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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Today’s review concerns a spooooooky Hallowe’en read!

Well, not really. In fact, I’m trying, weakly, to make the latest book I read seem relevant to the present holiday. I had been planning to finish this about a month ago, and by now to b
e on something completely different, and relevant to the time of year, but life got in the way, so I’m doing my best with the fact that this book has ‘Devil’ in the title and the bonus that, because it is set in an interwar village, there is talk among the characters of witchcraft and curses. Of course, nearly all golden agey crime novels set in English villages feature talk of witchcraft and curses, but — yeah, Hallowe’en. And this one is particularly interested in the supernatural, after a fashion.

If you know me relatively well, you probably know that I’m a huge evangelist for Gladys Mitchell’s work. An ex, when they weren’t an ex, introduced me to her. I read The Longer Bodies at 19 and absolutely loved it, then as a PhD researcher moved onto Speedy Death, and didn’t look back. So it might surprise you to know that of her 86 novels, I’ve only read about a dozen. These include some of her recognised best — The Rising of the Moon  — and some of her recognised worst —  Watson’s Choice — and, honestly, I’ve loved everything I’ve tried.

Relatively recently (just after I started reading The Devil at Saxon Wall [1935]), the awesome Noah Stewart decided to stop reading Gladys Mitchell. As he explains in his blog post, he just couldn’t get on with her. Addressing Mitchell’s fans, Noah writes:
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s clear that you like her writing more than I do, and I respect that; I don’t think you have poor taste, it’s pretty clear that I do. There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise — it was mostly made to justify my acquisition of so many e-books at one fell swoop.
Of course, I don’t think he has poor taste — rather, any taste for Mitchell is definitely an acquired one. I can totally see how she can be annoying: the convoluted plots, the sameness of the set-ups, the sometimes alarming right-wing attitudes and judgmental approaches to minorities (it should surprise no one that Mitchell was a mostly-repressed lesbian and not particularly popular among her fellow crime writers). Unusually with divisive novelists, I don’t find that the things that appeal to me in the books are the same things that other people hate — for instance, I love the pomposity of Dorothy L. Sayers! But, no, I don’t like Mitchell because of these things; I like her work in spite of them.

What does appeal so much about the books, then? Sex is definitely a big element. The absolute no-nonsense approaches to subjects that lesser writers evaded, like pre-marital sex, adultery, and homosexuality, and to things we’re still prudish about like cross-generational sex, venerial disease, and incest. I also like Mitchell’s habit of dabbling into the occult, and of doing it all from the perspective of her gloriously eccentric, hand-knit wearing, raucously cackling, thrice-widowed psychoanalyst detective, Adela Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. Mitchell wrote roughly parallel with Agatha Christie, starting in 1929 and writing until her death in 1983. At a time when psychoanalysis was increasingly popular, obviously vital, and largely defensively ridiculed (kind of how it’s becoming again today, as we stumble blindly towards major international conflict, right?) she put her sleuth in dialogue with old superstitions and the most irrational aspects of community behaviour. Also, Mitchell seems pretty unkindly disposed towards children, something I’m always on board with.

That’s my pre-amble; let’s move on to the book. The Devil at Saxon Wall is often picked out as one of Mitchell’s best, although rarely as the best. I simply decided it was high time I actually read it. I started it over a month ago and I’m a slow reader, but not usually quite this slow. It took me a long time to read because I took ages off from reading of all kinds, due to illness. That was horrid. Once I was better enough, I jumped right back in.

The story sprang from a lecture on witchcraft, given by Mitchell’s BFF, Helen Mitchell. It’s a sprawling masterpiece of whodunitry, with intersecting mysteries and a great deal of grotesque human interest. The action begins when Hannibal Jones, a hack novelist, is advised by Mrs Bradley to treat his writer’s block with a visit to the village of Saxon Wall. Upon arrival, Jones is thrust into a world of petty gossip and perennial superstition, as he grows close to an absolutely mad vicar, whom the locals believe is Satan. Their reasoning is this: there has been no rain in the village for some time, and the vicar has failed to pray for rain. Therefore, the vicar is, at the very least, in league with the Devil.

