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Past Times – Old Crime

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Little Man From Archangel by Georges Simenon

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Was Georges Simenon the greatest ever Belgian? He was certainly the most prolific both in his literary output and his apparently inexhaustible sexual appetite. Best known for his Maigret novels and short stories, he also wrote standalone novels. One such was Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, first published in English in 1957. This new edition, translated by Siân Reynolds (who is the former Chair of French at the University of Stirling) is, like most of Simenon’s books short – just 185 pages – but as powerful a story as he ever wrote.

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Little man013We are in an anonymous little town in the Berry region of central France, and it is the middle years  of the 1950s. Jonas Milk is a mild-mannered dealer in second hand books. His shop, his acquaintances, the café, bar and boulangerie he frequents are all like spokes of a wheel, and the hub is the bustling Vieux-Marché. Jonas appreciates his neighbours, such as Le Bouc behind the counter in his bar, Gaston Ancel the butcher, with his booming voice and bloodstained apron, and the Chaignes family in their grocery shop. Jonas values these people or, to be more precise, he values their acceptance of him, because he is an outsider. Sure, he has been in France since he was a small boy, his family – from the port on Russia’s White Sea coast – having sought refuge in France during the Revolution. They have all returned to their homeland, and Jonas does not know if they are alive or dead. He is also a Jew, but because of his fair hair and complexion he survived the attention of the Nazis during the Occupation.

Little man014 copyJonas Milk has a wife. Two years earlier he had converted to Catholicism and married Eugénie Louise Joséphine Palestri – Gina – a voluptuous and highly sexed woman sixteen years his junior. No doubt the frequenters of the Vieux-Marché have their views on this marriage, but they are polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, at least when Jonas is within earshot. But then Gina disappears, taking with her no bag or change of clothing. The one thing she does take, however, is a selection of a very valuable stamp collection that Jonas has put together over the years, not through major purchases from dealers, but through his own obsessive examination of relatively commonplace stamps, some of which turn out to have minute flaws, thus making their value to other collectors spiral to tens of thousands of francs.

Gina has had her flings before, though, seeking physical excitement that Jonas does not provide. He has born his shame in silence, and it has never occurred to him to challenge her. This time, however, when he makes his morning purchases – his croissants, his cup of espresso – and is asked where Gina is, he makes a fatal mistake. Perhaps through embarrassment, or irritation perhaps, he tells a small lie.

“As a rule, Gina, in bedroom slippers, often with her hair uncombed, and sometimes wrapped in a flowery dressing gown, would do her shopping early on market days, before the crowd.
Jonas opened his mouth and it was then that, in spite of every instinct telling him not to, he changed the words he was going to say.
“She’s gone to Bourges.”

Four words. Each of them harmless on its own, but together, something entirely different . What happens next is a masterpiece of brilliant storytelling, as in just a few days, the world of Jonas Milk begins to unravel. Simenon’s ability to describe profound events while framing them with little inconsequential moments of observation – a blackbird pecking at crumbs in a back garden, a café owner turning his face away from the steam of his coffee machine, a wife not cleaning up the frying pan after cooking herrings – is astonishing.

You will probably read this book in a couple of sessions. Yes, it’s a short book, anyway, but my goodness, what an impact it makes. The Little Man From Archangel is published by Penguin Modern Classics, and is out on 1st April.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

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himes-2116db9ad0df910cbdadfafa1fafd5dc7c5bf7cc-s800-c85Chester Himes was born into a middle-class family in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909. His parents both worked in education. When Himes was 12, his brother was blinded in an accident, and was denied treatment by the Jim Crow Laws (extensive segregation in all public services) and this shaped the way Himes viewed American society at the time. The family moved to Ohio, and after his parents divorced, Himes fell among thieves and in 1928 took part in an armed robbery, for which he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour. In prison, he began to write feature stories and articles for magazines. In 1936 he was released into the custody of his mother and, while working dead-end jobs, he continued to write. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s to write for movies but again, he felt the heavy hand of racial discrimination. He finally gave upon America, and moved to Paris in the 1950s. He never returned to America and died in Spain in 1984.

