THE ENGLISH VILLAGE, IN TRANSLATION

It’s a new month and, therefore, time for a new subject for the Tuesday Night Bloggers! All through December, we will explore different aspects of – let’s call it, “the foreign mystery.” This can encompass writers who embark on an excursion to other climes with their books or just a discussion of mysteries we have read in translation and the effect that it has on us. Thanks to Bev for the really cool cover design!

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I thought it might be fun for this American to talk about that staple setting of British mystery, the village. I have always loved British village mysteries, for a number of reasons. First, I live in California, and we don’t have villages. Oh, there are many small towns, some of them quite charming. There are cities of various sizes and character. Mostly, we live in suburbs, which possess very little character (although some of them try!) But a village is an entity unto itself. It has a look about it: the winding High Street, the shoppes, (not mere shops – there’s a difference!), the lanes that lead to charming cottages and meander through murky woods, the footbridge spanning the river, the great driveway leading to the mansion that houses the local squire and his quarrelsome family. The village possesses a social community like no other, small and closed – just like the cast of a good mystery should be – where everybody knows your name! Villagers hold their hometown close to their hearts. Each citizen has a distinctive personality and contribution to make to village life. Of course, it all looks way too good: pull back the surface, and you expose a viper’s nest of pride, envy, and pettiness. You need the power struggles, the class warfare, and the suspicion of newcomers to spark a juicy murder! In fact, the village was the perfect microcosm of a world that, at least temporarily, has lost its balance due to sudden death and, with the help of a devoted policeman or visiting sleuth, is restored to perfect harmony. That is the hallmark of a Golden Age mystery!

My entry into GAD was through Agatha Christie, the true doyenne of the English village crime. Yes, she set many of her novels in London, and some of the best take place across the sea (more about that next week!) But at least half of her novels take place in a village, and many of these – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Murder at the Vicarage, Murder Is Easy, The Moving Finger, A Murder Is Announced, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side – good titles all, not only take place in a village but depend largely on the unique character of village life to inform the mystery plot. The other British writers I read are the same way: Ngaio Marsh was at her best when her novels were village-based. Ditto Christianna Brand. John Dickson Carr really knew his way around a village —

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Except, of course, Carr was, of all things, an American writer who excelled at writing mysteries that were totally British in sensibility. Carr had done his research: he moved to England, lived there for many years, and even married an Englishwoman. In my youth, I don’t think I even understood that Carr had been born and raised in Pennsylvania, and I remember reading Dark of the Moon, set in Charleston, North Carolina, and marveling at how well Carr had grasped American culture and idioms. (He was a resident of Charleston at the time!) Carr had a gift with atmosphere, whether he was describing London in The Three Coffins or the countryside of Kent in The Crooked Hinge.

Have other foreign authors managed to successfully depict the English village? Since I have become a blogger, I have read a number of books by two authors who hail from foreign lands yet chose to set their mysteries in jolly old England. I thought I would take a brief look at both of them today and see how well they did.

NORMAN BERROW

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In her article about her step-grandfather, New Zealand author Norman Berrow, (which can be found in the March 2016 issue of CADS), Prue Mercer quotes famed poet and mystery fan W.H. Auden:

“If I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity – the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England.)”

Berrow took this advice to heart and set a great many of the twenty novels he wrote between 1934 and 1957 in English villages. So far, my experience reading Berrow encompasses his series featuring Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, all set in the environs of Winchingham (pronounced “Wincham”), a rural English village, and Berrow captures the flavor of such places perfectly. Yet despite being born in Sussex, Berrow moved to New Zealand as a child and spent most of his life in Christchurch. Mercer says,

“Christchurch was ideal for transforming into a rural English village. Over three-quarters of his books were written there. It was regarded as the most English New Zealand city. It was carefully planned with a central city square, four complementing smaller squares and surrounding parklands.”

It worked! Berrow employs various locations in and around Christchurch, such as the botanical gardens, as settings for his Smith series, as well as the four books featuring Fleur and Michael Revel, a married sleuthing couple based on Berrow and his wife. Berrow describes setting masterfully and makes wonderful use of it in crafting his mysteries. The Three Tiers of Fantasy, involving three interconnected impossible crimes in as many settings, takes us through good and bad neighborhoods, fine houses, shady inns and seedy warehouses, painting a sharp picture of British country life. The author goes one better in The Footprints of Satan, which takes time to establish the village through the wanderings of Gregory Cushing and his uncle Jake Popplewell before plunging us into the mystery – and then taking us carefully through the village again. Over the course of five novels, we really get to know the village of Winchingham, through humor-laden descriptions like this from Footprints:

“In the valley of the miniature river Winch on the other side of the rise lies Steeple Thelming, which is itself a mystery in that Steeple Thelming is more a geometrical figure than a geographical place. it is a location without being a settlement. there has never been a steeple there within the memory of man — except the Steeple Inn, which doesn’t really count — and no one has any idea of the meaning of the word ‘thelming’.”

