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!
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 —
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.
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?
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 Crime, where 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?
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!