Detective fiction, in this particular case, and the author being C.P.Snow: Sir Charles Snow in private life*.
C.P. Snow's first published work was called Death Under Sail
first published 1932, though actually it was the 1959 edition published by Penguin in 1963 which I had the dubious pleasure of re-reading (I'd first read it aged about 16 or so, when my father got it out from the library, and not recalled much of anything about it except that it happened on a wherry, which I knew about from Arthur Ransome, and a lot of the action does indeed take place around Horning and Potter Heigham.)
I picked up this particular copy in Cardiff, where I managed to have just the kind of secondhand bookshopping experience I'd hoped for in Oxford, but not managed. It has C.P.Snow's Author's Note at the front, the following extracts from which should have been sufficient warning not to proceed:
Why I started [he explains in the paragraph about that Death Under Sail was his first novel] with a detective story is obscure to me now and woul ahve been so at the time. I suspect I had a sense that I was one of those writers who have to nose their way among experience before they know what they are good for. Anyway, I did write a detective story, a stylized, artificial detective story very much in the manner of the day. At the time it was very well received, and I found that, having partially escaped from the scientific trap [he was 26 at the time] I was being lured into another. There were all sorts of temptations set up in from of me to get me to set up as a detective story writer.
In fact, I never had any intention of writing another. They are great fun to write, but they take almost as long as a novel proper: I already knew what I wanted to do, and I also knew there would be scarcely time enough for that. If I had had another life-time to play with, though, I shoulc have liked to write some more detective stories. I shouldn't have gone on with the convention in which Death Under Sail was written. I should have had a shot at the real roman policier, bringing the story as near to a realistic novel as I could. No one, not even Simenon, has done quite what I should like to see. I believe the field is still wide open.
The level of condescension is staggering, especially given that while one might be quite proud of Death Under Sail
as a first novel in 1932, by 1959 he should have simply let it sink without trace.
It's particularly weird to experience because while you can tell Snow knows he's working within an artificial, convention-heavy genre, but Death Under Sail
is so tin-eared about the conventions in question. It's almost as if once he knows he's not expected to be naturalistic, all attempts to be realistic
fall out of the window, too. Also, "artificial" is one thing, as are flat characters, as are stereotypes. People being disassociated from the events depicted to the point of psychopathy is something else entirely.
Basically, Death Under Sail
would have worked extremely well as an Agatha Christie. One of the reasons it would have worked well is that either or both of the first person narrator, irritating Ian or his mate Finbow**, who is the detective, would have realised that if
one is in a situation where the owner of a yacht has been shot by one of the the other five people on board, all of whom are now staying with you in a borrowed bungalow in Potter Heigham (i) one is at uncomfortably close quarters with a murderer;(ii) someone (not necessarily the murderer) is in danger of being hanged; and (iii) if the murderer starts to panic, someone else is likely to end up dead. And the reactions of the characters would be shaped by that underlying fear.
None of these thoughts appear to cross anyone's mind in Death Under Sail
. People go out for midnight snogging sessions in the middle of Hickling Broad in motorboats and the worst that happens is that the housekeeper, Mrs Tufts (whose bolshie attitude to having unexpectedly to cater for seven people, one of whom is a murderer and all of whom are rude to her is put down entirely to her being prudish and Not Our Sort Dear) gets stroppy.
Mostly they sit around playing bridge without even considering doing things like speaking to their lawyers or anything of that sort. No idea that there could be consequences of even being suspected of murder crosses their minds.
The detective inspector, Aloysius Birrell, is ludicrous even by the standards of the police in inter-War detective fiction. He works solo. There is no press interest. One might think that Harley Street practitioners were shot at the helms of private wherries on the Norfolk Broads every day of the week.
It really is an example of Snow, who name-checks Sayers at least twice, clearly assuming anything any of the writers in the genre can do, he can do better by virtue of being a proper
novelist and the result is frankly bizarre
*(yes, I know he later became a Lord, but not when Flanders and Swann made that particular crack.)
** Finbow believes that since cricket went to the dogs as a result of
limited overs games
the West Indies having a black captain
- well, whatever people were getting pissed off about cricket going to the dogs about in 1932, the only way to enjoy it these days is to go to Lord's when there isn't a game on and drink tea aphoristically at the square.