Sunday, 8 September 2013

Fatality in Fleet Street, by Christopher St John Sprigg

It comes as a surprise to discover that the author of this detective novel was Christopher Caudwell (his mother’s surname), the Communist Party member who wrote on cultural issues from a left-wing perspective, and who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War in February 1937 at the age of 29.  His was a strange, accelerated, career with distinct segments encompassing prolific journalism, poetry and writing on aeronautics in addition to the novels and Marxist polemic.  The posthumous political works by Caudwell are not much read now, the fiction even less so; the seven novels written under his real name have faded from view to such an extent that an MA thesis dealing in part with a couple of them referred to him as Caudwell throughout, as it was better known.

Fatality in Fleet Street was published in 1933, before Sprigg joined the Communist Party.  It concerns a Fleet Street proprietor, Lord Carpenter, the “Governing Director of Affiliated Publications, the biggest newspaper group in the world”.  Carpenter is anti-Soviet and seeks to foment war with the USSR as the latter’s trade balance has become comparable with England’s, making it an economic threat.  The policy is widely opposed among his staff and by the Prime Minister.  Carpenter also happens to be a philandering bully, so that when he is found dead there are plenty of suspects with a wide variety of motives.  Beneath the conventional detective story is a satire on the power of press barons to manipulate public opinion, with even the PM helpless when faced by the ability of the warmongering Carpenter to determine the country’s political actions.  This manipulation is reinforced by Carpenter’s virtual monopoly on news, assisted by the passing of laws circumscribing the discussion of foreign policy on the wireless.

Although the book was published in 1933, for some reason it is set in the future, in the autumn of 1938 (p.2), November 1939 (p.155) or, if the date of Tuesday 12 October is accurate, 1937 (p.32).  Clearly Sprigg was not overly concerned with fine detail.  Whichever date is correct, it leads to one or two departures from history in our time-line, a world in which the Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in November 1936) is still standing, there is no reference to the rise of Nazism and, if the events are taking place in late 1939, the Second World War hasn’t broken out.  Stalin has gone, replaced with “rulers gentler in political methods”, and the USSR is a great manufacturer thanks to her Twelve-Year Plan (p.153), which reads like science fiction.  The reference to Ukraine as a success story is particularly ironic because the Holodomor took place during 1931-2 (about the time Sprigg was writing his novel), Soviet mismanagement resulting in the deaths of millions through starvation.

The characters are broadly drawn, and there is a suspicion that they have suffered because of hasty writing.  The main one, Charles Venables, with monocle, is a journalist and crime expert on Carpenter’s newspaper who delves into the mystery, which often means going head to head with the police in the shape of the standard issue Inspector Manciple.  Venables appears in four of Sprigg’s books, of which Fatality in Fleet Street is the second.   He evokes Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, both of whom were well established by 1933, and an unreciprocated love interest (but which promises more) reminds one of Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

A group of Russian revolutionaries hiding out in the East End have apparently dropped in from a discarded draft of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, odd considering Caudwell would so shortly embrace radical politics.  Their clichéd attributes may have been the product of Sprigg’s false consciousness, soon to undergo a far-reaching transformation, or they may represent a dislike of clandestine political action compared to the mass agitation that he would later undertake as a member of the CPGB in Poplar.  Middle class women are generally well-rounded compared to the menfolk, the working class characters tend to be a bit ‘gor blimey’.  The most amusing secondary character is a highly intelligent Chinese journalist, Lee Kum Tong, whose depiction may have been influence by Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan, with his pithy sayings designed to subvert patronising Western notions of Chinese eternal wisdom.  The plotting is reasonable, though the identity of the murderer is not difficult to guess fairly early on.  A large part is taken up by a trial, the outcome of which is not in doubt, and it pads out the novel.  There is a neat twist that is not too far away from a scenario employed by Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express, which appeared at the beginning of 1934.

Even though superficially they seem very different, a certain continuity exists between Fatality in Fleet Street and the political works such as Illusion and Reality and Studies in a Dying Culture.  The connection is the crisis in bourgeois culture; its exploration from a liberal standpoint in the detective novel is examined from a class-based perspective in the non-fiction.  Patriotism is manufactured cynically by Lord Carpenter to promote war for commercial advantage, parliamentary democracy is at risk of subversion by special interests while the public is kept in the dark and persuaded of courses of action on flimsy and exaggerated evidence.  These are linkages with resonance even today.

Sprigg/Caudwell would have been sorry to see the obscurity into which his cultural analyses have sunk with the demise of the Communist Party as a political force and Marx as an influential thinker, but it might have been some consolation to see his novels rediscovered, and Christopher St John Sprigg come out from the shadow cast by Christopher Caudwell.  The range and quantity of Sprigg’s writing shows that he had a formidable intellect, and had he survived the Spanish Civil War who knows what he would have achieved.  One thing seems fairly clear, however:  with the principle of Socialist Realism taking firm hold after the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress, Caudwell would not have returned to such a bourgeois form as the detective novel even if he had written more fiction.

It would be good to see all of his books back in print, but sadly Fatality in Fleet Street has not been issued as part of a Sprigg collection but as one of a series with the label ‘London Bound’, classic crime novels all set in the capital.  Oleander have produced an attractive volume, and even though Sprigg’s effort does not quite come up to the level of the best detective fiction of the period, it is still recommended as an enjoyable read, by one of the Golden Age’s most fascinating figures.