Session 4

Mary Andrea Clarke – Headsman and Hangmen

This was a history of executioners through the ages, and included an examination of the effect of killing on the killers. Although this was an extensively researched and well put together talk, I have to admit that the subject itself is not one that interests me and therefore I did not make many notes. I did record that until 1747 beheading was used for the upper-class who were found of guilty of treason and this needed expertise which the common hangman did not possess, as some gruesome  examples of incompetence testified. Of course hanging could also go horribly wrong if the neck did not snap. In general the job of hangman took a heavy psychological toll of one kind or another.

Laura Wilson – The Demon in the Glass   ; the life and work of Patrick Hamilton

Although massively popular in his life time Patrick Hamilton was largely forgotten after 1962 and is only now returning to fame; no less an authority than Doris Lessing has questioned his absence from the canon of great thirties writers. He was a brilliant chronicler of the life of Southern England of that period, but beyond that he was a British noir writer, excellent at plotting. His work is set in the pubs and clubs of low-life London. Hamilton said that he wanted to present a dark social history. He had very reactionary tastes in literature. His early work is marred by an over-reliance on Dickens. Two of his books are set almost entirely in pubs and in many others all the  crucial scenes are in pubs.

He was born in 1904 into a highly dysfunctional family which formed the background to his need to both write and drink. His father had a giant ego but no talent and drank a great deal. Hamilton hated his father but loved his mother, who was a much better writer. Hamilton always had great difficulties with women; fascinated by prostitutes, he had problems with consummation though there is no evidence that he was gay. After leaving school at 16 he tried to get to University but failed and he lived in a series of boarding houses. His first novel was not a mystery but an autobiography written when he was 21 – it is pretty bad. In 1929 the spectacular success of his play Rope brought him fame and  independence. This year also saw the publication of the first book, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, in his great Streets of London trilogy. He started to develop his trademark subjects – alcohol and prostitutes (who in Hamilton are never ‘tarts with hearts’) . In 1934 Hamilton was hit by a car and heavily injured. He couldn’t work for two years. From now on in his fiction people who own or drive cars are either dodgy or suspect. Unfortunately Hamilton’s political novel of 1938 (Impromptu in Moribundia) – he was by now a committed Communist – is a disaster. However Hangover Square (1941) is a classic mystery; it features yet another predatory woman and there is no doubt that Hamilton was a misogynist. In The Seeds of Solitude (1947) we see his ultimate monster, Mr Thwaites, who is based on his father. In the 1950’s he produced the Gorse trilogy (The West Pier 1952, Mr Simpson and Mr Gorse 1953 and Unknown Assailant 1955 – the latter is not very good). Gorse is not a murderer but a rather inefficient con-man. It is the gaining of power which fascinates Hamilton.

In 1954 Hamilton remarried. He was now drinking very heavily : he spent £2,000 a year (about £80,000 now) on drink – even giving that he was buying bootleg this is an enormous tab! He was a depressive who underwent ECT which did not help him. It is his descriptive writing which is most brilliant, full of meticulous observation. He is quintessentially a 1930’s writer and perhaps it was as well he did not move to other eras (Wilson suggested that Powell’s later books in Dance are a mistake – a judgement with which I must fundamentally disagree!). When reading Hamilton one should start with Hangover Square then move to 20,000 Streets.

Conference Lecture – Natasha Cooper – Looking Behind the Mask

Although there were many excellent talks it was fitting that, in my view, the best was the Conference Lecture by the Conference Guest of Honour, Natasha Cooper, who chaired proceedings brilliantly throughout. Indeed not only was this the best talk of this year; I think it was the best that I have heard at St Hildas, which, even given that I have only attended four, is substantial praise (and even more so as I am not at all sure that I agree with the conclusions!). What really made this address stand out was the way in which it interwove detailed analysis and consideration with a personal credo; the following attempt to reproduce this is sadly defective and I wish that this talk could be published so more people could share in its full excellence.

Cooper started by saying that she had killed off many personal enemies, heavily disguised, in her books. As a child and teenager she had been very ‘nice’ – courteous and considerate. But at the same time she and her sub-conscious took refuge in crime fiction; she was aware of more behind her mask. She proceeded to analyse three of her favourite authors who ‘look behind the mask’.

