The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams (1930-1935) ed. By Jared C. Lobdell (2003)

Who is Charles Williams, you ask? Or maybe it’s just me, whose mind went blank when I came across this collection. Thankfully, the introduction fills in some of the gaps and it seems like Williams was a man of many roles, being an ‘editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, theologian and Inkling.’ Between 1930 and 1935 he wrote 83 columns for the Westminster Gazette and he even wrote a detective novel entitled War in Heaven (1930). It appears to be quite an unusual one as we are told that it ‘pushes pretty hard against that form, going from the requisite body in the office and the police detective to Prester John and the Holy Grail,’ He also wrote thrillers, though Lobdell notes that some of these are also ‘puzzle-novels,’ listing: The Greater Trumps, The Place of the Lion, Many Dimensions and Shadows of Ecstasy, as examples. Williams’ own work was initially inspired by Sax Rohmer’s stories, though his attitude towards them seems to shift as he progresses through his term of office as a reviewer.

The collection is bookended by a commentary provided by Jared C. Lobdell with the first chapter utilising ‘these reviews as aids in analysing both the nature of detective fiction and the nature of the fiction written by Charles Williams.’ The concluding chapter then considers ‘what happened to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, or, if you prefer, what happened to the Golden Trap.’ Unsurprisingly, I do not prefer…

The phrase ‘Golden Trap’ crops up several times in these sections, yet unfortunately Lobdell does not particularly expand, (either in criticism or justification), why such a phrase might or could be used to describe this period of crime writing. I have read a few collections of detective fiction reviews, such as those by Dorothy L. Sayers, Todd Downing and Anthony Boucher, and the accompanying commentaries by editors have been highly informative about the writing period and about the reviewer themselves. They all added to my great enjoyment of those books. However, the same cannot be said here, as I feel the opening and closing chapters to be the weakest parts of this collection.

There are several reasons why this is the case. Firstly, I feel Lobdell makes some incorrect assumptions about what his readers may or may not already know. It is acceptable to assume some knowledge of Golden Age detective fiction, but I think it is less ideal to presume your readers have a thorough grounding in literary theory, criticism and terminology. Not least, because in this book they are used in a very un-user-friendly manner. To me, this made the commentary less accessible, as not every reader will be coming to it with university education in English literature.

Another reason why this commentary was less enjoyable to read was due to the ineffective way in which the central ideas and arguments were delivered. This is particularly the case in the final chapter: The Ways of the Golden Age and The Ways Out.

A lot of big ideas are launched in this chapter, yet they are not sufficiently explored and invariably are dropped, as others take their place. Whilst the author discusses a range of authors from this era, several of whom are less often written about, the discussion is largely descriptive. For example, Lobdell dedicates quite a lot of page space to describing the stories in the Christie’s short story collections: Poirot Investigates and The Mysterious Mr Quinn. During the description little is done to link it back to the original point being made, and instead what we arrive at is a final statement: ‘she provides in these two collections of short stories the clearest possible evidence (1) that she is carrying on (even to the short-story form) from Conan Doyle and (2) that the business of the detective story is supernatural.’ I think this is a rather bold statement to be making and it is not one the writer supports very well.

I also found it intriguing that Lobdell makes the following point:

‘It may be that the short story is the natural vehicle for detective fiction, and that the novel must either include outside adventures […] become social commentary, exhibit a world (a milieu) for the reader’s additional delectation, convert the detective novel into a study of character […] or quite simply, become a “Humdrum.”’

I suppose I find it interesting because at this juncture he does not refer to Charles Williams’ review of The Best Detective Stories of 1929, which proposes the complete opposite:

‘Real lovers of detection can no more be satisfied with short stories than real lovers of poetry with lyrics; they yearn for the fuller and richer length of novel or epic. But we cannot have an epic every day, and so must be grateful for lyrics that in so short a space one cannot really mind who murdered whom.’

Once more, Lobdell arguably gives a controversial opinion, yet he does not provide much in the way of evidence to support it. Other unsubstantiated comments include:

  • Nicholas Blake as an example of someone ‘who began to tear down the walls of the ghetto, even while obeying most of its conventions.’ (Earlier in this chapter Lobdell refers to the Golden Age as the ‘golden ghetto’.) I’m not saying I necessarily completely disagree with this statement, as there is The Beast Must Die. Yet Lobdell doesn’t provide any examples of how Blake tore ‘down the walls’ and personally I feel like a lot of Blake’s book aren’t that unconventional.
  • Lobdell is also baffled by the success of the Humdrums: ‘once the first interest in a detective “more like us” has worn off, only a mania for detectives in any and every form can explain the success of this particular version of the Golden Age story.’ This criticism surprised me as arguably having detectives ‘more like us’ is quite a large component of modern-day crime fiction. Moreover, one idea the author is keen to stress in his commentary is that realism was a ‘way out of the trap.’ So surely, the Humdrums’ by that definition should have done very well, given their focus on procedure?

