Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Body in the Beck - Joanna Cannan


There are some detectives in the history of crime fiction who were created for the express purpose of infuriating the reader, I think.  Roger Sheringham was probably one of the first smug detectives who was far from likeable in his first few outings.  There's Philo Vance with his prissy urbanity and show-off erudition.  I recall a police inspector character created by American mystery writer Hugh Austin named Peter Quint who was one rude sonofabitch when dealing with his suspects. And if you flash forward a couple of decades out of the Golden Age it's hard to avoid Joyce Porter's insufferably lazy, rude and sloppy Wilfrid Dover. Some of these detectives are created as comic figures of  ridicule, others seem to have earned their irritating and annoying traits unintentionally. In the school of the detective as object of ridicule we can place Inspector Ronald Price who makes his debut in The Body in the Beck, (1952) one of Joanna Cannan's few forays into legitimate detective fiction.

Price is tasked with investigating the murder of a man found dead in the mountains of the Lake District.  He immediately suspects Francis Worthington, an academic and mountaineer, who discovered the body found beaten and possibly drowned in a small stream (the "beck" of the title).  Cannan sets up Price as a fool of a policeman and proceeds to discredit him both in his professional capacity and in his narrow minded view of humanity.  He is painted as a xenophobic prig uptight about sex.  She reveals him to be pretentious in manner and speech, moralistic about crime, and supercilious in his treatment of suspects he feels are his superiors. Everyone he interrogates is appalled by his lack of respect at an Oxford college where he tries to learn what he can about Worthington.  Old Man Meade, a veteran don, is particularly disturbed by Price's lack of grammatical skill during their interview. This is a remarkable kind of protagonist for any mystery writer to introduce.  Shockingly, Price goes onto appear in four more books.  Cannan must have been amusing herself a great deal.

The detective plot is scant. It is clear that Worthington is innocent and he sets out to try to clear his name as Price continues to move adamantly forward in an attempt to prove him guilty.  Price lucks out when he runs fingerprints on the victim and learns he has a police record primarily for extortion and crimes related to an intimidation racket. But his obsession with Worthington soon leads the reader to give up all hope on Inspector Price solving the crime.  More and more one looks forward to Worthington's few scenes of detective work. When he sees someone making frequent trips to an abandoned well he begins to piece together the mystery of who, how, and why the victim was killed and dumped in the mountain stream. The identity of the murder therefore does not come as too much of a surprise in the end, though the motive and other aspects leading up the murder do supply a mild eyebrow raising moment.

If the book fails to excite as a mystery novel it cannot be said that it is altogether uninteresting. What distinguishes this book is Cannan's skillful characterizations, especially when the story focuses on the academics and the mountaineering tourists. Her other asset is an often indulgent and wry British humor notably when dealing with Price and his backward social skills. There was one physical description of Price's smile ("revealing pearly dentures, which was meant to be reassuring, but brought crocodiles to mind") that summoned an image of the wickedly acerbic Beatrice Bradley, often called Mrs. Croc in the mystery novels of Gladys Mitchell.

Another remarkable feature of the book is Cannan's obsession with mountaineering poetry.  Apparently there is a very scarce volume of such poems -- The Englishman in the Alps edited by Sir Arnold Lunn (1913) -- she dipped into for repeated obscure literary allusions.  And I of course had to look up every last one of them!  Francis Worthington, his climbing partner Sebastian, as well as a woman psychologist and one of the elderly dons all spout forth passages from arcane poems and long forgotten works of England's literary past, most of which turn up in Lunn's anthology. One poem "Separation" by Walter Savage Landor is often quoted (" Between us now the mountains and the wood/Seem standing darker than last year stood").  Other poets quoted include A. D. Godley, Thomas Macaulay's "The Lays of Ancient Rome" and the initialed near anonymous author known only as B. K. whose "Levavi Oculos" serves as the source for another oft repeated phrase ("Grant I may pass with strength undimmed and find/The sleep that is more ancient than the hills.")

Speaking of hills, the phrase "the hills sleep on in their eternity" crops up a couple of times. Not only is it an allusion to the poem "Friendship" by Hartley Coleridge, but those familiar with Cannan's bibliography may catch that it is a reference to one of her earliest works The Hills Sleep On (1937), a borderline crime novel.

And if her love of undistinguished mountain poetry was not enough allusion play Cannan also has a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of scene in which she makes fun of herself.  Price visits Worthington's sometime mistress Lady Nollis and while waiting for the woman to be summoned by her servants he peruses the titles of her bookshelf. There he finds a miniature library of children's books with the titles like I Wanted a Pony, They Bought Her a Pony, and Plenty of Ponies.  In addition to her mainstream novels and crime fiction Joanna Cannan is probably best known for her pony books written for young girls (and perhaps a few boys). Those titles Price discovered on Lady's Nollis' bookshelves are genuine books written by Cannan and her two daughters, Christine & Diane Pullein-Thompson, who also became writers of horse and pony books.

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Reading Challenge update:  E6 on the Golden Age Bingo Card - "A Book You Have to Borrow."  I took this one out of the Chicago Public Library.

26 comments:

  1. Pretty funny that she mocked her own books: I Wanted a Pony, They Bought Her a Pony, and Plenty of Ponies!

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    1. Tony, you forgot the last one: Too Many Damn Ponies! ;)

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  2. Great picture of the author! I was surprised Barzun and Taylor picked this as her best mystery, when I would put it near the bottom of her work.