A Rage In Harlem was published in 1957, but with the title For Love of Imabelle. It was the first in a series of books featuring New York detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, but it is a while before they take the stage. The book tells the tale of a deluded man named Jackson who, for the love of his woman, Imabelle, is dumb enough to fall for a scheme which is a kind of mid twentieth century alchemy. All you have to do is to give a bunch of ten dollar bills to ‘the man’ and he will, by an amazing feat of chemistry (it involves stuffing the notes in to the chimney of a stove) turn each ten into a hundred.

Needless to say, the advertised miracle doesn’t take place, and Jackson is left in a whole heap of trouble. Johnson and Jones – Jones only appears briefly in a violent fight – are largely peripheral to the action, but they were to play more central roles in future books in the series. The men who swindled Jackson are, however, not simply con-men. They are violent criminals wanted for murder in Mississippi, and for them, killing is simply an tool of the trade.

ch011Rage In Harlem is a very angry book, and the psychological scars borne by Himes are unhealed and very near the surface. There is a solid core of what appears to be slapstick comedy, but it is brutal, surreal and venomous. The mother of all car chase takes place when Jackson – an undertaker’s chauffeur – steals a hearse to shift what he thinks is a trunk full of gold ore (another scam). He is unaware that it also contains the dead body of his brother who, by the way, makes a living by dressing as a nun and soliciting alms while reciting bogus quotations from The Book of Revelations:

“Underneath the trunk black cloth was piled high. Artificial flowers were scattered in garish disarray. A horseshoe wreath of artificial lilies had slipped to the back. Looking out from the arch of white lilies was a black face. The face was looking backward from a head-down position, resting on the back of the skull. A white bonnet sat atop a gray wig which had fallen askew. The face wore a horrible grimace of pure evil. White-walled eyes stared at the four gray men with a fixed, unblinking stare. Beneath the face was the huge purple-lipped wound of a cut throat.”

For all Jackson’s gullibility, Himes clearly admires the fat little man’s spirit:

“She …. looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.
The man drowned.
When he came up, he stared back, passion cocked, his whole black being on a live-wired edge. Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high-yellow heart.”

Himes is less charitable about other chancers and frauds in the city. When Jackson makes his getaway in the hearse:

“Pedestrians were scattered in grotesque fight. A blind man jumped over a bicycle trying to get away.”

And this is Harlem in the morning:

“Later, the downtown office porters would pour from the crowded flats in a steady stream, carrying polished leather briefcases stuffed with overalls to look like businessmen, and buy the Daily News to read on the subway.”

The astonishing thing is that I can’t find any record of Himes living in or spending time in New York, let alone Harlem. He wrote the book while he was living among other exiles – like James Baldwin – in Paris. The French loved this and his later books, but back home in America, apart from literary circles on the West Coast, readers were not interested. A Rage In Harlem has been reissued by Penguin Modern Classics and will be available on 25th March.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Somebody’s Sister by Derek Marlowe

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ss4Brackett discovers that the dead girl was selling herself to feed a drug habit, and that she went under different names. There’s no money in the case but with a sense that his business is going nowhere fast, Brackett puts some time – and his dwindling supply of cash – into discovering who would want the girl dead. He trawls a familiar sea of locations much loved by hardboiled PI novelists – bars, skin joints, pay-by-the-hour hotels and boxing gyms. Driven by no other motivation than a desire to give the dead girl some kind of identity and being other than the tag tied to her big toe in the police morgue, he uncovers a web of greed, lust and exploitation.

ss2There is probably an MA thesis to be written on the subject of authors who have written a ‘Chandleresque’ novel. These books will feature a slightly down-at-heel but morally staunch private investigator, a man who reluctantly immerses himself in the sleazy underworld of murder and general criminality, but always has a sarcastic and cutting one-liner on his lips. How well does Marlowe’s novel sit within this genre? Walter Brackett doesn’t do sharply funny one-liners, that’s for sure, but he is a lonely man, far more so than, say, than that other hero of the mean streets, Robert B Parker’s Spenser. Brackett shares with other PIs a relationship with the police that is, at best, mutually ambivalent but, like Newman in Janet Roger’s outstanding recent contribution to the genre, Shamus Dust (2019 – click to read the review) has a code of conduct that is more humane and decent than his contemporaries who wear a badge or a uniform.

It is fitting that this beautifully written but rather melancholy novel ends as it does. The girl is never really identified as anyone other than “somebody’s sister’. Brackett learns that he has jumped to all the wrong conclusions and – horror of horrors for any self respecting American PI – he has been out-thought and out-investigated by the police. He does, however, have one surreal and ironic moment of success – he finds the missing dog.

Derek Marlowe moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, but while working there, he contracted leukaemia, and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1996 after a liver transplant. Somebody’s Sister is no longer in print, but copies are widely available for just a few pounds from Amazon, Abe Books and other sources.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Killer Inside Me

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James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.

killer_inside_meThompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.

Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame.  Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits;  the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.

KillerInsideMe01_cvrSUBJoyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.

Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.

His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.

KillerInsideMe02_cvrSUBA key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.

We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.

For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

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The name Maurice Procter is not one that is regularly bandied around at crime fiction festivals when the Great and The Good are discussing pioneering and innovative writers of the past. He is, just about, still in print thanks to the wonders of Kindle and specialist reprinters such as Murder Room. I’m reluctant to use the fatal words “in his day”, but Procter was a prolific and popular writer of crime novels between 1947 and 1969.

mp1Born in the Lancashire weaving town of Nelson, Procter (left) joined the police force in nearby Halifax in 1927 and remained a serving officer until the success of his novels enabled him to write full time. In 1954 he published the first of a fifteen book series of police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Harry Martineau. Martineau is a detective in the city of Granchester. Replace the ‘Gr’ with “M’ and you have the actual location pegged.

Hell Is A City is a dark tale which pivots around the enmity between Martineau and a violent and resourceful criminal called Don Starling. Starling is as hard as nails and doesn’t shrink from brutality towards fellow men – or women. Starling is ‘doing time’ but acts like a reformed man in order to escape close prison supervision. Naturally, he seizes his moment and goes over the wall and on the run.

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Starling wastes no time in organising his next heist, and it is a daring cash grab. The victims are two hapless young clerks who work for city bookmaker Gus Hawkins. On their way to the bank with a satchel full of takings from Doncaster races, they are waylaid. Colin Lomax is coshed and left with a serious head injury but Cicely Wainwright fares even worse. Because the money bag is chained to her wrist, she is flung into the back of the getaway van and is killed by Starling as the gang make their escape over the moors to the east of the city. The bag is cut from Cicely’s wrist, and her body is dumped. Of course, this ups the stakes, much to the discomfort of Starling’s gang members, each of whom realises that they face the hangman’s noose if they are caught and convicted as accessories to murder. The hangman, by the way, is a well-known local resident:

“Clogger and Jakes turned their heads quickly, their smiles fading. They stared. Then Jakes pulled Starling’s knee aside and looked down at the girl’s face.
‘Cripes!,’ he said unhappily, “She’s croaked.’
Starling nodded. ‘Some time ago,’ he said.
‘You bloody fool,’ said Jakes, his voice rising with panic.
‘Hell fire!’ Clogger whispered, and he had indeed turned pale. ‘You didn’t have to do that, did you?’
Laurie Lovett was silent. He kept his eyes on the road as if nothing had happened. But a muscle of his jaw had started to twitch.
The same fear was upon them all. They were reminded of a man they knew by sight. He kept a pub in Hollinwood. The name of the pub was Help The Poor Struggler. The man’s name was Albert Pierrepoint.”

HIAC first edI was quickly hooked by this novel, for a variety of reasons. Anyone who has driven east out of Manchester in the direction of Sheffield (which makes a brief apparance as Hallam City) will recognise the changeless face of the moors, with their isolated pubs and gritstone houses clinging to the roadside. What has changed, however, is the view back towards Manchester. Where, in the early 1950s Martineau saw mill chimneys belching smoke, today we could probably, apart from the haze of vehicle emissions , see almost to the Irish Sea. We also know that Cicely Wainwright’s’s body would not be the last to be abandoned in the cottongrass, heather and bilberry of the Dark Peak.

CriFi buffs know that fictional Detective Inspectors are meant to have disfunctional personal lives. Few and far between are happy family men and women with faithful and understanding spouses who understand and compensate for the rigours of police work. Intriguingly, it is Martineau’s wife who is, at least initially, the guilty party. She is vain, socially over-conscious and, perhaps, sexually repressed.

“Julia Martineau was not unfaithful and it was impossible to suspect that she ever would be. She was only interested in fine clothes, social standing, attractive houses, and the affairs of her acquaintances. The connubial behaviour of other people (as a topic of scandalous conversation) was of more interest to her than her own or her husband’s. She was rarely aroused. The conjugal act was sometimes a duty, sometimes a favour to be granted, and always a ceremony which she allowed to be performed after it had been suitably prayed for. Lately, Martineau had ceased to pray.”

There are few happy marriages or standard relationships in Hell Is A City. Gus Hawkins has a young wife is a libidinous and money-grabbing charmer who has history with the dangerous Starling. Martineau’s driver and gofer, DC Devery, has a loving but precarious relationship with the beautiful Silver, who is a deaf mute. By the by, your Starter For Ten: which legendary fictional policeman is married to a beautiful deaf mute? No prizes, but that detective operates a long, long way from Manchester.

It would be pretentious and anachronistic to push this novel into the category box labelled Noir. That said, its low-key realism and unflinching depictions of the criminal class not only reflects Procter’s time with the police service but a reveal a gift for brevity and the essentials of story-telling which mark him out as a natural author, untaught but with an acute ear for dialogue and a genuine sense of the rough edges and frailties of human lives where unfulfilled aspirations nag away at happiness.

Murder Room do a budget-printed paperback of Hell Is A City, and second-hand editions are also available if you are prepared to splash the cash. The novel was made into a film, starring Stanley Baker as Martineau, and I will write about that in a later post.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 2)

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James Mitchell (1926 -2002) held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

Death and Bright Water (1974)

DABWThere had been big changes since the last novel appeared a year earlier. The tv series had finished and Callan had transferred to the cinema in a moderately successful feature film (apparently the first to utilise Dolby sound).  It seems that James Mitchell saw Callan’s future as on the big screen. The plots of this novel and the next one reflect that change.

The story begins with Callan once more out of the Section and this time working with a road building gang. He is approached, via the KGB, to rescue an important Greek communist’s daughter from house arrest on Crete. Callan turns down the job, but is persuaded to take it after some pressure from the Section.  A crack squad is assembled, but it’s soon clear that some team members have plans of their own.

 While Hunter and the Section play a much smaller role than before, Lonely, however, was far too valuable a character to omit; and so he is brought along to assist in the inevitable house-breaking that will be required for the Crete stronghold.

The story moves along at a cracking pace, but James Mitchell has moved into 1970s international thriller territory, and this involves exotic locales (well, Crete) and a certain amount of travelogue writing.

Smear Job (1975)

Smear JobBy now Callan (and Lonely) are more or less free agents, pursuing lucrative careers in the world of personal security. The Section exists only to tie them, and potential readers, to the TV series.

From the blurb:

“There were two little tasks which Callan had to carry out for Hunter; he had to make sure that Gunther Kleist lost a very large sum of money at cards, and he had to steal a book from Lord Hexham’s library, a paperback edition of Mein Kampf….but that was only the start, an appetiser to a plot of diabolical complexity weaved by Hunter; a plot that was to take Callan from Sicily to Las Vegas, then on to Mexico, with death waiting at every turn.”

We have come a long way from the swinging light bulb of seven years ago….perhaps too far. This was to be the last Callan novel for twenty-seven years. It’s not hard to see why; the TV series was over and with it the loyal army of viewers and readers. I don’t how the sales compared with the earlier novels, but I don’t think that either this book or Death and Bright Water ran to more than a single printing in paperback. James Mitchell and his publishers might well have concluded that, commercially at least, Callan had run his course…

In any event, James Mitchell turned his attention back to screen-writing (When the Boat Comes In) and to a three book series in the mid 1980s featuring reluctant adventurer Ron Hoggett, and his minder Dave – “ex-student, ex-paratrooper, ex drop-out”.

To summarise – James Mitchell was incapable of writing a dull book and the last two novels are fast moving adventure thrillers. Seen from the present day they perhaps don’t capture the authentic atmosphere of the TV series in the way that the first two novels do. But all four books remain very readable.

Bonfire Night (2002)

Bonfire NightWritten when James Mitchell was old and unwell, and published a  year before his death, this is something of a curio. Callan has been free of the Section for at least a decade, and in that time he and Lonely have made vast fortunes in the electronics business. This at least follows on from the conclusion of the previous novel, when Callan and Lonely were establishing something  of a living outside the Section.  But the plot, which need not detain us here, is difficult to credit when it’s not merely confusing.   The book is not without its moments, but is for Callan completists only.

 

 

Stuart Radmore, April 2019

The first part of Stuart’s account of the Callan novels is here.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 1)

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James Mitchell (1926 -2002)
held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

A Magnum for Schneider (1969)

Mitchell_Callan_SchneiderThe first Callan novel, and perhaps the locus classicus of all Callan plots, on page and screen:  A disillusioned Callan has left the Section  and is living and working in reduced circumstances, until “persuaded” by Hunter to return and carry out one more job. The target is Herr Schneider who, once Callan knows more of him, doesn’t seem to be as black as he’s painted…
James Mitchell certainly put this plot to good use. It began life as a one-off episode of Armchair Theatre (1967), which in turn led to the making of the first Callan television series, later that year.
Now, in 1969, it formed the basis of the first Callan novel. This is no quick cash-in book on the back of a TV success.  Considerably expanded from the tv play, the novel has greater depth and characterisation, and it benefits for being less studio bound.
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A paperback edition followed in 1971
, re-titled Red File for Callan.  This was much reprinted, as by now the TV series, with the massive assistance of Edward Woodward in the title role, had hit its stride.
Then in 1974, after the TV series had ended, there was a feature film. Once more, the same plot and characters were used, but the film (perhaps for copyright reasons) relied more on the novel than on the Armchair Theatre script. This time the movie tie-in paperback was simply re-titled Callan. If there’s ever a Callan: Rebooted, this is the plot they’ll return to.
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Russian Roulette (1973)

RRAlthough published in 1973 this book makes no reference to the events of high drama with which the final TV series concluded a year earlier. Here, Callan is still settled in the Section and all the supporting characters are in place.
The premise, it must be said, is preposterous.  The KGB have captured the Section’s top man in Russia.  They will return him unharmed if Hunter allows three of their operatives to come to London and attempt to kill Callan, who is to be denied any weapons. Hunter agrees. And the Russians have a big dog. Oh, and Callan’s eyes are playing up; he must attend a doctor’s for drops every few days while awaiting an operation to save his sight.
However, because of the quality of the writing, disbelief is soon suspended.    Relatively short, at 200 pages, all the action is splendidly economical and convincing.    This is a first class thriller and James Mitchell deservedly received his best reviews for this book.
The story ends with Callan and Lonely toasting each other’s survival, and with Callan vowing never to return to work for the Section….

© Stuart Radmore 2019. To be concluded

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Nine Tailors

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I’ll start by being mildly controversial; I have been reading crime fiction for sixty years, and I can’t think of another novel which has such a complex plot. Another masterpiece, Chandler’s The Big Sleep certainly has its moments (after all, who did kill the chauffeur?) but even having read The Nine Tailors more than once I would still struggle to write a concise bluffers’ guide to exactly what happens from memory alone. This is neither criticism nor praise; it simply is what it is.

dorothy-l-sayers-grangerLet’s look at a few relatively simple background facts, and I apologise to fans of the author for whom this may be tedious. Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a notable English writer, poet, classical scholar and dramatist. She introduced the aristocratic private detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her 1923 novel, Whose Body? and by the time The Nine Tailors was published in 1934, Wimsey and his imperturbable manservant Bunter were well established.

The story begins in the depth of the English winter.

“That’s torn it! said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth, and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow……right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.”


Their journey through the Cambridgeshire fens rudely interrupted, Wimsey and Bunter seek help from the nearby village of Fenchurch St Paul. With this simplest of literary devices, Sayers gives Wimsey a perfect excuse to stay overnight, courtesy of the amiable vicar; one of Wimsey’s many skills is bell-ringing and so he joins the church team in their traditional New Year peal, thus embedding him in a labrinthine set of circumstances involving robbery, missing jewels, coded messages, bigamy, deception and murder.

The Nine Tailors are not people, but the ancient bells hanging in the church tower, and Sayers endows them with mystical significance both to the readers of the novel, and to the people in Fenchurch St Paul. Her father was a clergyman, but Sayers later claimed to have had no particular previous knowledge of the arcane lore of church bells. The novel is, however, shot through with references to the bewildering mathematics involved in change ringing. Too much so, for some critics: HRF Keating wrote that Sayers had;

“incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance.”

I am not sure if a book over eighty years old can be subject to plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that, among the several criminals features in the story, the bells do not escape without blame.

So, why is it such a good book, always in print, and often dramatised on screen? Wimsey himself, although deprecatingly described by his creator as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, is perhaps the greatest of the gentleman detectives of The Golden Age. He does not patronise the rougher folk of Fenchurch St Paul; he wears his breeding and education lightly and, like Kipling’s ideal man, he can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings without losing the common touch. Wimsey is a hero of the Great War; this much we know from earlier novels, although his history is alluded to with some subtlety in The Nine Tailors. He has seen the best and worst of men, survived shell shock, and felt the bond between fighting men that transcends class barriers. Sayers was acutely aware of the fact that the horrors of 1914 – 18 pursued men long after the guns fell silent, and incidents in the war play a significant part in the story of The Nine Tailors.

Sayers gives landscape a greater significance in The Nine Tailors than in any of her other books. She was no stranger to Fenland. Her father was rector of Bluntisham, a prosperous village on the edge of the fens, and if you walk in its churchyard, you will see several surnames borrowed and given to characters in The Nine Tailors. The Rev. Henry Sayers later moved to the much more modest parish of Christchurch, slap dab in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Incidentally, that fine writer Jim Kelly happily admits his admiration for Sayers, and set his own novel The Funeral Owl in Christchurch, which he renames Brimstone Hill.

Dorothy

What can the literary traveler find in today’s Cambridgeshire? The fictional Fenland in The Nine Tailors features everything the actual Fenland does. It has drainage rivers named after their width such as The Thirty Foot, back roads called Droves, and clusters of villages with the same name, but modified by the patron saints of their respective churches. Just as she gives us Fenchurch St Paul and Fenchurch St Peter, in real life we have Terrington St Clement, Terrington St John, Wiggenhall St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary. Sayers takes all the familiar topographical features of the Fens and rearranges them into an authentic but original pattern.

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She also teases us with her place names. When we think we have matched Van Leyden’s Sluice with Denver, she confounds us by mentioning that Denver Sluice is much bigger. When you feel certain that Leamholt must be one of the bigger towns such as King’s Lynn, she introduces the actual King’s Lynn in a passing reference.

Here in the Fens, we love our skies and churches
while treating with respect the long, arrow-straight, deep black drains which keep our feet dry. Given that large parts of the fens are only inches above sea level we still have cause to fear tidal surges down the Great Ouse and the Nene. No author has ever rivaled Sayers in describing with such power the sheer devastation that the angry waters can bring. Having narrowly escaped death by the bells, Wimsey claws his way to the relative safety of the top of St Paul’s church tower, and looks out on a drowned land:

“The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west, St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship. Every house in the village was lit up: St Stephen was riding out the storm. Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate … outward and eastward the gold cock on the weathervane stared and strained, fronting the danger, held to his watch by the relentless pressure of the wind from off The Wash. Somewhere amid that still surge of water, the broken bodies of Will Thoday and his mate drifted and tumbled with the wreckage of farm and field. The Fen had reclaimed its own.”

Read the novel. Absorb the period details and accept the leisurely pace. Hold on firmly to Wimsey’s great sense of compassion and humanity. Wonder at the language and allow yourself a thankful shudder that you are safe at home, dry and warm. I can’t think of a more gripping description of a watery hell, unless it lies in the words of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to his wooden spar at the end of Moby Dick:

“…his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its watery sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … Skin Deep by Peter Dickinson

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In June 1968 USA publishers Harper & Row released a book titled The Glass Sided Ants’ Nest. The novel, by Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson, aka Peter Dickinson, was simultaneously published in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton as Skin Deep and won a CWA Gold Dagger in that year. Both titles are still available

dickinson_3529483kIncidentally, I don’t think there are many Old Etonian authors around these days, but Dickinson (left) was there from 1941 to 1946, and it is tempting to wonder if he ever rubbed shoulders in those years with another Eton scholar by the name of Robert William Arthur Cook, better known to us as the Godfather of English Noir Derek Raymond, who was there from 1944 until 1948.

Skin Deep introduces us to London copper, Superintendent Jimmy Pibble, who was to feature in several subsequent mysteries. Already, Dickinson sets out his stall. Writers more ready to twang the purse strings of the book buying public might name their hero something more suggestive of intrigue and danger, like Jack Powers, Max Stead, Dan Ruger, Will Stark or Tom Caine. But Jimmy Pibble? He sounds more like a walk-on player in a Carry On film. But this, we soon learn, is Dickinson’s little joke, perhaps at the expense of lesser writers or less demanding readers. Pibble is highly intelligent, sensitive, but no-one’s pushover and, despite several bitterly ironic turns of events, nothing in the story is played for laughs.

The stage set of Skin Deep is brilliantly bizarre. Even the modern maestro of wonderfully eccentric plots, the Right Honorable Member for King’s Cross, Mr Christopher Fowler, might have baulked at this one. In a sturdily-built but nondescript London suburb, Flagg Terrace, live the exiled sole survivors of an ancient New Guinean tribe, the Kus. They survived a massacre by Japanese invaders in 1943 and have relocated to London. These folk, some crippled by genetic ailments, have transformed their home into a strange replica of their home village. The men lead separate lives from the women, and they practice a religion which is a perplexing blend of missionary Christianity and their native beliefs. Flagg Terrace has not been gentrifird:

“The tide of money had washed around it. The hordes of conquering young executives, sweeping down like Visigoths from the east and driving the cowering and sullen aboriginals into the remoter slums of Acton, had left it alone. Neither taste nor wealth could assail its inherent dreadfulness.”

When Aaron, the leader of the Ku folk, is found dead, battered to death with a carved wooden owl, Pibble is given the task of discovering the killer. He is clearly regarded by his more conventional superiors as a good copper, but something of an oddball, and someone to be kept as away as possible from high profile cases.

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To say that the Kus are an odd lot is an understatement. Among the residents are Dr Eve Ku, a distinguished anthropologist. She is married to Paul Ku, but she can only be referred to as ‘he’ due to her countryfolk’s distinctive take on gender politics. Robin Ku is, on the one hand a rather clever teenager who has an alter-ego as a Ku drummer, beating the traditional slit drums as an accompaniment to sexually charged tribal rituals. Add into the mix Bob Caine, a neighbour of the Ku’s. He is what John Betjeman called “a thumping great crook”, but he is a sinister fraudster who was not only implicated in the Japanese destruction of the Ku people, but has serious connections to organised crime in the here-and-now.

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Skin Deep is a wonderful example of literary crime fiction in which the author doesn’t write down to his audience, but skillfully uses language to evoke mood, ambience and atmosphere. Dickinson’s ear for dialogue is attuned to the slightest inflection so that we instantly know how is talking, without the need for clumsy prompts. Jimmy Pibble is a delightful character with a gentle streak of misanthropy in his soul. His idea of a good pub is:

“…a back street nook kept by a silent old man who lived for the quality of his draught beer. It would be empty when Pibble used it, save for two genial dotards playing dominoes.”

Pibble’s view of the policeman’s lot is similarly sanguine:

“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”

Don’t be misled into thinking that there is anything remotely Golden Age or cosy about this book. It is often darkly reflective, and Aaron’s killer is both unmasked and punished in one tragic moment of unfortunate misjudgment by Jimmy Pibble. There were to be five more novels featuring the distinctive detective:

A Pride of Heroes (1969); US: The Old English Peep-Show
The Seals
(1970); US: The Sinful Stones
Sleep and His Brother
(1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

Peter Dickinson was also a successful and widely admired author of children’s books. He died in 2015 at the age of 88. Click the link to read an obituary.

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