By Peter Bartram
It’s August Bank Holiday in England and Wales – and we do like to be beside the seaside. So as we huddle under the pier out of the rain – an English bank holiday tradition – let’s take a look at a subject which is never far away at the seaside. I refer, of course, to murder. Fictional murder, I hasten to add.
When it comes to seaside murder mysteries, Graham Greene set the benchmark with Brighton Rock. The story of Pinkie Brown’s killing of Fred Hale and his desperate bid to avoid the consequences is a gritty one – made bleaker for being set against the backdrop of holidaymakers having fun by the sea.
But seaside murder mysteries don’t need to be bleak. So when I was developing the Crampton of the Chronicle series of murder mysteries, I decided I’d go with the flow of the fun – rather than try to use it as a counterpoint for dark deeds. I also wanted to build different seaside elements into the plot.
So in the first book in the series – Headline Murder – a mini-golf course and a peppermint rock shop take centre stage. In the second book – Stop Press Murder – the pier’s amusement arcade and particularly the What the Butler Saw machines play a key role in the plot.
Back in 1963, when the book is set, I remember that the machines on Brighton’s Palace Pier were on their last legs. They’d typically be showing short films of Edwardian beauties in a state of what used to be known in those far-off days as décolletage. By today’s standards they’d be regarded as an innocent entertainment. But it’s an irony that when decimal currency was introduced in Britain in 1971, most of the machines’ owners decided the cost of adapting them to handle the new coins was too great. Instead, many were sold to Denmark where they were re-equipped to show hard-core porn.
When I came to research the book, I found it very difficult to track down any surviving What the Butler Saw machines in this country. I finally discovered one in a museum in Herne Bay, Kent. In the US, where the machines are known buy their inventor’s name of mutoscope, there is a collector who specialises in renovating them and the films they played.
The term What the Butler Saw entered the language in the UK following a sensational divorce case in 1886. Lord Colin Campbell and his wife, the gorgeous Gertrude, were fighting like two pit-bulls over the terms of their divorce. To support his case, Campbell called his butler to give evidence.
The butler claimed to have watched through the keyhole of Campbell’s home at 79 Cadogan Place, London while Gertrude performed with her lover. But the court case turned on how much the butler could see through the keyhole.
I don’t remember whether What the Butler Saw machines turned up in Greene’s Brighton Rock. But in the 1947 film version, which stared Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, there is an exciting finale on Palace Pier – the starting point of Stop Press Murder. So even though we do like to be beside the seaside – a murder mystery will never be far away.
WATCH OUT FOR THE REVIEW OF COLIN CRAMPTON’S LATEST ADVENTURE!