MISTER TIBBS AND THE END OF THE JTP (Monthly Book Report: January, 2017)

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.

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

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..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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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)

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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.]