Among the top five searches leading to my site over the last 24 hours:
“Susan Cowsill Nude”
“Miss Pym Disposes Ending”
But, as Elvis might say…
Last month’s reading was all crime all the time. I finally got around to reading a couple of John Ball novels that have been sitting around the house for a couple of decades (he was the creator of Virgil Tibbs of Sidney Poitier/In the Heat of the Night fame) and I finished the Josephine Tey Project.
The Cool Cottontail (John Ball, 1966)
Ball’s basic concept was a black cop, Virgil Tibbs, raised in the South, who lives and works in California. When the first Tibbs’ novel, In the Heat of the Night (1965), was made into a famous film, his home police force was changed to Philadelphia. No idea why.
It’s plain from The Cool Cottontail, however, why Ball preferred Tibbs to be a Californian. The main appeal of this novel (and presumably the series) was the character study of a black man adapting to the cultural changes of the Civil Rights era in a liberal, reasonably tolerant place. Not sure Philadelphia would have qualified. Cali certainly did. The plot here opens with an appropriate bang when a body is dumped into the swimming pool of a local nudist colony.
I’ve already forgotten who dumped the body, or whether it was even the same person who put the bullet in it, and Ball’s style is board-flat. But the picture of Tibbs’ cautious optimism and realistic view of the pace with which real change, if any, was likely to occur–of how far even the inhabitants of a nudist colony were likely to stretch the last boundaries of tribalism for the sake of anything other than celebrating their own boundless tolerance–remains indelible. To wit:
Tibbs wanted to explain that this was an official call, not a social one. He opened his mouth to do so and then had sense enough to close it again. These people knew that, but they were treating him as a guest anyway. He was a person just like them, welcome to go anywhere and do anything that anyone else might do. It was like walking through the gates into Paradise.
He looked down at his ebony hands and hated them.
When there’s enough of that, you can get by with a mundane plot.
Then Came Violence (John Ball, 1980)
This was the last of the Tibbs’ series, published at the end of the New Deal coalition that had made a series of mainstream black detective novels either possible or necessary to begin with. It’s not a long drop from The Cool Cottontail. Ball’s style remained durable to the point of blandness. The basic plot again revolves around a sensational idea (Tibbs has to pretend to be the husband of a beleaguered African president’s wife).
But the main appeal of the series’ original concept–a black cop dealing soberly and rationally with sweeping social change–had lost its punch. There are still some telling asides, especially regarding Tibbs’ contempt for the black criminal class (by then hopelessly intertwined with the chic-est radicals). But, by now, it’s a story that could be told about anyone.
Worse, there’s a love story, predictable at every turn. Well, except for the part where the African president’s wife gets kidnapped–not by her husband’s political enemies (who could have perhaps been tied to one of the remnants of the radical movements then in their final state of collapse? was this too hard to manage?) but by two-bit hoods who have no idea who she is. When you are relying on coincidences that thin, you need a lot else going on to make any novel, let alone a thriller, sprint to the finish line. This one dawdles–to the starting gate, the finish line and every place in between. These books were important and Tibbs is a likeable man to spend time with. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it. But this one didn’t leave me with any burning desire to pursue the series further.
The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey, 1951)
Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in a hospital. Bored, he homes in on a portrait of Richard III brought in, with a series of others, for his amusement.
He starts asking his visitors and the hospital staff what they think of the portrait and studying their reactions when they think it’s an ordinary man versus when they are told it’s Richard.
Then he and a young scholar who is a friend of the actress who supplied Grant with the original portrait start discussing whether or not Richard might have been a victim of bad press from the likes of Thomas More and Shakespeare.
Eventually they decide this is the case and are a bit surprised to find that, every century or so since Richard’s death, someone else has come to the same conclusion.
That’s it. No bodies, no crime, no suspense. After the first few pages (where we meet the staff) not even any pithy characterizations. On top of that, it’s written in a stodgy, documentary style that had me considering toothpicks for my eyelids. Grant calls Thomas More “sainted” so many times I ended up liking More better than Grant. Which would be fine except the book is clearly not meant as a parody.
For reasons that baffled me on a second read even more than a first, this novel (from the woman who wrote Miss Pym Disposes for Christ’s sake) was voted “number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association” (Wikipedia) and fourth on a similar list by the Mystery Writers of America. Several of Tey’s other novels (all fine and worthy) made those lists as well. For a woman who published only eight crime novels, to have half of them honored on such lists is remarkable and a measure of her worth.
Why her greatest novel, one of the finest in the English language made neither list, while this dead thing rides high, is a mystery far beyond any relegated to mere fiction.