However, let’s move on to Charles Williams’ reviews, which I found provided much food for thought. It is interesting how reviews can reveal a lot about a person’s views on detective fiction and the tropes that genre employs. For example, it seems that Williams is of the school that less romance is better:

‘Love, it is gratifying to note, is not allowed to waste any time in any of these books: it is mentioned from time to time, but only as the colour of one or the other of the pieces with which the game is played.’

Whilst when it comes to the characters in a mystery, Williams suggests, when reviewing Henry Wade’s The Dying Alderman, that the mystery should ‘be produced by his people and not the people by his mystery.’ Characterisation was something Williams felt Wade needed to improve upon in the past, but that he had done so in this book. Williams seems to have appreciated works in which the characters are ‘much like ourselves,’ noting that ‘to be like ourselves is a miracle in a detective novel.’ He felt Tyline Perry’s The Owner Lies Dead manages this.

Reviews are also a space in which bugbears come to the surface, which happened one week in 1931 for Charles Williams. Using a book by Nancy Mavity and Tragedy on the Line by John Rhode, as his examples, he declares that we should ‘make a New Year’s resolution – corpse and capturer, motive and murderer shall all be present in the first 50 pages. That ought to make 1931 the acid test year of crime.’ This resolution is developed in resistance to writers who go too far back in time for the explanation of their crimes.

Charles Williams also has something to say about the choice of victims, opining in his review of Clifford Orr’s The Wailing Rock Murders that:

‘Personally, I hate young women being murdered; murderers they may be, but not victims. There is something positive, original, and violent about young women which prevents them from being credible victims. It outrages nature.’

Other commentators have also expressed a dislike of young women as murder victims, yet not along the lines Williams suggests. For them it is the overuse of such people as victims and also the way it can become too graphical. So it is quite interesting to see that Williams thinks they’re just too incredible to have!

I also loved this comment Charles Williams makes in his review for The Thin Man, concerning weak writers:

The Thin Man ‘entranced me by the number of its drinks. But the drinks are, at least, part of a real atmosphere; they are not, like most drinks and cigarettes in novels, utterly unrelated detail. The weak author is always traceable, like a criminal (which he is), by the number of cigarette-ends – a cigarette cannot be smoked in two paragraphs of conversation.’

Surprisingly big names do not crop up in Williams’ reviews as often as I thought they might. Agatha Christie is one of the exceptions. In his review for The Murder at the Vicarage, he refers to Miss Marple as ‘Mother Brown’ and also notes that Christie ‘is always adequate, and she misleads us here as skillfully as ever.’ Adequate does seem rather a lukewarm word, however, I think Williams did enjoy the book as he goes on to write that it is:

‘A charming book, only I do want to know all about the other casually mentioned cases of this village life – the changed coughdrops and the butcher’s wife’s umbrella. Could not Mrs Christie write a new “Cranford” – a Cranford of crime?’

And what about the famous Murder on the Orient Express?

‘This austere method, combined with the method of the crime, makes the book a piece of classic workmanship; almost unbelievable, but exquisite and wholly satisfying. The ice cracks here and there; there is one very dangerous moment connected with Oxford-street, but it just holds.’

My mind draws a blank as to what the Oxford-Street problem could be, but I am sure those with more encyclopaedia knowledge of Christie will be able to tell me. However, when it comes to Three Act Tragedy, Williams nearly thinks Christie has overreached herself:

‘This time Mrs Christie sets an almost superhuman problem, which she herself only just managed to solve. I am not sure that, even so, her solution does not strain her own tact with the reader […] ‘It is a peach of a beginning; the equal beach of the ending is beyond all reach but Mrs Christie’s.’

Freeman Wills Crofts is also mentioned. When it came to Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, Williams felt there was too many mathematical calculations to be worked out and in contrast he felt that Mystery in the Channel was ‘one of the best mysteries that Inspector French has ever solved,’ not least because ‘there are fewer calculations and more speed.’

Meanwhile, Charles Williams wrote that Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors ‘is not merely admirable; it is adorable.’ Not quite the adjective which springs to mind personally, yet he goes on to say that ‘there were in Miss Sayers’s more recent books, signs that a strange element was struggling to be free [… and that] The Nine Tailors is consequently not a tale of murder, but an experience of life.’

One aspect of Ellery Queen’s work that Williams did not get on with was their challenge to the reader. When reviewing The French Powder Mystery, for example, he wrote that:

‘Thirty pages from the end […] Mr Queen invites us to use our brains and find out the mystery. Let him; why keep a cow when milk is delivered to your doorstep? Admiration is better than labour.’

Whilst when it comes to The American Gun Mystery, he again baulks at the idea, asserting that:

‘A reader, however, does not read to discover the criminal, but to discover the book, the peculiar and particular satisfaction which that one book, and no other in the world, may be able to afford him. He desires a complete pleasure of which accurate deduction is but a part […] I deny flatly Mr Queen’s “You don’t know? Ah, but you really should!” One “should” nothing of the sort. On behalf of all the poor, ignorant, illogical readers, I assert that Mr Queen is in danger of denying style by overstressing one element in style. We have a right to leave the explanation to him, though he has no right (as he agrees) to keep the clues from us; for we demand from him not a solution but a story, not facts but fiction.’

