Wednesday, March 31, 2010
SNOBBERY WITH VIOLENCE by Colin Watson
I've never read any of Colin Watson's mystery novels, but I can tell by this book that he's a canny observer of early 20th century crime fiction, and its audience. And that's part of the book's interest, as it's subtitled "Crime Stories and Their Audience."
Watson takes us from Conan Doyle's idealized Victorian world to the introduction of A. J. Raffles, the seminal "gentleman burglar" whose exploits were regarded as sporting adventures rather than crimes, and his attacks on opponents as being more akin to tackles on the playing field than violence against his victims. Interestingly, Watson later draws a connection between Raffles and James Bond, reflecting that both operate outside the law, are very gentlemanly, and their adventures are seen as more sporting than brutal, no matter how violent they are. And given the new popularity of James Bond video games, I can say that Watson was reading it right.
He also dips into William Le Queux (who in THE GAMBLERS flattered his readers while offering escapism..."Need I describe the wonders of Paris to you? I think not."), "Sapper" and his Bulldog Drummond series (clicking with between-the-wars jingoism expressed by some at the time), Edgar Wallace and his crank-em-out thrillers (a reproduced cartoon of the period has a bookseller asking a customer, "Read the mid-day Wallace, sir?"), and Sydney Horler's hang-ups with manliness.
And then there's a look at the "Golden Age" of detective fiction, and then he examines attitudes toward Asians and foreigners in general, attitudes toward servants and lower classes, women, English villages a la Christie, amateur detectives, style and bohemianism, and automobiles and daredevil behavior. He ends with two chapters, the first looking at Leslie Charteris' "The Saint" and how the character's longevity (developing from a near-clone of Bulldog Drummond to a stylish adventurer-detective) is due to his adaptability to the changing times. And the very last is about James Bond, who represents a turning point from traditional British tropes to an American-influenced violent realism. (Yeah, despite the Raffles-ish "sporting" style.)
Watson's real strength is looking at how this early crime fiction was a product and reflection of its times and in many cases, of the author's attitudes and hang-ups, ranging from Sydney Horler's anxieties about masculinity to Sax Rohmer's seeming horror of anything Asian. It's eye-opening and informative.
SNOBBERY WITH VIOLENCE was published in 1971 and reprinted a few times, but now is out of print. I borrowed a copy through interlibrary loan, but I'm probably going to prowl Abebooks to find my own copy. There's too much fun stuff here, and anyone reading it will be scribbling down titles for books to look up. (Alas, Le Queux's THE GAMBLERS is out of print and not available as an ebook...annoyingly, as I'm looking for info about Monte Carlo.)