The Singing Sands (Josephine Tey, 1953)
Mercifully, since this was Tey’s last novel (it was published after her death, at the age of 55, in 1952), this is a return to form. Grant is back on his feet, but suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown which leaves him frightened of closed spaces, boredom, and, most crucially, himself.
There’s a mystery, a classic nothing-that-gradually-turns-into-something very much in the grand Tey style. Again, it’s civilization, as much as any act of fate, that rides to the rescue.
The Tey of a few years earlier, right after the war, might have made the solution to the mystery be to Grant’s cost, rather than his salvation. But, since that would have been the end of him as a fictional character anyway, and she had no way of knowing she would die before she could resume his journey, it’s understandable that she would want to hold on to her meal ticket. And there’s one final flourish as a psychopath, who both does and does not escape Grant’s wrath, gives a glimpse into the places Tey had gone in order to blaze trails for the entire generation of “psychological” crime writers, Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar chief among them, who would follow. Here the killer describes the aftermath of a murder he committed on a train, which Grant, salvaged by his pursuit of a whim, is only able to really prove was not an accident by the receipt of the letter he is reading:
I removed the contents of his pockets and substituted Charles Martin’s pocket-book and its contents.
He was still alive, but he stopped breathing as we were running through the yards at Rugby.
Tey’s impulse, like Grant’s, was always toward the preservation of the social and political order.
But, somehow, I do not think she was quite able to convince herself, in 1952, that there would always be an England.
All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..
A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)
The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.
Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):
Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”
That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.
The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.
It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.
Then the war came.
The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)
This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.
No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.
This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.
Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.
It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.
For that, she can certainly be forgiven.
[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]
I’m still trying to get back to full speed on my reading. Maybe next month! In the meantime, after a blank September, I did manage to finish a couple in October. First up is Mark Perry’s superb history Conceived In Liberty, a look at nineteenth-century America through the prism of dual biographies of the opposing commanders at Little Round Top. Next is Josephine Tey’s first mystery novel The Man in the Queue, a well-made whodunit that points the way towards a brilliant, unconventional career in crime fiction.
Conceived In Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War
(Mark Perry, 1997)
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (b. September, 1828) was a Bowdoin College professor of classics, fluent in ten languages and destined to become the school’s president. William Oates (b. November, 1835) was an Alabama roustabout who left a farm-boy life to adventure in the west before coming home and turning to the law and local politics. Both men were destined to become governors of their home states. Like hundreds of other volunteer officers in the Civil War, each fought and commanded honorably and well for their respective sides. Lacking West Point credentials, each man had limits placed on his military advancement and might have reasonably expected to be forgotten by history except for a twist of fate which found them faced off against each other in the most famous engagement of the most famous battle in American history.
On July 2, 1863, the men of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, forming the extreme left of the Union line established the day before, fought the men of Oates’s 15th Alabama on a rock-strewn forest floor near the summit of a hill called Little Round Top.
The Maine men, under a “no retreat” order, were aware that the ground they stood on had to be defended at all costs. The Alabama men were equally aware that the ground had to be taken at all costs. Their respective positions prohibited any chance of reinforcements for either side.
The result was some of the fiercest close-order combat ever fought, with the two lines exchanging volley after volley of single shot musket fire at the distance of a couple of first downs and finally engaging in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Oates tried a series of straightforward assaults mingled with repeated attempts to flank the hill. Chamberlain countered accordingly, with each side’s manpower and ammunition dwindling through the long afternoon.
When the smoke finally cleared, Chamberlain’s men held. In all likelihood, they saved the Union army at Gettysburg and, with it, the American Experiment.
The fight itself has been memorably depicted in numerous other historical accounts, in Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel, The Killer Angels, and in Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film, Gettysburg.
There’s a good description of it here, too. But Perry is after a larger narrative, one that weaves the lives of his two protagonists in and around the forward march of the nineteenth century America Chamberlain and Oates both so ably and memorably represented.
It’s a tall task and Perry is up to it.
He merges his biographies and battle accounts with not just useful histories of abolitionism and Reconstruction but the other burning issues of the century: women’s rights, temperance, the death penalty, the meaning of citizenship for freed slaves and much more. The writing is fluid and organic, enabling Perry to build a narrative that captures the romance of our bloodiest conflict–the one that had to be fought before any other issue could be fully confronted or the direction of our Experiment determined–without selling the tragedy and terror short.
Even more admirably, Perry takes a layered approach which never lets the reader forget that, then, as now, the world did not run in a straight line.
Chamberlain was much more the romantic, Oates the hard-headed realist, though neither was easily pigeon-holed.
