WELCOME TO FULLY BOOKED! If you are a fan of crime writing – old, new, true or fiction – you should find something to entertain you here. Among the regular features will be a focus on real life crimes, both in the UK and further afield, the classic fiction of The Golden Age, and the latest new releases from top authors and publishers.
In the beautiful valley of Glendalough there are ancient stones, shades and spirits of the holy men who prayed in the monastery – and in the cemetery, lichen-covered headstones of generations of Byrnes, Cullens, Farrells, Nolans, Waldrons – all, both monks and villagers, at peace now. But the body of a young woman has been found. Interred without sacrament, beyond the gaze of those who would mourn her. In a shallow grave on a hillside, wearing the clothes she disappeared in. It is all that remains of Una Dolan, a twenty four year-old lass from Waterford. Last seen April 29th, 2011.
Inspector Tom Reynolds, of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, is called to the scene on a blisteringly hot summer afternoon. The police tapes are strung out, a tent is put over the body, the hundreds of tourists shepherded away beyond gawping distance, but Una does not lie alone in her woodland grave:
“The Inspector frowned and examined the earth under the trees. As he scanned the glade, his stomach lurched.
One, two, three, four. Five, counting the mound of earth disturbed under the tent.
Tom counted five separate patches where the same delicate blue flower was blooming. And then he saw it …
Somebody had cleared the earth of its natural layer and sown their own flowers.
In five places.
Reynolds and his team are already searching for another missing woman, Fiona Holland, but as the forensic experts do their macabre job and try to identify the five Glendalough women, Fiona’s name doesn’t seem to be among them. Instead, the unresolved disappearances of the last few years are narrowed down in a business-like but brutal fashion.
While the guards go about the melancholy business of dashing the hopes of the girls’ relatives, Tom Reynolds has more than one disagreeable offering on his plate. One unpalatable mouthful is his immediate superior. The very model of a modern career policeman, Joe Kennedy sits in the ergonomically designed executive chair which Tom himself was offered, but turned down because the job would have distanced him from all the aspects of policing which energise and inspire him. Kennedy is, to put it bluntly, a prick. Worse, far worse, is that Sean McGuiness, Tom’s previous boss and mentor, is facing the retirement from hell as he tries to cope with the regressive dementia of his wife, June. Tom and his wife Louise feel helpless as their old friends face the worse crisis of their lives.
Tom Reynolds is compassionate and perceptive, but he is also driven by his own desire to see justice done. His investigative team are sympathetically drawn, and the sense of police teamwork is palpable. The guards must combat the possibility of police corruption and deal with the pent-up anger of frustrated and grieving families but, just as the killer appears to be cornered, caught and convicted, the gut-wrenching possibility arises that the case may not be ready for filing in the “solved” drawer.
Jo Spain writes like an angel. No fuss. No bother. No pretension. The narrative flows as smoothly as a glass of Old Bushmills slips down the appreciative throat, and she has us looking this way and that as we stand beside Tom Reynolds as he searches for the killer. This is, on one level, a police procedural, but Jo Spain doesn’t let methodology bog the story down. We know that she knows how the police operate, and that is more than enough. Her rural Ireland is beautifully described without unnecessary frills and furbelows, and she gives us as perceptive a story of the heights and depths of human behaviour as you will read all year. If you have come a little late to the Tom Reynolds party, the first episode of his career is With Our Blessing, followed by Beneath The Surface.
If you click on the image of Don DuPay’s homicide card you can read a review of Behind The Badge In River City, his no-holds-barred account of his time with the police department in Portland, Oregon. The book has attracted a huge amount of interest on our site, and elsewhere. Don pulls no punches with chapter headings such as:
THE STARDUST AND THE STRIP – Two burglars and a dinner show
THE ROOFTOP ASSASSIN – Everybody hated Him
MURDER ON THE RIVERBANK – I Just Poked Him A Little
PADDY WAGONS AND SHOTGUNS – Gimme A Minute, DuPay
THE ZEBEDEE MANNING DEATH – A Suicide It Was Not
By entering our prize draw you stand a chance of winning a signed copy of Don’s book. All it takes is an email, or a ‘like’ on our Facebook page. Participants’ names will go into the digital hat, and the winner will be notified in the usual way. Both the Fully Booked email address and a link to our Facebook page are below. The competition will close at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday October 22nd.
