.com/archives/2010/06

 

Of course there were reasons for choosing the title, beyond the desire to evoke certain literary echoes. The British campaign in South Africa during the late 1870s was a ‘quest’ in every way as romantic in theory and as disastrous in outcome as the one described with such sinister power in Browning’s great work. For the officers and men who took part in it, there was the same sense of adventure – of being caught up in a great ’cause’, to the greater glory of the British Empire – which inspired those who volunteered for the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. There was also the same sense of ultimate disillusionment. The elusive ‘dark tower’, or Grail, towards which they were journeying was to prove as much an illusion as, well, the notion of Empire itself. Yes, on reflection, there really was no other title the novel could have had.

 

But I knew this, even before I was halfway through writing the book, because it was then that I visited Isandhlwana, and saw for myself the weirdly shaped mountain from which the place takes its name. Some accounts described it as shaped like a sphinx, and it is certainly true, that from some aspects, it resembles that mythological being. But from head-on – the angle that the soldiers encamped on the plain below would have seen it – it looks like a fortified tower. To my soldier-protagonist, Theo Reynolds, the resemblance is unmistakeable:

 

‘…Theo gazed once more at the mountain: a sphinx, yes – especially from its eastern aspect. From the west, its shape reminded him more of a fortress. A dark tower, rearing high above the plain, like the outpost of some ancient, alien power.

“What in the middle but the Tower itself? The Dark Tower – blind as the fool’s heart,” he murmured softly.’

 

So, even though a more descriptive title – ‘Disaster at Isandhlwana’, for example – might have attracted more readers interested in military matters, I still think my choice of title was the right one. Perhaps, after all, I can learn to live with the ‘Curse of the Dark Tower’.

 

Getting the past in your sights – why I’ve turned to detective fiction

It’s nine months since I wrote this blog – a long enough period of gestation for any work of fiction… which indeed it has proved to be. After a year in which I moved to a different city, and started a new job, I finished my novel, Line of Sight, and delivered it to its publishers, Arbuthnot Books, two weeks ago. Since this is one of the new kind of publishers, which can get a book out and on the shelves in a matter of weeks, not months (or years) as is often the case with the ‘Big Six’, I have every hope of seeing the novel in a finished form by next spring. 2014, that is. Which is important, if only because the book’s background (although not its setting) is the First World War. Having started it four years ago, with this anniversary vaguely in mind, it seemed right that it should be out by then, even though bookshop shelves are already groaning with First World War histories, and reissues of all the novels – good, bad and indifferent – that have been written about that extraordinary, tormented time.

 

Line of Sight, as I’ve said, doesn’t really belong to this category, since it’s about the aftermath of the war, not the war itself. Set in 1927, it’s the story of Frederick Rowlands, a veteran of the Ypres battlefields, whose life has been irrevocably changed by what he went through. Now working as a telephonist for a firm of City solicitors, Fred is caught up in a situation outside his control, when he overhears a conversation between his employer, and former commanding officer, and the woman with whom both are more than a little in love. From this point on, things become increasingly convoluted, as Fred struggles to make sense of the lies and half-truths to which, as a professional ‘eavesdropper’, he is privy. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ‘Chinese Whispers’: things being half-heard, or misunderstood. As a switchboard operator, Fred ‘listens-in’ to others’ conversations as a matter of course: ‘All day their voices jabbered in his ears. Sometimes it was as if they were inside his head. Invading his very thoughts, his dreams, with their unending babble…’ That he doesn’t always get things right is no reflection on his intelligence, but says something about the way we’re all trying – as readers, as ‘interpreters’ of our experience – to understand the world from the often partial, or imperfect, information that comes our way.

 

That the novel had to be a detective story only became clear to me mid-way through the writing of Line of Sight. As soon as it did, a lot of other things fell into place. Detective fiction reached its zenith as an art-form in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ between the wars; although of course fine examples of the genre continued to be written – by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others – well beyond the end of the Second World War. But for my purposes, it was the murder mysteries of the late 1920s and early 1930s which gave me the flavour of the times. And what strange times they were – certainly as far from the popular image of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ as Britain in the 1960s was from that of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. This was a world at once deeply conventional and – at least in some quarters – startlingly radical, politically, sexually and culturally. It was a time of high unemployment, with many factories once devoted to the making of munitions closing down at the end of the war, and tens of thousands of wounded and disabled men returning from the battlefields to find they were virtually unemployable. Across Europe, there were strikes in the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries. The General Strike of 1926 was only the culmination of a period of extreme social inequality and of violent unrest.

 

And yet this was also the era of the ‘Flapper’ – the epitome of carefree, cocktail-drinking, emancipated womanhood. Of Waugh’s Vile Bodies, in which the determinedly heartless Nina Blount remarks, ‘All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.’ Of Huxley’s Point Counter Point, in which the seducer, Spandrell, boasts of his technique in corrupting innocent girls: ‘They can be brought… to the most astonishing pitch of depravity’. Newspapers were full of articles in praise of – or denouncing – the ‘Modern Girl’. Then as now, ‘Society’ types (now called ‘celebrities’) were popular, with readers of the Times, the Telegraph and the Express avidly following the ‘decadent’ goings-on of what was known as the ‘Smart Set’.