But there is a lot more gossip to contend with, not least of which is the matter of a dead child’s paternity. However, gossip normally means several things at once. One of the greatest puzzles in the book lies in trying to translate what the villagers are actually talking about. At the very end of the novel, Mitchell reveals that this has been a deliberate authorial ploy: ‘the inhabitants of Saxon Wall’, she writes, ‘were incapable of making straight-forward statements and, in [Mrs Bradley’s] unprejudiced opinion, even their lies were elliptical.’ This, Bradley opines, goes back to the Norman Conquest — and Mitchell demonstrates, then explains, that reasoning at some length.

Mrs Bradley herself arrives once a murder has taken place, when the prime suspect is given an alibi by Hannibal Jones himself. And she (Bradley) is in good form. Variously described as an ‘alligator’, a ‘serpent’, and a ‘yellow-clawed beast’, she spends the bulk of the novel disconcerting locals with her worldly cackles, her garish cardigan in seven clashing shades of purple, and her blasé avowal of a criminal past, until they start — but only start — to speak frankly.

The characters themselves are each described in animal terms at one point or another — more often than not as ‘bestial’ — and there is a very entertaining physical fight at one point between the ‘beastly’ insane vicar and the talon-clawed sleuth. For a psychoanalyst (or psychiatrist or psychologist — with Mitchell, the three words are interchangeable), Bradley is surprisingly open-minded, and easily takes on board local superstitions about devils, antichrists, and the unorthodox application of scripture at the same time as she takes for granted that respectable women can not only have children out of wedlock but also swap their babies for no apparent reason and, if they felt so inclined, kill them.

When various masquerades have been uncovered, and the complicated truth starts unravelling, Bradley takes the law into her own hands, in a tradition that started with Speedy Death (1929), and makes sure that the killer faces a higher judge rather than an earthly one. To do this, she draws brilliantly on the mob mentality of a superstitious community. Or, as it’s delicately called by her, a ‘very conservative’ one.

This is what makes Jones an important narrator — a character with safe distance from kookiness who fancies himself creative and imaginative, and who is used to professional hyperbole, who is nonetheless able to wryly observe a ‘village [that] is lousy with superstition of every kind this side [of] actual idolatry’. Bradley, after all, is too eccentric and open to fulfil that necessary role for a reader thrust into this world. Often, Bradley berates Jones for his lack of creativity: ‘You used to have imagination’, she says, nearing the solution to the case while Jones remains in the dark. ‘Now, I suppose, though writing those dreadful novels of yours, you’ve become earth-bound, a mere elemental, a curse to yourself and a menace to contemporary fiction.’

In the end, Jones vows to give up writing ‘chloroformed best-selling, copper-bottomed, gilt-edged fiction’ and instead to write something of substance inspired by Mrs Bradley herself. The adjectives tell us exactly how seriously Mitchell took her work and her gift for camp introspection.

What I didn’t like so much was the slightly racist characterisation of a Japanese servant. And I also didn’t get a strange aside that Jones has with the local doctor about eugenics. Perhaps someone can help me out with it?
‘What’s your opinion on eugenics and so on? Interesting subject in its way. Used it in a novel once, but not particularly satisfactorily, I thought. Not enough sentimentality about it for my kind of stuff.’ 
The doctor raised his glass […] Then he wagged his head, and misquoted solemnly: 
‘For malt does more than Malthus can
To justify God’s ways to man.’

The plot is so very complicated that Mitchell takes mercy on the reader and appends to this novel explanatory notes in the form of psychological profiles, background information, and a timeline of events. This is a device that Mitchell used sparingly and therefore very well in just a handful of novels — and it’s certainly a relief in The Devil at Saxon Wall.

