Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Seasoned travellers at home


It seems that the first half of the twentieth century was the golden age of the individual amateur traveller, explorer, archaeologist, plant and animal hunter. Transport had become much more efficient and convenient, the British Empire was still in place for a long time and in many places, local governments did not as yet yearn to compete for the glory of geographical and other discovery and the political divisions, though nasty in many places, were under greater control than they are now. Plenty of opportunity, also, for the likes of Colonel Race to go on shooting expeditions in places like Baluchistan.

As we know from various detective stories, many crimes happened on those tours as well, particularly on archaeological digs. If one is to believe Ellis Peters in her Felse novels that remains true decades after that period. But many travellers and explorers survived and came home. What happened then? Well, all too often they became involved in crime, specifically murder, as witnesses, occasionally perpetrators and even victims.

The victim in E. C. R. Lorac's Death Before Dinner, whose body is found at the beginning of chapter three, is Elias Trowne, a traveller and explorer but also a charlatan of some standing and a fecund producer of trashy books on many subjects. Trowne would have been right at home in the exploration with the TV crew mentality of today.

This is what Vardun Comeroy, another and more respectable explorer, writer and scientist and, incidentally, one of the suspects says to Chief Inspector Macdonald:
Trowne might well have been killed in Shanghai or Singapore, or chucjed into the harbour of any easternport. He wasn't. He survived the most improbable risks in places where violence is the norm and met his death in a place which is peaceful and law abiding. He was killed in this place, on an occasion when a group of people were met together all fo whom knew something concerning the parts of the world Trowne wrote about.

Death Before Dinner, published in 1947 is an amusing book with one or two problems, the main one being that all the characters in what becomes the Octagon Club appear at once and it remains very difficult to remember who is who and what they specialize in. But the plot holds up well and there are some delightful digs at the literary world in the repeated reference to the periodical Scrutator, made up of Scrutiny and Spectator, the Central London Library with an extra word and the Literary Review with one word missing.

At the beginning the various travellers (good and fairly well known but not the very top of their profession, which is crucial to the plot) have been summoned to receive the ultimate accolade, a membership of the Marco Polo Club. This turns out to be a hoax but before those present work that out they speculate on what the ritual might be.

Althea Cheriton, a lone sailor, says: 
Someone told me there would be a procession, and the President would arrive in a costume so terrific we should be overcome with awe and amazement. 
To which Basil Leete, a former mountaineer and present day literary agent and reviewer, replies:
I believe there's some hocus pocus with the lights but that's not until after dinner, and this Clube has never condescended to the costume game ...
What could they be discussing and making gentle fun of if not the Detection Club, of which Lorac had been a member since 1937?

I shall return to Death Before Dinner but, first, let us look at some other books in which travellers return from the wild to find themselves embroiled in murder and mayhem at home. There is, for example, Lady Harte in Georgette Heyer's They Found Him Dead, mentioned again in the second book about the Kane/Harte family, Duplicate Death and, above all, there is Georgia Cavendish,who will become for a few years Georgia Strangeways.

She first appears in Thou Shell of Death in an elderly car with bits of luggage tied to various parts of it, with her older brother, a blood hound and a green cockatoo, throws herself into the main character's arms, "her dark, monkey-like face chattering with excitement". A wonderful though slightly incomprehensible image.

She is apparently a well known explorer though her own account of her last expedition from which she is rescued by the airman Fergus O'Brien with both her companions dead on the debit side, shows her to be somewhat incompetent or, at the very least, not very good at thinking ahead.

Fergus O'Brien, the main character of the novel is also a traveller of a kind, a former World War One fighter pilot, responsible for shooting down sixty-four German planes, solo pilot to Australia on a decrepit machine, flying stuntman for a Hollywood film company, a man who took a whole native fort single-handed and, last but not least, rescurer of Georgia Cavendish who had got herself into a mess in the Libyan desert. Surely that counts as traveller if not precisely an explorer.

Julian Symons describes how excited he was when he read Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death, with its title and theme from Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, since then attributed to Thomas Middleton, and its main character Fergus O'Brien, who reminds one of T. E. Lawrence though he is much more likeable. This is Nigel Strangeways's second adventure and in it he is still full of various behavioural quirks, described as amiable but, in fact, varying from mildly amusing to downright irritating. The truth is that, no matter how left-wing C. Day Lewis (a.k.a. Nicholas Blake) might have been, it is clear that the reasons Strangeways gets away with what he describes as good manners by stretching the concept beyond belief is because he is a "gentleman", one of the officer class, as the local Superintendent realizes and the nephew of the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. This does not seem to bother the author at all though he does make mildly ironic comments about Strangeways's other uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Marlinworth. Surprisingly, Julian Symons does not express his disappointment with the politics of the book, finding himself, perhaps, too overwhelmed by the intellectual underpinning. It is a little unusual at any time in the history of the detective story to have, as a main clue, lines from a lesser Elizabethan tragedy.