 

It was a time, moreover, of literary, musical and artistic experimentation: of Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land; of Schoenberg’s ‘String Quartet No. 3′ and Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Picasso’s ‘Nude in an Armchair’ belongs to this period; as does Matisse’s ‘Yellow Odalisque’. Innovation seemed the order of the day. And yet, arguably, the art-form which seems to express the mood of the late-1920s most powerfully doesn’t fit within this ‘experimental’ category at all. Stylistically, in fact, it could not be more conventional. It abounds in ‘proper’ characters, and realistic description. There isn’t a whiff of ‘stream of consciousness’ about it. And yet (I would argue) it is not without its more radical aspect. I’m referring of course to the detective story.

 

The murder mystery, as it was more widely known at the time, had of course been popular for a good thirty years before the time of which I am writing – more, if one considers (as I do) works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to be the precursors of the modern detective story. Even if one leaves these aside, one would be foolish indeed to overlook the works of perhaps the greatest writer of detective stories of all time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without his Sherlock Holmes stories – still enjoying a remarkable success, even to this day – it is hard to imagine that Agatha Christie would have created Hercule Poirot, with his wonderfully effective ‘little grey cells’; or Dorothy Sayers the apparently effete, but brilliantly intelligent, Lord Peter Wimsey.

 

To the more obvious pleasures of reading these works can be added that of spotting the many direct and indirect references to the celebrated inhabitant of 221B Baker Street which are to be found throughout Christie’s and Sayers’s writings, as well as those of Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and other practitioners of the genre. In Christie’s very first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Hastings, newly invalided home from the Western Front, confesses to the beautiful Mary Cavendish his ‘secret hankering to be a detective’, to which she replies: ‘The real thing – Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?’ Hastings then goes on to describe a man he has met in Belgium – ‘a very famous detective… a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever…’ – our first introduction to Christie’s most famous creation. The inference is clear: this is her ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and one every bit as eccentric in mien and methodical in approach as his violin-playing, cocaine-addicted predecessor.

 

The Great Detective also gets a name-check in the opening chapter of Whose Body? the first of Sayers’s novels to feature the divinely diffident Lord Peter Wimsey, who combines the silly-ass manner of Bertie Wooster with the ice-cold forensic brain of Jeeves. Lord Peter is on his way to a sale of first editions of mediaeval manuscripts (a little sideline of his) when he is told of a body in the bath. He at once assumes the role of detective – or, as he puts it: ‘Exit the amateur of first editions… enter Sherlock Holmes.’ And for the next few chapters, ‘Holmes’ enters into his role with gusto – visiting the scene of the crime, interrogating witnesses, speculating about various suspects… until the moment when speculation turns to certainty, and he knows he has his man.

 

It’s at this moment that what has been, up to now, a somewhat above-average intellectual puzzle, involving a dead body substituted for another dead body, a pair of pinc-nez, and a sleuth who pretends to be dim in order to allay the suspicions of those he suspects, becomes something altogether darker. Because, falling asleep, with the growing realization of the murderer’s identity in his head, Lord Peter has a nightmare. It’s one he has evidently had before: a memory he has tried, and failed, to suppress – and one he appears to share with Bunter, his faithful valet and former batman. It is of course a memory of the war, which devastated so many of their generation. It’s this shared experience of war that is the defining moment of the book, and – I would argue – of all the best detective novels of the period. The passage is worth quoting in full, if only to underline the point:

 

‘Hush! No, no – it’s the water,’ said Lord Peter, with chattering teeth; ‘it’s up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! Can’t you hear it? Tap, tap, tap – they’re mining us – but I don’t know where – I can’t hear – I can’t. Listen, you! There it is again – we must find it – we must stop it… Listen! Oh, my God! I can’t hear – I can’t hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can’t they stop the guns?’

 

Wimsey, like many ex-servicemen, has suffered a break-down, as a result of the horrors he has seen. His facetious manner and his seemingly frivolous attitude to murder mask a profound awareness of its consequences, not only for the victim’s family, but for the murderer who must be brought to justice. Like his fellow detective, Poirot, he takes no pleasure in sending a man to the gallows. Both have already seen more than their fair share of death to want to be the cause of it.

 

Paradoxical as it may seem, that a generation exposed to violent death on an industrial scale should have taken with such enthusiasm to the murder mystery, it is certainly the case that the genre enjoyed perhaps its greatest popularity between the wars. It may be no accident that the ‘Golden Age’ of the detective story exactly corresponds to that of the crossword puzzle. Both, of course, involve the interpretation of clues and the solving of riddles. Both, one might argue, impose a pattern upon formless – or indeed meaningless – experience, rendering it (temporarily) meaningful. At a time when – to put it at its most basic – people were finding it hard to comprehend what had happened to the world they had known, when millions had died in what had come to seem a futile struggle, the detective story offered simple, or relatively simple, moral choices. To put it another way, it restored death to its rightful place in the scheme of things. Faced with the impossibility of understanding why so many young men (and some women) had died for so little reason, readers of the ‘whodunit’ could take refuge in a more orderly, and rational, world.

