Writing a Detective Novel

This essay (be warned: this introduction is going to ramble a bit) by Nicholas Blake is reproduced from a 1949 (volume IV, no. I) issue of Magazine of the Future.  Blake, in his more serious incarnation as Cecil Day-Lewis, had been an editorial consultant for previous issues of Futurebook, produced by Adprint under the auspices of Foges and Neurath. Walter Neurath (no relation to Otto and Marie of the Isotype Institute though possessed of a similarly idealistic vision of the future, given the horrific disruption and brutality all three experienced across decades of war) would go on to found the publishing house Thames & Hudson with Eva, whom he came to know via her then-husband Wilhelm Feuchtwang while both men were in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Eva became chairman of T&H after Walter’s death.

The essay is utterly untypical of the usual contents of these magazines – this issue contains features on modular building units, a scheme for land reclamation (i.e. filling in Morecambe Bay), and a statistician’s method for sizing shoes – and perhaps only included because the subject was close to Blake’s/Day-Lewis’ heart. Nevertheless it’s a shrewd and enjoyable analysis of why detective fiction appeals so strongly to writers and readers. Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures.



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 [top line begins: ‘prejudiced by the shade thereof’]

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2014-05-06 12.02.11 Unforgettable personality.  But we are given no clue to his character.

2014-05-06 12.03.29-2A detective novel may be born when the author conceives of a sudden distaste for one of his acquaintances.

2014-05-06 12.04.03The author must regard his own bright ideas with the gravest suspicion.

2014-05-06 12.04.11-2The lurid hues of the suspects are offset by a colourless detective, like Father Brown.

2014-05-06 12.04.47Pity the poor murderer. He must fox the reader as well as the police.

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‘Of course it was X!  I should have seen it long ago.’


Hush, Memory

This unassuming little book was pulled off the shelves the same day it was published:


Compton Mackenzie’s Greek Memories came out, then vanished again, in 1932 after it was found to be in violation of the Official Secrets Act and after pressure on its publisher, Cassell, to withdraw the book from sale.  A later version, more suitable for public consumption, was issued in 1939.

This copy includes correspondence for a Mr RWS Allason*, from the British Library via Chatto & Windus. Dated April/May 1985, the letters inform Mr Allason that permission to allow access to the 1932 copy deposited with the BL had still to be obtained from the War Office.  This information is supplied by Chatto & Windus, to whom the publication rights had transferred in 1939 upon the War Office agreeing to their publishing the expurgated edition.

I hope that the copy of Greek Memories I have before me is one that was owned and read by Mr Allason, but if he still needs to see it he is welcome to apply at Pinda Bryars Books during shop hours.

*UPDATE: a wise friend tells me that RWS Allason is former Conservative politician Rupert Allason, who writes on espionage under the name Nigel West.

Taste & Technique – Book Collecting in the Digital Age

Reproduced from the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association Newsletter issue 379, with the kind permission of the editors:

Taste and Technique in Book Collecting (the title and large parts of the substance taken from John Carter’s 1947 Sandars Lectures in Bibliography) updated for the digital age was the subject of Jim Hinck’s informative Tuesday night seminar, organised by the Institute of English Studies and the Rare Book Society.  Its corollary, book selling in the digital age, is too often a fraught subject for the wrong reasons.  With more dealers than collectors in the room, Hinck’s assertion that this is a golden age for collectors provoked more eye-rolling than excitement, and it’s not hard to guess why.

The state of debate within the trade, such as it is, is largely stuck on whether ‘the internet’ is a good thing or a bad thing.  Dealers on either side of the great digital divide are apt to view their opponents as philistines, as if we have no common interests.  Hinck’s seminar pointed up the absurdity of continuing to argue in such simplistic terms – while Carter was delivering his lecture in Cambridge, EDSAC, the world’s first practical stored-program electronic computer, was being built in a lab just down the road.  While few could have then predicted the role computers would have in daily life nearly 70 years later, EDSAC was designed for accessible use by mathematicians, engineers and scientists – not tech wizards.  It was a tool to help others pursue their interests, so in its most basic sense the digital age was already dawning.

Carter’s definition of the collector in his time centred round the idea of connoisseurship.  It was hotly argued by audience members that Carter crystallised the definition of the serious mid-twentieth century collector without necessarily espousing it, particularly when Hinck noted Carter’s seeming dismissal of ‘modern’ and ‘fine’ books as snares for the unwary novice more caught up in shallow snobbery (or “the necessity for justification”) than serious bibliophily.  The true collector possessed ” the ability to distinguish good from bad… with some concomitant satisfaction in the exercise of that ability.”  Carter’s connoisseurs, so far from appreciating beautiful dust wrappers or examples of the binder’s art, ended with “eliminating physical considerations altogether.”

