“If one cannot command attention by one’s admirable qualities one can at least be a nuisance.” (Margery Allingham)

Although I read a lot of golden age detective fiction as it is my go-to comfort read, I rarely blog on it. I’m making an exception this week though, as The Crime at Black Dudley, the first Albert Campion mystery by Margery Allingham, was published in 1929. This makes it perfect for the 1929 Club, running all week and hosted by Simon and Kaggsy.

In this first outing, Campion is not the primary detective. This role falls instead to George Abbershaw:

“He was a smallish man, chubby and solemn, with a choir-boy expression and a head of ridiculous bright-red curls which gave him a somewhat fantastic appearance.

[…]

His book on pathology, treated with special reference to fatal wounds and the means of ascertaining their probable causes, was a standard work, and in view of his many services to the police in the past his name was well known and his opinion respected at the Yard.

At the moment he was on holiday, and the unusual care which he took over his toilet suggested that he had not come down to Black Dudley solely for the sake of recuperating in the Suffolk air.

Much to his own secret surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love.

He recognized the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage.”

So George heads to a somewhat foreboding enormous country pile, home of Wyatt Petrie, an academic, and his uncle Colonel Coombe (there always seem to be Colonels in GA mysteries don’t there? They seem to have been much more prolific then.) There is to be a party of Bright Young Things descending for the weekend.

An isolated country house, a closed circle of characters not entirely well-known to one another, what could go wrong…? Early on, George is drawn to a wall display:

“Yet it was the actual centre-piece which commanded immediate interest. Mounted on a crimson plaque, at the point where the lance-heads made a narrow circle, was a long, fifteenth-century Italian dagger. The hilt was an exquisite piece of workmanship, beautifully chased and encrusted at the upper end with uncut jewels, but it was not this that first struck the onlooker. The blade of the Black Dudley Dagger was its most remarkable feature. Under a foot long, it was very slender and exquisitely graceful, fashioned from the steel that had in it a curious greenish tinge which lent the whole weapon an unmistakably sinister appearance. It seemed to shine out of the dark background like a living and malignant thing.”

How on earth will the murder take place? What weapon will possibly be used? That’s right, Colonel Coombe is poisoned. Only kidding, of course he’s stabbed with the heavily foreshadowed Black Dudley Dagger.

However, that is not the only dampener on the party. Two men, sinister associates of the deceased, proclaim that no-one is allowed to leave until a missing item is returned to them. They succeed in convincing everyone of their seriousness through direct and effective means. (One of them is German and my heart sank a bit, anticipating caricatured xenophobic villainy, but thankfully although there is some it’s not extensive, and it soon becomes apparent that *small spoiler* he is not the true villain).

What will George do? Can he unmask the murderer? Can he protect his beloved Meggie long enough to propose? Well, among the party is one Albert Campion. George finds him foolish and irritating. Silly George! It’s obvious to the reader that there is More To Albert Than Meets The Eye…

“Everybody looked at Mr Campion. He was leaning up against the balustrade, his fair hair hanging over his eyes, and for the first time it dawned upon Abbershaw that he was fully dressed, and not, as might have been expected, in the dinner-jacket he had worn on the previous evening.

His explanation was characteristic.

‘Most extraordinary,’ he said, in his slightly high-pitched voice. ‘The fellow set on me. Picked me up and started doing exercises with me as if I were a dumb-bell. I thought it was one of you fellows joking at first, but when he began to jump on me it percolated through that I was being massacred. Butchered to make a butler’s beano, in fact.’

He paused and smiled fatuously.”

The main flaw of The Crime at Black Dudley is that mysterious, capable, comic Campion is so clearly the hero that the story feels a bit unbalanced and lacking when he’s not around. He dominates until he suddenly doesn’t – leaving the story before the end. George sees it through for the reader, but it makes for something of an anti-climax.

However, that quibble aside, The Crime at Black Dudley is a very enjoyable golden age mystery. As well as the tropes already mentioned, there are trapdoors, secret passageways and international criminal gangs. It’s a short fun read, and it made me keen to spend more time with perplexing Campion. As the Bright Young Things might say, (but probably never did) even if it’s not entirely the cat’s pyjamas it is still a crashing good lark.