 

In the classic detective story, the social order is overturned by an act of violence. The detective – representing society, without necessarily being an apologist for its iniquities – makes it his business to discover the perpetrator, exonerate the innocent, and thus restore the status quo. Far from being (as their detractors have implied) mere exercises in class-ridden ‘cosiness’, the thrillers of the inter-war years confronted the possibility of social breakdown. Murder, the ultimate act of nihilism, has to be punished, because not to do so would result in the overthrow of the moral order. It was an order which had, of course, already been destroyed, by the guns of the Somme and Passchendaele. But for the survivors of those conflicts, living ‘among the ruins’, as D.H. Lawrence put it, there was always the comfort of fiction.

 

‘As one looked out over the flat Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed into another world. As we turned in at the lodge gates, John said:

“I’m afraid you’ll find it very quiet down here, Hastings.”

“My dear fellow, that’s just what I want.”’

 

 

Revisiting your life in fiction

It’s twenty years since my first novel, A Mild Suicide, was published – years which have seen the most radical changes in publishing since the invention of the printing press. The rise – and fall – of the bookstore chains, the decline of mainstream publishing, the massive expansion of digital media, and the invention of electronic readers were all still yet to happen, in 1992. It was a world in which the smaller, more literary, publishers had not yet been absorbed by the bigger, commercial giants. A world in which first-time novelists might expect no more than a modest advance, but with the certainty of the next book – and all the other books after that – being published by the same imprint.

Of course, even then, change was in the air. The first draft of AMS was written on a portable Smith-Corona typewriter, although by the time the book came out, I’d switched to what was, at the time, a state-of-the-art Macintosh Classic, whose screen was no larger than that of the current (and infinitely more powerful) iPad. But it was a sign of things to come. I little imagined, as I explored the wonders of Spell-Check and Cut and Paste, that I was looking at the future of publishing. Because thanks to more recent developments in computer technology, my previously published work need no longer be consigned to the dustbin, as it were, of history. Instead, A Mild Suicide can join the rest of my books in a uniform edition which – speaking from an entirely unbiased perspective – I think is among the best-looking I have seen.

And so to the novel itself. It had been some years since I read it (not since 1999, in fact, when it had to be proof-read for the Penguin edition); I hoped it would withstand a critical eye. As I had no electronic copy of the work, it had to be entirely re-typed. This proved a good way of subjecting the book to close reading. Infelicities of style were immediately apparent. Solecisms could be instantly expunged. However, I tried to restrain the temptation to rewrite extensively. One’s early novels – pace Henry James – are an expression of the person one was at the time, for better or worse, and shouldn’t be tampered with too much. It may sound odd, but I couldn’t escape the feeling, as I read, that this was a novel written by somebody else. It was like looking through an old photograph album, and finding a picture of oneself in unfamiliar clothes, and with a different hairstyle. ‘My God,’ one thinks. ‘How young I was… and weren’t the fashions hideous?’

The strangeness of the experience was compounded, in the case of this novel, by the fact that it concerns events which took place fifteen years before it was published, and so I found myself revisiting not one era of my past, but two. A Mild Suicide is set in 1977, and revolves around a group of postgraduate students at Edinburgh university. It’s a story about love, and about not always getting what you want. The characters spent a lot of time talking about art and literature, but don’t have much clue about how real life relationships work. Re-reading the novel brought back sharp memories of that strange, slightly chaotic time, just before one settles down to more adult preoccupations, like marriage and children. I found myself envying the freedom my characters had, to make a mess or otherwise of their lives, at the same time as feeling some wry sympathy for the hell they were putting themselves through.

Perhaps because it is about a very specific time (the Summer of Punk, one might call it, for want of a better description), AMS has a feeling of intensity – almost of rawness – that makes it different from any of my other novels. Reading it now, I find myself instantly transported back to that era, with its self-consciously nihilistic attitudes:

As Catherine crossed North Bridge Street on her way up to the university, a girl in tartan trousers and a black T-shirt inscribed with the word DESTROY asked her for a light, then ambled off with her companions, all dressed to kill in bondage gear. Catherine watched their stately progress along the street. Pale warriors. ‘I think the end of the world is at hand,’ she said to Saul in the subterranean tea-room of the University Library.

Of course it wasn’t all pretentious posturing. By the late seventies, the ‘writing was on the wall’ (as one of my characters remarks) for the generation that had grown up during the 1960s. Ivory towers were crashing down, never to be rebuilt. Winters of Discontent were on the horizon.

The decade was not yet over, but already there was a feeling things had been played out. It was the end of an era, apparently. The end of the postwar boom. The end of the sexual revolution. Everything seemed tainted with a sepia wash of nostalgia.

It’s this faintly exhausted, fin de siècle mood that the novel sets out to capture, and which comes across most strongly when I read it now. It is of course a novel about growing up, and about learning that life isn’t always the way it’s portrayed in books. The person who wrote it – a harassed mother of two, tapping away on her Smith-Corona in a Deptford council flat – was already a world away from the slightly brittle young woman of those Edinburgh days, whose chief concern (apart from writing essays) was trying to maintain the appearance of sophistication in circumstances – usually of her own making – that seemed likely to expose her as anything but.

Yes, I couldn’t be happier that my difficult ‘first child’ is once more to see the light of day. Because books don’t die when they go out of print, although it can sometimes seem like that to the writer. Editing this novel for re-publication has been, for me, like opening a door into the past, with all its sharply felt joys and aching regrets. I can’t expect that others will feel the same way – but I hope that some of the things the book tries to say about being young, and making mistakes, and falling in love, will resonate with a new readership.