Hinck speculated that the sea change in more contemporary collectors’ tastes could be linked to the digital production of books, and the subsequent craving for beautiful, original and ‘real’ objects.  This is perhaps too narrow a perspective – it doesn’t take into account the mass production of poor quality books which surely by the same token would prompt the craving for beauty, nor cultural movements towards authenticity in other areas of life like food and interior design.  But he wasn’t there to explain the entire cultural landscape of early twenty-first century Britain, and it’s certainly true that when people young enough to be digital natives come into my shop they are often struck by the aesthetic qualities of the book as object.  Another bookseller remarked that people finding his material online (googling away in general pursuit of their interests rather than with any intent to find books) were pleasantly surprised to find that they could even own such unique objects in exchange for money.

the_internetthe internet 

These new kinds of collector and buyer couldn’t really exist in any great number in the pre-digital age, not least because the world Carter describes seems to have been stiflingly proscriptive.  The connoisseurs collected a) books of imagination and b) books of thought, with possession the only purpose of collection.  They had also to possess a nose, if only so that the booksellers of the time could lead them around by it, along well-mapped terrain defined by absolute rarity (the number of copies of any given book) and practical rarity (a function of fluctuations in the marketplace).  The tools for outlining and vetting any guides to rarity belonged firmly to the booksellers.  In the digital age access to those tools is democratised, but as with any tool still best used with expert knowledge, as ably demonstrated by Hinck’s given example of Stuart Bennett‘s 2008 catalogue Unique?.  Bennett’s criterion for inclusion in the catalogue was that every item should be unrecorded in OCLC and all the other principal databases of library holdings.

Carter, or rather the fraternity of collectors and dealers he describes, warns against originality in collecting.  The collector striking out on his own is regarded as a dangerously unclubbable beast – “only an eccentric can exist comfortable in a private vacuum of his own creating.” The internet, of course, is a collection of millions of such private vacuums as well as vast meta-vacuums joining them together.  The social aspects of the digital age are well-documented – Carter’s club isn’t exclusive any more but open to everyone.  Where dealers might fall behind is in refusing to understand this or to acknowledge the way people live out their lives online.  Simple analogies (the internet as newfangled communication device) or skeuomorphic ones (the internet as shop window or book fair) don’t help us to understand this new breed of customer.

A simple replication of the physical bookshop online might fail because it also fails to take into account (or make anew for the digital age) aspects of dealership beyond availability of stock and the ability to process transactions.  To use the internet to our joint and several advantage we must understand it as a way of organising information, power and money.  Nobody could deny that the trade has a lot of the first, and we can all agree that we’d like more of the others.

One wonders what our corner of an ideal digital world might look like.  It could be a bookseller-owned and operated platform, or a properly branded and promoted part of something bigger.  It could start by demonstrating a commitment to the much-vaunted specialist knowledge and integrity of ‘proper’ booksellers – mirror selling (a species of parasitic shenanigan whereby sellers list books they do not own, with images and descriptions lifted wholesale from other dealers) would be out; algorithmic pricing would be challenged; material misdescribed either wilfully or through ignorance (and the people doing the misdescribing, at least after serious or repeated infractions) would not be welcome.  Lists of parked and speculatively priced books would not be allowed to clutter up and distort the market.  A star rating system, based solely on order fulfilment but strongly implying quality, would not be needed at all in a mature community of dealers fostering an equally mature community of readers.  The enormous wealth of cultural capital could be shared in any number of web-friendly ways.

An organisation like the ABA does not have to accept declining standards (or fortunes) as inevitable.  It could see bookselling in the digital age as a unique opportunity to expand and enhance its influence, and send an appealing message to booksellers outside its traditional constituency.  Shaping the advance of the digital trade to the advantage of dealers and collectors would not be cheap or easy.  But it would be preferable to the kind of ceaseless, helpless adaptation to a digital free-for-all that places power and profit in the hands of people who neither know nor care about books.  Insisting on responsibility and agency goes very much against the grain of automation and the refusal to ‘police’ content (the faux-cuddly caveat emptor of the digital age), but since when have booksellers ever behaved like other people?  Perhaps the glorious spirit of pedantry and contrarianism that animates the trade could be put to good use.

