|Death in (Little) Venice
||[Feb. 1st, 2018|03:13 pm]
I posted only the briefest note of the day we spent in London before Christmas, walking by the canal from Paddington to Little Venice. It was cold, and bright, and I was pleased with this picture:
Looking for information about the area, I found this listing on the 'Hidden London' website, which claims the name 'Little Venice' originates with Margery Allingham's novel Death of a Ghost: "The name caught on with estate agents after the Second World War and is still much used for the pricey properties in the locality." I hadn't heard this before, and I'm hesitant about it. It's certainly true that the murders in Death of a Ghost (which was published in 1934) take place in a house called 'Little Venice', by the Regent's Canal. Is it more likely that post-war estate agents would adopt the name from an old detective story, or that the canalside location should inspire the same idea independently? I'd love to give credit to Allingham, who I think is the most underrated of the Queens of crime's Golden Age, but I think I'd need to see the missing link before I was convinced.
Once I'd taken Death of a Ghost down from the shelf, though, and flicked through it to find the recurring references to the house called Little Venice by its artistic owner, I couldn't put it back without re-reading it. It starts out as a classic Mr Campion mystery, with a cast of eccentric characters, the household of the late John Lafcadio R.A. - his widow, his 'muse', his model-turned-cook and his granddaughter, plus assorted hangers on. There is a murder with no apparent motive, which takes place at a curious social occasion, the unveiling of one of a series of paintings which the late artist has specified should be revealed at yearly intervals after his death. So far, so whimsical.
But as the narrative progresses, it takes a turn, and I think this is what the author has in mind in her prefatory 'Note on Mr Campion'. Every now and then, she says, he encounters cases which are "less highly coloured but even more grave" and this is one of them. What distinguishes it from his usual mysteries is that by halfway through the book, not only has Mr Campion identified the culprit, he has shared his suspicions with the police (and with the reader) who agree that he is right, but that he has no evidence which justifies an arrest. The remainder of the book is a game of cat and mouse, a thriller in which Mr Campion tries to protect his friends by making himself the target of this very clever and unscrupulous opponent, to provoke actions which will enable to police to intervene, without actually getting himself killed. People - and I'm one of them - talk about The Tiger in the Smoke as if it were unique among Allingham's books in being a thriller, a novel of suspense rather than of deduction; but that is what Death of a Ghost turns into.
The result is a curious hybrid. There is a genuine tension in the protracted endgame, in which Mr Campion spends an evening with Max Fustian, convinced that the man intends to kill him but unable to work out how. Yet the method, when it is revealed, relies on what appears to be an entirely fictitious Romanian wine, with the interesting property of making you extremely drunk if you have been unwise enough to drink spirits beforehand. Which Campion, given a rendezvous at a cocktail party by his assassin, naturally does.
Given the far-fetch and highly coloured nature of Allingham's plot, I don't actually mind this. But, talking of the highly coloured, there is something about Max Fustian that does bother me. Nowhere in the book is he explicitly described as Jewish, but here is his first appearance:
Max Fustian surged into the house, not crudely or noisily, but irresistibly, and with the same conscious power with which a successful actor-manager makes his appearance in the first act of a new play. They heard his voice, deep, drawling, impossibly affected, from the doorway...
When one considered Max Fustian's appearance it was all the more extraordinary that his personality, exotic and fantastic as it was, should never have overstepped the verge into the ridiculous. He was small, dark, pale, with a blue jowl and a big nose. His eyes, which were bright and simian, peered out from cavernous sockets, so dark as to appear painted. His black hair was ungreased and cut into a conventional shock which had just sufficient length to look like a wig. He was dressed, too, with the same mixture of care and unconventionality. His double-breasted black coat was slightly loose and his soft black tie flowed from beneath his white silk collar.
He had thrown his wide black hat and black raincoat on to the hall chest as he passed and now stood beaming at them, holding the gesture of welcome as one who realizes he has made an entrance.
He was forty, but looked younger and appreciated his good fortune.
On the surface, what is being pointed out is his theatricality: the name 'Fustian', the likeness to an actor-manager, the self-conscious holding of the gesture, the consciousness of making an entrance. But there's another set of descriptors: his personality is 'exotic', his colouring is simultaneously 'dark' and 'pale' and his nose, inevitably, is 'big'. His profession is both artistic and mercenary: not the stage, but an art dealership, still know by the name of its late proprietor 'old Salmon', in which his partner is the more transparently named Isidore Levy.
It isn't an unsympathetic portrait: for a really unattractive character, consider the portrayal of Donna Beatrice (pronounced Italian fashion) once the artist's model and now a devotee of various forms of mysticism: "Pampered vanity and the cult of the Higher Selfishness," thinks Mr Campion. Max is indulged and admired for playing his part so well, and almost to the end he is a worthy adversary.
Not quite to the end, but almost, and this is the other aspect of the character with which I am uncomfortable: with hindsight there are perhaps hints even in t5hat first entrance that he is - how can I put this? - suffering from a mental illness of what I suspect is a purely literary kind. After the duel from which he only just escapes alive, Mr Campion emerges from his hangover to learn that Fustian is in custody, that the police have evidence that he attempted to kill Campion but nothing to demonstrate why, but that this is not a problem. Eventually, he is taken to a cell where "From the floor all that remained of Max Fustian smiled slyly at him with drooling lips." Now, with hindsight, his immense belief in himself looks less like evil genius and more like a sign of mental instability; presented with an obstacle he cannot overcome, he cracks up and dies shortly after. This decline is treated as pitiful, but such a very melodramatic madness makes me uneasy. I can see that it is a convenient way to dispose of a murderer who has been depicted as so very clever at covering his tracks, just as it is convenient when Peter Wimsey leaves a cornered adversary alone with a loaded gun and a strong hint. But I don't have to like it.
This sounds as if it is a large enough matter to spoil my enjoyment of the book. It isn't, but it may go some way to explain why I had remembered so little of the plot.
This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.