The irresistible charm of the English murder

‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ says Amanda in Private Lives. The same might be said of fiction – at least of a certain sort of ‘cheap’ fiction, variously known as the thriller, the murder mystery, the detective story, and the whodunit. To this genre – or rather to a particular sub-genre, disparagingly referred to by aficionados of the grislier sort of crime fiction as ‘cosy’ – I am, I freely confess, addicted. In the past few months, I’ve polished off twenty-eight novels by Ngaio Marsh, fifteen by Dorothy L Sayers, eight by Josephine Tey, thirty-two by Agatha Christie, six by Edmund Crispin, five by Margery Allingham, two by Nicholas Blake, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I include these last in the awareness that they were published around forty years before the ‘Golden Age’ of English detective fiction (roughly 1920 – 1940) which encompasses the others, but since none of these later works would have existed without Conan Doyle’s sublime creation, I feel they belong together.

Because with his louche, but essentially ‘gentlemanly’, appearance, eccentricities of behaviour (violin-playing, cocaine addiction) and the forensic acuity of his mind, Sherlock Holmes – now enjoying a revival of attention due not only to the latest in a series of films (A Game of Shadows, starring Jude Law and Robert Downey Junior), but to the cult success of a recent television treatment*, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss – is surely the pattern of the English detective, for the period leading up to and immediately following the First World War. Here he is, making his debut, in A Study in Scarlet:

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of an extraordinary delicacy of touch…

In this mesmerizing piece of description can be seen the inspiration for a whole clutch of detectives – from Sayers’s Lord Peter Winsey, with his ‘sensitive’ mouth, and eyes whose supposedly ‘foolish’ expression can turn at the drop of a stiletto to lethal sharpness, to Marsh’s tall, ascetic-looking Roderick Alleyn, whose looks are a cross between those of a ‘polite faun’ and a ‘monk’. Tey’s Allan Grant is another aesthete-turned-policeman, with his ‘dapper’ good looks and his fondness for solving historical puzzles (not least that of who really murdered the Princes in the Tower; c f The Daughter of Time). Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too, though lacking the dashing style of Alleyn, or the aristocratic demeanour of Wimsey, has, when on the case, ‘cat-like’ green eyes, that flash with intellectual fire. Most of these men – and they are (with one notable exception: the redoubtable Miss Marple) all men – conceal their ruthless intelligence beneath a veneer of absent-mindedness or ineffectuality. Crispin’s Oxford-academic-turned-private-eye, Gervase Fen, is a case in point, with his donnish fussiness and predilection for sixteenth century poetry.

Blue-bloodedness is another factor common to several of these characters – apart from the impeccably well-connected Wimsey and Alleyn (both younger sons of lords), there is Allingham’s Albert Campion, who has a title but prefers not to use it. Though born into high society, these gentlemen detectives seem to enjoy fraternising with the demi-monde – not only that of the criminal underworld, but of the theatre (cf Marsh’s Enter a Murderer; Crispin’s The Gilded Fly) the art world (Artists in Crime), and the bohemian world inhabited by the followers of cult religions (Death in Ecstasy). This is just as well, considering that so many of the crimes they are called upon to solve take place in these milieu. Not that there is any shortage of homicidal incident in the ostensibly more respectable walks of life, such as academia (Sayers’s Gaudy Night; Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding) advertising (Murder Must Advertise) and the House of Lords (Clouds of Witness).

Then there’s the question of the women. Because whilst Holmes – apart from a passing fancy for the beautiful but untrustworthy Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) – is famously wedded to his poisons and his different types of cigar-ash, a number of his fellow detectives seem to have found time not just for the exacting science of criminal investigation, but for love, and indeed, marriage. Given that these are men who spend a great deal of time hanging around police courts, it is perhaps hardly surprising that their inamorata should often be women on trial for their lives. The splendidly arresting beginning of Sayers’s Strong Poison finds Harriet Vane in the dock:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot face and his parrot voice were dry, like his old, heavily veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses…

Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover, an egotistical poet, and the evidence looks very black against her. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in court that day. He falls for Harriet’s ‘eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows’ – and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed Harriet, a bestselling writer of detective stories, proves a valuable asset when it comes to solving a number of Wimsey’s more intractable cases. That it takes him several books before he convinces her to marry him, only adds to the thrill, with the crime-solving, on occasion, taking second place to the romance. Inevitably, given both the author’s academic background and that of her characters, things come to a head in Oxford:

‘Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?’

‘Desperately?… My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.’

They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.

‘Peter!’

Roderick Alleyn also goes for the intellectual woman (can it be mere co-incidence that the authors of so many of these celebrated crime novels were themselves intellectual women?). His Agatha Troy is an artist – first encountered on a voyage back to England from the Antipodes – and prickly as hell when Alleyn interrupts her painting. (‘”How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously…’) Back in England, it isn’t long before she, too, becomes the prime suspect for murder – although luckily, not as far as Chief Inspector Alleyn is concerned:

‘Do you think for a moment,’ said Troy, in a level voice, ‘that I might have killed this girl?’