I found it interesting to read such impassioned comments against the reader to the challenge. Nevertheless, Williams otherwise very much enjoyed the mysteries written by Ellery Queen. The same cannot be said for other writers…

For example, Williams comments that both The Fifth Victim by Dale Collins and Suspect by Gerald Fairlie:

‘would be thrilling if only they could be convincing. They tell us about murders and perils and, with a little goodwill, we can read them. But they do rather leave the impression that the plaintive tale is flowing about things that don’t really matter. Danger by itself is not exciting: Mr Fortune at his lunch is more interesting than many another hero in his agony.’

Another key reason for Williams disliking a book is due to the whole cast of characters being rather repellent. This is the case with The Komani Mystery by Victor Sampson:

‘A man is found shot in a South African house; either his enemy murdered him or he shot himself in order to get his enemy hanged. I wish he had, and succeeded; they were both unpleasant.’

And it also crops up in Williams’ review of Crime at Keeper’s by Thomas Cobb:

‘The plot is complex, the detection industrious, if only Mr Cobb could make his characters interesting. But the stolidity of hid style drives me to admit that I rather hoped all the suspects would be hanged together – with the colonel and the vicar thrown in.’

Moreover, when he writes about the death of the serial killer in The Jungle Crime by Luke Allan, he notes that the culprit ‘joins his beloved in the end, rather against his will; if he could have taken everyone else in the book with him it would have been satisfactory. This is merely definition – they are all the sort of people whose only excuse for existing is violent death.’

It could also be said that Milton M Propper’s The Ticker-Tape Murder, was not Williams’ cup of tea, as he likens Propper to a machine and his review concludes with the line: ‘This is the kind of book that every writer of murders should read, admire, study, and abandon.’ Some writers frequently got lukewarm reviews, whilst with others he blew hot and cold. Philip Macdonald was such an author, with Williams’ finding his work to be rather hit and miss. For example, he describes The Choice as ‘a curious mixture of success and failure […] It is impossible to put it down and impossible to believe it.’ Though his greater criticism is that: ‘It makes one feel that heaven provided the problem and left Mr Macdonald to provide the answer, and that by some mistake the he put the answer in his next novel here instead.’

I also found it amusing to note that one of the reasons Charles Williams did not like Cecil Waye’s Murder at Monk’s Barn was because the murder ‘takes place while the victim is shaving, which is indecent. There should be privacies in fiction, and the detestable necessity of shaving, which nature and fashion imposes on us, is one of them.’ However, he does go on to say that the ‘murder itself is ingenious.’ Williams also raised a smile in his review of Oppenheim’s Gallows of Chance, in which he says that ‘his language is too lofty for his story. His characters sometimes descend to dinner-jackets; his words always wear white ties.’

When I read collections of reviews, I enjoy seeing how many of the books I have read already. Sometimes I do quite well. This is not one of those times… Whilst I never thought I was as well read as Martin Edwards or Curtis Evans I didn’t think I would do as badly as this:

I hope I won’t get my GAD-Fiction Membership revoked! However, in my defence, quite a number of the books he reviewed fall more into the subcategories of thrillers, espionage mysteries and mystery adventures. These types of mysteries are not the sort I tend to enjoy reading, so I am less likely to have sought them out. Also to be quite frank many of the books he reviews are ridiculously obscure! However, this does mean that this book is an absolute haven for those who want new less well-known authors to track down. But be warned that I did a lot of searching on Ebay whilst reading this book, and when my searches struck gold, gold was certainly the asking price! Then again fans of classic crime fiction tend to enjoy a book hunt challenge!

So overall, whilst this is not a book I would recommend reading for the commentary, it is definitely worth purchasing for the collection of reviews by Charles Williams alone. This collection is a useful and interesting aid for the Golden Age fan and Williams’ reviews shine a light on a plethora of long forgotten writers.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (McFarland & Company)

8 comments

  1. So no mention of Brian Flynn? Shame!

    The first 50 pages comment reminds me of Belton Cobb, who really annoyed Carr by writing “Authors are well advised to include the murderer prominently in the first chapter so that he will be chosen by as many of those readers (38%) as possible; then, when they have finished the book, they will go about telling their friends how clever they were, thus advertising the book.” How he gets 38% baffles me…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I double checked and there was no mention of Brian Flynn, which is odd as he did cover a lot of what are now little well-known writers. Given your interest in exploring these types of writers, this collection might be of use in your hunt.

      Like

  2. This Charles Williams was a friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, a prominent member of The Inklings and encouraged Edmund Crispin. He’s probably best known now for his Arthurian epic poems.
    There’s also a U.S. crime writer with the same name who began writing after this one’s death. When I first began reading crime novels over fifty years ago I thought there was only Charles Williams and that he had undergone a radical transformation in style and subject matter!

    Liked by 1 person

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