 

From the silly to the serious, and my usual disclaimer that I know Ernest Hemingway was a fairly terrible human. He treated women badly, he loved blood sports which is abhorrent, I have no doubt that had we ever met, Hemingway and I would have viewed each other with mutual contempt. I also know that I just adore his writing, in a way I can’t fully explain. I do like pared-back style, but there’s something indefinable in his writing that I just find so moving. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and it opens:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

If I tell you I was already inexplicably tearful by the time I reached the end of that passage you know you’re not going to get a coherent or balanced review of this book in any way 😀

The novel follows the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer paramedic in Italy during the First World War, and his relationship with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. Initially I found their behaviour rather silly, but then I had to remind myself that they were very young, and living through traumatic circumstances.

“I went out the door and suddenly I felt lonely and empty. I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow.”

“‘I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?’ She looked at me very happily. ‘I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?’”

No Catherine, that’s a truly terrible idea. Familiarise yourself with feminist theory and pull yourself together!

I thought Hemingway’s iceberg style of writing, not spelling everything out and trusting the reader to fill in gaps, worked extremely well throughout. Being so matter-of-fact about war, death and injury drove home its seriousness rather than treating it lightly. It meant that nothing was made easier by a more descriptive or metaphorical style.  Here Henry is wounded badly (skip the next quote if you’re at all squeamish!):

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside behind my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid.”

A Farewell to Arms is not relentlessly bleak though. There are touches of humour between Henry and his friends, or in Henry’s observations of his medical care:

“I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.”

It’s also not bitter. Henry becomes disillusioned with the war but again, the iceberg style works well in presenting the hopelessness and destruction of ideals, without being cynical or maudlin, such as Henry’s conversation with his friend who is a priest:

‘I had hoped for something.’

‘Defeat?’

‘No. Something more.’

‘There isn’t anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.’

‘I hoped for a long time for victory.’

‘Me too.’

‘Now I don’t know.’

‘It has to be one or the other.’

‘I don’t believe in victory anymore.’

‘I don’t. But I don’t believe in defeat. Though it may be better.’

‘What do you believe in?’

‘In sleep,’ I said. He stood up.

It occurred to me towards the end of the novel, when Henry uses a racial slur, that until that point I hadn’t really considered whether I liked any of characters. At that point I reflected that I didn’t much. Catherine is somewhat underwritten, the first-person narrative reflecting Henry’s youthful egotism in love, and Henry himself wasn’t particularly easy to warm to. But actually this was irrelevant. Hemingway wasn’t asking the reader to like or not like his characters. He was presenting them as they were, as flawed humans caught up in violence and destruction, and pointing out utter futility of it all.

“I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

To end, the trailer for the 1932 film adaptation starring Gary Cooper:

“’I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?’” (Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery)

To describe my blogging as patchy would be to suggest a productivity that currently I can only aspire to.  Thankfully Simon and Kaggsy are hosting one of their wonderful club events this week, always irresistible and especially so this time, as 1929 is bang in the middle of the interwar years, my reading sweet spot.

(Great badge 🙂 )

I’m hoping to post twice this week, and I thought I’d start here with two Virago Modern Classics.

I probably wouldn’t have been particularly drawn to The True Heart if it wasn’t written by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the wonderful Lolly Willowes. The blurb on the back says:

“This is the love story of Sukey Bond and Eric Seaborn. Sukey is an orphan, in service, the lowest of the low. It is 1873, and in her first position as a servant girl on a farm in the Essex Marshes, she meets Eric – gentle, simple […] The lovers are parted by Eric’s rich mother […] But nothing can deter Sukey. Only Queen Victoria, she feels, can help, so she sets off to see her. Extraordinary things happen on this heroic journey, but Sukey’s simple love and courage carry her to final victory- reunion with her beloved Eric and love triumphant.”

Absolutely nothing in that description appeals to me. Well, maybe the Essex Marshes. And Queen Victoria. But nothing else. However, I was quickly won over by this description on page two of Miss Pocock, the Matron of Sukey’s orphanage on prize-giving day:

“She had been up since 4 A.M. putting finishing touches to the orphans housewifery. Now she wore her new purple bodice and her face of state, where the expression never varied, as if her countenance were cased up in invisible stays.”

Having excelled on the prize day, virtuous Sukey goes to work as a maid on a farm, a position found for her by an orphanage patroness, Mrs Seaborn.

“Sukey was still persuaded that there was something very odd and exceptional about her life, though she, of course, was a very ordinary creature. In truth it was humdrum enough and the cares and pleasures that filled her days were those common to any servant-girl on a small farm. Nor were the other inmates of the farm remarkable in any way that appeared to her.”

