Crime and upsetting the middle classes

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, Edgar Wallace’s The Gunner. 

At last, after months of reading works of literary highbrow as recommended by Arnold Bennet, a bona fide piece of middlebrow, perhaps even lowbrow, fiction! On the 19th July 1928, Bennett wrote that he had startled his friends by admitting to having read, and enjoyed, the popular thriller The Gunner, written by Edgar Wallace. Such was the novelty of reading a popular work of fiction, he asked his friends their opinions:

The general attitude was: “Have I read Edgar Wallace? Good heavens! What do you take me for?

Bennett’s explanation for this reaction is that:

Nearly all bookish people are snobs, and especially the most enlightened of them.

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace smoking downwards. From edgarwallace.org

Bennett was taken with the book, to such an extent that he devoted the whole review to it when normally it would be shared between two or three books. He wrote:

In The Gunner something sinister and exciting is continually afoot. The amount of incident to the page is prodigious, and to the chapter is incalculable. Often, when you think that the author’s inventive powers must be exhausted, he will suddenly change the scene – and in the middle of a chapter too! – and start anew as fresh as if he had risen up from twelve hours of dreamless sleep.

What did I make of it? For a study of London’s underworld I found it very genteel. Every example of slang – carrying a gat, the busies, squeal – is explained to the middle-class characters whose lives have been turned upside-down through the suicide of a young man fallen in with a bad ‘un. Violence and death are threatened frequently but rarely realised. Deaths do happen but if memory serves me well, only twice and one of those seems to have left the writer feeling it best to leave it unexplained as he himself would be hard put to even give the victim a name. In fact, while one member of the working classes is killed, the middle class characters are merely frightened or upset. By the end of the novel, order is restored and even the Gunner, – named because of his habit of carrying one but, it would seem, loath to use -succumbs to middle-class pressures and conforms. Reader, he married her.

I wonder what Bennett would have made of Dashiell Hammett’s blood-soaked Red Harvest? It was published only a year later and I cannot help but feel its influence on crime writing has been immeasurably more than The Gunner. 

TheGunner

Cover of the American edition. Given that women in 1920s Britain did not dress like this and that guns are rare creatures in the novel, it would be fair guess to say that the artist never read the book.

In fashion news, The Glasgow Herald of the same day noted that brown, although associated with daytime wear, was becoming important for the evening too. Brown evening frocks were being displayed in the latest collections in shades of taffeta, lace and tulle. The aim was studied simplicity in the use of large bows and long ends of caramel moira.

Arnold Bennett wrote in his journal that he had finished his novel Accident and, as was frequently the case, was not happy with it. Nor was he happy with George Arliss’ scenario for the stage production of Lord Raingo. However, he seemed much happier that evening when he dined at the Garrick Club – “Very merry, this affair,” he wrote. “Some great stories.”

It’s a fair cop gov but I blame that Bentley geezer…

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913.

Trent's Last Case

Writing in the The Saturday Review of August the 3rd, 1929, Dorothy L.Sayers, commenting on the few times that love has featured in the detective novel, wrote:

E. C. Bentley in “Trent’ s Last Case,” has dealt finely with the still harder problem of the detective in love. Trent’s love for Mrs. Manderson is a legitimate part of the plot; while it does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation. Incidentally, the love story is handled artistically and with persuasive emotion.

Under the heading of THE PLANTATION MURDER, the Derby Daily Telegraph of Tuesday the 24th, 1913, was this report:

William Burton, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell in a plantation at Gussage St.Michael was executed at Dorchester Prison this morning.

Burton walked firmly to the scaffold and maintained an indifferent demeanour. He made a full confession to the vicar of Gussage.

Local English newspapers were filled with these brief accounts of murder, trial and execution. 1913, the year in which Trent’s Last Case was published, was as marked as any other year by the repetition of these three sentences of human experience at its most bleak: John Vickers Amos, guilty of the murder of two policemen and a woman, hung by Pierrepoint, at Newcastle Gaol; Jeannie Baxter accused of murdering the aviator Julian Bernard Hall by shooting him and, in Allalabad in India, Lieutenant Clark confessed that it was he, and not Mrs. Fulham, who murdered Mr. Fulham by giving him antipyrine, a toxic analgesic, (the jury found them both guilty: he was hung, she died in prison a year later). True, the Derby Daily Telegraph, three years earlier, had reported in detail the arrest, trial and execution of Dr.Crippen. But he was, well, Dr.Crippen. Unlike the execution of William Burton the report of Crippen’s execution included the fact that he was given a seven foot drop, a detail that my dad always mentioned when talking about reports of executions he had read as a child.

The homicide rate per 100,000 in England and Wales in 1913 was 0.91 (the current U.K. homicide rate is 1.2; in 1913 in the U.S.A. it was 6.1/100,000). Which in a graph looks like this:

Homicide Rate England and Wales

So, Bentley was writing at a time when, overall, the homicide rate was dropping. If we turn to the country he lived in:

Buy phonographs!

We can see it is a country of growing prosperity (as measured by the purchase of phonographs, cameras and bicycles and so on). Perhaps that is why the run-of-the-mill murders merited only a paragraph in the English provincial press (even exotic murderers, such as Lieutenant Clark – the press felt obliged to describe him as “Eurasian” – were only given this space). England was secure enough to look on murder as something that happened to other people, and very often not the best sort of people at that.