Perhaps this wasn’t the best book to recoup with, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting immersed in a ridiculous but alarmingly believable world. My only regret is never getting Noah Stewart’s thoughts on this one.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Usborne Mystery Files (Usborne, 1999)

Sorry for the lack of entries to this blog! Due to illness, I’ve found myself with no energy for anything – literally anything – but work lately. What I thought I’d do today is talk to you about something that I first experienced at the age of nine and have returned to every so often since then.

Recently, I got interested in Dennis Wheatley’s ‘Murder Dossiers’, often described as the first interactive novels, and I bought all four (Murder in Miami, the Mallinsay Massacre and so on), some of which I’ll go into in future posts. Essentially, these are collections of documents rather than prose stories, in that they provide all the physical clues needed to solve the mystery and give you the answer in a sealed envelope. They were wildly popular for about fifteen minutes and the two authors (Wheatley and J.G. Links) were decommissioned as soon as sales figures fell. One gets the impression that the publishers were almost relieved, since each dossier was costly and time-consuming to produce.

Anyway, looking through these old ‘dossiers’ reminded me of something that I’m always being reminded of; a kind of game along the same lines that I got in 1999 when it came out. The story begins when I was a strange child who had just grown out of the Spice Girls and into Agatha Christie. Every other Saturday, our grandparents would take my siblings and me to Norwich (the biggest, most vibrant city we could imagine), and we’d go round an amazing bookshop where we would be allowed one present, the value of which totalled up to ten pounds.

One week, I got a complete collection of Poirot short stories (£9.99), one week I got an ‘archaeology set’ (a block of sand which you brushed away at to unearth plastic ‘Egyptian’ treasures, some of which you could paint, £7.50), and one week, I got The Usborne Mystery Files (1999; £8.99). There are two stories here, all told through paper documents – case files and evidence – and the solutions revealed in sealed envelopes. 28-year-old Jamie loves this almost as much as 8-year-old Jamie did.

The first case is called Murder Map Mystery. The story is woven together in the casebook of the lead investigator, with entertaining annotations in handwriting. A booklet of suspect profiles allows us to go through the testimonies and match descriptions (ignoring the fact that many of the suspects are clearly the same model in different wigs). We end up in the seedy world of gangsters, casinos, ciphers, and half-eaten biscuits.

The second case is my favourite, Thief in the Night, set in a wonderfully pretentious art world. A booklet of interviews reveals some absolutely hilarious suspects, including an artist who will only go out in public wearing a tiger head mask and a woman whose interview begins:
Q: It’s Friday, June 12 and –
A: I’m well aware of that, Detective Peterson.
The reader (player?) is given handwriting samples to compare against a forged diary entry. This is how I learnt which letters of the alphabet are hardest to disguise in handwriting. There’s also a wonderful taxi company business card, emblazoned with the slogan FabCabs: We may not be the best, but we're the cheapest! and a fabulous leaflet from the art exhibition at the centre of the case.

Just look at these wonderful pictures of Objects from the Artist’s Garbage. The whole thing is so much fun to go through.

Every now and then, I find this game and go through the documents. There’s one thing missing from mine – a newspaper used in Case 1, which I lost about 15 years ago but can still remember clearly. It bears a big picture of a gangster and his wife on holiday in Hawaii, but the real clue is in a small notice on the other side of the page. I don’t know where the newspaper clue went, but my best guess is that someone used it to line the guinea pigs’ hutch. Oh, well!
The other day, I had the bright idea of googling the Usborne Mystery Files, partly in the hopes of buying another copy in order to recover the missing clue, and partly because I wanted to see if there were any more stories in the same series. I’m not above children’s entertainment. You can imagine my surprise when I found only a few copies of the game (and no more in the series) online and retailing at anything from £100 to £400.

