Lecture: Crime Fiction in the British Empire

Sunday Dec 14 2008
by Whodunit

Whodunit Lecture Series 2008

Mystery Fiction and the British Empire

As is usually the case with such matters, the British Empire works in a variety of ways in mystery fiction.  It serves (1) to provide authors, both in Britain in the classic period and in Canada since World War II; (2) to provide characters; (3) to facilitate  plots, chiefly by allowing people to be not whom they seem; (4) it provides exotic settings.  Let us turn to each of these in turn.

There are five authors in the early history of  British mystery fiction who were born in or brought up in the “colonies:” Rudyard Kipling, Grant Allan, Robert Barr, Ngaio Marsh, and Leslie Charteris. 

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in Bombay, the son of John Lockwood Kipling, the principal later of the School of Art at Lahore and Alice Macdonald, sister of a Methodist minister named Frederic Macdonald.  There is a tendency to think of Anglo-Indians as British nobodies but that was certainly not true of the Kiplings.  Lockwood was a distinguished artist (sculptor and pottery designer) , educator, and scholar.  One of his wife’s sisters married Edward Burne-Jones, the distinguished pre-Raphaelite painter and friend of William Morris; another married Edward Poynter, a president of the Royal Academy; and a third married a wealthy ironmaster and became the mother of Stanley Baldwin, a British Prime Minister.  So Kipling had close family connections into the world of Victorian high art, and a cousin who was prime minister of Great Britain.  Like many Brits, Lockwood had gone to India because he was offered a better-paying job at an earlier age than he would have received at home.  Young Ruddy came from an artistic background and was brought up among artists.  He was educated at the United Services College, which he would make famous in Stalkey and Company as “Westward Ho.”   We do not normally think of Kipling as a mystery writer, but in his time he was associated with writers like H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan who wrote adventure stories, and certainly Kim was, among other things, a very fine novel about the espionage side of the “Great Game in Asia.”  A number of Kipling’s better stories have mystery overtones, such as “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,” which explains why a British regiment in India breaks before the enemy, and the better-known “The Man Who Would be King,” which is framed in the first person by the narrator, who may well be Kipling himself.  Kipling was one the great imperialist writers in the age of imperialism, particularly noted for his verse. 

Grant Allan (1848-1899) was born in near Kingston, Canada West.  He was privately educated in Canada before entering Merton College, Oxford.  He then went on to teach at a school for black students in Jamaica (1873-6) before returning to England to earn a precarious income as a freelance writer.  In the course of his career he published more than forty novels and short-story collections, as well as an enormous volume of journalism and non-fiction (including a study of Charles Darwin and The Evolution of the Idea of God).  His last work, being serialized in The Strand Magazine at the time of his death, was completed by his close friend Arthur Conan Doyle.  Allan’s most famous (or notorious) novel was entitled The Woman Who Did (1895).  And what did she do?  Well, she insisted on having a love affair and a child without marriage and living happily ever after.  Many of his novels and short-stories were criminous or mysterious, although he is remembered mainly for one book, which is frequently anthologized: An African millionaie: episodes in the life of the illustrious Colonel Clay (1897).  This collection of short-stories featured a confidence trickster, master of disguise and legerdermain named Colonel Clay, who was “the first great thief of short mystery fiction”, anticipating by several years E. W. Hornung’s Raffles.

Robert Barr (1850-1912) was born in Glasgow, but was brought to Canada by his family at the age of 4, growing up near Windsor.  After an early career as a school teacher  he entered journalism, then removed to England to become a journal editor and writer.  With Jerome K. Jerome (the “three men in a boat” man), he established The Idler in 1892, which published Stephen Carne, George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Conan Doyle.  Many of his short stories were mysterious; his first collection of stories was entitled Strange Happenings.  (1883).  His major contribution was a collection of short stories published in 1906, entitled The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont.  Valmont was a French detective who narrated his tales in the first person and has often been taken as the model for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.  I think myself that Hercule is more the product of an author who wanted a detective as far removed from Sherlock Holmes as it was possible to get.  Make him a Frenchman, give him a funny name (Hercule is obviously not Hercules), and set him going.  But Barr’s Valmont stuff, especially a very well-known piece entitled “The Absent-Minded Coterie,” is often anthologized. 