I’ve been waiting for this one! Just published by No Exit Press is a new study of the doomed genius, Ted Lewis. Written by Nick Triplow, it carries the blurb:
“A perceptive and detailed study of one of the most
important writers you’ve never heard of.”
While that may be true of younger or more casual crime fiction fans, it is certainly not the case with old sweats such as myself. Like thousands more, I was drawn to Ted Lewis by the iconic 1971 film adaption of of his most famous novel, which was first published in 1970 with the title Jack’s Return Home.
Nick Triplow is himself a noir novelist, but thankfully has not followed Lewis in his lifestyle choices. Lewis suffered a downward spiral involving alcoholism and family breakdown. He died in 1982, just forty two years old. Triplow (right) has emulated his subject in one regard, however, as he now lives in Barton on Humber, where Lewis went to school. Ted Lewis’s first mentor was an English teacher called Henry Treece, about whom you can read a little more in this short feature.
A full review of Getting Carter will be posted soon, and it will be flagged up on the Fully Booked Twitter page. The book is now available both in hardback and as a Kindle.
After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.
Friends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.
“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”
Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:
“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”
One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.
“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”
Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:
“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”
Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:
“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”
While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:
“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”
To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.
Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.
“April 6, 1961, I was sworn in as a brand new police officer in a ceremony held in the office of Ray Smith, the city auditor, in City Hall. I was nervous, proud of myself for passing all the tests, not least of all surviving an interview with the shrink, and now I stood with my hand up, swearing to serve the citizens in an honorable manner.”
Thus begins a memoir by Don DuPay, (pictured left as a rookie patrolman) He served the people of Portland, Oregon faithfully and well all through the turbulent sixties and seventies, but his time with the police was not to end with a gold watch and choruses of “For he’s a jolly good fellow..” from his fellow officers. Although Don’s book is full of insights into his years of policing Portland, the case which effectively ended his career is worth a detailed look. In 1975, DuPay had investigated the death of a black youth called Zebedee Manning. The fifteen year-old was found in his bedroom, laid out with his arms and hands folded across a sawn-off .22 rifle that lay on his chest. The eyes were shut and he could see the boy had been shot at point blank range directly through the centre of his forehead. Manning (below, photographed at the funeral home) was already in a full tail spin down through a spiral of drug abuse, petty criminality and despair.
Dupay was certain that the Manning crime scene had been set up – unconvincingly – by someone who was keen to have the death recorded as a suicide. He was shocked when he was told by a senior officer that Manning’s death was just that:
“It’s over, DuPay. Go work on something else. He’s just another nigger dope dealer who cashed in his chips – so what?”
Angered and astonished by the callous dismissal of a young boy’s life and death, DuPay resolved to work the case on his own. DuPay knew that the boy’s bedroom had not witnessed a suicide, but something more sinister. There were four key pieces of evidence which were screaming “murder!” to Dupay, if to no-one else.
(1) Who shoots themselves through the forehead, and then manages to rearrange their hands to cradle the weapon?
(2) Downstairs on the kitchen table were four empty glasses and half a bottle of whisky. Manning’s mother, Annie Mae, had been at work and came home, only to discover her son’s body. She insisted that alcohol was never allowed in the house. Who, then, were the drinkers?
(3) There were two bullet holes in Zebedee’s room, one in the wall and one in the ceiling. Was this Zebedee practicing, or could they have come from someone firing the gun to frighten him?
(4) DuPay found three car titles in the boy’s room. These are the American equivalent of UK vehicle registration documents, and were commonly used as collateral in drug dealing.
Dupay was convinced that Manning had been killed for some infraction or a bad debt in the violent and ruthless world of those who deal in narcotics. But why were senior officers of the Portland Police Bureau determined to bury the case? Why did Dupay arrive at the office the day after the body had been found, and found that all the details had been wiped from the status board listing ongoing and unsolved cases?