So you might not want to rush out and buy a copy of your own, but I hope this review has let you in on some of the great fun you can have as a crime-minded child whose best friends are books.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Greedy Night by E.C. Bentley

A curio today, and one of the shortest texts I've reviewed so far. 'Greedy Night' (1936) is a short send-up of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, which appears in Parody Party, a fascinating volume edited by Leonard Russell and printed on what looks like watermarked writing paper by Hutchinson. Russell's 'introductory note' seeks to trivialise the book as the result of a weekend parlour game, and makes what I think is a wonderful point.

Responding to what he sees as the inevitable criticism that 'post-war novelists and people haven't sufficiently distinctive styles to admit of the better sort of parody', Russell points out that parody as a 'critical' tool serves to draw out these distinctive styles that are otherwise invisible in a contemporary world. It is, of course, heartbreaking to realise that people living in what we now call the interwar period described themselves as living 'post-war', and even more so to reflect that the unique and specific prose styles we so readily associate with those years are themselves defined by the passing of one war and the anticipation of another.

It's a really interesting book, which is sometimes available online and cheap. And there are some great contributors including Rebecca West (parodying Charles Morgan), Rose McCaulay (Ernest Hemingway), Francis Iles (Hugh Walpole), Cyril Connolly (Aldous Huxley), John Betjeman (various Russians), and more.

Before going any further, a note of warning: this post contains spoilers. Personally, I find it difficult to discuss the joys of detective fiction without blabbing about the solutions, because often the story of the crime itself is essential to whatever contribution the text is making. In a similar vein, I don't mind a jot if I read a book already knowing whodunit. For me, it really isn't a case of 'animated algebra.' But I know that many people disagree, so accept this spoiler warning, the only intimation!

Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), as if you needed to know, wrote Trent's Last Case (1913), a comic country house mystery that many have credited with spawning the British murder mystery as a distinct literary genre. He also invented the appropriately-named clerihew, a form of verse that haunts me from my student days, when our poetry tutor regaled us with an assortment of his own miniature masterpieces, from which I have yet to recover.

In this intriguing send-up of Dorothy L. Sayers, Bentley contributes a clerihew of his own which appears both in the text and ahead of it, accompanied by an image attributed to Bentley's famous son ('Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures', runs the credit line). I quote the clerihew in full because it reveals the story's charms and its limitations:
Lord Peter Wimsey 
May look a little flimsy, 
But he's simply sublime 
When nosing out a crime.
Charming because it's a clerihew by E. Clerihew himself, and it's clearly done in a spirit of great affection. Limited precisely because it's clearly done in a spirit of great affection, and, technically, it's not very good. These four lines alone tell us that there's not going to be any serrated criticism in the story -- and that's fine, of course. By its very nature, parody tells us something about contemporary reception and interpretation, even if this has been carefully controlled. I'm looking forward to reading the chapter parodying Hugh Walpole by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley, aka A.B. Cox), who was not well known for softening the blows to his peers.

The opening scene has Bunter, Wimsey's faithful manservant, bringing his master breakfast in bed. When they discuss the unfortunate substances that His Lordship imbibed the previous night, and when Bunter casually lets drop that he has 'always taken an interest in the technical study of medieval calligraphy', it's clear that the character here is early Wimsey, not late Wimsey. This is the character Sayers described as a cross between 'Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster' and not the introspective married feminist that Wimsey was about to become at the time of the story's publication.

Another figure soon arrives on the scene: no less a personage than the Bishop of Glastonbury. A mysterious death has taken place, and His Grace invites His Lordship to investigate. The investigation takes Wimsey into an academic setting -- of course -- where everyone starts to talk about eating. There is a curious exchange between Wimsey and a young admirer called Mitchell:
Wimsey laughed. 'I must go. But do you and your friends really read the chronicles of my misspent life, then?' 
'Do we read them?' cried Mr Mitchell. 'I should say we do read them! We eat them!' 
'How jolly for you -- I mean for me -- that is to say, for her -- oh well, you know what I mean,' Wimsey said distractedly.
There is a nod here to the grand generic tradition of acknowledging the artificial status of the narrative; to Sherlock Holmes' many remarks about the people who read his adventures in The Strand. And the reference to 'her' takes it one step further.

