Tin-pot dictators and detective stories

Posted by Helen Tuesday, June 10, 2014

People seem to be interested in E. R. Punshon, a shamefully neglected writer of the Golden  Age period and beyond. He was not in the top bracket though interesting and popular enough in his day. Let's face it, too many of those writers, male and female, have been forgotten for no good reason. Readers of classic detective fiction will be very glad to be able to get hold of more than just novels by the "four Queens", good though they are.

Martin Edwards, quoted on this blog once before, is a source of information about "forgotten" books. Last week he wrote about a Punshon book I has not heard before, Dictator's Way, and his description intrigued me, not least because it seemed to raise the perennial question as to whether GAD (Golden Age Detective) writers are particularly conservative in their outlook.

This blog has maintained consistently that detective fiction is in itself a "conservative" art not because its practitioners necessarily support the Conservative Party or even the existing political and social structures but because the very idea of finding individual human life important enough for its destruction to be seen as inherently wrong and in need of investigation as well as some sort of punishment is conservative.

Mr Edwards thinks that is debatable:
Punshon had liberal/leftish political views, and takes the opportunity to show his contempt for Hitler, Mussolini and Oswald Mosley in the course of a story dealing scathingly with the so-called "Redeemer" of Etruria. This political perspective gives the book spice, and also gives the lie to the often repeated but false claim that Golden Age writers were just a bunch of cosy reactionaries. Why have so many otherwise sensible people made such a claim? I suspect it's because, for the most part, the really successful Golden Age writers were conservative in outlook, although I'd describe some of them at least as questioning conservatives.
I disagreed with that statement immediately (well, one would hardly expect me to do otherwise) and pointed out that the listed dictators (or wannabe dictators as in the case of Mosley) were radical, statist and socialist in their outlook; a conservative, thus, would feel nothing but enmity and contempt for them.

Hitler and Mussolini came to power or held on to power through revolutionary means (despite those elections in Germany in 1932 and 1933), changing the political and constitutional structures of their countries as well as attempting to change the social ones. In this they did not succeed nearly as well as their contemporary Joseph Stalin did but none of them can be called conservative or reactionary. By the time Dictator's Way was written (late 1937 or early 1938 as the book came out in 1938) Mosley had put himself outside the political establishment and the couple of disdainful references to him in the book sum up quite well the general attitude towards him. The Labour Party and the trade unions, on the other hand, were by this time an integral part of that establishment and it was hardly radical to support them.

I took the book out of London Library, a great repository of GAD literature, and found it as well written and entertaining as Punshon's other books though as badly proof-read, a perennial complaint. It is, however, somewhat odd in plot and structure.

The hero is, as so often, Bobby Owen, a scion of a noble family whom he tries to avoid and to keep hidden and a Detective Sergeant in Scotland Yard. In this book he meets the woman who will be his wife and, to some extent, co-investigator, Olive Farrar. Incidentally, a quick look at some later Bobby Owen novels reveals that although he is still a Detective Sergeant in 1939 by 1948 he reaches the position of Acting Deputy Chief Commissioner. And people say that John Appleby had a remarkable career.

Dictator's Way, a clever pun of a title, falls into two unequal parts. The first and the longer one appears to be a straightforward detective story. Bobby has a free afternoon and is planning to go to Lord's to watch some cricket but is waylaid by another and far more obnoxious scion of the aristocracy who tells him some incoherent story of possible wrong-doing that he wants sorted but not made public. As a consequence, Bobby misses Wally Hammond's batting and wanders off to have a look at Dictator's Way, place of the possible (or, as the police think, probable) wrongdoings.

Here he finds a semi-wild park, a house that is part empty and part luxuriously furnished, a few rather curious indications of possible crime, a well-known heavy called Clarence who seems to be unusually afraid of the police and a rather extraordinary girl, who turns out to be Olive. It is, of course, understood in GAD novels that all Scotland Yard officers knew all London criminals, their history and present whereabouts. Uniform branches knew merely the criminals of their area. That worked both ways: the criminals knew all the police officers, too.

Then Bobby finds a dead body and the investigation is led mostly by Superintendent Ulyett who is not particularly bright at this stage with the help of other police officers who seem to be on the stupid and self-satisfied side and Bobby who is bright and observant as well as managing to be on the scene whenever he is needed.

The investigation is very leisurely with plenty of scope for animadversions against modern life, the English social structure and establishment, senior police officers and fashionable restaurants. Here Punshon comes a cropper. He describes in witty fashion how a particular restaurant in the suburbs, Twin Wolves, which serves Etrurian cuisine, has become the most fashionable of all but when Bobby goes there in pursuit of Olive, now a suspect and finds her in the company of a young man who rapidly becomes another, there is a slight disappointment in the description of the dull  and inappropriate lunch ordered by male suspect: "grapefruit, truite de la maison, grouse à la reine Marguerite, pêche Melba with a château wine to follow". Lord Peter Wimsey or Reginald Fortune this chap is not. What on earth is a château wine to follow? And cricket at Lord's is in July; there is no grouse on the menu before mid-August. (I wanted to get that off my chest but it has no relevance to the plot except to make one wonder about the much touted sophistication of second suspect.)

We also get a good deal of musing from Bobby about Olive (yes, he has fallen in love but the poor sap takes more than half a book to realize that) and, above all, we get Etruria, whose name reminds one rather forcefully of Ruritania, the original of which was Central European but the imitations, except for Buchan's Evallonia,  tend to be Balkan. There is a clear connection between practically everyone connected with the murder and the house in which the body is found (except for Clarence) and Etruria, which is ruled by a very nasty dictator who calls himself the Redeemer. (It may be of some interest that while none of the various European dictators called themselves that, the name was used by Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader and dictator of Ghana, who was known as Osagyefo or Redeemer in the Akan language. But I digress.)

