Saturday, July 16, 2011

With My Little Eye (1948) by Roy Fuller

It may have been Karl Marx who inadvertently gave the British thriller its distinctive mark by making London his home base and inaugurating it as the anarchist capital of the world (inasmuch as anarchists can be said to have a capital). If the term 'British thriller' does not really bring to mind anything in particular, it should. Anarchist conspiracy - specifically anarchist - captured the popular imagination towards the end of the 19th century, and there is inevitably something ridiculous about anarchism - something of the bumbling vaudeville performers. It may have been the siege of Sidney Street that clinched it, but things were drifting that way long before then. Mr Hyde tramples the body of his victim, the incarnation of the anarchist impulse, performing a sort of dance, a music-hall routine. The hound of the Baskervilles, or Tonga, and in fact so many of Conan Doyle's villains, are fairground freaks. The whole of the Father Brown cycle is a carnival hall of distorting mirrors. In fact, the cycle ends at a fairground, as far as I remember. Edgar Wallace was pure vaudeville, with a sinister bent. And then, a few years after Sidney Street, Richard Hannay was born, whom Hitchcock later introduced to the screen at a music hall. Hitchcock put another favourite character through a carload of a magician's trick equipment while Europe teetered on the brink of war - but even the war could not put an end to the village fair, as demonstrated in Greene's Ministry of Fear. In other words, the true British thriller is a fairground thriller, a fantasy set in a never-never land, always with a touch of improbability, of the music-hall, of Gilbert and Sullivan and, in fact, Francis L. Sullivan; a bit larger and quite a bit queerer than life.

Roy Fuller's narrator speaks of the fantasy of consipracy and crime which can almost be shaken off by exerting one's will, too improbable to be real. Midway through the book, the story abruptly veers off for a while into New Arabian Nights territory, and the protagonist takes this in his stride. In fact, the narrator, a boy of unspecified age but probably about 15 or 16, is a literary twin of Jim Hawkins, and the gang of villains that he exposes is one half Flint's pirates and another, the pirates of Penzance. For all its popular roots, it is a grim book (Fuller's other two thrillers would be grimmer); but as always, the author finds the time for poetry and for discussing the mechanics of crime fiction.

There is usually some minor flaw in Fuller's plotting which slightly mars the overall effect. Perhaps it is another characteristic of the genre, in line with the primitive origins. In this case, it is Rhoda's bizarre whim of sending Frederick to find Brilliant: if she does this with the obvious motive of getting him killed, she should not logically come to his rescue at a later stage. On second thoughts, one can explain it by resorting to a psychoanalytical interpretation: Rhoda subconsciously wants to blow the whole thing wide open. This version of her behaviour is never implied.

I never noticed it before, but in this book Fuller is completely obsessed with hair. I thought it a strange obsession. Shortly after finishing the book, I was on a tram, and a woman with distinctly repellent hair sat down right in front of me. When I was returning about an hour later, the same woman was on the tram with me again.

P.S. The book was included by Julian Symons in his 100 Best Crime and Mystery Books, and for once his choice can't be faulted.

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