There could only be one logical answer, and it sent an icy chill down DuPay’s spine. Zebedee Manning was dead, because he had been involved in some kind of drug scam which involved officers from the PPB. DuPay’s suspicions were as good as confirmed when he was abruptly busted down from the Homicide division to work in the dog-end department of Burglary. DuPay stuck it out for another few years, but his faith and trust had been irrevocably shattered. By April 1978, he’d had enough:
“I tossed my badge on the Captain’s desk, telling him that I was sick of the job and tired of the hypocrisy of people like him. I told him my health had been suffering and I hated the work, only because I hated some of the people I was forced to work with. I also hated being told that I could not investigate a particular 1975 ‘suicide’ that I knew to be a murder.”
Don DuPay left the police force and found that his skills and experience were in demand elsewhere, in the private sector. His memoir is brimful of stories of brave men trying to confront villainy on mean and dangerous streets. He writes with disgust of people in power who have traded trust for expediency. He exposes a culture deeply embedded in a police force which viewed the folk on the streets as potential enemies at the worst, and at best time wasters and irrelevant small fry. To this day, no-one has been convicted of the killing of Zebedee Manning.
The People vs Alex Cross by James Patterson
I used to be a massive fan of Patterson and his Washington DC profiler Dr Alex Cross, and particularly when he was battling his two most deadly opponents Kyle Craig and Gary Soneji. Recently, though, I have felt that Patterson, particularly with his collaborative novels, has spread himself a bit thin. I am mindful, however, of the massive work he does for charities, and no-one can accuse him of just wanting to make money. This is the first Alex Cross novel I have been sent for a long time, and I am actually looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Dr C, and his regular cast of co-stars. Although the saturnine Gary Soneji is long dead, he still has followers, and it is after a shoot-out with them that Cross finds himself on the wrong side of the court room. The People vs Alex Cross is published by Century, and will be available in all formats on November 2nd. Watch our home page for a full review nearer the time.
Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain
This is the third outing for Dublin copper Inspector Tom Reynolds. He first appeared in With Our Blessing in 2015, and you can read our review of the second in the series, Beneath The Surface by clicking the link. Now Reynolds returns with a case which is brutal, barbarous – and baffling. During the search for a missing woman, a makeshift grave is found near the tourist village of Glendalough, in Wicklow. The medical examiner quickly discounts the body as being that of the missing woman, but then Reynolds and his team make a chilling discovery:
“Somebody had cleared the earth of its natural layer and sown their own flowers.
In five places.
Sleeping Beauties is published by Quercus. If you have a Kindle, you can get hold of a copy now, but if you want the paperback, you will have to wait until 2018. Meanwhile, our full review of the novel will be on our main page within the next few days.
I was lucky enough to receive an invite to Crimenight, an event hosted by Cornerstone, which is part of the Penguin group and one of the most successful commercial imprints in the UK. It was a chance to rub shoulders and swap yarns with some of the biggest names in crime fiction – and a couple of people who have a foot on the first rungs of the ladder.
Back L-R: John Harvey, Phil Redmond, Anthony Horowitz, Tony Parsons, Simon Kernick
Front L-R: Araminta Hall, Selina Walker (Publisher, Century and Arrow), Amy Lloyd, Lisa Jewell
Getting the celebrity name-drop out of the way first, it was brilliant to be able to shake hands and chat with Tony Parsons, one of my favourite current UK crime writers – check out the review of his most recent Max Wolfe novel Die Last, and you can see why. He is a genuinely nice guy and right up at the top of my list. Was I starstruck? Well, yes, just a little, because in addition to Tony, John Harvey, the creator of Charlie Resnick and Frank Elder, was in attendance, as was thriller specialist Simon Kernick, award-winning producer and screenwriter Phil Redmond (Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks look pretty good on his CV),and Lisa Jewell, who has a string of best-selling domestic thrillers like The Third Wife and I Found You under her belt. You can win a copy of her latest, Then She Was Gone, at the end of this feature.
The amazingly versatile Anthony Horowitz was another of the guests who has featured on Fully Booked before. Horowitz, as well as having millions of us glued to the small screen on Sunday nights with his brilliant Foyle’s War series, and writing the best selling Alex Rider novels aimed at young adults, has also written Sherlock Holmes adventures and stand-alone CriFi. Take at a look at our review of The Word Is Murder, his most recent novel.