Berrow has the talent to bring to life the British village in all its glorious eccentricity, and it must be said that he does have the advantage of having been to England and is well versed in the mother tongue.What happens when the attempt to create the consummate British village mystery stems from the pen of a writer from another culture altogether?

PAUL HALTER

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Some folks may grumble at my decision to discuss Paul Halter here. My relationship with him has been consistently problematical, and my dogged efforts to find something to love has prompted others to suggest, not without reason, that perhaps I should leave well enough alone already. But I do not listen, which is how I have found myself a third of the way through John Pugmire’s latest translation of a halter novel, 1996’s L’arbre aux doigts tordus (which should be translated as The Tree with Twisted Branches but has instead been given the English title The Vampire Tree). Things are not going well. I have serious issues with the plot, the paper-thin characters, even the translation itself, which seems oddly stilted.

Thus, I concede that I am not the person to turn to if you are curious about Halter, although I will say that, having stumbled through this one and The Invisible Circle, it has made me appreciate the much more effective The Demon of Dartmoor and Death Invites You. If you lay Halter and Berrow side by side, both have their strengths and their challenges: in terms of the impossible crime aspect both tend to specialize in, I find Berrow’s hooks charming, but his solutions have a tendency to fizzle at the end; Halter’s set-ups tend to shock and excite, and the final reveal can be extremely effective – if it doesn’t collapse into ludicrousness. Berrow has a greater facility with language and description, and sometimes this makes his books feel a bit long (I don’t really mind since the language captivates). Halter’s books are often too short because, like his mentor John Dickson Carr, he only tells or shows you what he feels you need to see in order to get the mystery going.

At his wonderful blog site At the Scene of the Crimewhere Halter’s life and work truly are appreciated, Patrick Ohl has done us the great service of translating an interview that Halter gave to French writer Roland Lacourbe. (I include a link to Part I here, which describes the writers who influenced Halter. You can then follow the site to Part II, in which Halter discusses his work, and while at the blog, you can read many fine reviews by Patrick of Halter’s novels, most of them not translated from the French at this time. The descriptions make you want to read them now!)

One can’t help but be moved by Halter’s love for British detective fiction. He started as a teen, reading Agatha Christie’s entire canon in a matter of five years or so and eventually found his way to John Dickson Carr, whose writing and focus on impossible crimes Halter loved so much that his own work is very much homage to Carr’s output. When Halter describes the difference between Christie and Carr, you can see how much he gets both authors. His initial plan was for his own novels to continue the exploits of Dr. Gideon Fell, but the heirs to the Carr estate requested he desist, so he invented Dr. Alan Twist . . . basically Dr. Fell after a diet.

I was pleased when Halter expressed his opinion that Christie is better (more subtle at least) with characterization than Carr and thus his preference for Carr weakens his own characterizations. Both men focus on the plot first, working out the exigencies of each impossible crime, adding layers of atmosphere, including references to past crimes and/or supernatural phenomena. So why do I buy all this virtually every time I pick up Carr but have such trouble accepting the same situations as described by Halter?

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Halter never presents a complete picture of a village, as if it’s almost too much trouble to talk about places not relevant to the story. All we really get in The Fourth Door is the street where sits two houses facing each other, the scene of the crimes. The same happens with The Tiger’s Head. Other books may add a pub where Dr. Twist can throw back a beer with Inspector Hurst. (The pub figures more prominently in The Crimson Fog and The Demon of Dartmoor, but that is only because it has to for plot purposes.) Aside from the well-wrought setting in The Demon of Dartmoor, there is a depressing sameness between every sketched-in Halter village. In a Halter mystery, any layering of detail concerns the plot alone. In typical Halter fashion, The Vampire Tree deals with a “present day” (1950) serial killer of children that seems linked to a past crime involving a high strung woman and one of the ancestors of the current leading man (I couldn’t tell you the date of this set of events, maybe 20-30 years previously?), and there’s also a third plotline about the killing of a witch-slash-vampire in “olden times” (again, not sure of the date). It’s all linked to a gnarly old tree that creaks and twists in the wind, its limbs banging on the bedroom window – to the point where I’m baffled as to why nobody has chopped that sucker down, just so they could get some sleep. Seriously, the tree remains standing because otherwise there would be no plot, rather than there being some sense of its importance to the town or the characters.

