To conclude the Tuesday Night’s bloggers’ final week looking at history and mystery I decided to borrow an idea Moira at the blog Clothes in Books came up with. This idea was to compare a story written contemporary to a given time with a story written much later, but set in the same period. Sufficiently intrigued by the idea I decided to give it a go choosing The Sunken Sailor (2004), a Malice Domestic round robin novel, contributed to by 14 authors and is described as being set in the 1930s. Only three authors from the contributors’ list were familiar: Anne Perry who writes the introduction, Edward Marston and Simon Brett. Not quite having the time to read a full length country house mystery novel from the 1930s I decided to look at some of Agatha Christie’s Mr Quin country house short stories, which were collectively published then, as well as briefly touching on some other mystery novels of the 1930s.
The Sunken Sailor – The Plot
The events of the book take place during a weekend house party at Castle Crawsbey, owned by the Dowager Duchess of Faughstrayne. There is an odd assortment of guests ranging from familiar faces such as the family solicitor Roderick Benfleet and Sir Gerald Hawksmoor, who is still battling with the consequences of his WW1 experiences, to comparative strangers such as the American Admiral Cornelius Brandon and his son, Whitchell, the Russian refugee Countess Katerina Boronskaya and Mr Da Silva. However, the oddness does not just rest with the guests, as the Dowager herself is a little unusual and it is said that you must never mention her husband who died in mysterious circumstances 5 years ago, nor her son, the current Duke, who is somewhere in South America. Death strikes in the middle of the first night of the party, with the Admiral being found in the famous fountain tied underneath a maritime themed statue. The mystery setup is very intriguing with a number of suspicious circumstances, including a clumsy servant, an unidentifiable whistler of sea shanties, as well as the fact that the admiral died of poisoning not drowning. Suspicion easily attaches to many of the guests and family members, especially once a damning list and photographs are uncovered in the Admiral’s room. Constable Nettle and DCI Reggie Arbuthnot are the police investigators, whilst Hawksmoor is our amateur sleuth.
An intermission in the expected programme entitled: A Rant
Now the plot you have just read will seem quite normal and familiar, though you expect there to be some surprises along the way. Now sometimes novels are disappointing when there is insufficient surprise, such as Deadly Beloved (1952) by John Stephen Strange. The opposite is the case here, as my resulting disappointment and confused irritation came from the fact that every conceivable twist and surprise is thrown into this novel. Being a comedic novel you can expect the writers to play around with conventions, yet the writers here have done this to the extent that they have failed to remember that a book also needs to be an enjoyable read. Trying to cope with a country house murder mystery which morphs into a Le Carre novel on speed does not come under this remit. There were a number of interesting threads and surprises which I liked, yet because these were merely few of the many surprises and twist going on, they were not exploited effectively and the plot sunk under the weight of it all. There were far too many conspiracies and false identities, with a plethora of characters being undercover for different purposes, as well mind altering drugs, detective traumas, bigamy and goodness knows what else. So in the end the story just became a farce and not an enjoyable one at that. I enjoy pastiches and parodies of crime fiction, but this one felt overstocked, too artificial and ridiculous, to the extent the book began to make little sense. I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole and hit my head when I got to the bottom when reading this book and I don’t blame one of the characters going near mad at the end as I was about to join them!
*breathes* And now back to our scheduled programme…
The Sunken Sailor vs. 1930s Mystery Novels
Before beginning this section I think it pertinent to say that at this point I was wondering whether a parody/pastiche of a 1930s country house mystery novel was the best sort of book to use in such a comparison as this. However in a penny in for a pound I decided to give it a go anyways…
One of the first things I noticed when comparing The Sunken Sailor to country house mysteries of the 1930s was how they differed in their treatment of the past. I felt in The Sunken Sailor, characters such as the Dowager especially, live and act as though they are in the past, which is reinforced by the declining nature of the castle most of the book takes place in. This treatment of the past to me was more in keeping with post WW2 mystery novels, such as After the Funeral (1953) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), where characters are nostalgic and consider the possibilities yet ultimately realise the futilities of trying to recreate and maintain the past. In contrast in country house mysteries from the 1930s such as Christie’s ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ ‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’ and ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ characters note the differences between the current generation and then their own, yet accepting this difference as normal. There is no sense of things becoming stationery which is more felt in The Sunken Sailor, in which its’ characters don’t look forward.
Class is an issue which comes up in both The Sunken Sailor and the 1930s mysteries I looked at. In the case of The Sunken Sailor, due to being a parody this came across as a very Downton Abbey like feel, which can be seen in Hawksmoor’s first response on finding a dead body:
‘Sir Gerald did what any gentleman would do in such a situation. He returned to the Library and rang for the butler.’
Hawksmoor in the beginning of the novel in particular also judges and assesses the other guests based on their clothes and whether they suggested a lack of refinement, such as in the case of Whichell or whether they suggested a lower social class, such as with the family solicitor. I don’t think these moments made Hawksmoor always that likeable, which I felt contrasted with Christie’s Mr Satterthwaite in the Mr Quin stories, who is also a figure who assesses the characters’ on the readers’ behalf, yet does it in a less unkind way. Moreover, the surmises of his assessments are less forced upon the reader. One thing which causes quite a furore in The Sunken Sailor, is Lady Amelia’s romantic interests in the local constable, as characters such as Hawksmoor think the constable beneath her station. I couldn’t really think of any similar passages from 1930s books I have read, though it did make me think of Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister who marries Inspector Parker.