Leslie Charteris was born in Singapore in 1907 as Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin , of mixed-blood parentage -- his father was a Chinese physician, his mother an Englishwoman.  He was never quite regarded as “pukka” at the English public schools he attended, nor at Cambridge.  Like many a mystery story writer, he bummed around a lot and was educated mainly in the school of life.   Not surprisingly, he created the greatest of the Robin Hood figures in the person of Simon Templar, “the Saint.”  Templar had more than a forty-year run in almost as many novels, 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 suave debonair character of no known background but able to pass 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 specializes in rescuing damsels in distress, and in creating vastly elaborate schemes of retribution against gangsters and especially respectable criminals who would otherwise escape scot-free from justice.

Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) is somewhat different than the previous four, and not just in that she is not a male.  Ngaio (it is pronounced “Ny-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.  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 the previous writers all 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.  She 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.   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 versimilitude.  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 is, in my view, one of the least  well-realised efforts of British television.  You always know you’re in trouble when they shift periods from the novels.

While the colonial writer in England was a fairly common phenomenon in the days of empire, it is now happens considerably less often.  About the only recent mystery writer I could think of who was born in the colonies is Gillian Slovo, who was born in South Africa to marxist radical parents and who writes some of the best feminist mystery stuff around today. 
I don’t want to say much about the reverse process with authors, by which Britain supplies the colonies with some of its best writers, because it tends to be a post world war II phenomenon and technically post-imperial (if not post-colonial).  But just to remind you, a number of Canada’s best mystery writers come from the British Isles.  Names include Eric Wright, John Brady, Peter Robinson, Matthew Quogan, Shaun Herron (who actually lived in Manitoba and wrote spy thrillers about a retired spy named Miro), and Sara Woods.  With the exception of Eric Wright, whose Toronto detective Charlie Salter was an inspired piece of Canadiana, and Matthew Quogan, the rest of these guys and gals wrote most of the time as though Canada never existed.  They resolutely continued to set their books in the old country.  John Brady writes about contemporary Ireland, Peter Robinson about the contemporary North of England territory, Herron about an international spy world often centered in Ireland, and Woods about a sort-of contemporary barrister living in London.   A few Canadian authors such as Norah Kelly also set their books in Britain, so I guess turnabout is fair play. 

As far as character development is concerned, the empire contributes only a fairly narrow range of stock characters.  One is the “Buchaneer,” the type of hero usually associated with the writing of John Buchan.  Many people associate Buchan’s writing with the empire, but in truth most of his adventure and spy fiction (especially that involving Richard Hannay) is set in Europe during and after World War I.  Nevertheless, Hannay himself was the classic Buchaneer: tall, clear-eyed, bronzed, a perfect specimen of mankind who had kept himself fit on the veldt of Africa.  Thanks to Buchan and H. Rider Haggard, heroes who come from the colonies almost always hail from South Africa.  Agatha Christie produced a similar specimen in  The Secret of Chimneys (1925).  Anthony Cade -- with his “tall lean figure, his sun-tanned face, and [his] light-hearted manner” leaves the tour he was guiding in South Africa and returns to England to substitute for a friend.  Before the novel is over it transpires that Cade is really the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia, who has escaped his country’s dynastic turmoil by retreating into the anonymity of the British colonies.  Christie did produce a non-South African colonial hero in Murder is Easy (1939).  Luke Fitzwilliam has recently retired as a police inspector somewhere in Asia.  She also produced a Buchaneering heroine in Anne Beddingford, star of The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), which was Christie’s third novel.  Africa figures in this book, only in reverse.  Instead of coming from Africa, one goes to Africa.  Anne uses a small inheritance from her archaeologist father to pursue villainy to the diamond mines of South Africa.  She is easily one of Christie’s most liberated women, at least at the beginning, although she ends up marrying a rich young man and moving to Rhodesia.