Norma Harte, wife of Sir Adrian Harte is very different from Georgia Cavendish. One cannot ever imagine her ending up in the sort of pickle that Georgia has to be rescued from (neither can one imagine any of the explorers in Death Before Dinner in that situation) but she, too, bursts onto the scene laden with packages though in a taxi. She is strong-minded, outspoken, very forthright and just a little bit silly. Her first husband was killed in the First World War (the book takes place in 1937), her second husband loves her in his own etiolated sort of way and her two sons adore her in a highly exasperated sort of way, at least in the second book as the younger boy, Timothy is too young to have any emotions but those of a teenage boy in the first one.

There is murder and mayhem in Thou Shell of Death, which is really a double locked room mystery with an ingenious solution that might actually work (unlike the solutions of some of my favourite John Dickson Carr books). There is also murder and mayhem in They Found Him Dead with Lady Harte repeatedly urging Superintendent Hannasyde not to spare her feelings as she has knocked around the world and seen most things. Despite her lack of sensitivity she is a little shocked by the cold-blooded brutality of the killer who is, from the point of view of the reader, the only possible person.

In Duplicate Death, very much a post-war novel that takes place thirteen years after the first one, Lady Harte is mentioned a great deal but does not appear. She it is who sends her elder son, Jim Kane, to sort out the younger's love life. Jim arrives the morning after Timothy had been present at a bridge party during which a rather nasty person had been killed and their old acquaintance Sergeant Hemingway, now "masquerading" under the title of Chief Inspector is investigating.

Lady Harte has to be kept informed and placated though she appears to be more interested in Timothy's intended than the rather vulgar murder mystery. She is also an off-stage source of a great deal of information about the various society characters, relayed by Timothy.

Heyer had an excellent sense of dates and timing, probably because she was primarily a writer of historical novels and the progression of her two young men, Jim Kane and Timothy Harte between the two novels is entirely accurate.

By the end of the novel Lady Harte has found out that Timothy's intended, Beulah, has had the "rawest of raw deals" and has been
seized by crusading fervour, and was not only determined to spread the mantle of her approval over but was already formulating stern, and rather alarming, plans to bring her [Beulah's] late employer to belated justice ...
But, at least, she has stopped travelling. The reason is, of course, the war though one would like to know what happened to her plan, announced in They Found Him Dead of standing for Parliament. Wars do interrupt travel and exploration. In Duplicate Death we find out that
Timothy shared with his half-brother the ineradicable conviction that the Second World War had been inaugurated by providence to put an end to their beloved but very trying parent's passion for exploring remote quarters of the globe.
Luckily for their if not other people's peace of mind she does not resume her travels in the post-war period. Georgia Strangeways who appears in several books and has an adventure all by herself when she pursues and is pursued by a Nazi group in Smiler With the Knife, is killed during the Blitz, while driving an ambulance. But most of the travellers and explorers of Death Before Dinner resume their normal state of peregrination after the war, undeterrred by the changing political situation.

Despite the weakness of Death Before Dinner mentioned above, it has a good plot that actually hangs together (not always the case with Lorac's books) and the clues, as they so often are with this author are there in personality and, above all, living conditions. The story takes place in 1947, during the first post-war fuel crisis and the ongoing housing crisis, which was considerably worse than anything politicians might mention now. The characters, returned travellers and explorers, however, are in a position to have reasonably comfortable billets though only one of them chooses to do so and therein lies the main clue. The others live in attractive but functional rooms that are clearly temporary abodes whence they might take off at any minute, unless murder and mayhem prevents them from doing so or gets them fascinated with detection. Those tough, strong-minded individuals fall for the lure of clue-hunting just like ordinary human beings and make the same mistakes. One even gets coshed for his pains.

 This is a very superficial survey of returning travellers who become embroiled with crime. I have even resisted the lure of discussing various wanderers in Christie's books who come home and come up against the stay-at-home siblings. One never knows which one will turn out to be a criminal and whether everyone is who they say they are. Then there is the completely different category of people who return (allegedly) from the war to claim this, that and the other. They might be who they seem but then again, they might not. All that is for another blog.

2 comments:

  1. I read the Heyers and the Blake many years ago, and now want to re-read the mentioned books. Have never really got on with Lorac...

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  2. Two of my favourite mysteries and frequent rereads are They Found Him Dead and Duplicate Death. Especially the latter, with an interesting portrait of post-war London society.

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