They don’t write ‘em like this no more:
“Life has been intolerably dull of late: in fact since the affair with the masked hunchback on Romney Marsh nothing has happened to make it even bearable.”
Even before you reach the Romney Marsh the full colon tells you this isn’t a Yank tough-guy talking. Yanks don’t use full colons and they box easy on the semi-colons in case it confuses the morons. What we’ve got here is Bulldog Drummond by “Sapper”, the pen-name of Herman Cyril McNeile. He had a good tough-g start in life: he was born in the Navy prison in Bodmin in Cornwall. His old man was the governor.
In the first novel Bulldog Drummond puts an ad in the newspapers looking for trouble. He got it from a bad guy who owned a pet cobra.
The trouble with the Bulldog was he was not only a gent but a rich gent. He was also anti-Semetic (“Who are these Hebrews?” he asked in the opening of The Black Gang. He didn’t like any foreigners. No one did in the 1920s and 30s. They thought Extra Virgin Olive Oil was dirty talk; and that an avocado might be something dangerous that you shoot down Mexico way.
Snobbery with violence was what Coiln Watson called that era of English crime writing. (He got the title from Alan Bennett.) Watson had a go at the Agatha Christie school too. “Mayhem Parva” he called the English villages in which the crimes took place.
What did they want instead?
I suppose it was something like the American School of False Hair on the Chest.
There was, however, at least one authentic tough-guy seated at the typewriter then: Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler, who started life writing little pieces for the New Statesman, said: “Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to supply a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”
I’d like to read that one that used tropical fish as a murder weapon; but then I’m sitting here in form-fitting tweed in a 17th Century cottage in a West Country village.
There is something exciting though about Dashiell Hammett. You could sum up The Thin Man (1932) announcing that retirement suited Nick Charles, until there was a little persuasion. Like four .32 bullets, a blonde, the cops, and a junked-up hoodlum in his bedroom. Nick was back in business.
Chandler, who was a wealthy boarding-school boy, said a lot of things about Hammett. Perhaps the most mysterious was:
“Hammett’s style at its worst was as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean.” I’ve been thinking about Dashiell Hammett since I got a review in The Spectator about a crime novel of mine which said it didn’t come from Dashiell Hammett but Agatha Christie. The Spectator added, “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The trouble, I suppose, is that my ‘tec tales are located in what you could call Mayhem, Massachusetts. Sorry, but that’s where I come from. I was even a crime reporter there. The most significant murder story I did was to tail a murderer who stepped out of prison after twenty years.
I was sent to follow him in case he bumped someone off. He went to a sports shop, bought a set of golf clubs, and went out to play 18 holes of golf. He cheated, I saw him tee-up a fairway shot.
But he had been day-dreaming for twenty years of the lovely roll of grass leading up to a green, with only a bunker standing in his way. That taught me something large.
I hope I got a little of that in Murder In A Cold Climate my “Classic American crime fiction,” out now. Please do check it out, on Amazon or at a bookshop.