Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flush As May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard

Flush As MayOn May Morning Margaret Canting stumbles on a dead body just outside the small village of Lodstone where she has been staying. She goes to get the village constable, who behaves suspiciously, and when they reach the place together, the body is no longer to be found. The same morning she meets a man, Garrod, who will become her partner in a long private investigation aimed at discovering what exactly happened, why, and to whom.

This is Hubbard's first crime novel for adult readers, and it starts, on the surface of it, conventionally enough. Indeed, a vanishing body is one of the staples of the genre. But Hubbard started as he meant to go on, and the book takes an abrupt turn into otherness with about 40 pages left to go. The brief review available on a couple of web pages dedicated to the author contains in fact a very bad spoiler, because Hubbard takes some serious pains not to hint at the true nature of the Lodstone mystery before the time comes to unravel it. Therein lies a problem, for the long middle stretch of the book is full of cross-country walks and chases which seem to get the protagonists nowhere, and the only major twist is saved until the very end. The weakest part of the novel is the character of Garrod, whose admiration of Margaret, while fully justified, is expressed rather repetitiously. He does not seem to grow any interesting traits of his own, and the ending excludes him altogether. With the knowledge of what was to come, one misses Hubbard's later, obsessed, slow-burning protagonists.

Flush As May 2To sum up, we have an excellent early part, Margaret's stay with a weak and sympathetic vicar, when a low laughter in the churchyard at night promises more horror than a threat of explicit violence. Then the investigation itself is only sporadically involving, and Hubbard's extensive descriptions of topography and landscape are, surprisingly, not very visual, perhaps because they are over-complicated. Unlike some later novels, there is no single striking natural feature that centres the plot on itself, acting almost as a catalyst of events, although natural elements overall play an important part, as one expects from this author. Finally, the ending is again excellent, although I suspect that some readers may find it difficult to accept, coming out of the left field as it does. I am not really surprised that Hubbard is a forgotten author, and that outside a small circle of enthusiasts few people seem to 'get' him. Flush As May starts, roughly speaking, in John Buchan territory and ends with a nod to a very different author who, like Hubbard, shortened his Christian names to initials. Hubbard does not seem to allow his readers to settle with the comfortably expected, like popular crime fiction tends to do.

One of the most curious aspect of Hubbard is his treatment of villains. First, they seldom seem to get any comeuppance, nor is it usually implied that they deserve any. In Hubbard's books they simply are, very much like the menacing or destructive forces in nature. The police constable who gives Margaret some uneasy moments at the start of the book, overshadows the rest of it, but never in fact reappears. Another and even nastier antagonist provides some tense situations but remains in essence a bit player, because the violence he represents is not a personal force but rather something that is acted out through him as an elemental phenomenon, a force of nature. This may sound obscure but makes sense after reading the book. The brief final flash of danger comes from a totally unexpected source - a man who is not violent in himself (just like in The Holm Oaks - it may well be one of Hubbard's recurring motifs). The implication seems to be that violence is not so much a personal trait in a flawed character as something dissolved in nature and finding its outlet in humans just as impersonally as it does in a thunderstorm. Neither the author nor his heroine feel that any retribution is warranted.

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