Rules & Exceptions

My attitudes to books and breakfast are similar – with infinite variety and quality in each field it becomes difficult, not to say boring, to answer questions like “what kind of books do you sell?” and “what do you want for breakfast?” at all succinctly.  Even enthusiastic collectors (and trenchermen) are apt to be dismissive of things outside their often narrow sphere of interest.  True eclecticism is rare enough to deserve an invitation to breakfast.

I’m not at all innocent of these biases, but have now been bookselling and breakfasting for long enough to  have formulated good general rules of taste that are open to new influences which I trust I will realise the value of when I encounter them.  So I will hold fast to things like The Potato Test (the potato element is the most reliable guide to quality when considering any fry-up description); and I know that early editions of classic literature in contemporary bindings are absolutely worthy of my time and my customers’ money.

There are sometimes other, less time-honoured options to consider.  Usually I bracket fruit juice and yoghurt together with salad as things beneath notice, if not contempt.  But I would have been foolish to ignore them for my usual favourites at Kopapa, seeing all kinds of tempting things whizzing by at eye-height.  Their yoghurt (whipped, with melted butter and chilli served around two perfectly poached eggs) is not to be missed. Nor is their fruit juice, made properly with ginger as flavour and sensation, the sweetness both earthy and sharp from the beetroot and apple.

Likewise these 1920s Readers Library literary classics, some of them film tie-ins, with no real age or appeal to the high-minded bibliophile but with a different kind of beauty and value.

Here’s Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera (and what a mistake to relegate the magnificently macabre Lon Chaney to the back):




Ann Veronica as vampire flick:


The Innocents Abroad in fine comic form:


Rip Van Winkle lamenting his age-rotted musket:


And many more, of which this shelfie is a small selection:




Joy In the Morning – the importance of dessert

As a sub-genre of literary breakfasts, the Fraught Affair appears to have little to teach us about choosing wisely from the menu (or sideboard).  A staple in golden age detective fiction, the barely-touched toast or silently-swallowed coffee are more of a reckoning than a meal, a way to get all the principal characters back together after the usually murderous events of the night and observe their behaviour.  There are Fraught Affairs in literary fiction too – poor Helen Huntingdon in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (worth reading for the preface to the second edition alone, a magnificent take-down of her critics) confronts her husband and later his mistress in the breakfast room after their cruelty at too many drunken dinners.

But we can learn from their mistakes.  Their days are set up to be eventful and they do far too little to fortify themselves against the action.  If you’re trying to catch a murderer, evade detection, escape your brutal spouse or even spend Saturday running a busy bookshop you need to think about moving dessert well up beyond dinner and having it instead at breakfast.

This is something they appreciate at the Riding House Cafe.  After a splendid meal of eggs hussarde and chorizo hash browns (also with perfect poached eggs, the whites just solidified and smoothed neatly round sunny, runny yolks) we tried challah bread french toast. Two place settings arrived promptly without us having to ask – the waiting staff have excellent judgement – and we enjoyed a breakfast dessert of light cakey richness (like the bottom of the best Yorkshire puddings) and honeyed sweetness.  We left not as fugitives from the law or matrimony, but pleasantly full and ready for the rigours of the day.

Cooking with Memsahib

For recipes from the Raj you need look no further than Thacker, Spink & Co., publishers of useful books for the British in India like The Indian Cookery Book (1891, written by “a thirty-five years’ resident”)


and Carrie Cutcrewe’s The Mem Sahib’s Book of Cookery (1903, third edition, with the addition of handwritten recipes from a previous owner)


Though useful and practical, these books share a particular problem.  Mrs Beeton managed to dispense advice to an honestly burgeoning middle class with admirable frankness, but Cutcrewe and The Resident have to tread more carefully.  They are addressing people totally unused to dealing with servants in such number or degree of subordination as they will encounter in India, and it shows in the tone of their introductions.

The Resident plumps for outright denial, encouraging the “lord and lady of the mansion” to visit the kitchens bursting with praise and benevolence for the natives before plunging into a list of kitchen equipment that no born lady need ever trouble herself about.  Cutcrewe is altogether more weary and cynical, obliquely addressing her readers as harassed hausfraus but thereafter implying that they might be novices to housekeeping rather than hopelessly out of their depth.  There is a shameless promotion for The Eagle Range Company at the end of her introduction, in a book prefaced with advertisements, and I like to think that the cash for this advertorial bypassed Messrs Thacker and Spink and went straight into her pocket.

