This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at foreign mysteries, which I have taken to mean as those set outside of the UK and USA (mainly since it gives me opportunity to read some books which have been on my TBR pile for a while). Bev at My Readers’ Block is collecting the posts this month so do check out her blog later today. Here is the link to last weeks’ posts in case you missed it:
As I mentioned in my own post last week I am planning on reviewing mysteries which are set in warm slightly off the beaten track places and this week we are going to San Rocco, an island in the West Indies. Never heard of it? Well that is fairly excusable considering it doesn’t seem to exist, with internet searches trying to direct me to places in Italy. A quick read of the introduction does go on to confirm that this is a fictitious island, which is also a republic. This book was chosen by H R F Keating to be included in the Disappearing Detectives series, which tried to bring earlier authors out of obscurity. Keating was surprised how little well-known East was, considering how positively he was reviewed when he writing. He wrote nine mysteries, four of which made up his Superintendent Simmonds series and Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935) is the last of these four. At the end of this post there is a complete bibliography for East if you wish to see what other titles he wrote. Roger East was the penname of Roger d’Este Burford (1904-1981) and he was also a poet, a screenwriter and during WW2 he was a diplomat in Moscow.
Superintendent Simmonds has retired from the force in this novel and he is looking forward to a complete rest from work. However this dream is thwarted by Pero Zaragoza, who owns and runs the uber-luxurious hotel and theatre on San Rocco that caters for millionaires. He also funds the ministry of the President of the island and consequently has a lot of influence. Zaragoza comes to Simmonds to ask him to investigate a case for him in San Rocco. A number of acts of sabotage have been happening on his properties there, such as the guests’ clothing being cut up at his hotel and the Carnation (an important dancer who performs at the theatre) is temporarily kidnapped so she can’t perform at the gala. The issue of bribery is also a problem and is one of the main reasons Zaragoza wants someone from outside the island to investigate. Although not hugely enthusiastic, Simmonds is drawn by the money offered.
Not only does Simmonds have to solve the previous acts of sabotage but there are new ones to add to the list such as damage done to a film which was to be shown and also a fire is started in the theatre. Unsurprisingly Simmonds feels this is too much for one man and hopes to retire gracefully from the case. No such luck though as instead Zaragoza uses his influence with the president to create a criminal investigation department of which Simmonds will be the chief. However, the reality of this plan is far from what Simmonds expects. His headquarters are the now defunct buildings for the ex-Ministry of Sanitation and he is lumbered with an assistant, Aubrey Wilkinson (the ex-Minister of Sanitation), whose zeal and enthusiasm nearly drives Simmonds batty – though for the reader this is where the wonderfully comic nature of the book truly begins. Consequently you can imagine that this investigation is not as professional as you would expect for a police led one and readers won’t be surprised when one character describes this new police force as being run like a ‘comic opera.’
Clues cast suspicions on insiders such as the Carnation who has a lover she keeps secret from Zaragoza and also on unknown outsiders, as it is mentioned that bad business practice on Zaragoza’s part may be causing current sabotage acts as a form of revenge. The shedding of innocent blood leads to a more committed investigation by Simmonds, though limited resources and political machinations impede his progress to the extent that solving the case may detrimentally affect the lives of the detective characters.
As I mentioned earlier San Rocco is a republic and this got me thinking about what the West Indies/Caribbean was like during the 1930s when East wrote this book. I found that
between 1934 and 1939 a number of riots and strikes occurred in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, to the extent that The Moyne Report was published looking at living conditions in these places and making recommendations on how to improve them, amongst other things. The Second World War inhibited these recommendations from being fully implemented and ultimately this unrest led ‘to self-government and independence in the post-war period’ (Wikipedia). This of course is a simplification of the issue but I wanted to briefly highlight this historical context due to the way East’s novel interacts with it. Obviously can’t prove how aware he was of this issue, but from what I have read it seems that it was a high profile situation.
Although a republic San Rocco is still controlled by outsiders. White people frequently hold the top positions and because Zaragoza funds the government essentially, the island does seem to have cater for the tourist industry which his properties generate. For instance when Simmonds first arrives on the island it is said that the:
‘fountain that did not play and iron gates […] needed paint… glimpses of narrow alleys and of tall windowless buildings, of asses laden with water melons, merchandise or old fat women in black lace. All this was romance for the visitors…’
Yet this industry and even the newly established criminal investigation department are beginning to become unpopular. The way East presents this unpopularity perhaps reveals one perspective on this, as he writes that the native San Roccans:
‘forgot that Pero’s venture brought tourists to the island and money to their pockets: they suspected, they did not quite understand how, that San Rocco was no longer their own: their civilisation was threatened by the restless world.’
