Newsletter - Imperial Crime Fiction by Jack

Monday Oct 01 2012
by Jack

The British were the leading creators of early crime fiction, and, not surprisingly, many of their authors and settings involved not simply the United Kingdom, but the far-flung corners of the Empire, those parts, coloured red on maps and on which the sun never set. This essay will examine a few of the Empire’s authors over the years.

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) was born in Singapore (then in British Malaysia) as Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, of mixed-blood parentage -- his father was a Chinese physician, his mother an Englishwoman. His family sent him to England to be educated. He was never quite regarded as “one of us” at the English public schools he attended, nor at Cambridge. Like many a fellow mystery story writer, he bummed around a lot and was educated mainly in the school of life.  Not surprisingly, beginning in 1928 he created the greatest of the Robin Hood figures in the person of Simon Templar, “the Saint,” the ultimate Englishman – suave, debonair, and extremely talented. Templar had more than a forty-year run in more than fifty novels and collections of short stories, and was made several times into a TV and film character. His best known impersonator was Roger Moore. One can hardly help but see Templar, a character of no known background but able to function as a gentleman in the best of British company, as a fantasy projection of his author, much as James Bond was a fantasy projection of Ian Fleming. Templar specialized in rescuing damsels in distress, and in creating vastly elaborate schemes of retribution against gangsters but especially otherwise respectable criminals who would normally escape scot-free from justice. His author doubtless took special delight in bringing such figures down.

Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) is somewhat different than Charteris, and not just in that she is a female. Ngaio (it is pronounced “Nigh-o”) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand to English emigrant parents. She was educated in New Zealand at St. Margaret’s College and made her first trip to England in 1928, the year of the first Saint novel. She ran an interior decoration shop, and with her hair bobbed, she worked as a mannequin. She published her first mystery novel in 1934, introducing the detective characters that would remain with her for the remainder of a career that spanned nearly fifty years: Inspector Roderick Alleyn, assisted by Brer Fox and various other Scotland Yard types. While most imperial writers emigrated to Britain and settled there, Marsh returned home to New Zealand in the mid-1930s and remained there, where she concentrated on creating an English country garden around the family house, directing a student theatrical company of Canterbury College in Shakespeare, and labouriously drafting out in longhand most of the more than 30 novels she wrote featuring Roderick Alleyn. Marsh was one of the younger members of the “Queens of Crime,” women detective writers who remade the British detective novels in the interwar period. Like her compatriot Queens (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Heyer, Mitchell, and Tey), she was a liberated woman who smoked and lived a thoroughly independent life. She never married, never had children, and at least one biographer claims she was a lesbian. Not only did Marsh spend most of her life in New Zealand (with regular trips to England to refresh the old ambiance), but was one of the first major British mystery writers to set her books outside England. A number of her works, beginning with Colour Scheme (1942) were set in New Zealand, where Inspector Alleyn had ended up engaged in counterespionage during the Second World War. Like most of the Queens, Marsh not only created a fictional detective and entourages, but a romantic interest which ripens to marriage in the person of the artist Agatha Troy, who does not accompany her husband to New Zealand and is not in any of the New Zealand novels.  Marsh stuck to closed environments in her New Zealand fiction, setting one novel in a spa, another on a sheep farm, and a third in a New Zealand theatre among a visiting touring company from England.  She is still extremely popular in our store.

Marsh also created a fascinating portrait of a leader of Post-colonial Africa and his entourage at his country’s London embassy in Black as He’s Painted (1974). The African president (nicknamed “The Boomer”) had been to school with Inspector Alleyn, which explains how he gets assigned to protect him from a threatened assassination.  In most of Marsh’s work, the setting is better realized than is the detection. Marsh novels tend to have long lead ups to the murder in which some rather nice social description provides a nuanced view of upper middle class and artsy society in both England and New Zealand. Most critics agree that the novels tend to stultify when Inspector Alleyn finally has to detect. Marsh was proud of her verisimilitude. She read extensively in crime literature and was proud of getting things right. But whether many real Scotland Yard detectives allowed their wives to become involved in their cases is another matter. And it should be added that the Alleyn TV series was, in my view, one of the least well-realised efforts of crime fiction on British television. You always know you’re in trouble when they shift periods from the novels.