Oates, a strict segregationist was nonetheless the first Confederate officer to argue forcefully and publicly for slaves to be given emancipation if they would agree to fight for the South, insisting, “If we don’t free them, the Union will.” Chamberlain, an ardent abolitionist and pre-war intimate of Harriet Beecher Stowe, nonetheless argued against full citizenship for freedmen after his war heroism elevated him to the governorship of Maine. Perry does a commendable job of placing both men in the full context of their times, stressing their contradictions without obscuring their very real (and, in Chamberlain’s case, history-altering) merits.
Highly recommended in any event, but especially urgent and poignant in this year when the cracks in our foundation are once more staring us in the face.
The Man In the Queue
(Josephine Tey, 1929)
Irrespective of name or genre, she was one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists.
After revisiting her devastating Miss Pym Disposes a few months back, I’ve decided to start re-reading her in order (there are only six more).
The Man in the Queue is, for her, atypical. It’s the only one of her novels that hues anywhere close to formula, having her Scotland Yard detective, Alan Grant, chase clues to the murder of an unidentified man, committed in theater queue.
Even here, Tey isn’t quite satisfied with the conventions. Among other devices, she narrates in gender neutral first person, from the perspective of an unnamed friend of Inspector Grant’s, who disappears for such long intervals that his/her occasional reassertion of “I” amounts to what, in theater or film, would be called breaking the fourth wall.
If it’s formula–nothing is done with the plot that Agatha Christie couldn’t have delivered at least as well– it’s satisfying formula. And more or less adhering to it leaves Tey room for side-trips into interesting places. The Scottish moors and London streets have been rendered many times, before and since (though never better), but who else has got so far inside the broken field running bound to dominate the mind of a Yard man who is no Sherlock Holmes but merely a dogged detective, prone to a flash of inspiration now and again, who knows his job?
Why had the man hidden his identity? Was it perhaps mere accident? Nothing but the tailor’s name had been obliterated from his clothes, and the maker’s name had been left on the tie–surely a most obvious place if one had been deliberately eliminating identification marks. But if it were a mere accident that eliminated the tailor’s name, how account for the scantiness of the man’s belongings? Small change, a handkerchief and a revolver. Not even a watch. It spoke loudly of intended suicide. Perhaps the man was broke. He didn’t look it, but that was no criterion. Grant had known many paupers who looked like millionaires, and beggars with large bank balances. Had the man, at the end of his resources, decided to end it rather than sink slowly into the gutter? Had the visit to the theatre with his last few shillings been merely a snapping of fingers in the face of the gods who had defeated him? Was it merely the final irony that the dagger had anticipated his own revolver by an hour or two? But if he were broke, why had he not gone to the friend for money?–the friend who was so free with his bank-notes? Or had he? and the friend had refused it? Was it conscience, after all, that had prompted that anonymous twenty-five pounds? If he decided to accept the presence of the revolver and the absence of clues as evidence of attempted suicide, then the murder resolved itself into the outcome of a quarrel–probably between two members of a race gang. Perhaps the Levantine had shared in the dead man’s downfall and had held the dead man responsible. That was the most reasonable explanation. And it fitted all the circumstances. The man was interested in racing–probably a bookmaker–he was found without watch or money and evidently prepared for suicide; the Levantine was heard to demand something which the dead man either could not or would not give, and the Levantine had stabbed him. The friend who had refused him help in life–probably tired of pulling him out of tight places–had been seized with such a fit of remorse on learning of the man’s end that he had provided lavishly, if anonymously, for his burial. Pure theory but it fitted–almost!
There’s more, but it’s that “almost”–a standard device used here to punctuate a very non-standard stream of consciousness (which, in turn, is too diffuse to be the norm for the usual detective fiction, too linear–too much like a keen mind navigating a sea of confusion and too much a replication of the conscious mind at the expense of the subconscious–to impress the literati, who really do believe such things are simple)–that keeps us on our toes.
Combine that with a writer who could capture, in stark outline, an entire milieu of cultural, familial and psychological assumptions with a swift aside…
“I’m so glad you didn’t wait Agnes,” Mr. Logan said, in a tone which clearly said, I think you might have waited.
…and it becomes obvious, even as early as a first novel written in 1929, that the web of convention she so ably replicated here, could never have held her.
NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my learning curve.
Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.
The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)
This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.
Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.
What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.
Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)
“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.
“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”
Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?
It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.
But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.
There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.
Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…
True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)
The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.
As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.
The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)
In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.
Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.
Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).
I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.
Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.
That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.
He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.
The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.
The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.
The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).
There were reasons why
If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.
And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.
You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.
More’s the pity?
We’ll find out soon enough.