There is a feeling that the narrative is suggesting that the financial benefits of the tourist industry should outweigh the need for cultural diversity and independence. Unlike in David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun (1949), depictions of disparity in wealth are less overtly talked about and described in this book and there is no suggestion in the narrative that living conditions need to change for the natives of San Rocco. Consequently I wondered whether a parallel could be made between the unrest which was occurring in the Caribbean at the time and the feelings of resentment and rebellion boiling under the surface of the narrative. Cynics amongst us will not be surprised by how these resentment plays out, given the power money and business has on politics.
A theme which ties into this issue is race and how this is depicted. In comparison to Dodge’s novel, I don’t think East’s depictions of non-White/British characters are as nuanced. This may well be due to the comic focus of East’s novel, in contrast to the more travelogue accuracy of Dodge’s work. Although I will say that the humour of this novel comes predominantly from the interactions between Simmonds and Aubrey, rather than at the expense of non-white characters. Yet East definitely has a pro-British bias in this book, which often comes through Zaragoza who is a ‘Greek, Spaniard, Jew’ and who is definitely given a shifty vibe, as well as an unappealing appearance of being ‘swarthy [and] pot-bellied.’ [N. B. This description is probably the most questionable of the book.] For instance Zaragoza says to Simmonds that ‘all over the world there is no man to be trusted like an English policeman’ and he also goes on to disparage the San Roccan and American police forces. He also says that Britain is ‘a nation famed for the honourableness of its dealings…’ a statement which I think modern readers would take issue with. Outside of Zaragoza being a pro-British mouthpiece, English people, even potential criminals, are shown more favourably than those of other nationalities. Moreover, in contrast to how Britain and English people are depicted, San Rocco and its inhabitants are not so favourably shown. For example Zaragoza, whose wealth is maintained by this country, says that:
‘Of all the nations they are the least trustworthy. I love San Rocco, it is my adopted country, but I should love it more if there were no San Roccans. I bring to the island visitors, and not visitors – but millionaires – I make San Rocco world known, and then they look at me, both the peasants and the caballeros, as if I did not exist.’
A sentiment which suggests that Zaragoza dislikes being identified with San Roccans and equally finds them an embarrassment. Overall I don’t think race and how it is depicted is a dominant theme or issue in the book but from time to time there are these awkward phrases.
However, as I mentioned earlier this is a comic novel, a novel whose comedy begins properly when Aubrey enters the scene, as typified in his flippant and overly polite opening line to Simmonds whilst he is shaving: ‘Is there anything, within reason, that I can do for you just now?’ This is followed up by: ‘I’m just going to make some tea. Please don’t watch the kettle, there’s a general idea that kettles don’t like it.’ Both of which give a good idea of what Aubrey is like and the type of humour he brings to the story. He frequently undercuts the gravitas of situations and is flippant. Sometimes this doesn’t always work in novels, often because it is overdone, but I think East uses it just the right amount and it certainly enlivens the story. I also think Simmonds, who can be seen as the straight man, responds to this humour well, making it an effective comic partnership. Once I think Aubrey’s flippancy oversteps the mark for the modern day reader, but otherwise it is okay.
All in all I think this was a good read and it was definitely an out of the ordinary one at that. So if you love 1930s mystery fiction and want something different to try I would definitely recommend it. Due to the unusual circumstances of the case, Simmonds and Aubrey often have to work in less than conventional ways and adapt to the changing situation, which is entertaining to read, with Simmonds becoming exasperated at Aubrey, whose strength is not in taking things seriously. Simmonds is not in the Inspector Alleyn mould, so there isn’t any literary quotations and nor is he at home with the ultra-rich. He is much more down to earth, which makes him more likeable. East is good at distracting readers from the truth and in retrospect you can see clues to the identity of the criminal, though I don’t think they are obvious when you’re actually reading the story.
Roger East Bibliography
The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail (1932)
Murder Rehearsal (1933)
Candidate for Lillies (1934)
The Bell is Answered (1934)
Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935)
Detectives in Gum Boots (1936)
Pearl Choker (1954)
Kingston Black (1960)
The Pin Men (1963)
Here are a few clues about the location of next Tuesday’s mystery:
- This country was under British rule for 96 years before gaining independence in 1970.
- This particular story takes place in the capital of this country, which is made up of 322 islands and over 500 small islets.
- Nearly 10% of the population participates in the sport Rugby Union.
- This country has an average of 70 inches of rainfall a year and temperatures range from 68-90 degrees Fahrenheit.