Having read both Quick Curtain (1934) and Death of Anton (1936), which won my Book of the Month title last month, I was keen to track down other novels by Melville. With such a title, Warning to Critics: A Murder Committed by Alan Melville (1936), where the actual is criminally implicated in the title, I knew I was going to be in for something different this time. This novel is also known as The Critic on the Hearth, but I don’t think that is as a good a title. Thankfully the novel begins with a foreword which to an extent suggests how the novel will go. This was especially helpful as instead of a blurb on the back cover of my edition, I seemed to have an advert for toothpaste. Unsurprisingly this is a rather metafictional, but not autobiographical novel with Alan Melville becoming the first person narrator and therefore a character in his own novel. But as to how successful this experiment is, I will discuss later.
The foreword outlines how Melville the character (who I will refer to as the narrator from now on to make everything a lot less confusing), loved writing ever since he was a child when he wrote a romance involving a Count from Calais and a village girl called Ruth who marry and have a honeymoon in Wolverhampton. Of course already Melville’s love for the absurd is apparent – whoever heard of a Count coming from Calais? However, the foreword then shifts on to his work as an adult writer, still romances, but not very successful, which is not helped by the fact that his work is consistently criticised in the harshest of terms by the newspaper reviewer Jonathan Gray. Not only does Gray’s reviews reduce his income as a writer, but it also makes him a laughing stock to his neighbours and friends and at the start of the novel, they are a strong reason for his wife leaving him. All of this brings the narrator to his limits and he therefore decides to kill and does kill Jonathan Gray:
‘I killed Jonathan Gray… carefully, cleverly, and systematically, just as he had killed each of my works… This book, at any rate, will not be subject to the stupid criticisms of Jonathan Gray; I have no doubt that at this very minute he is peevishly criticising the ventilation facilities in hell. And if there should be any who show signs of stepping into a dead man’s shoes and criticising this book as Jonathan Gray criticised my others, I do not think I would hesitate to kill again…’
The plan is to murder Gray in such a way as to make it look like suicide and the location will be at the lecture Gray is giving in the narrator’s neighbourhood. Running up to the crime the narrator is meticulous in his plotting, working hard to establish an alibi and leave no incriminating traces, leading him to become almost overconfident in his abilities:
‘Really, I think I ought to have taken up writing these horrible detective mystery novels instead of doing the high class stuff like the Sewer Saga.’
This is a classic example of Melville turning the humour against the narrator juxtaposing ‘high class stuff’ with his massively inappropriately titled romance trilogy ‘Sewer Saga’. The day for murder finally arrives and it seems as though everything is going relatively smoothly, despite several comic incidents involving mistaken identities and a very enthusiastic pamphleteer for a spiritual movement called Change and necessitates followers confessing at rallies a lot:
‘I remember a girl friend of mine who Changed at Clapham some months ago – ’
‘At the Junction?’
Moreover, in true Golden Age fashion the victim, Jonathan Gray, is depicted in a typically unlikeable way, being rude and pedantic at the lecture and rather anti-climatically in his scruffy appearance. By the next morning though he is found shot and the narrator naively thinks he can relax, having done a job well done. But like Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931), the ensuing weeks of silence, gossip and police investigation begin to fray the narrator’s nerves, with his own wife becoming suspicious of him. He finds it hard to write and his dreams become a kaleidoscope of his past actions, becoming disturbing and muddled. At first it seems every is going his way with the newspaper reporting Gray’s suicide. But his confidence in his perfect crime quickly begins to erode as loose ends and clues start appearing, edging him closer and closer into the frame for murder.
The narrator’s trial occupies a large amount of the story and is an opportunity for Melville to expose the hypocrisy and unreliability of the supposedly respectable witnesses, the misinterpretations of newspaper reports, which are always trying to make everything sensational and the vagaries of the individual jury members, chalking up which think him guilty and which innocent. As the trial progresses the evidence swings for and against him and it seems almost up to the roll of a dice whether he will get off… or is it? A mindful reader will probably have spotted a line earlier in the novel which indicates how things will go and in a way I think that is one of the things which spoilt it. With Francis Iles there is the final twist, the last surprise, which leaves you gasping, whereas with Melville it seems it’s the journey to the end that matters, not the end itself.
But that is exactly the problem I have with it. The journey itself is not up to Melville’s usual incredibly high standard. Those familiar with his work, which the British Library has begun to reprint this year will know how humour pervades every pore of his stories in all forms and variations from satire and wit to slapstick and the absurd. But in Warning to Critics… this is not as consistent in quantity or quality, though perhaps has a cathartic effect for other authors reading it, who have also suffered at the hands of critics). I think this inconsistency is down to the type of narration, as in his other works I have read he uses the third person, which is detached and separate from the characters and the action of the plot, making it easy to satirise and make fun of them. However, I believe this becomes harder in this novel due to it being in the first person as the narrator is intimately connected to everything which is happening making it hard to tell the story and sustain the humour and satire and I think it does have the potential of making the narrator come across as bitter at points, especially at the beginning.
I did enjoy this book though, with some great bits of humour and excellent minor characters such as the solicitor Mr Puddlefoot and the narrator’s mother in law:
‘She always spoke like that – jerking out each sentence like a chameleon shooting out its tongue to catch flies. Or a viper… yes, when you come to think of it, much more like a viper than a chameleon. Chameleon’s do change, and Janet’s mother stayed regrettably put.’
But I just don’t think this was Melville strongest work and despite being an interesting experiment I don’t think the why/how dunnit is the arena in which Melville’s talent and skills can shine at their brightest, particularly in the first person. I think this is a novel which improves as it progresses, although I think the ending could have been improved by being more dramatic. I suppose I have been stricter on this novel because I know how amazing Melville can write such as with Death of Anton, which set my expectations much higher. I wouldn’t not recommend this novel but I think a first time reader of Melville should start either with Quick Curtain or Death of Anton.