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    1. The photo accompanied an interesting essay she wrote for The Bookman entitled "The New Trend in Fiction" (December 1933 issue). By then she had already written ten novels ("but of the first three she prefers to say nothing, resenting that 'the follies of our youth should be the shame of age' "). Her bio sketch preceding the essay mentioned her love of mountains and climbing holidays. My favorite part of her bio: "She considers herself to be a hopeless reactionary, prefers the horse to the combustion engine, the raising of poultry to the playing of games, the cries of her guinea-fowls to the remarks of her fellowmen." I think I understand her!

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    2. She has a very interesting ideology. Conservative, yes, but very independent. She came out in favor of gay rights in the 1950s, for example, which I think was pretty daring, considering the sort of police reign of terror against gays that took hold in the country in that decade.

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  3. Want to read this now. As a child, I loved "A Pony for Jean" (yes, really) by one of the trio. It's narrated by Jean and there is a lot of social satire. The difficult pony chews her "crushed-strawberry" beret - the only hat she has. And she waits in agonised impatience while boring adults discuss hard and soft brooms.

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    1. I was able to interview her oldest daughter a few years ago. All three of her daughters wrote pony books as well. It was a family trade!

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    2. She had a *third* daughter who wrote horse books!? Who was that? Off I go a-Googling.

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    3. They were all called Pullein-Thompson. Reread A Pony for Jean (which started the whole thing off). It's good and funny, but where's the beret? Must I read the whole Cannan canon? (And then all the Pullein-Thompsons and Ruby Ferguson...)

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  4. John,I'm reading her book Death at the Dog right now and almost picked this book up at Paperbackswap the other day. Glad I didn't now. How do you get the X's on the bingo card?

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    1. I think The Body in the Beck would be appreciated by anyone who enjoys acerbic humor. But as a detective novel it's pretty middling. For comparison I'm interested in reading some of her early novels with crime elements like Frightened Angels, The Hills Sleep On and No Walls of Jasper.

      I drew the X's on myself using a graphic software program called Gimp. It's available as a free download and one of the few applications I can use with ease. I'm a rookie graphic artist. If I can draw those X's, then anyone can!

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    2. Peggy Ann, I had mixed feeling about that book, the author's biases are so obvious. It was clear the author was in love with the woman novelist character (Crescy?), and since she was a self-portrait in many ways it's a case of self-love!

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    3. Wow. And Death at the Dog has a completley different detective character. Are any of Cannan's detective novels worth reading? The only one I own is THEY RANG UP THE POLICE (Rue Morgue Press reprint) but I've not read it. If you've read it, Curt, can you tell me if it's worthwhile?

      I chose BODY IN THE BECK only because it was one of Barzun's selections for his Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction series of reprints. However, I fail to see why such a detective fiction purist would recommend a book so below his usual high standards. Martin Edwards also had reservations about it in his review posted Sept 2013.

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    4. Yeah, I wonder about that too, some of the other books in that series are quite a bit better, I think.

      I actually liked They Rang Up the Police. Death at the Dog has some good things in it (it mentions Dr. Priestley!), but Cannan is so biased it's easy to spot the murderer and I didn't find Crescy as wonderful as she did!

      Cannan's oldest daughter said her mother was a "very good hater," meaning she really liked to let types she didn't like have it in her books. You can tell!

      Cannan had three daughters, an older one and two twins. I believe they all wrote pony books. One of the twins passed away about six or seven years ago.

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    5. I've finished Death at the Dog and while I did enjoy it, it was way too straightforward a solution. And your right Crescy wasn't as wonderful as the author wrote her! I would like to read They Rang Up the Police though. I like Inspector Northeast, it would be nice if she gave him a little more umph in finding the solution though.

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    6. Peggy Ann, I thought They Rang Up the Police was the better book, both for the detective and the overall plot. Great study of an odd genteel family.

      Re: my comment above, I suppose "two twins" is a bit redundant!

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  5. Frightened Angels and No Walls of Jasper are both very interesting and are notable thirties "crime novels."

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    1. A copy of Frightened Angels is already headed my way! Just won a decent reading copy on eBay at a bargain basement price. Will plan to review it in the late Spring.

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    2. Be prepared, though, it's tremendously depressing! Jasper is actually more in the classic Malice Aforethought mode, though as I recall it actually preceded Malice Aforethought by a year. It's odd how "Francis Iles" gets so much credit and no one remembers these Cannan books.

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  6. Even Dalziel and Morse can get on your nerves.

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    1. About Dalziel: I'll say! As to Morse, I have to admit I like the TV version of him better!

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  7. I like "acerbic humour" - if it means "social satire"? And ghastly types! Agatha Christie was quite harsh about pretentious mystics.

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  8. I too very much enjoyed No Walls of Jasper, and was amazed by how different (and, I felt, inferior) was The Body in the Beck. An uneven writer to say the least!

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  9. I wonder if my lack of appreciation for "mountaineering poetry" might also get in the way of my enjoying this one - but sounds fascinating all the same - thanks John.

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  10. John, you might enjoy Joanna Cannan's book, 'Poisonous Relations', from 1950 (published as 'Murder Included' in the U.K.) and republished in 1987 as 'The Taste of Murder' in a Dover edition. Though it also included Detective Inspector Ronald Price as investigator, the author's characterizations and humorous touches are noteworthy.

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  11. I've got both They Rang Up the Police and Death at the Dog on my TBR stacks (both reprints, unfortunately). I'm now wondering if Death at the Dog is going to be worth it....

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