The words 'we eat them' become relevant, too.  At the end of the book, Wimsey opens up the corpse's mouth -- God knows what the corpse is still doing there -- and removes several pages of a book. That book is Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (with a handy footnote explaining the publisher, and just falling short of 'available in all good bookshops'). Wimsey explains:
Strong Poison! [...] Too strong indeed for poor Dermot. Such is the magic of that incisive, compelling style that even the very printed word is saturated with the essence of what it imparts. Others eat her works in a figurative sense only; Dermot began to eat this one in truth and in fact and so rushed, all unknowing, on his doom.
Do we detect here a josh in the direction of Sayers, who sought to elevate the intellectual standing of a detective novel and was about to give it up all together? Is the hyperbole mere sycophancy or is it a ruthless critique of what many people still consider pretension? What I really want to know is -- what did Dorothy L. Sayers think of this story? I'm sure she will have read it.

There are also some hints here -- as there are in Trent and much of the fiction it inspired -- of what we now call postmodernism. I think that we can expect a po-mo crime revival one of these days. But I'm rambling, and in discussions of this nature, that's not a good thing.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Mini Reviews #7

A Blunt Instrument (1938) by Georgette Heyer. Sorry -- I'm not convinced. After a few laugh out loud lines like 'His Lordship did not answer because he was dead', which I'm not convinced were supposed to be funny, I read this in a pretty bad mood. And for what it's worth, the solution is obvious literally from page 2. Heyer is being heralded as writing gentle social satires in her detective fiction, but I don't buy that. A Blunt Instrument exemplifies the conservatism and laziness that we like to think it critiques.

Dead Air (1986) by Mike Lupica. An investigative journalist takes to... investigating... when his ex-girlfriend is murdered. The case leads him into the glamorous and impossibly bitchy worlds of American television and evangelical Christianity. This is an amusing read. I first read it at the age of eleven and saw the twist coming a mile off.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) by Walter Mosley. The first case for hardboiled African American war veteran Easy Rawlins. Set in Los Angeles in 1948, this novel takes all the tropes and conventions that Hammett and Chandler coined and exposes their limits, developing Rawlins as a distinct voice in search of an identity. A compelling and brilliant read.

The Snowman (2007) by Jo Nesbo. The seventh case for Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole. Someone is building snowmen, sinisterly unexplained and facing towards houses from which people disappear. And soon bodies -- or, rather, bits of bodies -- turn up. This is a fast-paced and atmospheric novel that takes us all over Oslo and gets us fully invested in the unfortunately-named hero.

Sleep No More (2017) by PD James. A beautiful new collection of 6 short stories by the late crime queen. It's easy to scoff at the publishers for bringing these out 6 at a time, instead of in one go, and always in time for Christmas. But the books are so pretty one can almost forgive them. James was not a great short story writer, and if you read anthologies, you have probably come across some or all of these before. Of note is 'The Murder of Santa Claus', narrated by a hack crime writer who explains that he is 'no H.R.F. Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P.D. James.' Poor thing. That story is a bit of a satire on golden age crime as James perceived it, as divorced from the horrors and ethical overhauls of international war. I've never agreed with James's hot takes, but she expressed them in a relatively entertaining manner.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Toast to Tomorrow by Manning Coles

Today’s blog post is a bit of a departure, as I dip an amateur toe into the pool of spy fiction. Generally, I’m not a discerning critic: I can’t stand Ian Fleming, never got into Eric Ambler (but plan to have another go soon… watch this space), and unapologetically enjoy Agatha Christie’s contributions to the genre. This post covers one of the seminal texts in the emergence of the spy thriller as a distinctly British genre.