‘Not for a moment,’ said Alleyn…

Again, it isn’t until several books – and quite a few murders – later that the independent-minded Troy consents to become Alleyn’s wife, thus consolidating one of the more durable partnerships (Holmes and Watson notwithstanding) in crime fiction.

Then of course there’s the question of murder, and why it should be such an attractive subject for writer and readers alike. It’s not a question to which I can find a ready answer. Because there’s no escaping the fact that, delightfully old-fashioned as these stories might seem, with their titled detectives and their country house settings, and seemingly unassailable hierarchies of class and wealth, they deal with the darker side of human behaviour: fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, sexual jealousy, and murder. One could argue that it isn’t the crime itself that attracts, but the intellectual puzzle involved in unravelling what has led up to it, and that this – the murder – is merely a necessary convention. Murder is, one might say, the mechanism on which the story relies, and is secondary (surely) to the pleasures of detection. Certainly, by the gruesome standards of most contemporary thrillers, which revel in describing ever more sadistic killings, the murder mysteries of the Golden Age seem like pretty tame stuff. Almost cosy, in fact.

And yet one can hardly describe as ‘cosy’ a tale in which a man dies horribly from drinking nitric acid (Artists in Crime), or one in which the murder weapon is a peal of church bells (Nine Tailors), whose combined clamour, experienced at short range, is enough to drive the victim to madness and death. People are routinely stabbed, shot, strangled, bludgeoned, drowned and – on one memorable occasion – brained with a plant pot (Busman’s Honeymoon), but the favourite method of dispatch in these homicidal tales is often poison, with all the possibilities it offers of being slipped into coffee or strong drink, or substituted for the sleeping tablets or heart medicine of the victim.

In False Scent, a leading lady dies after spraying herself with her favourite scent, into which a lethal agent has been introduced. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an autocratic matriarch expires as a result of drinking poisoned cocoa. Sad Cypress, another of Christie’s Poirot novels, begins with the trial of heiress Elinor Carlisle, for the murder of her rival, beautiful Mary Gerrard, whom she has allegedly poisoned with a fish-paste sandwich. Nasty. Very nasty. And yet one finds oneself reading on…

But – dashing detectives aside – what exactly is the appeal of the whodunit? I suppose it comes down to one thing, really: the pleasure to be had from uncovering the layers of falsehood and half-truth with which the narrative has been overlaid, in order to arrive at the ‘real story’. Of course, readers of any work of fiction are to some extent playing this detective role, in as much as they’re searching out clues, as they read, about the meaning of the text; it’s just that in crime fiction the process is more overt. As George Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, nothing is so enthralling to the general public as a murder by a hitherto upstanding citizen, for whom ‘respectability – the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position through some scandal such as divorce – (is) one of the main reasons for committing murder.’

So perhaps it’s not just the excitement of the chase – of following up clues and unravelling a mystery – that makes detective stories so compelling. It’s their psychological complexity – the fact that they deal with the darker aspects of human nature; its hypocrisies and self-deceptions – which makes us avid to read them. Detectives, in these stories, often fulfill the role of psychiatrists, enabling those burdened with unbearable secrets to reveal them, and those guilty of terrible crimes to confess. There’s an inevitability to the narrative which somehow never seems to undermine the suspense. Even though one knows from the beginning that the murderer will be found and the crime punished, there is always the faintly subversive thought that this time it might not happen, and the forces of darkness will be allowed to triumph…

There are of course quite a few celebrated examples of murder stories in which the killer ‘gets away with it’ (Patricia Highsmith’s beguilingly nasty Mr Ripley series being amongst them), but in general, what one looks for in a good whodunit is for the agent of chaos (the murderer) to be caught, and for the social order to be restored. It’s this that draws one back, time and again, to these tales – ‘cosy’ or otherwise – of mystery and imagination. Bodies in libraries, shots ringing out, faces frozen in dreadful rictuses of terror… it’s just the kind of thing for a long winter evening, in front of the fire, or tucked up under the duvet. Who needs tiresome reality, when you can have Roderick Alleyn raising a quizzical eyebrow, as his sidekick Nigel Bathgate presents him with the latest piece of evidence? Or Jane Marple speculating about murder weapons, over the tea-table? I’m happy to say that my Kindle is currently well-stocked with several dozen pre-war thrillers, to see me through until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

* Three more of Holmes’s cases are being dramatised for release this Christmas: beginning with Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, New Year’s Day, 8.10 p m BBC1

The Great Silence

Today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the twenty-first century, people across the globe fell silent, in commemoration of the dead of two world wars. It’s a custom that, in the decades since it was instigated, has become almost a commonplace of public mourning. Silence is observed for the victims of terrorism, and for those who have died in train crashes, and other large-scale disasters. It has become a way of showing respect for the suffering and loss of others, and of demonstrating social cohesion in adverse circumstances.