They say you should write what you know; however, as well read as Halter is, I can’t find any information to suggest that he has spent much time in England, soaking up the scenery. He very well may have, or he may feel that, since his work takes place in the distant past and is meant to evoke a fantasy of the Golden Age, he wouldn’t get much out of a visit to present-day England. I wonder if he is relying too much on his memories of reading Christie, Carr and their ilk. Might Halter not do better by setting his mysteries in French villages, or would that defeat the purpose of his homage to Carr? Is there something akin to a “French sensibility”, through which Halter’s writing is filtered, that I’m just not able to grasp through translation? That puts a tremendous pressure on John Pugmire, and I would love to ask him about his process when he begins his work. It has to be more than a matter of translating words. There are moods and tone to consider. How does he make his choices? Why do I find Pugmire’s alteration of the title in translation so troubling? Are Americans more likely to grab a book just because it has the word “vampire” in the title? Do choices like this permeate the entire book, and if so, how much does that effect my enjoyment, or lack of it, of Halter’s work?

Those who admire Halter focus on the mechanics of the crime, which, based on the interview, is exactly where Halter wants them to focus. As with Carr, these plots vary in quality, but some of them are very clever indeed. Still, I almost wish I could see what Halter might do attempting to merge the elements of classic detection with a greater sense of Gallic history, style and charm rather than merely mimic from memory of his favorite books the classic British setting. It brings up the question, though: if Halter attempted such a thing, would it be even more likely to get lost in the translation? I’d better brush up on my French!

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16 thoughts on “THE ENGLISH VILLAGE, IN TRANSLATION

  1. “I couldn’t tell you the date of this set of events, maybe 20-30 years previously?”
    Actually the events took place towards ‘the end of last century’ (see page 50 of kindle edition)
    Also, the present year is 1958 which can be deduced from the following:
    1. Patricia lost her parents during the blitz of 1940 when she was 5 or 6 years old. (page 71)
    2. She is now 24 years old (page 8)
    3. The date heading of chapter 1 is Friday, May 23. This is true for 1958.
    Also, the killing of the witch took place 4 centuries back (page 74)

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    1. Much obliged, Santosh! I’m finding it increasingly difficult to navigate back and forth on these Kindle editions, but that all makes sense. Doesn’t make the book good, though! 🙂

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  2. The one thing to remember when discussing Halter is that he is French and we French are a very peculiar lot, especially when it comes to crime fiction, and that’s one of the reasons why the English-speaking market eludes us. French crime writers, even the most “orthodox” ones, have no interest in the kind of foolproof, solidly constructed plots so prized in the anglosphere, which they find dry and dull. They prize imagination over reason and their books must be judged accordingly. Halter’s plots make little sense from a purely rational viewpoint but that has never been his aim anyway. His books must be read like fantasies, not treatises in detection.
    As to the setting – well, that’s how the French have always seen England and probably always will. French anglophilia is every bit as stereotypical and idealized as American francophilia, and baffling to the people who know the real thing. There is no shortage of books and films that purport to show how England really was/is, but you can’t change a dream, especially when it’s so engrained. Halter might indeed opt for a French setting but there is a widespread feeling among Gallic mystery fans (including myself) that France is not a natural setting for a traditional mystery. I’ve read many great GA or GA-like mysteries set in France and some of them were very good but somehow they felt out of place; also the French judicial system is decidedly not glamour and doesn’t allow for the intervention of amateur sleuths. So I can see why Halter sticks to his cardboard English villages.

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    1. Xavier, writing this post was worth it just for your response. The chance to learn truths about other cultures, rather than harbor a bunch of stereotypical tropes about them, is why we all should talk to each other. You may have elucidated perfectly why I have such problems with Halter’s work. On the other hand, most French films I watch evoke such feeling, even when the plots are far less structured than American movies, because of how French filmmakers give vent to their imaginations. Many thanks for writing.

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  3. Before I’d even read Xavier’s excellent comment above, I was wondering myself how much of these differences is down to cultural interpretation — from New Zealand to the English countryside feels like so much less of a conceptual leap even if not a geographic one, and I can’t help but wonder if the aphorism about familiarity and comtempt holds true: with little old England just across the channel, isn’t it more likely you’d invent a version of it yourself rather than check it out and see how accurate you were?

    Berrow, able to read fluently in English about English things from English authors is far more likely to have a feel for the place, and it really does show — Winchingham, though its geography alters significantly from The Bishop’s Sword to The Footprints of Satan (did I know you’d read that, btw? Will we get a review? Very eager to hear what yoju made of it…) does feel like a place people live in and we’re given a chance to understand. The time spent just setting everyone and everything up for the first 20-odd pages of TFoS is crucial in that regard.