‘Manning Coles’ was a pseudonym for two writers, Adelaide (AKO) Manning (1891-1959) and Cyril Coles (1899-1965). They were friends and neighbours, and much of their writing is based on Cyril Coles’ experience in the British secret service. Their first novel featuring the British teacher and con man turned secret agent, Tommy Hambledon, was A Drink to Yesterday, published in 1940. Like Mr Coles, who pretended to be older than he was in order to enlist during the First World War, Hambledon is incredibly patriotic, believing that ‘if a country is worth living in, it’s worth fighting for’, and the Manning Coles novels are interesting because they were started as apparent propaganda during the Second World War, continuing apace — and slowly shedding their realism — into the 1960s, even after the first partner’s death.

A Toast to Tomorrow (1941) is the American title of the second Hambledon novel, which appeared in the UK as Pray Silence. As well as Hambledon and other recurring characters, it contains the then contemporary, and very real, figures of Adolf Hitler among several high-profile fascists. As with most of the books on this blog, I read it because it had been sitting uncaressed on my bookshelf for years. And let's be honest: just looking at the cover, it's clearly about the rise of fascism, which is terrifyingly relevant in this day and age.

The blurb of this one — my edition is the US first — makes it clear that Manning Coles is supposed to be ushering in a new era of spy fiction:
It is as different from the old spy stories as a Hitchcock movie is from silent pictures […] We would like you to forget any ideas you may have about spy stories and approach this as a novel with humor, three-dimensional characters, realistic motivation and breathtaking suspense.
What the blurb doesn’t mention is  the plot, so here it is. We encounter a man in a hospital in Germany in 1918 who has no idea who he is. The nurses name him Hans Lehmann and he starts to wonder what he could possibly have done to lead to such severe memory loss. He is worried that he might have been a murderer — the nurses say he is too nice for this to be true, but he reassures them that ‘some criminals are delightful people.’ They agree, though, that he has probably killed, because he is of military age.

In the next decade or so, Lehmann runs around Germany trying to find his family, and soon encounters a lonely old woman in a small town who is willing to act as a surrogate aunt, without bringing him any closer to his true identity. Scouring military bases, he somehow ends up meeting Hitler and Goebbels, is impressed by their rhetoric, and joins the fledgling Nazi party. He soon rises through the ranks and, in the 1930s, becomes the Nazi chief of police.

While Lehmann conscientiously tows the party line, his ‘aunt’ Ludmilla often puts Hitler and others gently in their places. For instance, when Hitler goes of on one about all the glorious things ‘the Party’ will do when it comes to power, Ludmilla interrupts ‘innocently’ with a question about how they’re going to afford it. Hitler’s attitude to Ludmilla also sews a seed of doubt into Lehmann’s hero-worship, because the leader comes across as a clear misogynist who can’t deviate from the script. After the first family meeting, Klaus and Ludmilla share the most appropriate response to the far-right during peacetime: they ‘looked at each other and burst out laughing.’

Anyway, the Nazis gain power and Lehmann assumes his senior role. Goebbels doesn’t like him, but Hitler does, so he stays in place. In his role, he sends a load of innocent people to concentration camps, and tries not to think about it.  Then he has a revelation: he’s got his memory back, just on the eve of the Second World War.

And guess what? He’s not German at all, but an English government spy called Tommy Hambledon! He later remembers that he was planning to ‘retire to the country and grow pigs’ but such plans are put on hold. Automatically, he switches allegiance and works to undermine the German government from within. This is very carefully explained as perfectly natural. Lehmann/Hambledon has not changed his character at all, the authors assure us, just his allegiance. He’s still intensely patriotic but now, because he’s discovered that he’s English, he’s on the right side. He proceeds to get a bunch of senior Nazis sent to concentration camps which is, I think, supposed to be jolly funny or something. A hundred pages or so are devoted to the various capers surrounding a government going to war, rounding up foreigners, while the head of police is himself a foreign spy.

I find it incredibly telling that Hambledon’s unthinking and violent patriotism is never problematised — the fact that the authors are perfectly happy to make it clear that his allegiance, like our implied judgment of it, is based purely on an accident of birth. When I say Hambledon doesn’t change his character, I mean it: his alarming attitude towards Jewish people remains in place, and the novel takes a weird kind of position of abhorring fascism whilst revelling in anti-semitism. Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls of a war retrospective written when the war was just getting started.