It’s strange, then, to think that this particular kind of silence hasn’t always been around. The practice was first introduced in South Africa, during the First World War, as a way of commemorating the sacrifice of its soldiers. As the then British High Commissioner to South Africa, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick wrote:

In the hearts of our people there is a real desire to find some lasting expression of their feeling for those who gave their lives in the war. They want something done now, while the memories of sacrifice are in the minds of all; for there is the dread – too well grounded in experience – that those who have gone will not always be first in the thoughts of all, and that when the fruits of their sacrifice become our daily bread, there will be few occasions to remind us of what we realise so clearly today…

In Britain, the first two-minute silence, then called the Great Silence, was observed on Armistice Day, 11th November, 1919, a year after the guns of the Western Front fell silent. The idea of making some kind of public recognition of the war’s end had been put forward by Lloyd George, with the agreement of King George V, and an announcement was placed in national newspapers the week before. This simply stated that, at the designated time, and at a given signal, ‘there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities’.

In her book about the aftermath of the First World War, The Great Silence, Juliet Nicholson movingly describes what took place:

just before 11.00 a.m. motorcycles and cars waited obediently at junctions. Engines stilled as War Office lorries, taxis and motorbuses came to a halt. Horse exhaled deeply as they were pulled up by the side of the road… Bicycles braked, road menders laid down their spades, telephone exchange operators unplugged their connection boards, factory workers switched off the machinery, dock workers stopped their unloading, schoolchildren stopped their lessons, miners downed their tools, shoppers stopped their purchasing, lovers stopped murmuring… Only the act of breathing, the final affirmation of life, remained as the sign of human activity…

For those who took part on that day – which included survivors of the conflict as well as those bereaved by it – the ‘silence’ brought them face to face with everything they had lost. For the returned soldiers, with their memories of trench warfare all too vivid, there would have been an echo of the eerie silence that followed the ceasefire. ‘How still it is with the guns silent,’ wrote one; and, referring to his lost comrades – ‘They can sleep now…’ For the families of those who had died, the silence must have brought only a numb recognition that sons, husbands, and lovers were never going to return, and that life must now continue without them.

It must have been an extraordinary moment – hard to imagine now, in an age of mass communication, when the horrors of war are conveyed to us through our TV screens, and the ‘sharing’ of private emotion has become the norm. Photographs taken of the immense crowds that filled Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, show all the women wearing hats, and all the men bare-headed, as if in church, or at the passing of a funeral cortege. Looking at these pictures, I can’t help wondering if my grandfather, Charles Thompson, might have been part of one of those vast, silent crowds.

Having served as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, and afterwards at Loos and Passchendaele, Charles lost his sight to a burst of shrapnel, and was invalided home in late 1917. In November 1919, he was reaching the end of his two-year recuperation at St Dunstan’s Institute for the Blind – then located in Regent’s Park – and was training as a telephonist (a job he held for the next forty years). He was engaged to be married to the attractive VAD he had met while recovering from his wounds. He had also had time to turn himself into a champion rower, winning several silver cups and medals, in the summer of 1918. Yes, I think Charles would have been somewhere, in that London crowd, paying his respects to the friends who hadn’t made it home.

Of course, not everyone saw the point of the silence. ‘A disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality’ wrote the young Evelyn Waugh in his diary. ‘If people have lost sons and fathers, they should think of them whenever the grass is green or Shaftesbury Avenue brightly lighted, not for two minutes on the anniversary of a disgraceful day of national hysteria…’ It’s the attitude that some people expressed after the death of Princess Diana, finding something distasteful or even ‘un-British’ in the display of emotion that followed that event. But whether one regards it as an empty gesture or not, silence as an act of remembrance is now part of our lives – a brief moment when, in a world grown too full of noise, we can take time to reflect. And while I agree with the famously splenetic author of Decline and Fall that such public displays of feeling can all too easily degenerate into triteness, I can’t help feeling that, almost a hundred years on, the Great Silence has survived the test of time rather well.

Having a fabulous time

One of the joys of publishing with an independent online publisher is being able to re-publish one’s out of print work – hitherto doomed to a half-life in the ‘used’ section of the Amazon store, or to second-hand bookshops -– themselves fast disappearing. It’s a wonderfully liberating feeling, to know that one’s characters are no longer consigned to the limbo of the unread, but will be brought back to life in the minds of readers.

Having already brought about this resurrection with my second novel, Undiscovered Country, first published by Penguin in 1997 and re-published in 2010 by Arbuthnot Books, I turned my attention to Fabulous Time, originally published in 2000. The novel – a black comedy, set in Sussex, during the Summer of Love – needed some light revision, which necessitated re-reading it, and editing as I went.

In doing so, I found myself re-entering a very strange world indeed – a world peopled by eccentric old ladies and camp antique dealers; by homicidal rent-boys, dope-smoking pop-stars, superannuated actresses, and philandering artists. I couldn’t help wondering what on earth had drawn me to such shady scenes. Even though I’d always enjoyed the mingling of dark and light elements to be found, say, in Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, I’d never written anything in this vein before.

Yet the story seemed to demand exactly this kind of treatment. Writers such as Thomas Love Peacock, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and, latterly, Evelyn Waugh and Angus Wilson, had celebrated the rich vein of eccentricity that runs throughout the English character. My own strange little tale of murder and mayhem in the Sussex countryside seemed part of this tradition. I’d become interested, furthermore, in what one might call the anarchic side of English life, and the way it has always subtly undermined the conventional.

