Saturday, June 09, 2007

The little world of Mayhem Parva

That's the celebrated title of Colin Watson's celebrated chapter on the classic era of detection ushered in by Agatha Christie. It is here and in succeeding chapters in the final third of Snobbery With Violence that the arguments become more convincing, in large part because the authors Watson discusses are more familiar.

Earlier chapters deal with Sax Rohmer, Sydney Horler, `Sapper' and Edgar Wallace. In the book's later chapters, Watson wrestles with Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Leslie Charteris ("The Saint"), wrapping up with a discussion of that sadistic, retrograde, socially insecure faux snob (Watson's verdict, my words), Ian Fleming. The older writers are easy to lampoon because of their outlandish plots, their cartoonish characters, their racism, and their pandering. But a current reader of Watson's entertaining survey may find the earlier chapters harder to engage with because, I suspect, the authors are little read today (although Edgar Wallace did make it into the blogophere in
this discussion of When the Gangs Came to London last year).

The later chapters also make better reading because the authors under discussion were, for the most part, better, subtler and more sophisticated writers. It's easy to mock E. Phillips Oppenheim's contempt for the working classes, Sydney Horler's weird prudery and anti-Semitism, Sapper's embodiment of ideals akin to those that flowered later in British fascism, and Wallace's inconsistent and wild plots. Authors such as Christie and Sayers, however, leavened their embrace of current attitudes with just enough self-mockery to leave the matter in doubt, according to Watson, and that doubt, he says, could benefit them commercially. Here's a selection from Christie's Cards on the Table followed by Watson's assessment:
"He was tall and thin, his face was long and melancholy, his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet black, he wore a moustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial. His clothes were works of art — of exquisite cut — but with a suggestion of bizarre. Every healthy Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him. They said, with a singular lack of originality: `There's that damned Dago, Shaitana!'
"The passage shows Mrs. Christie's awareness of how widespread in the England of 1936 was xenophobia, her own disapproval of which she implied in the phrase `with a singular lack of originality.' But it would have taken someone with a little more substance than that of the average reader to notice that here was not just another sneer at the foreigner."
Watson offers a number of acute judgments on how post-war crime and thriller writing changed in style while remaining as unrealistic as ever in substance. Fleming and the thriller writers who followed, writes Watson, pulled off the high sleight of hand of making espionage seem realistically exciting: "Into what was still the old-style hokum — the gunplay, kidnapping, chases, escapes and so forth — was elaborately insinuated the proposition that not only were these things happening in very truth, but they were unavoidable ... "

Watson has a lively eye for absurd statements, and his book contains more witticisms than do most works of social and literary history. Here, he takes Kingsley Amis to task for Amis' defense of Fleming against allegations of gratuitous, vicious violence: "More ingenuous was Amis's attempt to counter the sadism charge by quoting two extracts from `the real thing' — the works of Mr Mickey Spillane. This is rather like retorting to a diner who complains of having found slugs on his cabbage that he is lucky not to have gone to the establishment next door, where slugs are served as the main course."

And what, by the way, is Mayhem Parva? Let Watson explain:
The setting for the crime stories by what we might call the Mayhem Parva school would be a cross between a village and commuters' dormitory in the South of England, self-contained and largely self-sufficient. It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors, a village institute, library and shop — including a chemist's where weed killer and hair dye might conveniently be bought. The district would be rural, but not uncompromisingly so — there would be a good bus service for the keeping of suspicious appointments in the nearby town, for instance — but its general character would be sufficiently picturesque to chime with the English suburb dweller's sadly uninformed hankering after retirement to `the country.'
N.B. I complained that Watson's early chapters cited but failed to name any of the rare authors of quality whose books he says suffered because of reviewers' facetious attitudes toward crime stories. Later in the book, he offers highly interesting comments about Anthony Berkely Cox, who "had written in 1930 that the detective story was in the process of developing into the novel with a crime theme, `holding its readers less by mathematical than by psychological ties.'" That seems an astonishingly prescient statement, and Watson says the change did not make itself felt for several years. In the interim, a popular magazine rejected a version of one of Cox's books. "'Life,' commented Cox patiently, `is very, very difficult,' and he went on to write more crime novels that bore a disconcerting resemblance to literature."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I am still surprised every time I read any of the authors from that period. How on earth in the 1950s could I have read their "stuff" without taking note of the racism, anti-Semitism, and extreme jingoism. I put it down to my youth, and the general atmosphere of the time, where these ideas were still so prevalent.

June 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Assuming you were at least as intelligent and sensitive as the average youth of the day, I'd say it was the general atmosphere. And that's Watson's point, though I don't think he argues it as persuasively as he could have: That these authors succeeded so well precisely because they reflected current ideas.

June 11, 2007  

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