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.