Posted by Helen Saturday, April 12, 2014 , ,

As a keen reader of detective stories (as those who follow this blog know) I am always on the look-out for new writers and also for writers of the past I may have missed but who have been praised by others. One such is John Bingham, a.k.a.the 7th Baron Clanmorris, who, apart from being a writer of thrillers and detective stories, was also a politician and a "civil servant", that is he worked for the secret services.

Saying, as Wikipedia does, that he was a spy is making an elementary mistake. Our chaps and chapesses are agents, theirs are spies. It would appear that Bingham was one of the people on whom John Le Carre based his most successful character, George Smiley, though I do not think Bingham looked anything like Alec Guinness. In fact, if the story of his activity is anywhere near accurate he seems to have been of greater importance and use to this country than even Smiley was. Then again, he does not seem to have uncovered Kim Philby, which would have been the equivalent of Smiley's achievement in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

John Bingham's first novel was My Name is Michael Sibley, which is the one I have finally read. As Wikpedia points out, it is known to have been rather daring for its time (1952) as it implied that the "British police do not always play fair". Interesting, I thought and read the book, finding it disappointingly uninspiring. A detective story with no detection, a thriller with no surprises, it did not seem to warrant the praises I thought had been heaped on it. Actually, I seem to have been wrong. Julian Symons in his seminal work, Bloody Murder, did indicate a certain partiality as the book showed the British police to be rather nasty:
A large part of the fascination rests in his accurate account of police interrogation, something that had rarely been attempted in the British crime story. We learn nothing about the Chief-Detective Inspector and the Sergeant outside the limits of the case. They are the embodiment of potentially hostile officialdom, polite English versions of Chandler's policemen but equally conscious of their power.

One can see what influence that book might have had on subsequent writers though whether the description of the ever more unpleasant interrogations, written from the point of view of the innocent narrator who nevertheless tells one lie after another, is any more accurate than Ngaio Marsh's or Freeman Wills Croft's can be discussed at length. Did Julian Symons know or did he assume on the basis of his own political views?

In any case, even Julian Symons had to acknowledge that there are no surprises in the book. The narrator who protests his innocence turns out to be just that: innocent (Bingham was no Christie) and this is finally recognized for incomprehensible and unexplained reasons. In A Catalogue of Crime Jacques Barzun and Wendell hertig Taylor were even less complimentary:
Told in the first person, this is the story of a mess created by the hero and heroine through lying to the police about a man they knew who has been murdered. Skillful composition, style not especially attractive, type of plot dreary.

Even I did not think it was that bad. For one thing I thought the style was rather good and the tension despite the lack of any surprises held well. Bingham manages to make the narrator, Michael Sibley, sound completely obnoxious and that is not easy to do. Of course, it is possible that Julian Symons is right and that obnoxiousness was not the intention, in which case, Bingham turned out to be a better writer than he knew himself.

The police are, indeed, menacing and apparently unscrupulous. But let us look at the case from their point of view as, say Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy Simpson would have done. Here is an unprepossessing young man, a suspect in a murder case who tells one lie after another to the police, makes his fiancee tell lies and even tries to bribe an ex-girlfriend to tell lies, all for no reason whatsoever unless he is guilty. Would Chief Inspector Alleyn or Inspector Thanet not try to catch him out? Of course, they would not threaten him with violence as Bingham's police officers do in a jesting sort of way but they are unlikely to pat him on the back either.

The murder is never solved though Sibley himself proposes a solution but only in his own mind and to the reader. It is a fairly obvious solution but is not followed up by anybody.

1 Responses to Disappointments

  1. Ron Smyth Says:
  2. Thank you for the review. I think I'll read something else, although it might well be by Bingham.

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