    You’re spot on about Halter’s villages, too — they’re frequently a pub, a couple of houses (The Fourth Door is a particularly unusual setup, isn’t it?), maybe a train station. I always feel there’s a certain atmosphere coming from the translations, but how much of that is die to explicit description must now be questioned…!

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  4. Oh dear, I had high hopes for the new Halter novel, and purchased it the moment it was released. Xavier’s comment was very helpful, and I think it explains my enjoyment of Halter’s works so far – I’ve found his characters and settings forgiveable vis-a-vis the complexity of his imagination. When I was reading Noel Vindry’s ‘Howling Beast’, I did wonder for a moment if what has been perceived as Halter’s ‘weaknesses’ could be attributed to the cultural confines he operates within.

    I love a good village mystery, and I think nobody does it better than Agatha Christie, in terms of balancing the setting, the characters and the mystery. 😀

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    1. John, it’s my curse that I really want to love at least one Halter and surprise every one of his fans with a rave review. Who knows – it might happen someday, but alas, not with Vampire Tree.

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  5. Another peculiarity of French crime fiction that sets it apart from the English-language variant is the relatively minor importance of the “Who”, the focus most often being on the “Why” and the “How”. French crime writers don’t aim for Christie-like shock revelations; there is usually a very limited pool of suspects and the culprit is often obvious for anyone paying attention. What matters to them is rather to create an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary problem and then come up with an imaginative, if not always plausible, solution. That’s one of the reasons why impossible crimes have been and remain so popular with French GA-minded crime writers. Also, French crime writers don’t see their craft as a game of wits between them and the reader so they don’t always “play fair”. JFW is right: what English-speaking readers see as the “weaknesses” of Halter (or Vindry) is just a different culture with a different approach to the genre. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

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    1. Frankly, I don’t pay as much attention to the “fair play” aspect of impossible crime novels (whatever culture they come from) because I just don’t think spatially or mechanically enough to follow how the murders were committed. (The Tiger’s Head is a great example of this, and the murder of the Major reflects the method in Carr’s The Three Coffins for the first murder. I’m not a visual thinker that way. This is why I love the impossible crimes in Christie: they must be considered inferior to Carr and his ilk, but the situations surrounding them are conceivable to my thinking.

      The point I’m making is that my problems with Halter don’t really stem from whether or not he is fair play; I know he often is NOT. It’s other stuff that I’ve gone on way too often about. It really helps to understand the cultural system on which Halter is basing his creativity.

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  6. Interesting that you mentioned that Paul Halter in his books doesn’t present a complete picture of an English village “as if it’s almost too much trouble to talk about places not relevant to the story”. This worries me as someone who loves to write and set stories in England but I feel like I don’t have a complete picture of 1930s or 1940s England as I would like. I don’t have the luxury or opportunity to live or soak up the English setting and countrysides as John Dickson Carr did. But I would love to soak up as much of England during that time period as I can so I can write convincingly. I want to have that gift of atmosphere and description just as Carr did and not sound as if I don’t know what I’m talking about. I want to write descriptions that make Britain come alive. Reading this makes me worry tremendously because if you can spot the problem with Halter’s works, then many other writers could possibly spot this problem with my stories.

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    1. I think writers disobey the juncture to “write what you know” all the time, many with great success. I haven’t met or talked to Halter and can’t say for sure what’s on his mind. I do think he works on creating a mood more than a setting. Since he’s writing “Golden Age” type stuff, I imagine that he expects his readers to insert their own vision of the English village from other readings. Halter keeps his descriptions minimal and his casts small. I think he did a good job evoking setting in The Demon of Dartmoor, but place was extremely important to the mystery there.

      Visiting the settings of the stories that we write would be wonderful. Given the wealth of materials at our fingertips these days, I don’t believe it’s a necessity to creating effective writing.

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      1. Do you think I could still get a good sense of the locations and countrysides of England without going there and still write them convincingly, accurately, and lively?

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  7. That’s a little like me asking if you think I could invent cheese. You don’t know anything about my churning abilities – or even if I have a cow.

    Since you’ve never been to an English village, I have to assume you want to write about one because you have read a lot of stories set in villages and are especially drawn to them. Read a lot more of them. There are pictures galore of English villages from all sorts of times in the past 80 years. Look at a lot of them. Is THAT what you thought a village looked like? Watch movies set in villages – there are plenty of those about. Do your best to soak in the local color, only through a distance. That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

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    1. I guess it’s possible to write a convincing, accurate, and lively picture of an English village even if I never went there. And I guess it’s possible to write sparse descriptions of a village (the appearance of one) like Agatha Christie did and still evoke images of one in the reader’s mind without resorting to long, drawn-out descriptions.

      You said that Paul Halter never presents a complete picture of a village. How would you want Halter to present a complete picture in his books?

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