This unashamedly Dionysiac strain has its roots in the pagan past – whose imagined hedonism and freedom from social restraint is encapsulated in Christopher Marlowe’s lines (later borrowed by Aldous Huxley for his own 1923 depiction of love-among-the-artists, Antic Hay):

My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawn, shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay…

It’s this pre-Christian celebration of misrule that’s to be found in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its decidedly English-sounding fairies, Cobweb, Moth, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed, and its presiding spirit, Puck – or Robin Goodfellow – whose mischievous interventions bring about the play’s central misunderstandings.

And those things do best please me
That befall preposterously…

In Fabulous Time, much of the action ‘befall(s) preposterously’, and most of the characters are unconventional, if not actually bizarre. The central character, Constance Reason, an elderly artist of eccentric habits, was once a Slade School bohemian, at a time when that institution was presided over by the flamboyant figure of Augustus John, whose acolytes, in her disdainful recollection, modelled themselves on the great man, by ‘sweeping around in capes and those soft hats that only artists and poseurs wore…’ Connie’s sister, Leonora, belongs to a no less ‘arty’ crowd – that of the West End stage circa 1920, whose mannerisms she has sustained into old age.

Hardly surprising, then, that these two ageing aesthetes should accept without blinking the arrival in their midst of a gaggle of druggy rock musicians, whose appearance puts Iseult, Leonora’s long-suffering daughter, in mind of her mother’s theatrical friends – ‘incorporating as it does an abundance of velvet and satin, a predilection for kohl eyeliner and a fondness for large-brimmed hats and feather boas…’

Mingled with the self-conscious ‘decadence’ of the Vampyres and their entourage is something much darker, as embodied by Ray – beautiful but heartless boyfriend of Connie’s hapless nephew, Sandy. I wasn’t thinking particularly of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane when I envisaged Ray, although he does bear a cousinly likeness to Orton’s louche charmer. In his venality and casual violence, Ray represents a different kind of anarchy – a destabilising element, threatening the established order. Something a bit gothic, in fact.

The gothic, in its various manifestations – from the 18th century romances beloved by Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to the Hammer Horror films of the 1960s – is another quintessentially English tradition to which Fabulous Time pays homage. Because, without giving away more of the plot than seems necessary to tantalize prospective readers, the novel is also a ghost story.

For what seems like a long time – but is perhaps no more than a minute – the eyes of her late husband meet hers in the glass with a steady, mournful stare…

In debased form, the elements of the gothic horror story are also to be found in the classic murder mystery. Often combining the horror with a whimsical humour – one thinks of Agatha Christie at her finest – they achieve their effects by a judicious unsettling of the status quo. It’s no accident that most detective stories of the golden era (roughly, 1920 to 1950) take place in the most innocuous of settings – English villages, or country houses, not a million miles from Connie’s ramshackle dwelling, ‘Dunsinane’.

Fabulous Time is not of course a conventional detective story, any more than the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 1950s were traditional knockabout farce. Both are intended as affectionate, if slightly waspish, parodies. ‘It would make a good film, along the lines of Arsenic and Old Lace or The Ladykillers’, said a kind reviewer, when the novel first came out. I’m very happy to be included in such company– and even happier that, thanks to the latest technology, the book is now available to new readers.

Living in the past – the joys of historical research

I’ve been living in the past a lot lately. In 1927, to be precise – which is when the novel I’m currently writing is set. Every day, I get on the Jubilee Line and travel back in time, to an era when there were no computers, no mobile phones, no televisions and not very many motorcars; when few households had telephones and quite a number were without inside lavatories. Central heating was unknown, except for the rich – who of course were also the only ones able to afford the other amenities of modern life we now take for granted, such as refrigerators, washing-machines, and vacuum-cleaners.

Not that most of these well-to-do people expected to do their own household chores: even in the late 1920s, with many who had once worked ‘in service’ preferring to earn their living in factories or shops, the front pages of The Times for this period are full of advertisements for ‘Housemaids’ (‘must be good-tempered’) ‘Cook-Generals’ (‘good references essential’), and ‘Between-maids’ (‘titled family; four servants kept’); as well as those for chauffeurs, butlers and gardeners.

Other glimpses into this now-vanished world are offered by the advertisements, which in those days were illustrated by hand-drawn images (although photographs were starting to appear). Here, then, are the latest in ‘charming dinner or dance frocks… exact copies of Paris models… made of rich quality chiffon attractively finished with draped frills… handsomely ornamented with silver bugle-beads and sequins.’ Here are ‘real lizard’ shoes at 35 shillings a pair; ‘jumper suits’ in ‘fine quality wool Stockinette, in Wine, Bois de Rose, Fawn, Almond, Powder Blue and Cedar’ at 6 guineas; ‘becoming felt hats’, in ‘delightful new Spring colours’ at 21 shillings, and of course ‘men’s suitings’ in ‘every pleasing shade of blue, grey and brown’.

