Over the Christmas holiday, I read two old fashioned murder mysteries or thrillers. I use the phrase advisedly - these were not classic or vintage crime from the great age of private sleuths, between the wars, but nor were they modern police thrillers aiming to be accurate in terms of procedure and gritty with social or psychological comment. These were in a sense transitional between the two modes, and are almost as dated as a result than any Christie or Sayers.
The two were John Creasey’s The Enemy Within (1950) and Michael Underwood’s Crooked Wood (c 1978). These two books were quite different, utterly distinct in quality and also, though to a lesser degree, in social assumptions. One was seemed a dead end to me, whereas the other, although further removed from modern crime writing, set us on the road in an unexpected way.
Let me deal with the Underwood first. This is set in London in the 1970s, and starts when a senior partner in a firm of solicitors, known for their uncomfortably close association with serious criminals, is shot in a housing estate in east London. It’s basically a courtroom drama, in the sense that the trial provides the temporal span of the book, but there are several excursions out to follow up unexpected evidence and so on. The main police protagonist is Detective Sergeant Attwell, who manages the case with his wife’s assistance (she was a policewoman before they married and had children). The only untruth I have told so far is in the word “drama” – the story is dead on the plate, the prose is flat, there is no excitement, and no sudden understanding (or misunderstanding). Murder, betrayal, judgement, they are all one with a railway timetable and a bar of soap. It is impossible to believe in any of the characters, and they are so flatly drawn, it’s quite often difficult to tell them apart. At the very end, I wasn’t absolutely sure who’d hired the killer – and I didn’t care a dam. And I sympathised with the child who had written at the bottom of the last page, “this must be the most boring book in history”!. If you like this mixture of thriller and courtroom drama, let me recommend the incomparable Michael Gilbert’s 1951 story, Death Has Deep Roots, which is fast moving, exciting, and much more realistic, too.
The other book, The Enemy Within, is much earlier, much more old-fashioned - people drive large cars round central London and park with ease outside theatres and restaurants, for example. It’s full of secret headquarters, spies, passwords and concealed buttons, and it’s completely unbelievable. But it’s well written and an enjoyable lark for a couple of hours as “the Z men” (a secret force within Special Branch) outwit the forces of Soviet communism trying to infiltrate society in London. You know from the beginning that Charles Corliss is a Soviet spy planted inside the Z men’s organisation, but the fun comes from watching him and them trying to outwit each other; the denouement is unlikely to be a big surprise, but there’s enough action and pace for that not to matter. The writing is not fantastic, but it’s OK, a bit dated and occasionally clunky. But the extraordinary thing is the author – John Creasey is one of 28 aliases under which the same man wrote 562 books – or well over one a month if he wrote for 40 years! He wrote spy stories, thrillers, westerns, romances, and probably most famously the Gideon series of modern police procedurals, starting with Gideon’s Day, under the name of J J Marric. I read these avidly when I was a boy, and I’d like to go back to them soon, but they’re not in print although I have read that this will soon be rectified.