More than heroes and heroines, however, the empire produces villains.  Nearly half of the first 25 Sherlock Holmes stories feature colonial villains of one sort or another.  Some come back from the colonies with their ill-gotten gains to settle into respectability, and others follow them to England to wreak a terrible revenge for the way they had been treated earlier on.  Often there is a gang of conspirators sworn to vengeance.  The other stock ex-colonial villain in the Holmes stories is the cruel older man who has obviously had his morality buds excised through his years abroad dealing with colonials.  Often these villains are ex-officers, usually from India.  They often emotionally abuse females and in some cases threaten them with physical violence.   The evil ex-Indian army man is a stock villain in mystery fiction between the wars.  He makes an appearance in Georgette Heyer’s first book, Footsteps in the Dark, in the person of Colonel Ackerly.  When Ackerly is exposed at the end of the book, he asks the young detective “how did you guess my identity?”  The answer is, “When a man of your stamp is seen to be on terms of apparent intimacy with the local publican, one is apt to draw unwelcome conclusions.”

The Empire also produces plot devices.  The early mystery story frequently used the colonies (particularly Australia and Canada) as a place from which people (often wealthy) returned to England who were not known to anyone in the old country.  They could pass as somebody else.  Their bodies also could be misidentified and could be given other names at will.  One of the most common plot devices in the early mystery is the live impersonation, but only just behind it is the impersonation of dead bodies, which are passed off as somebody else.  A couple of examples of this convoluted  impersonation stuff will suffice.  In Christie’s Murder on the Links, the victim is an accused murder of 20 odd years earlier, who has assumed a new identity (as a Canadian) and plans his own false death to escape a blackmailer.  In Dame Agatha’s Dead Man’s Folly, the murderer impersonates a rich businessman in order to live as an outsider in his familial property, using the money generated by his wife, who is impersonating a rich Caribbean heiress.  In Christie’s The Clocks, the second wife impersonates the first wife in order to inherit a Canadian fortune, and the murder is simply to prevent someone knowledgeable from identifying the imposture.  The second wife simply uses all of the documents of the first (deceased) wife, and is never checked up on in the Canadian legal process.  Christie obviously didn’t think the Canadian legal process was very thorough.   Finally, the colonies were a place to which scapegraces and other criminals could escape instead of bringing brought to justice.  The murderer in Christie’s Why Didn’t They Tell Evans?, another tale in which the corpse impersonates somebody else, in the end escapes to the colonies, leaving a note behind tying up all the loose ends. 

But mostly what the Empire does is to provide some splendid settings and some splendid characters to people them.  Few of the mystery books and series about exotic locations in the British Empire are produced by natives or even long-term residents of that location.  Most are by professional British writers, usually writing from Britain.  With the exception of the earliest, all are police procedurals, focusing on policemen in various corners of the world doing their jobs under semi-realistic circumstances.

One of the earliest and most interesting is “November Joe,” the detective in a book of short stories of the same name by Englishman H. Hesketh Prichard (1876-1922).  Prichard wrote extensively on sports and the outdoors.  He had a serious heart defect (a wonky valve) and like many of his era preferred to ignore it in favour of the active life.  He travelled extensively, big-game hunting in Africa and small game hunting in Canada.    Joe is a Canadian woodsman, possibly of mixed blood, who helps the Quebec police investigate crimes in the province’s backwoods wilderness.  As the author points out, “The specialty of a Sherlock Holmes is the everyday routine of a woodsman.  Observation and deduction are part and parcel of his daily existence.  He literally reads as he runs.  The floor of the forest is his page.”  So Joe uses woodcraft in imitation of Baker Street in order to solve his cases.  In “The Murder at the Duck Club,” Joe deduces from the absence of footprints that the killer has used a canoe, and from his knowledge of shotguns and shotgun cartridges the identity of the killer, who is an Indian squaw seeking revenge for the earlier death of her son, sentenced to prison by the victim.  Joe concludes this story: “I guess our civilized justice does seem wonderful topsy-turvy to them Indians sometimes,” he said.

