Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Plain Murder by CS Forester

published 1930  chapter 12







[Doris Campbell] was slim and trim and shingled, well dressed, apparently self-assured, clearly a good dancer and a good tennis player, but with nothing else to distinguish her from all her fellow nineteen year-olds in her class of society…

Soon everyone in the composing room could have said for certain that she had grey eyes and black hair; if they could not have stated with precision the prevailing colour of her office jumper, they would at least take notice when she wore a different one….

Possibly the only people who thoroughly disliked the presence of the new arrival were the typists, whose hats and stockings and shoes, trim and neat though they might be, could never compete with those of a girl who was the only daughter of a man whose large income was steadily increasing.



observations: Two murder stories set in London advertising agencies: one written in 1930, the other 1933, and they couldn’t be more different. Tomorrow: Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. Today, a strangely noir-ish effort from CS Forester, more famous for his Hornblower series. It’s a grim little story, spare and miserable, and – unlike Sayers tomorrow – there is limited detail of office life.

The horrible Morris has committed a murder and is getting above himself with his eye on the prize of the boss’s daughter. His home life is dreary – there are convincingly awful scenes of life with children and a whiney wife, along with a quite surprising sex scene. He tries to solve his problems with more murders, and, as is traditional in these books, he is thinking what a pity he is married, as he might otherwise be in with a chance with Miss Campbell. (A throwaway line in the book reveals that she was never interested anyway, the true noir touch.) As in the 1925 An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, a boating expedition is called for.

The ending is dramatic, quite satisfying and totally amoral. A surprising book all round – with a strong touch of Patrick Hamilton.

Both books contain mention of ‘turning King’s Evidence’, which meant a criminal giving evidence for the Prosecution, to convict another person, in return for a lighter sentence – it’s not something you hear about any more.

One would guess that CSF, like DLS, did work in the advertising industry at some point, as what there is of the business sounds authentic. Sayers invented an advertising stunt called the Mustard Club, which strangely is criticized in Plain Murder (too general, benefits all mustard brands) – in real time, as it were. In both books someone comes up with a much superior early loyalty scheme – Ultra Violet Soap bonuses in one, Whiffling your way round Britain in the other.

For more details of the Mustard Club, read Rich Westwood’s fascinating entry on his Past Offences blog here. He also reviews the Sayers book in another entry.

Links on the blog: the climactic scene takes place at Boulter’s Lock, which is pictured in this entry, about messing about on the river in a more innocent manner.

The picture of typists is from George Eastman House.



9 comments:

  1. Moira - Interesting isn't it how two different authors would have such different takes on the same sort of setting. The noir element of this one really sounds effective too. And yet, it was Murder Must Advertise that ended up with more fame...

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    1. Yes, they were such different books, but with odd points of similarity. I suppose CS Forester went on to do something so different with Hornblower that his murder stories - I think he wrote a few - were lost, while, as you say, DLS won huge fame for her detective fiction.

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  2. "Shingled" there's a word you don't read very often, obviously it doesn't mean afflicted with shingles.....but I'll have to look it up.

    I've dipped into some US pulp short stories of the 30's and some of the language is also dated/out-dated, I almost need a translation giude beside me

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    1. It means they'd had their hair cut short (or 'bobbed'). The shingled girls were the fast, up to date ones - the old-fashioned ones still had long hair that they wore 'up.' Now me, I find I have a problem when they're describing guns, weapons, fighting and cars in books - I don't get the language at all.

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  3. If you were really fast, your hair was "shingled" up the back - cropped quite short so that it looked like a shingled roof. (Or am I making that up?)

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    1. Well I've never known where the name came from... as good a story as any. There was also the bingle, maybe a cross between the bob and the shingle? There's an F Scott Fitzgerald story called Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which deals with this grave matter, and also proves that Mean Girls and bullying and jealousy didn't start up along with the internet. In fact I think Bernice might make an entry soon.

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  4. Always felt so sorry for Bernice. Yes, a bingle was a bob/shingle cross. Short at the back, with "wings" of hair to stick out from under your cloche hat. "Madam says you've completely bungled her bingle!" (Old Punch joke)

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  5. I was just reading about this book in a mystery reference book... an old one, and then it pops up here. I will have to go looking for it. Don't think it is likely to pop up at book sales here. And Murder Must Advertise is my favorite Sayers book.

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    1. Tracy, these two books I guess show the difference between a traditional detective story and a noir-ish one - it brought home to me that I like lots of detail in my books. The detail may be irrelevant, but it adds to my enjoyment and picture of the milieu.

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