It was a privilege to talk to two authors who represent the next generation of fine crime writers. Amy Lloyd is from Cardiff, but her debut novel is set far, far away in the badlands of Florida. The Innocent Wife tells the story of a convicted killer whose claims to innocence attract the attentions of the worldwide media – and those of Samantha, a young woman from England. She is obsessed with his case and, after an intense relationship based on letters, she leaves home and marries him. It is only when the campaign for his release is successful that Samantha’s problems begin in a deadly fashion. Amy, by the way, has already won the Daily Mail and Penguin Random House First Novel Competition with The Innocent Wife.
Araminta Hall is no novice author, as she has written successful psychological thrillers such as Everything and Nothing. Her latest novel Our Kind Of Cruelty is due to be published in 2018, and it concerns a couple, Mike and Verity, whose relationship features a deadly game called the Crave. Mike describes the rules:
“The rules of the Crave were very simple. V and I went to a nightclub in a pre-determined place a good way from where we lived, but entered separately. We made our way to the bar and stood far enough apart to seem that we weren’t together, but close enough that I could always keep her in vision.”
Verity basically makes herself very visible, catching the eyes of any lone male who might be interested, and then drawing him into her web with her stunning looks and overt sexuality. Then, the game kicks in:
“We have a signal: as soon as she raises her hand and pulls on the silver eagle she always wears around her neck I must act. In those dark throbbing rooms I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he was doing talking to my girlfriend.”
When the relationship eventually sours, and Verity needs to move, she finds to her cost that the perverse twist in her relationship with Mike cannot be simply cast off like an unwanted piece of clothing.
Lisa Jewell knows a thing or three about locating the strings that pull on a reader’s senses, particularly those of anxiety, sympathy and tension. In Then She Was Gone she tweaks these strings to maximum effect with the story of a woman whose life is shattered when her fifteen year-old daughter disappears without trace or reason. Ten years pass and, while Laurel will never come to terms with Ellie’s disappearance, she has learned to live with the numbness. Her life seems to be taking a turn for the better when she is begins a relationship with an intriguing man called Floyd. The intrigue, however, turns to shock when she meets his young daughter – who is the spitting image of the her missing Ellie.
To win a hardback copy of Then She Was Gone, simply email us at the address below, putting Lisa Jewell in the subject box, or go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post. The winner will be drawn from all entries received. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 8th October. On this occasion, we will be unable to send the prize to the USA due to postal costs.
Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.
There is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.
The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”
This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.
Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.
This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.
The introduction to this feature on Colin Watson,
including a biographical timeline, is here.
Coffin Scarcely Used – the first of The Flaxborough Chronicles – begins with the owner of the local newspaper dead in his carpet slippers, beneath an electricity pylon, on a winter’s night. Throw into the mix an over-sexed undertaker, a credulous housekeeper, the strangely shaped burns on the hands of the deceased, a chief constable who cannot believe that any of his golf chums could be up to no good, and a coffin containing only ballast, and we have a mystery which might be a Golden Age classic, were it not for the fact that Watson was, at heart, a satirist, and a writer who left no balloon of self importance unpricked.
The permanent central character of Inspector Walter Purbright is beautifully named. ‘Purbright’ gives us a sense of sparky intelligence gleaming out from a solid, quintessentially English, impermeable foundation. He is described as a heavy man, with corn coloured hair. He has a deceptively reverential manner when dealing with the aldermen and worthies of Flaxborough, but he is no-one’s fool.
The sheer joy of this book in particular, and the Flaxborough novels in general, is the language. Perhaps it looks back rather than forward, but there are many modern writers who would happily pay homage to the unobtrusive Lincolnshire journalist. Of Mr Chubb, the Chief Constable, Watson observes:
“Not for the first time, he was visited with the suspicion that Chubb had donned the uniform of head of the Borough police force in a moment of municipal confusion when someone had overlooked the fact that he was really a candidate for the curatorship of the Fish Street Museum.”
Of the detecting skills of Sergeant Love, Purbright’s long-suffering subordinate, we learn:
“The sergeant was no adept of self effacing observation. When he wished to see without being seen, he adopted an air of nonchalance so extravagant that people followed him in expectation of his throwing handfuls of pound notes in the air.”