First Josephine Tey. In Daughter of Time Tey says that faces reveal character, but her fiction militates against this. The classic example of this is The Franchise Affair: two women who have been accused of cruelty turn to a solicitor, Blair, for help. The accuser is described as charming and attractive where the two women are witch-like. But Blair believes in the women and destroys the account which the girl accuser has presented. Another favourite Tey is Bret Farrar.

Next Le Carre, who offers the same message as Tey – not to trust appearances. The finest example of this is George Smiley himself who is Cooper’s greatest hero in mystery fiction.

Finally John Buchan. Unfashionable, sexist, racist he certainly is but Cooper said she still loved him (especially when she has the flu!). In Three Hostages Hannay has to track down the aforesaid hostages to save the free world. He encounters a character, Mr Medina, who is described in almost homoerotic terms – lovely, powerful, masculine etc. but who turns out to be a ruthless and cruel villain. Hannay is left to puzzle how he had missed Medina’s villainy. Buchan’s biography is fascinating; at 5 he was involved in a serious accident where his skull was fractured and he had to spend a year in bed not reading or speaking; this led to a constant theme in the novels of the loss of identity. In Hostages this emerges very prominently when the victims are hypnotised and lose their identities. Cooper actually prefers the Leithen books to the Hannay ones; they look behind the jingoistic/imperialist rhetoric to questions of identity and psychological strains and riddles. In Buchan’s last book, Sick Heart River (1941 published posthumously) Leithen travels to the Canadian Arctic to rescue a man who has tumbled into mental distress – he has suffered both physical and psychological loss. Leithen finds and rescues this man and in the process his own TB is cured. He returns to a native village which is in a desperate state. Leithen stays, cures the village and then dies.

Returning to her general theme Cooper observed that mystery fiction has grown to be the most prominent of all genres. The obvious question is why? In Cooper’s view the answer is to do with the battle of good and evil. It is endlessly reassuring to see bad beaten back, especially by flawed heroes and protagonists. But the method by which mystery fiction achieves this end is by looking behind the mask. And this is something which we have to do in life – if we do not know the truth about ourselves, then we can’t take part in life or build relationships so that the result of the sin of failing to look behind the mask is psychological or existential death.

As I observed at the beginning, while this was a stunning talk which worked both intellectually and emotionally (a rare achievement) and won a well-deserved prolonged ovation, I am not sure I wholly go along with the conclusions either as far as mystery fiction or, indeed, an attitude to life are concerned. In respect of the former I think that an analysis of why the genre is so popular certainly needs to include the question of good defeating evil, but there are many other elements at play, in varying degrees in differing kinds of mystery – some of the major ones would be the pleasure of the intellectual puzzle, the sense of order, the opportunity for sociological and psychological observation, portraits of chaos both social and psychological, gothicism, sensationalism, eroticism (mostly of a particular variation but unquestionably present in some books), romance, humour – the list goes on and on, and (as is obvious from the foregoing) contains factors which are completely contradictory and so  enable the genre’s appeal to be virtually boundless. As far as the attitude to life is concerned it would be even more absurd to start considering that here, but I will briefly say that my central problem would be about the notion that there is some fundamental ‘truth’ about the individual which we can somehow access (this is a problem I have with Existentialism as a whole really). I always find the idea of being true to oneself a deeply suspect one because it begs so many questions about the meaning of ‘oneself’.

The ensuing discussion did not – which was probably a very good thing! – delve into these deeper aspects. Two fairly minor points I picked up on were a discussion of Buchan’s John McNab where to cure their malady four depressed character go off to a remote part of Scotland and engage in feats of poaching which they hope will cure their depression – which it does. This is a Leithen book although Hannay is in it. At the end we are told there have actually been no real risks involved. Finally to point out the lack of perspicuity among reviewers Cooper said she had deliberately named her heroine Willow Ann King and nobody ever picked it up! I am sure I would have failed equally but it was a memorably funny anecdote to end a brilliant session.

At this point I had to leave and I missed the last session which may well have been even more brilliant; but I felt I was leaving an excellent Conference on a real high.