There she meets Mrs Seaborn’s son Eric, an outsider like Sukey, living alongside the Norman family who run the farm:

“They spoke of him always as ‘Young Eric,’ and by the insistence upon his youthfulness seemed to disassociate themselves from him. He was like a pet lamb, grown too large for the house but whom the household had forgotten to put out of doors.”

Eric has been dumped at the farm by his mother who is ashamed of his ‘idiocy’ and seizures. The two fall in love, each naïve and inexperienced. Sukey soon believes she is pregnant despite knowing nothing of the facts of life and therefore not realising that there is zero chance she has conceived a child. What stops the story from being overly saccharine is STW’s humour, which is gently witty – entertaining but never slyly undermining her characters.

“A baby may grow up and make any number of people miserable. Besides justification, they also require long clothes and short clothes and little woollen socks – and how is an unmarried baby going to find these?”

As the blurb suggests, Eric’s mother separates them and Sukey begins her epic journey towards reconciliation. The story is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, and the tale does have a mythic quality as Sukey meets various colourful characters on her journey and through some sort of miracle manages to stay safe.  

The tone of The True Heart is so finely balanced. I think as a twenty-first century reader I was waiting for the knowing irony, the askance aside which never came. It made me question if this is how I’m used to seeing love presented in contemporary stories, which is a pretty bleak thought. Yet STW is not remotely sentimental either. Rather she is clear-sighted and compassionate.

“He was sorry for birds. He loved all helpless things, all wild things, all harmless and thoughtless things, for he himself was wild and harmless, thoughtless and helpless. He was sorry for the bird, he understood its distress. Her distress he could not understand. It passed by him like the wind – violent, alien, incomprehensible. Her anger was aflame that would not take upon him.”

A singular novel, thought-provoking and written with the lightest touch.

By contrast, the female protagonist in The Squire’s Daughter by FM Mayor is somewhat jaded by her worldly experiences even by the age of 21. Ron de Lacey – as the title indicates – is from a privileged background and she uses this privilege to enjoy a frivolous, vacuous London life as a flapper (aka living my dream life 😀 ).

“In Ozzy’s set they were all young; for her sex the most successful age was eighteen; the new Cabaret girl was sixteen, she and Nadine were already rather old. Aunt Laura knew spinsters by the score, they were generally political, and Ron hated politics.”

Ozzy is her brother, somewhat estranged from his family due to his refusal to fight in the War, the conflict casting a long shadow even for a generation who barely remember it.

Ron also returns to the family seat of Carne rarely, and seems indifferent to its pending sale despite the pain it causes her father. The heirs care nothing for the country seat, only the staff seem to share her father and aunt’s understanding of what it once meant:

“Carne was like a college to the old servants, and they were its Fellows.”

“The gardener combined contempt for her with a fond respect for gentry.”

However, it is not because she hugely values her London life that Ron feels alienated from Carne. There is a sense that she is entirely adrift, with no sense of purpose or of self anywhere.

“She had been an ultra-smart young woman, extracting every ounce of success from her seasons, and with Ozzy’s set she could be as vulgar and exaggerated as a chorus girl. In repose, however, her eyes were often unsatisfied, and sometimes sad.”

It is during a visit at Carne that Ron falls somewhat inexplicably in love with the most English-monikered man, Bob Manners. I really enjoyed this conversation between them over dinner, whereby Ron attempts to engage Bob in discussion about a literary great:

“‘Do you like Tchekov?’

‘I don’t know what it is? Is it a drink?’

‘No it’s a Russian, who writes plays.’

[…]

‘I think there’s nobody like Tchekov. I know just where I am with him. He’s like all of us. His people drift about, and want something terribly for five minutes, and then want something else, and all the time they don’t know what they want after all.’

‘I’ve never met any Englishmen like that.’ said he, ‘nor do I want to, nor do I believe they exist.’

‘Yes, but I expect my Englishmen aren’t your Englishmen.’”

They begin a tentative courtship, he unused to romance, she overused to its rituals:

“She was neither shy nor nervous. She could not imagine life without frequently going to tea with men who had fallen, we’re falling, or might fall in love with her.”

The novel follows their relationship and those of her family, alongside the disintegration of Carne. Although the tone is restrained, I found The Squire’s Daughter to be really a very sad novel. It was about the long-term damage of war; the pain of failed communication with those you love; the desperate search for meaning to live your life by, across the generations.

“I suppose one had a surfeit of feeling in the war and used it all up.”

To end, a clip of Greta Garbo still managing to be stunning in the world’s worst fitting dress, in 1929 film Wild Orchids (flogging scene at beginning, skip to 1:00 to avoid):