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‘Old Wine in New Bottles’

‘New’ books ‘by’ Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.

 

I know of a fun discussion game for ‘literary pals’: imagine that an old manuscript has suddenly been found under the floorboards of an old house. It was penned by a famous deceased novelist and it is a hitherto unknown and unpublished book of his or hers.

If it could be your choice which author it is, which author would you choose?

Well if it were my choice I would be very greedy! Even if I were to confine myself to crime fiction novels only, straight away I would be asking for Margery Allingham – Raymond Chandler - Agatha Christie. Three authors already and I would be only three letters into the alphabet! But I absolutely know that the prospect of reading a new novel by any one of my three nominated authors would fill me with unbearable excitement.

But hang on a minute, Jerry: in the last two or three years there have been ‘new’ published books ‘by’ each of those authors. I don’t of course mean ‘by’ Margery Allingham and ‘by’ Raymond Chandler and ‘by’ Agatha Christie in the express sense. The new books have been commissioned from authors who are alive today. The necessary permissions have been obtained from the family &/or estate of each of the deceased authors, enabling Mike Ripley, Benjamin Black (John Banville), and Sophie Hannah to take on the sizeable challenge of writing ‘new’ mystery thriller stories featuring Albert Campion, Philip Marlowe and Hercule Poirot.

So – what do I think of this notion of asking today’s authors to try and re-create the style and magic of legendary authors from the past? Do I spurn the whole thing, in a hissy fit of “How dare they – it is sacrilege”? Conversely do I wholeheartedly accept the fun of the thing, and eagerly devour each ‘new’ book even though I know that it’s an impure strain of the real thing?

Let’s face it this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Authors have been writing ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes full length or short stories since the 1970s. And in quite recent years we’ve had ‘new’ James Bond, ‘new’ Jane Austen, a sequel to R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and many such others. A trickle is steadily becoming a flood.

My own verdict is that the quality varies considerably but the really good books certainly make it worthwhile for me to swallow my misgivings and to give the modern authors a try. Or to put it another way: ‘half a loaf is better than none’ – there aren’t any leftover books by Margery Allingham, for example, that haven’t already been published but if Mike Ripley can write a jolly good pastiche of one that I can really enjoy, that’s the next best thing, and there is no harm in it, surely?

 

Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion returns in

Mr Campion’s Fox

Mike Ripley

Severn House, 2015

 

Mike Ripley is not quite the first author to produce a posthumous Margery Allingham novel. Her husband Pip Youngman Carter carried on his late wife’s work for an additional three years before his own death in 1969. During that time he seamlessly completed her part-written Cargo of Eagles (1968) that was afterwards published under her name. Next, in his own name, were two novellas Mr Campion’s Farthing (1969) and Mr Campion’s Falcon (1970) the first of which fleshed out an embryonic plot that Margery had recorded in her notebook.

 

The writing of a ‘new’ Campion story must have faced Mike Ripley with some interesting challenges, for Margery Allingham was mercurial in her switching of story styles that featured her aristocratic hero. As a generalisation it might be said that her early (1930s and 1940s) Campion tales were in the style of John Buchan and that they fell, in at least some cases, within the farceur category of crime fiction. But the later tales re-cast Campion as an altogether more serious, subtle and withdrawn character whose intervention as mystery-solver was mostly in harness with the official police investigation.

 

Mike Ripley may have concluded that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? – and in his first very well-received effort Mr Campion’s Farewell (2014) he was credited by the critics for risking his neck to put Campion into “a contemporary setting” and to style him as “older, wiser and perhaps more vulnerable.”

