--Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 31 October 1951
I quoted this interesting passage in my essay "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do": Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction, published in 2014 in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, and L. J. Hurst includes it in an online essay, "Raymond Chandler, George and Sonia Orwell," found here, at the Orwell Society blog. It raises some interesting questions, one of which, concerning what I deem Chandler's equivocal attitude toward British detective fiction, I addressed in my essay, but another of which concerns George Orwell: If the author of 1984 and Animal Farm could have made a "real detective," could he as well have written a real detective novel?
Some suggest that he may have done just that, or at least have contributed to one.
This mystery being Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published to good reviews in the US and UK in February 1941.
Hurst points out that in Chapter Seven of Liberty Hall, the narrator of the novel asks
Why is it, by the way, that although England normally has one of the smallest armies in the world it has the largest number of retired colonels?
And that on June 20, 1940, Orwell had written in his Wartime Diary (which was not made public until 1968)
A thought that occurred to me yesterday: how is that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?
The quoted passage in Liberty Hall comes, notes Hurst, just after the narrator mocks the self-promotion of Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), "who was also," Hurst adds, "one of Orwell's bugbears as a right-wing intellectual."
Yet since that time an account of a wartime meeting which took place between Orwell and Clutton-Brock has emerged, as I have discussed here. According to D. J. Taylor's: Orwell: The Life (2003), in March or April 1941, in the recollection of a contemporary of the two men, Orwell met with Clutton-Brock, who was head of the Air Ministry's Public Relations Department, about obtaining a position with the department.
Murder at Liberty Hall had been published in the UK about a month earlier, on February 27, 1941. (It did not appear in the US until the late summer.) However, it is possible that Orwell and Clutton-Brock might have discussed Murder at Liberty Hall when it was being written the previous year, or that Orwell might even have read the manuscript.
This is as close, as far as I know, as Orwell ever got to writing a detective novel, although his first known work of fiction was in fact a mystery story, "The Vernon Murders," probably written during his first year at Eton in 1917 or 1918, when Orwell was around 14 or 15 years old.
|Old Master: R. Austin Freeman|
Yet Orwell also expressed warmly nostalgic feelings for some of the mystery writers of his youth, repeatedly citing with approbation a trio of old masters, all of whom had first published tales of Great Detectives solving fiendish mysteries in the pre-WWI era: Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman and Ernest Bramah. (The stalwart Freeman continued publishing mystery fiction throughout the Twenties and Thirties as well, much of which, apparently, Orwell read.)
While Orwell for the rest of his life retained great affection for these three authors, he was, as I discussed, rather dubious indeed about the reams of mystery fiction that was being mass produced, as he disdainfully put it, during what became known, ironically in Orwell's view, as the "Golden Age of detective fiction." (His own blunt term for the mysteries that poured off the presses at this time was "torrents of trash.")
Orwell suggested that calling a book by shocker king Edgar Wallace--The Four Just Men, actually a prewar crime novel, though Wallace really made his name and his fortune as a mystery writer in the Twenties--a "good thriller" simply made hash of the word "good," while he dismissed Dorothy L. Sayers's higher-toned mysteries as offputtingly snobbish and fatally lacking in plausibility.
|Agatha Christie and friends|
Of the 144 books Orwell listed as his having read that year, about ten percent can be classified as criminous in nature. These mysteries include works that are examples of the hardboiled, noir and classic detection subgenres, by authors such as Sayers, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. (I'm posting the list separately.)
What was up with this, we might ask? If Orwell was so dismissive of what was then "modern" detective fiction, why was he wasting his precious remaining mortal time reading it? Some ideas suggest themselves.
One: Orwell's physical health was extremely poor and he was in frequent pain, not far, indeed, from death; and mystery fiction has long been hailed as escapist reading of choice for the bedridden.
Two: Orwell was checking out the enemy camp, so to speak: one of the books he read, James M. Cain's nasty noir text The Postman Always Rings Twice, he derided as an "awful" book in a letter to Julian Symons.
|Another Freeman fan|
(who did not like James M. Cain either)
Which certainly would explain why he was reading, during his final months of existence on earth, books like Sparkling Cyanide, The Little Sister and The Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery Omnibus (composed of The Five Red Herrings, Strong Poison and Lord Peter Views the Body.)
This latter hypothesis would be supported by Orwell's having played some role, however minor, in the composition of Alan Clutton-Brock's Murder at Liberty Hall, which, believe it or not, I'm finally reviewing in the very next post here. Please check it out!