The shorter second part turns into a Buchanesque thriller and events, though not the language, speed up. There are strange goings on in Olive's cottage; a car and motorcycle chase through the dark; hysterical outbursts from Olive, who is given to announcing that tens of thousands of men, women and children are killed all the time so one more will not matter; a kidnapping (Bobby's); a chase and gun battle in the sea and a murder confession that surprises nobody.

We also find out a good deal more about Etrurian politics first from Bobby who seems to be very knowledgeable and then from the confessed murderer who is also the leader of the Etrurian opposition in Britain, an able, charismatic but fanatical individual. The Redeemer is a very nasty piece of works but, despite his friendship with Hitler and Mussolini, somewhat old-fashioned in that there seems to be no ideology and he prefers to suppress trade unions to co-opting them, a far more sensible procedure. The people are oppressed and unhappy and ready to rise; even the army and the navy are planning to join them. The Redeemer's opponents are jolly nice chaps (if, on occasion, fanatical) but he persists in smearing them by calling them Communist.

 It is noticeable that Punshon, in his references to dictators, tyrants and totalitarian states means Hitler, Mussolini and his buddies, not Stalin or the Soviet Union. Communists, explains the confessed murderer and charismatic leader, are not all that different from the English Chartists. Well, I don't know. 1937 and 1938 were the years of two huge show trials and the ever widening Great Terror that saw the imprisonment, torture, murder and exile of millions. These were also the years in which Stalin's opponents in the West were kidnapped and murdered and non-Communist fighters on the Republican side were as likely to be killed by Soviet agents as by Franco's. I suppose the Chartists never came to power but, somehow, I do not think they were anything like the Communists.

The discussions about Etruria, Olive's hysteria (she gets over it by the end) and Bobby's reluctant admiration for the charismatic leader and confessed murderer shake somewhat his assumption in the need for law and order and wrongness of murder. After all, the victim, an agent of the Redeemer worked for the oppression of Etrurians who would like to have the sort of rights and liberties one enjoys in Britain.

Before he can solve the conundrum, the sea chase is over, the yacht puts in a Scottish harbour and Bobby, after a rest, speeds down to London where there are a couple of red herrings to be disposed of before there is a second murder, the victim being First Murderer. Well, the man had to be got rid of somehow and it would have been altogether too radical to send him back to Etruria, there to exercise his capable charisma and fanaticism as the new leader.

Bobby spots the vital clue and Second Murderer is confronted just as the newsboy shouts that there is an uprising in Etruria, the Redeemer has been shot together with anyone who did not change sides fast enough and the Etrurian People's Party has taken power. Stricken by his conscience and by the fact of the regime change in Etruria, Second Murderer also confesses and explains many hitherto incomprehensible matters. He does not, however, explain how it is that First Murderer, otherwise the Redeemer's greatest enemy whom his agents have never managed to get, should suddenly have turned himself into an easy target.

And that might be that except for the fact that there is another thematic and political twist.We watch with amusement Etrurians rapidly changing sides and announcing that they always knew the Redeemer was a Tyrant to the accompaniment of sardonic comments by Superintendent Ulyett who, at one point, likens those people to the Liberals about whom one cannot be sure whether they turned Tory or are really Labour.

Second Murderer is tried and condemned on his confession. The sentence is then commuted and he is quietly released because the information he has on the Secret Services of the remaining totalitarian states (no, still not the Soviet Union) is valuable enough to Britain, the Dominions and the United States whither he departs to help the government. This is the sort of cynical but practical accommodation we shall get used to in later spy thrillers but here there is an added twist. There is no question but the authorities and with them our heroes as well as the author, having played around with amoral ideas in the name of politics, feel that this is really the domain of those foreigners and the sooner they can be got rid of one way or another the better. Let them get passionate about politics in their own home countries.

In 1937 or 1938 such an attitude can be described as wishful thinking and highly conservative wishful thinking at that.


  1. Helen, there is much less disagreement between us than you suggest in this excellent review. The point I was trying to make is that Golden Age detection is often characterised as reactionary and backward-looking, but this does a grave disservice to many of the better authors of the time. Punshon, Woodthorpe and Bruce Hamilton are examples. But also, while the likes of Anthony Berkeley were conservative in outlook, they were questioning the status quo as well. I certainly didn't mean to imply that crime writers of the 30s, or anyone else, with a conservative outlook, did not detest fsscists and other extremists - far from it.

  2. Demetrius Says:
  3. Etruria? Surely in The Five Towns now all mingled as Stoke on Trent? There may be a complicated joke here that is now beyond us, or was he having a dig at Arnold Bennett? On the other hand the lands of the Mosley family were just up the road.

  4. Helen Says:
  5. I fear I have to plead ignorance about the Five Towns as well, Arnold Bennett not being one of my favourite authors.

    Martin, I don't think we disagree much on the subject. I suppose I saw your comments as a good starting point for my own. Also, I was having a dig at people who maintain that fascism is right-wing and conservative. They all know who they are.

  6. Ron Smyth Says:
  7. Etruria is also an ancient name for a region in Italy, which suggests to me an allusion to Mussolini.

  8. Helen Says:
  9. Yes, indeed, it is and that suggests the Mediterranean rather than Central Europe. Mussolini is mentioned several times in the book as another one of the Redeemer's buddies.

  10. Helen Says:
  11. Yes, indeed, it is and that suggests the Mediterranean rather than Central Europe. Mussolini is mentioned several times in the book as another one of the Redeemer's buddies.

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