Suitably clad, one might venture forth, to see ‘Lady Luck’ at the Carlton Theatre, or ‘On Approval’ at the Fortune. ‘The Desert Song’ was still packing them in at Drury Lane; while for those in search of less elevated amusements, ‘The Glad Eye’, at the Astoria Cinema in Charing Cross Road was doing almost as good business as ‘The White Slave’ at the Capitol, Haymarket. While sitting back to enjoy the show, you might light up a Craven ‘A’ (‘made specially to prevent sore throats’), or a De Reszke, since ‘wherever the right people meet, there also will you meet the right cigarette…’

Or, wearing a ‘dressing-gown of pure silk foulard’ (him) or a ‘rich printed chiffon Tea-frock’ (her), you could relax at home with the papers, keeping up with the details of the latest crime story (the Charing Cross Trunk Murder was enthralling the public that year) or the goings-on of the ‘Smart Set’ in St Tropez (‘Countess Buxton distributed the prizes at the fancy-dress dance at the Grand Hotel. The prize-winners included Lady Alethea Buxton and the Hon. Daisy Dixon…’). You could listen to music on your newly acquired radiogram: ‘Touch a Switch, and Bring the Gayest Dance Bands to Your Home!’ Or you could reach for the latest bestseller, by Ethel M Dell or Elinor Glyn.

Which is what I’ve been doing, too. Because powerfully evocative as back-issues of newspapers are, there’s a limit to how much journalism one can digest. Novels are a different matter – and there’s nothing that conjures up the atmosphere of a particular era in history better than the fiction published at the time. So, these past few months, my reading has consisted of the novels and short stories of Dorothy L Sayers, Marjory Allingham, E F Benson, P G Wodehouse, Rose Macaulay, Michael Arlen, Agatha Christie, John Galsworthy, Pamela Frankau, and oh, Elinor Glyn. (I’ve also re-read James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Richard Aldington, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and Ford Madox Ford, but it has to be said that it isn’t always the overtly literary novels that give you the most intense flavour of the times.)

Anyway, here they are – my top 20 novels of the 1920s. They’re a mixture of the uncompromisingly literary and the unashamedly popular – which, it has to be said, rather sums up the era, as famous for its film stars, outlandish-sounding cocktails and dance crazes (the Black Bottom, anyone?) as for innovative works of literature such as The Wasteland. As T S Eliot himself would have put it:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent…

- which is a pretty good description of these ‘Jazz Age’ novels.

Ulysses by James Joyce – published in 1922, and arguably the most significant work of the Modernist era, it famously chronicles the events of a single day in Dublin: 16th June 1904.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann – another mind-blowing Modernist blockbuster, published in 1924, this takes place in a sanatorium in Davos in the years leading up to the Great War.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is a suitably cynical portrayal of the Roaring Twenties at their most divinely decadent.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – published in 1926, this offers further insights into the jaded, dissolute world of a generation mentally and physically damaged by the First World War.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – published in 1925, this describes another ‘Day in the Life’ – this time of a wealthy Society lady planning a party.
Women in Love by D H Lawrence – published in 1920, Lawrence’s bleak portrayal of relations between the sexes still retains the power to unsettle.
The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis – published in 1930, but set in 1926, Lewis’s satirical magnum opus caricatures a range of ‘bourgeois-bohemian’ types, ranging from wealthy art collectors to would-be artists.
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh – published in 1928, Waugh’s first novel is another satirical broadside against the excesses of the Bright Young Things.
Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley – published in 1928, Huxley’s brilliant roman à clef vividly evokes the political, intellectual and artistic conflicts of the 1920s.
No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford – published in 1925, the second novel in Ford’s tetralogy about the First World War finds its hero Christopher Tietjens caught between the horrors of the Western Front and the anguish of a failing marriage.
Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington – published in 1929, Aldington’s excoriating attack on the hypocrisy of those who supported the First World War still feels very contemporary.
The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy – published in 1926, the penultimate novel in the six-part Forsyte Saga, this account of mid-1920s London life as lived by socialite Fleur Mont and her husband Michael, an up-and-coming MP, is full of vivid detail and surprisingly sharp social comment.
Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay – published in 1923, this quasi-autobiographical saga, follows the fortunes of a single family through the religious and intellectual upheavals of the 1880s to the post-war cynicism of the 1920s.
The Green Hat by Michael Arlen – published in 1924, Arlen’s tale of the femme fatale in the eponymous chapeau became an instant bestseller.
The Black Minute by Pamela Frankau – published in 1929, this collection of stories chronicles the precarious, sybaritic existence of a group of expatriates in the South of France.
Lucia in London by E F Benson – one of six ‘Lucia’ novels, published between 1920 and 1939, this finds the shamelessly social-climbing heroine in London for the Season. Delicious stuff.
Very Good, Jeeves! By P G Wodehouse – published in 1930, this collection of stories about the hapless Bertie Wooster and his inimitable ‘man’, Jeeves, captures the spirit of 1920s metropolitan life in some of the most dazzlingly witty prose ever written.
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers – although published in 1930, this murder mystery, featuring the wonderfully insouciant Lord Peter Wimsey, draws on the author’s experiences during the 1920s as a copywriter in an advertising company not unlike the fictional Pym’s Publicity Ltd.
Man and Maid by Elinor Glyn – one of Glyn’s many highly-charged romantic novels, this was published in 1922, and describes a love affair between a cynical aristocrat, traumatised by his experiences during the First World War, and the young woman he engages as his secretary.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – the first of what was to be an extraordinary outpouring of detective fiction was published in 1920, and displays many of the hallmarks of the genre: a country house setting, a family at war with itself, a mysterious death by poisoning, and the appearance of a certain M. Poirot…