When you think of Modernism in literature the names that come to mind might include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust, depending on your preferences and native language. The names Anthony Berkeley, Edmund Crispin, Freeman Wills Crofts and Michael Innes may not be at the forefront of your mind. Yet I have just finished books on the Bodies From The Library recommended reading list by each of these authors and think there is at least a case to answer.
The evidence I put forward for inclusion of these, and other authors of the Golden Age, in the modernist literature movement alongside the more academically and critically acclaimed authors listed above is that they display a characteristic trait of modernist novels – namely a conscious playing with form, an acknowledgement of the artifice in their art, and a willingness to break down what in the theatre is known as the fourth wall, the “window” through which the audience sees the action but is separated from it.
In Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny, the scene is a party given by a writer of detective stories and Berkeley’s series protagonist, Roger Sheringham, in a deliberate and playful inversion of the genre’s expected form, engages in wilful attempts to obstruct the police investigation and prevent them discovering the identity of the person whom he believes has committed a murder on the morally somewhat dubious grounds that they are a nice person whereas the victim was not.
Crispin goes further in The Moving Toyshop and has a character, who happens to be a poet currently suffering from writer’s block, cry out during a car chase:
“‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”
It could be argued that as far back as 1924, Freeman Wills Crofts invented the police procedural though his Inspector French’s Greatest Case at times reads like a travelogue of some of the finest holiday destinations in Europe (I can vouch for the accuracy of the description of Murren in Switzerland which appears to have changed little in the intervening 90 years). He too refers to the world within the novel as:
“In this world the ordinary, natural and obvious thing happened. A man who secretly visited the scene of the crime at about the hour at which it was known to have been committed,…such a man, in ordinary, prosaic, everyday life was the criminal.”
Furthermore, he refers to the fictional world of Conan Doyle when the detective’s wife says to him:
“‘…Why, a child could guess that, Watson!’ When Mrs French called her husband by the name of the companion of the great Holmes, it signified two things…” Notably that Freeman Wills Crofts expected the reader to cheerfully blur real world in which they as readers were themselves likely to have read Conan Doyle and the world inhabited by the characters of the novel where fictional characters have a fictional place in that fiction. I hope you’re still with me on this one.
And finally Michael Innes in Death At The President’s Lodgings has one of the suspects, an Oxford Professor, moonlight under a pseudonym as the author of detective fiction, of which he is slightly ashamed. The book conludes with the Inspector Appleby telling the professor:
“‘I have a parting present for you… A title for the book you may never be able to write: Seven Suspects.” Which, of course, is the alternate title under which the book was published (and Innes was the pseudonym of Professor John Innes Mackintosh Stewart of Christ Church College, Oxford).
Make of that what you will.
I should also point out that I got hold of these titles, not available through my local library service (cries of shame go up but, in fairness, they are pretty old and obscure even if classics of the genre), through the wonders of Amazon Marketplace. I am indebted to Karl Eynon Books, Tree Savers, World of Books and Brit Books whose online stores were where I found the books discussed this week and so give them a shameless plug here.