A Toast To Tomorrow is an interesting piece of amateur propaganda, and an intriguing spy thriller. I know that Manning and Coles have been credited with inventing the genre in post-war Britain with its focus on authentic psychological excitement over and above fast-paced codes, ciphers, and women. And I can see how this makes sense in relation to A Toast for Tomorrow. The novel’s flaws are plain for all to see — they’re of their time but not excusable, and the book survives on its own merits as a self-conscious study in allegiance and jingoism.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Death of a Philanderer by Laurence Meynell

Laurence Meynell (1899-1989) was a prolific writer from Wolverhampton, who fell out of vogue almost immediately upon his death. In his 60 year career, her wrote over 170 novels, including a successful crime series featuring the layabout private eye Hooky Hefferman, and a relatively well-received children's set about a cat called Smoky Joe. I've long meant to read a Meynell and, to my surprise, found that I already owned one of his books: Death of a Philanderer (1968). So I gave it a go.

Death of a Philanderer -- obviously not a children's book, but a 'Crime Club Recommendation', no less -- features no recurring character, as far as I know. The hero is a prolific popular novelist and media writer (like Meynell) called Anthony Langton, who has been commissioned to write a pamphlet for an exclusive girls' school. As soon as he accepts the commission and visits the school, things start going on.

For one thing, all the money collected at the school fundraiser goes missing. Then, an absolute blackguard from the headmistress's past rears his well-groomed head, and takes an unhealthy interest in the schoolgirls. The unsavoury Philip Carver has also managed to find a way to defraud our hero out of hard-earned royalties, and is generally a terrible human being. Eventually, he is murdered. But this is not a murder mystery; Carver does not die until quite near the end, and the bulk of the book follows his march towards execution.

This book felt very 1960s to me, so I would be interested to see if Meynell's managed to come across as equally of his time in, say, the 1920s and the 1980s. There are acerbically drawn characters like a baron who will only eat 'natural sea salt' from grubby paper and soda bread because it's 'the only form of bread not actively infected by cancer', and one character's hypochondriacal mother who resents her children because they don't get, or aspire to be, ill. Peppered among these are sexy ladies wandering around inexplicably naked, and some vaguely witty lines, like 'Cigarettes were invented by ham actors who haven't learnt what to do with their hands on stage.' It's blokey, but not in an alienating way.

Langton doesn't solve the mystery, although he does foil the murderer. By the end of the novel, we know who killed Carver, but very few of the characters do, and Langton is a suspect in the court of public opinion. His journalist friend assures him:
Don't worry [about media coverage. K]eep your mouth shut and say nowt and it will all be forgotten in ten days. President Mao will drop an H-bomb, or the pound will jump out of the financial window, or some sportsman will assassinate the General -- there'll be some little diversion, you see, and whether you murdered the chap under the bed or not won't matter any more.
That line felt kind of shockingly relevant today.

The narrative is straightforward, but it covers a range of emotional issues, from hero-worship to psychological abuse. Some sequences take place in a gay bar, which is always interesting. Based on the author's descriptions of the gay bar, I would guess that he wasn't writing from experience.

Sometimes Meynell lets us get inside the heads of other characters, including the murderer, the despicable Philip, and the headmistress. With her chapters, we see that, while Meynell's characters exhibit some problematic attitudes towards women (for which the narrative punishes them), Meynell himself does not seem to. He totally objectifies women in this book but not, as far as I can see, in an over-the-top or dehumanising way. He achieves that rare thing among male writers: creating a female narrator who is a person.

Tl;dr, Death of a Philanderer was fine. I doubt it's Meynell's magnum opus and I can't imagine he agonised over it. But that's fine, because no one's going to agonise over reading it. It's not a whodunit and it's not any kind of thriller. I'm not entirely sure how to categorise it, but it does the job as a light read. I hope to read more from this author.