With such an ability to turn a phrase, it is almost irrelevant how the book pans out, but Watson does not let us down. Purbright uncovers a conspiracy involving loose women, a psychotic doctor and a distinctly underhand undertaker – hence the title. Watson himself remains mostly unknown to today’s reading public, but is rightly revered by connoisseurs of crime fiction. He was politically incorrect before the phrase was even invented and, although his pen pictures of self important provincial dignitaries are sharply perceptive, they also portray a fondness for the mundane and the ordinary lives lived beneath the layers of pretension.
There were to be be eleven more Flaxborough novels, and the final episode was Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? It again features Mr Bradlaw, the shamed undertaker from the very first novel. He has served his time for his part in those earlier misdeeds, however, and has returned to Flaxborough, thus giving the series a sense of things having come full circle. In 2011, Faber republished the series digitally, but the Kindle versions are not cheap and you might be better off seeking a secondhand paperback.
In addition to such delightful titles as Broomsticks Over Flaxborough and Six Nuns And A Shotgun (in which Flaxborough is visited by a New York hitman) Watson also wrote an account of the English crime novel in its social context. In Snobbery With Violence (1971), he sought to explore the attitudes that are reflected in the detective story and the thriller. Readers expecting to find Watson reflecting warmly on his contemporaries and predecessors will be disappointed. The general tone of the book is almost universally waspish and, on some occasions, downright scathing.
He is particularly unimpressed by the efforts of writers such as H C McNeile (Sapper), Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (Sax Rohmer) and E W Hornung. Whereas modern commentators might smile indulgently at the activities of Bulldog Drummond, Denis Nayland Smith and Arthur J Raffles, and view them as being ‘of their time’, Watson has none of it. He finds them racist bullies, insuperably snobbish and created purely to pander to the xenophobic and blinkered readership of what we would now call Middle England.
Watson’s apparent contempt for the Public School ethos prevalent in these writers of the first part of the twentieth century seems, at first glance, strange. He was educated at Whitgift School in Croydon, but in his day the school was a direct grant school, meaning that its charter stipulated that it provide scholarships for what its founder, Archbishop John Whitgift, termed,”poor, needy and impotent people” from the parishes of Croydon and Lambeth. The school has been fully independent for many years, but in Watson’s time there may have been an uneasy mix of scholarship boys and those whose wealthy parents paid full fees. Despite Watson and other local lads having gained their places by virtue of their brains, it is quite possible that they were looked down on by the ‘toffs’ who were there courtesy of their parents’ wealth.
As Watson trawls the deep for crime writers, even Dorothy L Sayers doesn’t escape his censure, as he is irritated by Lord Peter Wimsey’s foppishness and tendency to make snide remarks at the expense of the lower classes. Edgar Wallace and E Phillips Oppenheim who, between them, sold millions of novels, are dismissed as mere hacks, but he does show begrudging admiration for the works of the woman he calls ‘Mrs Christie’, despite rubbishing her archetypal English village crime scene, which he scorns as Mayhem Parva. Watson admires Conan Doyle’s clever product placement, Margery Allingham’s inventiveness and ends the book with a reasonably affectionate study of James Bond, although he is less than sanguine about 007’s prowess as a womaniser:
‘The sexual encounters in the Bond books are as regular and predictable as bouts of fisticuffs in the ‘Saint’ adventures or end-of-chapter red herrings in the detective novels of Gladys Mitchell, and not much more erotic.”
In the end, it seems that Watson had supped full of crime fiction writing. Iain Sinclair sought him out in his later years at Folkingham, and wrote
“Gaunt, sharp-featured, a little wary of the stranger on the step, Watson interrupted his work as a silversmith. Eyeglass. Tools in hand. He couldn’t understand where it had all gone wrong. His novels were well-received and they’d even had a few moments of television time, with Anton Rodgers as the detective. The problem was that Watson, lèse-majesté , had trashed Agatha Christie in an essay called ‘The Little World of Mayhem Parva’.
Watson put away his instruments, took me upstairs to the living room. He signed my books, we parted. He was astonished that all his early first editions were a desirable commodity while his current publications, the boxes of Book Club editions, filled his shelves. He would have to let the writing game go, it didn’t pay. Concentrate on silver rings and decorative trinkets.” (Iain Sinclair “Edge of the Orison” Hamish Hamilton 2005.)