Wednesday 22 October 2014

Reading the Detectives: Kingsley Amis, Unreal Policemen and The Riverside Villas Murder (Jonathan Cape, 1973)

What with one thing and, er, well, the same thing really, I've been falling a bit behind with my reading of late (to give an example: I've another two Elmore Leonard books I intend to blog about besides City Primeval and Split Images, but I haven't finished reading either one yet). So, to give myself a chance to catch up with myself, I thought I'd take a look at some books which I bought (and read) years ago – when Existential Ennui was just finding its feet as a books and book collecting blog – but which I've only ever written about in passing fashion – my posts back then being somewhat shorter – some would say mercifully so – than they are now. And it occurred to me that there are a few first editions of Kingsley Amis novels I own which fit that bill. Like this one:

The Riverside Villas Murder, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1973 under a dust jacket designed by illustrator and children's author Ian Beck. As I mentioned in my 1000th post back in March, this was the first Kingsley Amis novel I bought, purchased for a few quid from the Lewes Antiques Centre in, I believe, 2009. I'm not entirely certain why I decided to buy it. I'd not read any Amis Sr. prior to that point (although I had read a handful of Amis Jr.) but I was, I think, becoming aware of Amis's enthusiasm for genre, of his regard for Ian Fleming's Bond novels and for authors like Gavin Lyall and Geoffrey Household – all of which/whom I was becoming interested in myself – and so I suspect I bought it on the basis that, accordingly, Amis was an author I should try too.

In any case, in a way it was serendipitous that I should have started with The Riverside Villas Murder because it's a good example of how around this late-1960s/early-1970s period Amis was himself experimenting with genre, offering his own distinctive takes on the spy novel (The Anti-Death League, 1966; Colonel Sun, 1968), the ghost story (The Green Man, 1969) and, in this instance, the detective story, or whodunnit, or locked room mystery.

Set in 1936, the novel centres on fourteen-year-old Peter Furneaux, resident, with his parents, of suburban South London domicile 19 Riverside Villas, through the french windows of which one Tuesday afternoon stumbles local man Christopher Inman, soaked to the bone and with blood flowing from his temple. Inman falls to the floor and mutters "Hallo" a few times and something about being hit in the head. Peter fetches Mrs Trevelyan from next door, who keeps an eye on Mr Inman while Peter rings an ambulance, but by the time he returns to the scene, Inman is dead. Before long Acting Chief Constable Colonel Manton – who is also investigating the disappearance from the local museum of Longbarrow Man, a.k.a. "Boris Karloff", a stone age skeleton which has been stolen for reasons unknown – is on the case, enlisting Peter's aid in cracking not one but two confounding crimes.

When I originally read The Riverside Villas Murder I had thought it was Amis's take on an Agatha Christie-style mystery – not that I've ever read any Christie, but I've seen plenty of TV adaptations of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories, and Amis's book seemed to be riffing on that kind of thing. But in his excellent and stimulating 1966 essay "Unreal Policeman", collected in 1970's What Became of Jane Austen? (it originally ran in Playboy under the title "My Favourite Sleuths"), Amis is actually quite dismissive of Agatha Christie, at least her Marple and Poirot tales (he's more enthusiastic about the "ingenious plots" of the earlier Christies like Why Didn't They Ask Evans?). (Amis is also fairly dismissive of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, arguing that Mickey Spillane is the better writer, " unpopular view, which I would defend hotly"; but that's by the by.)

In fact The Riverside Villas Murder owes more of a debt to writers like G. K. Chesterton, Rex Stout and especially John Dickson Carr, all of whom Amis was a great admirer of, especially Carr (besides "Unreal Policemen", see also Amis's 1981 Times Literary Supplement review of the short story collection The Door to Doom). In "Unreal Policemen" Amis traces a literary line from Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to Chesterton's Father Brown, Stout's Nero Wolfe and Carr's Doctor Gideon Fell (whom Carr modelled on Chesterton), asserting that the latter three characters are the "three great successors of Sherlock Holmes". Colonel Manton – tweedy, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and brilliant – is very much in that tradition, something that Amis makes explicit in his novel when Detective-Constable Barrett visits Manton at home and spies on the shelves of the colonel's library books by Carr (and John Rhode and Anthony Berkeley), their jackets "of a garish yellow" – a nod to Gollancz there – their "visible bindings cheap and often scuffed".

The Riverside Villas Murder is more than merely an arch murder mystery, however (although Amis does have considerable fun with that aspect; witness the note on the dust jacket flap inviting readers to "pit their wits against the author's and solve the mystery for themselves" by studying "pages 61, 82 and 160"): it's also a keenly written evocation of boyhood (of a sort which has perhaps since changed almost beyond recognition) and an exploration of sexuality, both flowering – or, more accurately, deflowering in Peter's case – and, to an extent, repressed. From Peter's pursuit of fifteen-year-old near-neighbour Daphne Hodgson to his adventures in mutual masturbation with his friend Reg – and rather more adult encounters with an older woman – to Colonel Manton's hidden proclivities, all of this is handled not only entertainingly but sensitively by Amis – something which may come as a surprise to those only familiar with Amis's reputation (or utterances, or letters) rather than with his fiction (the aforementioned The Anti-Death League, say). (For more on this see Philip Hensher's 2007 piece for The Independent.)


  1. This sounds great Nick - I came across it yonks ago (i.e. about 30 years ago) and assumed that it would be a piste and so didn't bother - but Amis (like his friend Edmund Crispin) was clearly a great Carr fan, which I didn't realise - thanks very much for this, definitely getting a copy now!

  2. And I really must read some Carr. Thanks Sergio!

  3. I read this as a student, while going through a Kingsley Amis phase, and was disappointed by the murder mystery aspect. I'd like to re-read it and see if my views have become more tolerant. I preferred his serial The Crime of the Century, which for all its flaws has, for me, a quirky appeal.

  4. It's probably not the most cunningly plotted of murder mysteries, Martin, but like the other Amis genre experiments I've read, it's so much more besides.

  5. The book was reviewed by John Dickson Carr in the New Statesman under the title 'Sound Lad' on April 6th 1973 - 'Here breathes authentic atmosphere...Mr Amis, a student of detective fiction, has triumphantly mastered its technique...the story grips, holds, and never lets go.' These quotes are on the Panther paperback edition (from 1974) - the cover of which has a nude sitting next to a skeleton dressed in school uniform!