Like Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, Horniman’s novel is better known under the title it received when it was adapted for film in 1949 – Kind Hearts and Coronets. Yet it is its original title, which shows the book’s genre focus.
However, before we unpack that, here is a quick recap of what the tale is about. The story is narrated by Israel Rank, who is writing his life story whilst awaiting execution for murder. He begins with his childhood and its difficulties, including antisemitism and social snubs due to his lower family income. Also, by young adult hood, loses both his parents. However, from an early age he has known that on his mother side he is 6 places away from gaining the title of the Earl of Gascoyne. Attaining this title, against all odds, is what he makes his life goal and he is fully prepared to kill in order to achieve this ambition. The rest of the story charts his progress as he makes his way up the social ladder, gaining intimacy with his estranged family members. But how will it all end?
So, let’s talk genre. This novel encompasses quite a few. The original title takes us straight to the foundations of the story’s genre – a fictional autobiography, with the earlier chapters reminding us of a bildungsroman tale. From the first few pages, Victorian novels such as The Way of All Flesh (1903) by Samuel Butler and Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) sprung to mind, and it wasn’t long before my memory reached back to my university years when I had read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782). So, when Israel Rank references this latter title several times, and sees his own “confession” in light of this earlier text, I felt that the genre of fictional autobiographical was a key element underpinning Horniman’s story. Social advancement, furthermore, is also fundamental to all the titles I have mentioned. Though it would seem that Israel is the only protagonist prepared to kill for it…
This, of course, brings me to other genre Kind Hearts and Coronets operates in and that is unsurprisingly crime fiction. However, I think we can be a bit more precise. Given that we know who the killer is and how they commit their crimes the label of inverted mystery would fit quite nicely, as would the term psychological crime novel, as Israel considers his inner workings consistently throughout the tale. As such I think this book should be regarded as an important milestone in crime fiction as it is easily an ancestor and precursor to the work of Francis Iles, Richard Hull and Patricia Highsmith. The parallel to the latter came to me very early on in my reading of the story as in the preliminary note which commences this novel, we read the following:
‘There is an old saying, ‘Murder will out.’ I am really unable to see why this should be so. At any rate, it is a statement impossible of proof […] I am convinced that many a delightful member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to remove a human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.’
To me this felt like a very Tom Ripley remark, and in general Israel’s moral framework somewhat turns conventional morals upside down. I equally don’t feel it would be out of place to suggest that Israel Rank has some Dorian Gray vibes, which is evidenced in this quote from his childhood: ‘My chief boyish trait was a love of beauty, whether in things animate or inanimate.’ With both characters there is that sense that they think they are above the rules and laws which govern those around them.
This is a slow burning novel, with Israel’s killing spree spread out through the book, with sub-projects in social advancement taking place in other directions. Israel murders using a variety of means and given that you know where he is writing his own memoirs, you wonder how things will end.
However, I think where Horniman’s literary successors overtake him, in terms of writing skills, is in pacing and in the construction of finales. When it comes to the former, I think Horiman’s writing style harks back to the previous century and may not appeal to some readers and the irony which we have come to expect with inverted mysteries is so not pronounced. The finale of Horniman’s story foreshadows what later writers would go on to and I think in some cases these future titles deliver more of an impact with their endings.
Nevertheless, Horniman’s novel should be seen as a foundational text for the psychological crime novel, with his protagonist being a prototype for the fictional psychopathic criminal, who uses the snobbery of those around him as a tool against themselves.
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)