Arthur W. Upfield (1890-1964) was an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in adolescence, and served in the Australian army in World War One. Beginning in 1928 he began a series of mystery novels set in Australia featuring the mixed-blood detective Napoleon Bonaparte (better known as “Boney”). The Upfield novels are almost invariably set in the Australian outback, and have offered many a reader (this party included) one of their rare views of the non-urban part of Australia. The outback is hot, dry, and distinctly under populated. There are large numbers of aboriginals. Boney himself is the son of a white man and an aboriginal woman. Not surprisingly, he is a sharp dresser with very cultivated manners.  He also has the aboriginal outdoorsman’s lore -- he is one of the best “trackers” in all of Australia -- but as well has access to all of the “magic medicine” of his people, which he often uses in order to solve the crime and/or catch the criminal.  There are a lot of out-of-body experiences in Upfield novels.  They are almost impossible to obtain new in bookstores and virtually the only copies now held by the Winnipeg Public Library are large-print editions done in the 1980s. They occasionally turn up at garage sales or in used bookstores like ours.

Turning to more modern writers, William Marshall (b. 1944) is another Australian who spent a lot of time in Asia. He has used two Asian locations for mystery fiction: the Phillippines and Hong Kong. The Chinese city appears as the location for a series of sixteen police procedurals. The series ended in 1997 with the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. Marshall has created an imaginary precinct (Hong Bay) and an imaginary precinct house (Yellowthread Street station), which he has peopled with an international collection of policemen who all work in Hong Kong. Most of the police detectives and specialist staff (the pathologists, the coroner) are British, although Christopher O’Yee is of Irish-Chinese ancestry educated in the United States. The lower rank cops are mainly Chinese. This is apparently very accurate, at least for Hong Kong before 30 June 1997. We get no sense of the governance of Hong Kong in these books. The Yellowthread Street stories are modern police procedurals strongly influenced by Ed McBain. Unlike the traditional procedural, which follows the investigators attempting to solve a crime (the classic format), this new style follows the action at a precinct or a station house, where the detectives work on a variety of cases simultaneously. This format was successfully used by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct novels and imitated by many others, including Dell Shannon. The approach works very well in polyglot Hong Kong. The detectives are multilingual, speaking English and Cantonese, occasionally English and Mandarin. The criminals are usually not Europeans, but Chinese or natives of Hong Kong. Marshall has a macabre sense of humour, and he often writes in a vein of black comedy. This series is not easy to get, but it is brilliant.

South Africa is the scene of a series by James McClure (1939-2006), featuring an Africaaner detective, Tromp Kramer, and his black Bantu assistant, Sergeant Zondi. Writing about South Africa, of course, is going to be controversial, especially in the days of Apartheid. McClure is originally a South African, although the books were written from England. There are eight titles, beginning in 1971. There has been much criticism of this series, claiming, in the words of one literary commentator, it “gives a frozen and ultimately unrealistic picture of social reality” in South Africa, communicating a sense of stability not ordinarily observable. It is certainly true that McClure does not write about the black communities nor about police activities in them. There is no riot control and little police repression in McClure’s books, for example. At best, the author tries to embody the liberal hopes for slow evolutionary change. His is the voice of white privilege, and he cannot speak for the black majority in a repressive system. Only the white victims embody the particular social pathologies of South Africa’s system, although the antipathy of English and Boers is a constant chorus in the books. The blacks are both seen and unseen, often as part of the anti-world of non-gentility. Zondi is said by many commentators to have bought into the system, which of course ultimately affirms apartheid. The series was said to be extremely popular in South Africa in the white communities, but despite its limitations, it offers an interesting and useful depiction of a troubled country. 

Finally, we turn to a series of detective stories by Michael Pearce (b. 1933), involving Captain Gavin Owen, the “Mamur Zapt” in turn of the century Cairo. Egypt in the early years of the twentieth century was officially autonomous politically, but was really administered by a small cadre of British advisors who worked quietly beyond the scenes to run the country. The Mamur Zapt was a traditional post carried over from the days of Turkish rule. He was head of Egypt’s secret service. This series of sixteen novels, written in the 1980s and 1990s about Egypt a century earlier, gives the reader some notion of how indirect rule worked in Egypt and elsewhere in the British Empire around the world. The political situation, in which the British “advisors” are caught between the Nationalist Party on the one hand, and the French on the other, between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority, is the backdrop for cases of crime and murder that have to be solved.  The crimes usually involve native customs and traditions. One can learn more about modern Egypt from these books than from most writings on the country.

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