One parallel I did find though between The Sunken Sailor and mysteries from the 1930s was the inclusion of racial prejudices, in particular making judgemental remarks on how a non-British person acts or dresses. In The Sunken Sailor, Hawksmoor mentally disparages Da Silva for ‘the flashiness of his dress [, which…] instantly … marked him out as a foreigner… [and] another betrayal – as if any were needed – of Mr Da Silva’s origins and lack breeding was the fact that he used his hands when he spoke.’ This type of comments reminded me of novels such as Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936), where similar comments are made about Mr Shaitana.
Golden age detective fiction is traditionally viewed as occurring between the two world wars, so therefore it is not surprising that such novels often include characters who have been negatively affected by WW1. Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series comes to mind here. So on the face of it there is a parallel between these mysteries and The Sunken Sailor, as within the first few pages of the book we are made aware of Hawksmoor’s physical and emotional injuries from the war. Yet something which I felt was off key was a comment the Dowager makes to Hawksmoor later on in the book:
‘…sit down. You make one think of cadavers – stiff as a board and grim-faced into the bargain. I suppose you’ll claim it’s due to the dicky leg, hip or whatever it is you brought home from the war – but really, Gerry, the war has been over for years… and still you persist in looking like something the mortuary forgot. It’s no wonder Amelia refuses to marry you. There’s never the least suggestion of blood in your veins.’
It could just be me being hyper-sensitive but part of me did wonder whether a book from the 1930s would have disparaged a war veteran in so blunt a manner. If anyone can remember such an instance (which will probably come from a book I have read and forgotten about) let me know.
A difference I was more sure about was how writers in The Sunken Sailor were more overt about sexuality, having a transvestism thread in the book, which I don’t think writers of the 1930s would have included or at least not so demonstrably. This also ties into the difference I felt there was between the type of secrets the characters’ had, as looking at ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ ‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’ and ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ there seems to be a greater recourse to having single or married characters in love with a married person. This may well be due to writers from 1930s being more restricted in how scandalous their characters’ secrets were and how explicit they could be in describing them.
One thing I have often noted in modern fiction set in the past is that writers tend to have more overt setting descriptions, perhaps due to thinking that the readers need these to recreate the past more effectively. In contrast I think mysteries set contemporary to publication don’t use setting descriptions in the same way and in ‘Harlequin’s Lane,’ I think mentions of furniture are used less to set the scene and more to say something about the owners of such furniture and their marriage. Thinking about the setting of The Sunken Sailor more specifically, I was interested by how the castle is in decline and is rather run down or suffering from ‘genteel neglect.’ This interested me not necessarily because it is a familiar setting, but because I felt it was a setting which fitted less with the 1930s and more with post WW2 mysteries (though I could be wrong of course). Examples of post WW2 mysteries using run down country homes as their setting are easy to come up with such as Joanna Canaan’s Murder Included (1950), Cyril Hare’s An English Murder and Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield. Consequently I felt the country home in decline was less of a preoccupation with 1930s mysteries.
Now in my little rant I did mention the excessive amount of conventions which are twisted and played out around with in The Sunken Sailor and how there were too many, which undermined each other. This got me to thinking about 1930s mysteries which also played around with conventions such as Leo Bruce’s Case of Three Detectives (1936). What made this a successful parody/pastiche was that it centralised its’ twists and surprises into one area – the detectives. The remainder of the book or the reality within which the mystery is place remains stable. This is what I felt did not happen in The Sunken Sailor, as the multitude of twists completely dismantled the story’s foundations. One of the biggest reasons for this occurring was due to the spy/conspiracy section of surprises. Again this led to me thinking of another 1930s country home mystery, Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934). This is not Marsh’s finest novel, coming across as a rather ridiculous, especially with its Russian political angle, yet its’ ridiculousness is nowhere near the same league as The Sunken Sailor’s and again I think this is because there is a solid reality beneath the ridiculousness and artifice (such as the playing of the game Murder!), which prevents the plot from spiralling out of control.
When reading the first part of The Sunken Sailor, something I soon noticed was the oddness of the guests invited to the castle, many of whom for which there is no explanation of why they have come. I felt this differed from the 1930s mysteries I had read, such as ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay, because in these works the guests may be up to no good or may there under false pretences, but at the same time there is a logic behind why they have been invited.
Finally in reviewing the country house mysteries from the 1930s I had read, I noticed that they had more to say about the social issue of gender roles and the role of women in particular, something which did not come across in The Sunken Sailor (though given that it is a parody this is probably not that surprising). Examples of such works from the 1930s which quickly sprang to mind were The Noose (1930) by Philip Macdonald, Winifred Peck’s The Warrielaw Jewel (1933) and Ianthe Jerrold’s Dead Man’s Quarry (1930) and Let Him Lie (1940).
In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin,’ Mr Quin says that ‘the contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion.’ In terms of solving a crime, detective fiction has definitely vindicated this notion, as there is many a sleuth who has solved a cold case, such as Hercule Poirot in Five Little Pigs (1942). Yet in terms of a modern writer recreating a past time I am less certain or at least I think it takes a lot more work than sometimes supposed. Whilst when writing about contemporary times it is easy to create the setting naturally and to express current opinions and attitudes, without forcing unnecessary detail in and it is easy to pick up on the zeitgeist of the moment. But then again it could be said that writers include too little detail when writing contemporarily as they assume that their readers know such information already, meaning a later reader may miss something. However, I think at the end of the day it depends on the individual book in question as people can no doubt find examples to prove either side of the argument. Not the most profound of thoughts I know, but that’s the best I can do, having climbed back up the rabbit hole.
So looking back at this I’m not sure I actually achieved any of my intended aims for this post and my ideas could be hopelessly wrong, but hopefully this post has given some entertainment. As for me I am now off to lie in a dark room
The Sunken Sailor Rating: 2/5