Another interesting setting is provided by Elspeth Huxley, who wrote three mystery novels in the 1930s set in Chania, a thinly-disguised Rhodesia. The sleuth is a former Mountie named Vachell.  He is perhaps the first Canadian-born series detective, since he stars in all three books.   Murder at Government House describes the murder of the colonial governor in his residence in the colonial capital.  The reader learns a good deal about how the British governed their third-world colonies.  The capital city, with a few brief sentences omitted, could have passed for any European city anywhere in the world, however.  The few sentences, of course, acknowledge the existence of a huge black community.    In The African Poison Murders Vachell has to deal with a Mau-Mau type of black uprising in a rural district of white farmers, within which white people murder one another and try to blame it on the rebels.  In Murder on Safaris, Vachell goes on a big-game hunting safari to try to solve a jewel robbery and eventually a series of murders.  This one features another one of those rare liberated women.  Chris Davis is a pilot and hunter who can read the spoor of an elephant and knows more about the flora and fauna than almost anyone on the safari except the chief hunter.  Once again the author spoils it, however, ending up treating Chris as the love interest and concluding the book with a promise of romance.

Arthur W. Upfield was an Englishman who emigrated to Australia.  In the later years of his life during the 1940s and 1950s he wrote a series of mystery novels set in Australia featuring the mixed-blood detective Napolean Bonaparte (better known as “Boney”).  The Upfield novels are almost invariably set in the Australian outback, and offered many a reader (this party included) one of their rare views of this part of Australia.  The outback is hot, dry, and distinctly underpopulated.  Boney is the son of a white man and an aboriginal woman.  He has November Joe’s outdoorsman’s lore -- he is one of the best “trackers” in all of Australia -- but he also 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 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.

H.R.F. Keating’s novels about Inspector Ghote (pronounced Go-tay) of the Bombay Police in India are interesting simply in terms of their genesis.   Like most of the authors I am discussing (and a good many more who set their work in unusual foreign locations), Keating was a Brit, actually an Anglo-Irishman born and educated in Dublin before moving to London to become a journalist and writer.   Keating wrote the first novel about Ghote in 1963.  He was an experienced mystery writer whose specialty was the use of unusual, even exotic, locations.  He had never been to India, however, and so his Indian background was based entirely on research he had done at his local library.  The novel was intended as a one-off.  The Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder  won several major mystery prizes, including the Gold Dagger and an Edgar Allan Poe award in the United States.  And so Ghote had an unexpected lease on life.  Keating had completed a number of novels and short stories about Ghote before he finally got to visit India in 1974.  He made some mistakes, but most of them were on cultural details that he might have got wrong even had he been in permanent residence in India.  He has written that he did not have to correct his previous images of Bombay and India very much after seeing it all in person.  “Everything was more than I had believed.  The colours were brighter.  The clamour was louder.  The rich were richer.  The poor were, yes, poorer and occasionally more outwardly wretched than I had been able to conceive of.”  But the India of his imagination held up pretty well.  One change he made was to the police department environment, based upon visits there.  Ghote lost his old scratched-up desk and acquired a glass-topped one, for the Bombay police worked in more modern quarters than Keating had imagined.  You either like Ghote or you don’t.  I am one of the don’ts.  I sense that both he and his characters are larger than life caricatured Indians, subtly different than the one written about by authors like Rohinton Mistry.  I have some difficulty knowing when Keating is trying to be amusing and when he is not.  I also don’t like the constant interior monologues which Ghote carries on with himself -- he has no colleagues to discuss his cases with.  But nobody else writes police procedural detective stories set in India.  I find it curious than no native Indian (or ex-Indian) writer has had a go at the genre, but I don’t know of anybody.  To my mind Keating’s less successful books often send Ghote abroad -- to London, to the United States -- where the cultural conflicts become very stereotyped.