But despite this prosperity and security Bentley did write Trent’s Last Case and it was a success. It is possible, of course, that Edwardian stability could easily lend itself to a delight in the sordid, just as in the 1920s, which saw a further fall in the homicide rate, instability could just as easily lend itself to the sordid as long as someone came along to set it all right again. On the other hand, the Victorians loved being scared silly by stories in the press of murder, violence and plots to take over the world, or least as laid out in The Battle of Dorking (1871), the invasion of England. As the poor continued to traipse through the courts (women forming a disproportionately large group, normally for repeated offences of petty theft and prostitution) there was added that extra frisson of social unrest that arose from this newly defined criminal class. Trent’s Last Case, published twelve years after the death of Queen Victoria,  in which the poor, the working classes, the middle classes, journalists (apart from Trent), the police, the judiciary and the penal system appear only briefly or not at all, would have allowed a reader a literary account of violent death, madness and a metaphor of a jigsaw set badly put together.

From the letters written by Lieutenant Clark and Mrs. Fulham they were, if not in love, in a passionate, and ultimately, murderous relationship. This did not stop Mrs. Fulham from offering to turn King’s Evidence and testify against her lover (the offer was rejected). The case was infamous in its day (an account of it was written by Sir Cecil Walsh, King’s Counsel) but it seemed to play more in the metropolitan and colonial press than in the provinces. In the case of the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell by William Burton we can be certain that no one, as Trent was want to do, quoted from Keats or Shelley. It was fragments from her false teeth that led police to her grave (Burton had shot her in the face with a shotgun when she threatened to speak publicly about their relationship – one of many he had pursued with women in the village). What would be the appropriate line of poetry to quote when a decomposing and faceless corpse is being dug up?

Am I missing the point here? Am I forgetting Bentley’s friendship with G. K. Chesterton, writer of the Father Brown stories, and his challenge to Bentley to write of a flawed detective? Have I misunderstood the literary themes underpinning Dorothy L. Sayers’ comments quoted above? No. Am I willfully missing all of these points? Ah, that is a horse of a different colour.

Our man Bennett was an admirer of the thrillers written by Edgar Wallace, not least because they featured policemen who knew what they were doing. One of his complaints of the many crime novels he reviewed in the 1920s was that the detectives that featured in them were:

…lacking in all human characteristics save the minor and comparatively rare characteristics of self conceit, blindness to the obvious, and perfect idiocy.

In an article published in The Saturday Review on the 26th of September, 1931 Christopher Morley questioned if Trent’s Last Case, along with The Lady in White, was one of the best crime novels ever written. He suggested that A Study in Scarlet, The Red House Mystery or the wonderfully titled Seven Keys to Baldpate were perhaps its equals. He also included Dashiell Hammett in that list. Along with Georges Simeon he is my favourite crime writer. Their detectives, private and professional, have right on their side, you might say righteousness. Sam Spade’s righteousness, I would argue, is Old Testament in nature while Inspector Maigret’s is much more New Testament. Perhaps that is why, given the chance, I would invite Trent into the Library, point to the loaded revolver on the table, remind him that as a gentleman he would know what is expected of him, close the door behind me and wait for a single gunshot.

No literary taste here then, instead I cast him over into Virginia Woolf territory. (3,9) seems a suitable punishment.

Firm but fair.

Next time, I ask Elizabeth Bowen what she did in the (Second World) War (she wrote English Novelists in the Britain in Pictures series)?

Matthew Arnold: Secret Agent

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. I am currently reading Matthew Arnold’s Essays. It’s taking longer than expected so rather than post nothing I have come up with this. 

In 1858, after seven years of marriage, Matthew Arnold moved into what was then called a small house in Chester Square, London. It would now be called “worth a million pounds.” Still a relatively new housing development when Matthew Arnold moved in, it had up to the 1820s been an area of lagoons and the haunt of footpads and robbers. Lagoons, I always feel, are the British equivalent of Indian graveyards (on which American middle class families insist on building their homes – always with dire results). It would be pleasing to think of the heavily side-whiskered Arnold doing combat with a resurrected Grendel or indeed aliens emerging from his cellars. His ability to quote widely and wittily in Latin and Greek would doubtless come in useful. “Sic semper tyrannis” he would mutter as he empties his Beaumont Adams revolver into the quivering tentacles of the alien leader. Half way to Chelsea there was even a pub appropriately called The Monster, which was reached via a cabbage patch.

If not a fighter of monsters and aliens, why not a private detective? As an  inspector of schools for thirty five years, he was noted as knowing more about the timetables, stations and trains of England than most men. What better opportunity for the solving of crimes the length and breadth of the country (especially those involving trains)? He could once more empty his trusty Beaumont Adams revolver into the chest of Randolph Churchill as he attempts to bundle Queen Victoria onto the Dover train, the first step in his mad plan to make her Empress of his African Empire; or arrest John Ruskin as he smuggles Turner’s smutty pictures to Paris on the ferry train to Folkestone. In his book Portraits of the Seventies, George Russell speaks warmly of the dinners at Arnold’s house in Chester Square. Where better to share his adventures with his friends and companions George Buckle, Herbert Paul and George Augustus as they drink their port?

Not quite Flashman nor the current on-line comic adventures of Babbington and Lovelace, but it would be nice to think there would be a market for a nineteenth century crime-solving/monster-slaughtering Oxford Professor of Poetry with impressive side-whiskers. Some of the above is true. Much of it is not. There is certainly enough to horrify the ghost of one great and possibly neglected literary figure.

%d bloggers like this: