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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . A Hive of Glass by PM Hubbard

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Hubbard-Hive-GlassI have a close friend who keeps himself fit by walking London suburbs searching charity shops for rare – and sometimes valuable – crime novels. On one particular occasion he was spectacularly successful with a rare John le Carré first edition, but he is ever alert to particular fads and enthusiasms of mine. Since I “discovered” PM Hubbard, thanks to a tip-off from none other than Phil Rickman, my friend has been on the lookout for for anything by this English writer (1910 – 1980) and his latest find, A Hive of Glass is a Panther Crimeband paperback, published in 1966. This was a year after Michael Joseph published the first edition (left), and Hubbard fans could have bought the paperback for the princely sum of 3s/6d (about 16.5p in modern money).

In his best works Hubbard gives us an ostensibly benevolent rural England; small towns, pretty villages, ancient woodlands, the warm stone of village churches and old parkland (always with a time-weathered manor or house at its centre). This England, however, invariably has something menacing going on behind the façade. Not simply, it must be said, in a cosy Midsomer Murders fashion, but in a much more disturbing way. Hubbard doesn’t engage with the overtly supernatural, but he teases us with suggestions that there might – just might – be something going on, an uneasy sense of what Hamlet was referring to in his celebrated remark to Horatio in Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In A Hive of Glass, a gentleman of undisclosed means, Jonnie Slade, pursues his lifelong interest in antique glassware. He is an auctioneers’ and dealer’ worst nightmare, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of styles, techniques – and market value. He becomes aware of an important piece of sixteenth century glass – to the uninitiated, not much more than a glass saucer – whose provenance includes the crucial involvement of none other than Gloriana herself. Looking to find more information on the tazza, made by the legendary Giacomo Verzelini, he visits an elderly man whose knowledge of the period is legendary, only to find him dead in his study. With only a couple of amateurish photographs and a diary entry to guide him, Slade drives out of London to the remote village of Dunfleet.

In Dunfleet he meets a young woman called Claudia. Their erotically charged relationship is central to the story, as is the fact that she is the niece of Elizabeth Barton, the elderly woman in whose house the tazza is hidden. Even to himself, Slade’s motives are unclear. Does he want to steal the tazza? Does he just want to confirm its location? Does he suspect Claudia of attempting to defraud her aunt?

hubbard1Seldom, however, can a treasure have been protected by two more menacing guardians in Aunt Elizabeth and her maid-of-all-work Coster. Remember Blind Pew, one of the more terrifying villains of literature? Remember Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and the decades that it was hidden from sight? With a freedom that simply would not escape the censor today, Hubbard (right) taps into our visceral fear of abnormality and disability. Hubbard has created two terrifying women and a dog which is makes Conan Doyles celebrated hound Best In Show. The dog first:

“It was pinky-white all over and looked quite naked and scrofulous. Even from sideways its eyes were almost invisible behind puckered pink lids. It waddled and wheezed like a fat dog, but you could see most of the bones under the hanging skin. Its smell went past me as it it walked.”

Attached to the vile animal is blind Aunt Elizabeth:

“On the end of the lead came a long black glove and behind it Claudia’s Aunt Elizabeth. I had no idea, seeing her through a curtained window like that, how tall she was. She must have been all of six foot and her elaborately coiled hair put as much on her height as a policeman’s helmet…Her feet were as big as the rest of her. The skin was grey but clear and glossy and her smile, as she passed me, came back almost under her ear.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s maid, Coster, is equally terrifying. She is stone deaf, huge, and mutters to herself in a constant high-pitched monotone:

“She was a tall soldierly woman, with a frame much too big for that little thin, continuous voice. She wore a bunchy black skirt with a long apron over it and some sort of blue and white blouse over her great square top half. As it was, I could hear a continuous stream of sound, inflected and articulated like speech, but defying my analysis.:

I would have turned tail and ran as far from this trio of horrors as fast as my legs could carry me, but Slade is made of sterner stuff, and he stays to discover the hiding place of the Verzelini tazza, but not without considerable cost to his own sanity and sense of well-being.

A Hive of Glass is available as a Murder Room reprint, or you can search charity shops for an original version. For more on PM Hubbard and his novels, follow this link.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Best of Winter’s Crimes

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MR BULMER’S GOLDEN CARP by John Bingham (1971)

Author John Bingham, the 7th Baron ClanmorrisMr Bulmer is a uniquely repulsive little man who manages a dry cleaning shop in Mayfair, and uses the opportunity of searching through the jackets and trouser pockets of wealthy individuals to service his own very profitable blackmail industry. His malignant little sideline has provided him with a regular income – and driven at least one of his victims to suicide. When he seizes upon what he sees as the opportunity of a lifetime, he is unaware that is about to be snared by his own hook. John Bingham, in addition to being a writer of distinction, was also a highly placed official in British Intelligence operations.

WE KNOW YOU’RE BUSY WRITING… by Edmund Crispin (1969)

crispinCrispin, aka Robert Bruce Montgomery, is best known for his Gervase Fen novels but here he spins a delightfully black tale of a struggling writer whose hospitality is impinged upon by a pair of runaways, both seeking a new life away from their spouses. Crispin intersperses the narrative with vivid accounts of a writer desperately searching for the words which will bring his latest novel to life. Sadly for the would-be lovers, their fate is to be organic fertiliser for Mr Bradley’s vegetable plot.

INDIAN ROPE TRICK by Lionel Davidson (1981)

DavidsonDavidson’s internationally themed thrillers were his bread and butter, but we must not forget that he was a writer of immense sensitivity with a wide range of influences. His own upbringing as a child of a hard-scrabble Polish-Jewish family might have made it unlikely that he would compose a chilling tale of murder on the banks of s Scottish river frequented only by rich Englishmen with the money to buy the rights to snare incoming salmon. A man whose sexual abilities have been devastated by a potentially fatal illness plans revenge on a friend whose libido remains undiminished. The denouement takes place on the banks of Scotland’s sacred salmon river – the Spey.

AT THE LULU-BAR MOTEL by Colin Dexter (1981)

DexterColin Dexter? Cue Oxford, an irascible senior policeman, pints of English beer and crossword puzzles? Think on. When this story was published, Dexter was already four books into his Inspector Morse series, but the TV adaptations were still six years away. In this tale, Dexter takes us to, of all places, rural America, where a coach load of middle-aged and elderly tourists take a rest stop at the eponymous wayside hotel. The action is centred around a game of vingt-et-un, designed to empty the wallets of the gullible travellers. Dexter describes a scam-within-a -scam -but saves until the last few paragraphs a chilling finale in which the scammer becomes the scammed.

DEATH OF AN OLD DOG by Antonia Fraser (1978)

FRaserPeople might forget that Antonia Fraser, as well as being the daughter of Lord Longford the widow of Harold Pinter and a superb historical biographer, is no slouch when it comes to crime fiction. Here, she taps into that strange love affair that English people have with their dogs. Richard Gavin is a successful barrister (is there ever another sort?) who has kept his upper lip stiff and tremble-free during the death of his first wife, and remarried. The new lady of the Gavin household is Paulina – young. bright and adorable. Her judgment, however is brought into question, when her decision to put an aged, smelly and incontinent spaniel out of its misery coincides with Richard opening an ominous letter from his London doctor.

THOSE AWFUL DAWNS by Patricia Highsmith (1977)

HighsmithThis is the most shocking and slap-in-the-face story in the collection. I would go as far as to suggest that it would not have been written – let alone published – today, with our heightened awareness of child abuse and domestic violence. As an account of casual violence, domestic cruelty, alcohol abuse – and the pervasive power of the Roman Catholic church – it makes for uncomfortable reading. Highsmith’s misanthropy can never have been more glaringly or honestly displayed. her publisher wrote:
“She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.”
Otto Penzler was right, and his verdict resonates in every single sentence of this account of the misfortunes of Eddie, Laura – and their children.

MARY by PM Hubbard (1971)

hubbard1Like Hubbard’s longer works, which are examined in this feature, a dream-like quality pervades this story, but the dreams are not necessarily pleasant ones. The first words are:
“The nastiest house I have ever been in was the Margesons’ house at Marlowe.”
Bill, the narrator is referring to the style and decor, rather than anything more sinister, but the darkness is about to descend. The lawn stretches down to the river and one day when Bill is sitting outside with Gerald and Janet Margeson, a waif-like teenage girl dressed only in a swimming costume walks up the path from the river. The girl, Mary, has thus invited herself into the otherwise humdrum world of the Margesons, and so  begins a subtly erotic tale of obsession, betrayal and, ultimately, murder.

THE GIRL WHO LOVED GRAVEYARDS by PD James (1983)

PD JamesThis exquisite masterpiece tells of a nameless girl, an orphan, who is brought up in a loveless terraced house in east London, the home of her Uncle Victor and Aunt Gladys. Her only joy is the adjacent cemetery which becomes a place of mystical and endless attraction:
“Even the seasons of the year she experienced in and through the cemetery. The gold and purple spears of the first crocuses thrusting through the hard earth. April with its tossing daffodils. The whole graveyard en fête in yellow and white as mourners dressed the graves for Easter. The smell of mown grass and the earthy tang of high summer as if the dead were breathing the flower-scented air and exuding their own mysterious miasma. Seeing the cemetery transformed by the first snows of winter, the marble angels grotesque in their high bonnets of glistening snow.”
Amid the poetry, however, James does not lose sight of the fact that we readers are in search of shocks and sensation. When the girl becomes a young woman, and is determined to find the grave of her dead father, we sense that her quest will end in tears. And so, in a drab suburb of Nottingham, so it does – but not quite in the manner which we have been led to expect

The Best Of Winter’s Crimes 1 has long been out of print, but as it was meant for mass circulation there are plenty of second-hand copies available from dealers such as Abe Books for less than the price of a pint.

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THE FORGOTTEN…. A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part One – Philip Maitland Hubbard (2)

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Hubbard_DancingThe Dancing Man was published in 1971, and is set in Welsh hill country. An engineer, Mark Hawkins travels to a remote house to collect his late brother’s belongings. Dick Hawkins was an archaeologist by profession and mountaineering was his drug of choice. He set off one day for the nearby mountains, and never returned.

The house where Dick Hawkins was staying when he disappeared is called Llanglas and it is owned by Roger Merrion, another archaeologist, who lives there with his wife Ethel and sister Cynthia. Near the house is the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery circled by a much more ancient earthwork, and the woods which surround the ruin also contain a strange obelisk on which is engraved a primitive but sinister figure – of a dancing man.

Of the Hubbard novels I have read, this one reveals most about what I believe to be one of the major influences on his work. The ghost stories of MR James are uniquely frightening, due in no small part to the writer’s skilful powers of suggestion. In A School Story, a boy in a boarding school sees something frightful trying to creep in through the window of one of the masters in the dead of night. He tries to describe it to a chum:

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In The Dancing Man, Mark Hawkins describes his first sight of the shiveringly disturbing Old Evans.

“He was enormously tall. His clothes flapped round him in the wind, but I got the impression that he was very thin under them, and his head looked disproportionately small. He was too much like a walking scarecrow for comfort.”

That description also immediately brought to mind the hideous entity which conjures itself up out from bedsheets and pursues the unfortunate Professor Parkins along the seashore in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

In James’s A View From A Tower, Mr Fanshawe makes the mistake of using a particularly strange pair of field glasses, and finds himself in a very unfriendly wood:

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Hawkins has a similar experience in the woods by Llanglas, but his is made infinitely worse by the fact that he is about to have company:

“I came to the stone as unexpectedly as I had that first evening. I never seemed to know how far it was. I stopped about fifteen yards from it, suddenly unwilling to go any further. I could see it quite clearly, standing up and motionless, while the trees threshed about over it. I started to turn my back on it, and then the dancing man came out from behind it, white all over and capering in the moonlight with his white matchstick arms straight up over his head.”

Mark Hawkins ponders his brother’s mysterious disappearance, becomes erotically involved with both Mrs and Miss Merrion, but the climax of the story involves the discovery of the hidden twin of the standing stone – and what lies beneath it.

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Hubbard_Thirsty_Evil2With A Thirsty Evil (1974) Hubbard once again mines Shakespeare for his title, in this case, Measure For Measure.

“Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”

In almost every respect this has a much less complex plot than The Tower or Flush As May, but one which is just as powerful and – ultimately – shocking. It is the story of an obsession. Ian Mackellar is a fledgling novelist with the added luxury of a private income from his family business. He sits opposite a woman on a train for a couple of hours, and although not a word – and scarcely a glance – is exchanged between them, he is hopelessly smitten. She leaves the train – and Mackellar – at her destination. He says:

“That could have been the end of it, but in fact it was only the beginning.”

By sheer chance, Mackellar sees the woman again, at a publishers’ party. She is with an older man, but convinced that this is not her husband, he makes small talk and gives her his telephone number.The next few weeks are something of an agony for Mackellar as he waits for her call, but just when he has given up hope, she does ring from a call box, reversing the charge. She makes it clear that she has only called out of good manners, and that it would be quite impossible for them to actually meet. She does, however, tell him that her name is Julia Mellors.

Her call is like one of those intrinsically harmless incidents, so beloved of Thomas Hardy, which trigger a sequence of unintended – and fatal – consequences. Mackellar traces her to a farm called Windbarrow (again, strange echoes of Hardy). Such is his persistence, Mackellar presents himself, and finds that Julia heads a household consisting of herself and her younger siblings Beth and Charlie.

The relationship between the three is complicated by Julia’s remoteness, Beth’s unashamed sexuality and Charlie’s mental condition. He is physically fit and active, but with a psychological flaw which is only controlled by medication. Despite himself, Mackellar is both magnetised and repelled by Beth:

“… it was the way she looked at you. There was nothing secretive about her. Like Cressida, there was language in her eyes, her cheeks, her looks, and like Ulysses I set her down instantaneously as a daughter of the game.”

As with the other Hubbard stories under consideration, the power of the landscape is never far away, and while he tends to deal in tumps, tumuli, barrows and other high places which our ancestors carved out of the landscape, here he gives us something quite different. In the valley carved out by the stream which runs near Windbarrow, long ago, someone dammed the stream and created a deep pool, known as Grainger’s. The Mellors use it as a swimming pool, but Charlie takes Mackellar beneath the surface – literally – and shows him a strange and menacing stone obelisk which rises from the impenetrable depths of the dam.

PMHThe story moves swiftly on. Hubbard’s novels are, anyway, relatively short but his narrative drive never lets us rest. Beth’s carnality and opportunism get the better of Mackellar in a brief but shocking encounter, but this is only a staging post on the path to a violent and tragic conclusion to the novel. Mackellar survives, but he writes his own epitaph in the very first chapter.

“She was the only woman I have ever really wanted. For the matter of that, she still is. I suppose she may always be.”

I came fresh to Hubbard’s books, and I read three or four in quick succession. I found them powerful, frightening and written with icy brilliance The novels are still available, thanks to the Orion imprint, The Murder Room. It must be said, however, that the paperbacks are very expensive, but the KIndle versions are more accessible for readers on a limited budget.

PM Hubbard – Amazon UK author page

THE FORGOTTEN…. A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part One – Philip Maitland Hubbard

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Fashion in crime fiction, like in all other aspects of life – and literature – is a strange business. Who are the ‘immortals’, and who are the fine writers who have simply vanished from shelves both in the bookshop and the home? The ‘immortals’ number just a handful. I would nominate Conan Doyle, Chandler, Christie and Simenon. There are other writers who have produced books which regularly feature in ‘best of’ lists, such as Capote, Sayers, Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Leonard and Highsmith, but whose body of work does not stand up with the four ‘immortals’. This series will focus on a handful of authors whose works, for whatever reason, have passed from mind and familiarity.

PMHOne of my favourite contemporary writers, Phil Rickman, pointed me in the direction of PM Hubbard (left) who wrote English crime novels with just a hint of supernatural menace about them. After a career in public service, he became a full time writer, and contributing to  the magazine Punch as well as writing verse, both of which activities contrast strongly with his dark novels. Although Hubbard died in 1980 his books are still available, and although I have come late to the feast, I can still savour the meat. This is the first of a two part examination of Hubbard’s writing.

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FAMFlush As May (1963) takes its title from a soliloquy by Hamlet, and Hubbard sets the piece in an ostensibly idyllic rural England, contemporary with the time of the novel’s publication. Margaret Canting is an Oxford undergraduate staying in the nearby village of Lodstone She takes it upon herself to see in May Morning, not by carolling from the top of a church tower, but with a dawn stroll. Her idyll is interrupted when she finds the corpse of a man, sleeping his final sleep against the grassy bank at the edge of a field.

She strides back into Lodstone and rouses the village policeman, PC Robin. His scepticism about her discovery is confirmed when the pair arrive at the scene to find – absolutely nothing. Humiliated by the constable’s scorn, Margaret returns to her B & B, having briefly made the acquaintance of a young chauffeur at the roadside. She learns, upon her return to Oxford, that his name is Jacob Garrod and that he is a fellow undergraduate. The pair meet for a drink, and Margaret reveals the full story of her May Morning adventure.

Together, the pair decide to get the bottom of the mystery of the missing corpse, with the assistance of one or two of Margaret’s well connected relatives. What has so far been something of a ‘jolly jape’ becomes infinitely more serious when they discover that an unholy alliance of old established farming families in and around Lodstone has an unhealthy influence on local events.

This is a lighter novel than those which followed, and there is plenty of gentle humour, such as when Jacob  tries to find out more about the agricultural mafia by attending a cattle auction:

“…..where he bid unsuccessfully for a lot of heifers whose air of gentle bewilderment appealed to him. They attended the event placidly, like a consignment of Circassian virgins under the hammer in ancient Rome …”

But as if he were holding his fire until he could see the whites of our eyes, Hubbard gently ramps up the music of unease by turning our attention – alongside that of Margaret and Jacob – to the landscape itself. We discover that the residents of Lodstone and their ancestors have an allegiance to the shape of the hills and fields that is fired by a folk memory which stretches back much further than the laws and conventions of either the Christian church or the civil justice system. The climax of the story brings Margaret face to face with the very embodiment of an ancient evil.

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Hubbard_The_Tower_GreenThe Tower (1968) begins with Hubbard tipping his hat in a gentlemanly fashion in the direction of a lady. The lady is none other than Dorothy L Sayers. Her masterpiece (other opinions are available), The Nine Tailors, begins with Bunter and Lord Peter abandoning their car in a snowy ditch outside a remote Fenland village. So it is that John Smith, the central character in The Tower, finds his car refusing to travel an inch further on an inky black night, a mile or so outside the village of Coyle. That, however is pretty much where the homage ends. Coyle is a far more sinister place that Fenchurch St Peter, and its vicar, Father Freeman, is infinitely less benevolent than dear old Reverend Venables.

After roadside assistance provided by a mysterious young woman Smith is able to get as far as The Bell, Coyle’s only pub. Given a room for the night, Smith signs the register with an all-too-familiar misgiving.

“That was the trouble with John Smith. They always expect you to bring in a giggling blonde with the wrong initials on her suitcase.”

Smith realises, as he drinks his pint of strong bitter and eats the meal provided by the landlord’s wife, that the customers of The Bell are not the average clientele of a rural boozer. He eavesdrops on a fairly foul-mouthed argument, but then:

“A man started to sing, casually, as if he was singing to himself, but loud enough to be heard above the general uproar. Gloria Deo – ‘ he sang, with a long twisting run of notes ….two more voices took it up in different parts, a very sweet clear tenor led the way into Et Filio, and by the time ‘Sancto was reached he counted four parts going great guns with several voices to each.”

Clearly, this is not a regulation saloon bar singsong. Smith’s curiosity is aroused, and he decides to stay for a few days. He meets local academic, Charles Hardcastle, and his daughter Cynthia – who he realises immediately is the enigmatic wraith who repaired his car the night before. Hardcastle – and George Curtis, Landlord of The Bell – explain to Smith, in very different ways, what is going on in the village.

The tower of Coyle’s parish church (dedicated to the fictional St Udan) is structurally compromised due to a series of unwise modifications over the last century. Father Freeman is obsessed with raising the £20,000 it would take to restore the tower and make it safe. His only hope of raising the cash is the benevolence of Mrs Mary Garstin, the widow of Sir Gerald Potter, and heir to his land and fortune. She has remarried, unhappily, and seems strangely drawn to the menacing priest.

John Smith and Cynthia Hardcastle are drawn into Coyle’s business, and find that it is far from straightforward, and that Father Freeman’s zeal is linked to something far older than his avowed Christianity. The conclusion of the novel is violent and incendiary. In addition, without writing anything remotely explicit by today’s standards, Hubbard bestows Mary Garstin with an erotic persona which is all the more startling, given the rural conformity and apparent benevolence of her surroundings.

PART TWO of this account of the writing of PM Hubbard will follow

 

 

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