William Marshall is another Brit 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 police procedurals.  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.  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 procedural is Freeman Willis Croft’s Inspector French stories of the 1920s and 1930s, and Vachell, Boney, and Ghote, as well as several cops I haven’t yet discussed),  the new style follows 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 Hong Kongers.  Marshall has a macabre sense of humour, and he often writes in a vein of black comedy.  This series is not easy to get, although the WPL has copies of most it in various branches.  Nor is it for everybody, but it is wonderful.

South Africa has given us two series.  One, by James McClure, features an Africaner detective, Tromp Kramer and his black Bantu assistant, Sergeant Zondi.  Writing about South Africa, of course, is always controversial, especially in the days of Apartheid.  McClure is originally a South African, although the books are written from England. 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 or about police activities in them or in defense of apartheid. There is no riot control 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 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 part of the anti world of non-gentility.  Zondi is said to have bought into the system, which of course affirms apartheid.  The series was extremely popular in South Africa in the white communities.  

The other series, only two books long, is by Englishman Tom Sharpe, who emigrated to South Africa in 1951.  The books are entitled Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure.   Sharpe was a social worker, a teacher, and a photographer in Natal, before he was deported  from the country for his criticism of the regime.  Like McClure, Sharpe writes of the Afrikaaner police force in a town called Piemberg, obviously the Pietermaritzburg where he lived for some years.  His detective is Kommandant Van Heerden, the town’s chief of police, assisted by Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els.  Van Heerden was an anglophile, while Verkramp hated the English and Els the blacks.  “His natural aptitude for violence and particularly for shooting black people was only equalled by his taste for brandy and his predilection for forcing the less attractive parts of his person into those parts of African women legally reserved for male members of their own race.”  But Els had his virtues, one of which was his ability to operate “the electrical-therapy machine which had proved such a boon in extracting confessions from suspects.”    Sharpe’s Afrikaaners are caricatures.  They are not very bright, narrow-minded, and repressive.  In Riotous Assembly this collection of cops are summoned to Jacaranda House, the ancestral home of Judge Hazelstone, an Anglo judge who had advocated flogging for parking offences.  [read pages 16-18]  It does turn out to be a difficult case.  Miss Hazelstone not only insisted that she had shot her Zulu cook, but that he was her lover in a variety of forms of kinky sex and the motive for the shooting had been jealousy.  [read 25 ff.]  The plot gets very convoluted, and Konstable Els is in the middle of what becomes for Sharpe in later novels a typical situation of total mayhem.   In Indecent Exposure, Sharpe allows the Kommandant, who was told at the end of the previous book he had been given in a heart transplant the heart of Miss Hazelstone’s clergyman brother, to become involved with a group of English who call themselves the “Dornford Yates Club.”  Dornford Yates wrote a series of criminous stories between the wars about the “clubland”set, and Sharpe builds a literary satire into his larger political one. There are many strands to the plot.  One involves efforts by the police to identify those within their ranks who would be susceptible to Communist infiltration (in South Africa, any critic of the regime was a Communist).  [read 33-35.]  Sharpe is a satirist who specializes in vaguely or sometimes explicitly off-colour humour, and these books are full of it.  In the end, the reader senses that the Afrikaaners have been truly sent up.

Finally, we turn to a series of detective stories by Michael Pearce, involving Captain Gavin Owen, the “Mamur Zapt” in turn of the century Cairo.  Egypt in the early years of the century was officially autonomous politically, but was really administered by a small cadre of British advisors who worked quietly beyind 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, 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 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.  

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