 

Next has come Mr Campion’s Fox (2015) and in the two ‘new’ books so far, Mike Ripley has abided by many of the requisite conventions. He has followed Youngman Carter in choosing the letter ‘F’ for the book titles. He has followed him too in allowing Campion’s son Rupert to feature in the action. In Fox we thankfully re-meet Lady Amanda Fitton (Campion’s wife) and the comic cockney Lugg (delightfully described in one of the long-ago original stories as “a Vulgarian in the service of Mr Campion”). In keeping with Margery Allingham’s usual choice of locations Fox takes us from London (seedy Soho) to East Anglia (the fictional sea-facing village of Gapton). I can thoroughly vouch for Jack Kerridge the Daily Telegraph critic who has declared that the story contains “a good deal of wit, style and Allingham-esque lightness of touch.” 

 

The Black-Eyed Blonde

 Benjamin Black

Henry Holt / Mantle, 2014

 

A new Philip Marlowe story is an especially treasured treat for crime fiction fans when we stop to remember that Raymond Chandler wrote only eight full length ones in his lifetime. The last of these was published after his death in 1959: it was Poodle Springs an unfinished manuscript that was completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989.

The prize-winning novelist John Banville writes crime stories under the name of Benjamin Black and for this debut Philip Marlowe pastiche he has chosen a title that Chandler had been contemplating before he died in 1959. Mrs Clare Cavendish in the title role certainly ticks all the boxes of a trademark Raymond Chandler troublesome dame. Marlowe suspects that he is being suckered into danger and double-cross, but he nevertheless accepts the assignment to find her missing beau. Well, how can Marlowe refuse? “Her hair was blond and her eyes were black, black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners … She had class, she had money to burn, she was married to a polo player, she drove an Italian sports car.”

 

John Banville proves to be a masterful mimic of Marlowe’s ways of thinking and speaking. “An empty house has a way of swallowing sounds, like a dry crack sucking down water.” And, in a railway station cafeteria: “I tasted the coffee and was sorry I had.”

References to the television comedian Jack Benny and the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson provide authentic 1950s background to the story. John Banville is spot-on too with the local topography of west coast Los Angeles: “… The ocean, with long, lazy waves rolling in, and the sandpipers scurrying, and a smokestack off on the horizon trailing behind it a motionless plume of white vapour.”

 

Dramatically for Marlowe, and teasingly to Chandler fans reading this ‘new’ book, John Banville harks back to some infamous characters that had crossed Marlowe’s path in a couple of the original stories. He re-introduces those characters when Marlowe – and readers – are least expecting them.

 

The Monogram Murders

Sophie Hannah

Harper Collins, 2014

 

The literary snobs would probably want us to believe that writing a ‘new’ Agatha Christie story is easy-peasy and no big deal. They hold that her books have no literary merit: her plots are basically all the same; her characters are one-dimensional cardboard stereotypes.

Those of us who live in the real world know that this is nonsense. The reason why Agatha Christie is such an endearing and enduring favourite author, with millions of devoted readers all over the world, is that she is a marvellously good writer and storyteller. Her plots are so cleverly crafted and so wickedly cunning: the ingenious solutions, when revealed, always make us readers feel so silly and inadequate for failing to have seen them in advance!

The mystery of The Monogram Murders is set in the 1920s and unless the reader has a will of iron he or she will surely be hearing the voice and seeing the face of the actor David Suchet every time that Sophie Hannah has Poirot saying things like “D’accord: you put it succinctly, madame,” or has him shuddering to find in a coffee shop that the cutlery beside his plate is not aligned exactly parallel to the table’s straight edge. The television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot ran from 1989 to 2013 and it eventually dramatized every single one of the original Poirot novels. David Suchet indelibly made himself the voice and face of Hercule Poirot for everyone who watched the series.

There is no guarantee that David Suchet would agree to return but if he were offered the script of the accomplished pastiche entitled The Monogram Murders he might find it hard to resist? Needless to say Poirot solves the mystery, but if you read this delightful ‘new’ story, will you solve it too? Best perhaps to take it outdoors and read it there, for Poirot at one point offers the baffled police the good advice: “Ingest the fresh air of this fine winter’s day …it will perhaps help to introduce oxygen to your little grey cells”!

Jerry Dowlen

January 2016

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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