I don’t mean to disparage the women who bought these books. Both include weight tables for the bazaar as well as for English/Indian conversion, suggesting a degree of involvement in household management going well beyond supervision of servants that even today’s seasoned travellers would balk at.  Leaving the family home for the rough and tumble of an alien land would have required nerves of steel.

These books have nothing in common with modern works on cookery.  Both assume competence and confidence – today’s accomplished cooks will find variety, interest, and absolutely no pictures of the authors’ friends and children.  The Resident gives a calendar of produce for the bazaar year superficially echoing the lifestyles of modern, seasonal ‘locavores’, but there is no implication of choice. Rather, it warns of the poor state of meat in the spring and summer months, encouraging readers to be prepared for a very different way of eating.

This lack of choice is apparent again in the final chapter of Cutcrewe’s book, advice for those going home.  She acknowledges that those making the return journey may have to do it many times, and each time starting from scratch at great expense unless done very carefully.  She gives details of trustworthy housing and staffing agencies who can work by correspondence, sympathetic dressmakers and even the best place to get a lawnmower.

The memsahib has for a long time been a comic figure, keeping the home fires burning for her egg-shaped husband who’s off swilling pink gin at the European club.  But her life was often difficult and sometimes frightening, the no less so because the people in her employ were even less free to choose their own destinies.  You shouldn’t laugh at someone’s who’s gamely using ghee and semolina to make a kind of pastry because she’s trying to serve a nice high tea.

Amusement with Instruction: An Anglo-Indian Glossary

This “portly double-columned edifice” is Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words & Phrases (London: John Murray, 1903):


Compiled by solider and travel writer Colonel Henry Yule and civil servant Arthur Burnell, it was originally published in 1886. This is the later edition revised and expanded by William Crooke, who while working in the Indian Civil Service became a leading authority on the folklore of that country.

This particular copy made its way back to Britain from Shanghai and the shop of Max Nossler:


Hobson-Jobson, in its scope and level of detailed etymological research, stands head and shoulders above any other reference work on the immense traffic of language between Britain and India. We all know about driving home from the gymkhana in our juggernaut, changing into our pyjamas and relaxing on the veranda with a nice cup of char, but other Anglo-Indian borrowings are so baked into English that we don’t think of them has having foreign origins at all.  Perhaps you don’t give a damn, but you should know that what you don’t give is a small copper coin worth a fortieth of a rupee (dam).

It’s fascinating to leaf through not just because of words straightforwardly assimilated into English but because of the light it sheds on the vast, almost unfathomably diverse, history of the subcontinent and its people.  My mother, from Coventry by way of Punjab and now living in Kent, calls a key a chabi. If I gave it any thought I would’ve assumed it was a Hindi word, but Hobson-Jobson tells me it’s a Hindi loanword direct from the Portuguese.  Firinghee, meaning Frank in Persian, becomes farang or fereng, used among other things as a catch-all term for Europeans and now as a suitably alien-sounding word for a race of Star Trek villains. I remember dekh or dekko, meaning to have a look at something, being widely used right up to the 1990s; particularly by market traders, who could tempt the housewives to their stalls in smatterings of many languages.

Returning to vernacular phrases “turning upon innocent Hindustani vocables,” I’m becoming convinced that etymologically shifty references to ‘cheese’ are in fact all derived from the Hindi word for ‘thing’ (chiz, more usefully rendered phonetically as ‘cheejh’).  Hobson-Jobson gives examples of chiz as a positive slang term (“These cheroots are the real chiz“) and Molesworth fans will know how it can be used negatively.  I see no reason why ‘hard cheese’ and the like shouldn’t have derived from the same source but using a different emphasis, as with many modern swearwords.

By its very nature Hobson-Jobson has to focus on words and phrases entering the English language, but I’d be fascinated to read a similar account of English words finding their way into Indian vocabularies. Many Indians knowingly use English words as a matter of course, but there are at least a few that have gone through a process of quasi-assimilation.  My mother, like many of her British-born generation, still refers to grocery shopping as getting the ‘ration’ – with its rolled ‘r’ and long ‘a’, I didn’t until very recently associate it with the ration book her own mother was issued on arriving in England as part of the wave of migration supplying the post-war labour shortage.

Hobson-Jobson can’t, of course, be used as a translation dictionary for learning another language – but it can tell us a lot about our own.