Friday, 14 October 2016

A stab in the dark

I've read a couple of detective novels recently, part of my effort to familiarise myself with popular 1930s-40s culture as well as the Literature. Crime and detective fiction isn't really my thing: I'm not interested in them per se, I don't like gore and I distrust the glamorisation of crime. I am interested in how popular fiction reflects social and cultural concerns though, and crime novels do that in spades. I've read a boatload of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Wimsey character gets more interesting with every novel, I'm a good way in to Allingham's Campion novels which start as parodies of Wimsey but rapidly become strange, disturbing and often dependent on social mores and infractions that at this distance are hard to comprehend even when they're not upsetting (in Police at the Funeral, the family shame that occasions murder is mixed-race ancestry).

The ones I read this week are Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor and Nicholas Blake's 1949 The Head of a Traveller. McCabe's novel features a first person narrative by the central protagonist, a film-editor called Cameron McCabe. He and the investigating policeman have grown up in North America and speak in a clipped, slangy Hollywood argot despite living and working in London. Atmospherically, it's very good: life in a film studio, jazz, nightclubs, sports cars, assignations and the famous London fog. It's recently been republished as a lost classic, largely because of the confluence of author and narrator, and because the mystery is cleared up two-thirds into the book. The rest is an analysis by another minor character of the literary qualities of McCabe's account, situated within the parameters of the crime genre. McCabe himself was actually Ernst Bornemann, a refugee from Germany who learned English in double-quick time, was a film editor, a jazz critic, later a TV director, author and eventually academic sexologist back in Germany and Austria.

An interesting history, certainly, and the book is a serious achievement for someone who didn't speak English two years before he published it, but I'm not sure it's a 'classic': the plot is confused and the dialogue is way too pleased with itself without really working. The faux-scholarly apparatus is little more than showing-off and there's very little to connect the crimes with their society other than the claim that urban life leads to alienated behaviour, which you know if you've read Henry James, Patrick Hamilton, TS Eliot, James Hanley and an awful lot of other authors. I'm glad I read it but don't think it bears the weight of praise heaped upon it.

The Head of a Traveller is interesting too. Nicholas Blake is actually the poet C Day Lewis, who claimed to have started writing his Nigel Strangeways novels to pay for a new roof: there's a distinct air of genre snobbery hanging about this and it's hard to tell whether he was double-bluffing to avoid losing face in his poetic circles or if he really did look down on a sizeable chunk of his life's work: judging by his facility with the 'rules' of golden age fiction I think he probably did enjoy crime fiction. Certainly Head of a Traveller attempts to dignify the crime genre by being infused with intertextual references – mostly to poetry – and through the key characters: a wonderful poet whose decade-long writer's block is cured by a murder on his country estate, a failed artist and his damaged but more talented sculptor daughter Mara, and the detective himself, torn between solving the crime and aiding the production of  Robert Seaton's great work. Being a poet himself, using a poet and other creative artists as characters are bound to make us reflect on the relationship between society and the production of art (and the thin line between crafting literature and criminal schemes). The novel poses the question of whether the law and morality are outweighed by artistic merit and production, though the ending rather fudges the answer but seems to imply that a little light murder shouldn't be held against

There's also a strong Gothic streak running through it which distinguishes it from mainstream crime fiction: the titular head turns up everywhere, dark deeds are done at midnight and the household includes a speechless dwarf of uncertain origin who may be demonic or innocent.

I enjoyed it enormously until about 150 pages in, when the detective hero casually cures the damaged sculptor of her traumas by explaining that her problems (which include talking about her sexuality openly) stem from failing to admit that she'd enjoyed being raped by the dead man when she was fifteen. Having cleared this up he leaves her happier, but worried that he has ended a promising artistic career because, it is implied, suffering is the sacrifice artists make to produce great work.

I finished the novel and appreciated it on a structural level, but enjoyment had disappeared entirely: either Lewis really held this shallow and warped understanding of psychology and sexuality, he was simply a misogynist, or he didn't feel it was worth developing a more intelligent plot device.

Still, it could be worse: I've got to read a Jeffrey Archer novel for research purposes next…

1 comment:

Phil said...

I'm a big fan of the Nigel Strangeways books - I think it'd be worth your while to try another. It's a while since I read HoaT, but I don't remember recoiling in horror at the sexual politics, awful as it does sound. I guess my feeling was that 'rape' - from a male pov - meant something different in the 30s, and probably for some time afterwards (the Morgan case was 1976); it was conceptualised more as the coercive extreme of seduction than as a sexual assault. Difficult reading now, but I don't think it ruins the entire book.

If you do read some of the other Strangeways, you can probably skip the last one, The Morning After Death (1966) - firstly because it's not very good (though it does include some nice stuff about campus life & academic politics), but mainly because it's set in the US and includes some awful stuff about 'Negroes'; at one point a White character goes to ground by lodging with a Black family and blacking up. Fiendish...