"Oh what a tangled
web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
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Jeffery Ewener has never written literary criticism before, and probably never will again, but his love for the works of Colin Watson and the ineluctable blandishments of our Editor made him putty in her hands. He is a sometime advertising copywriter, sometime journalist, sometime columnist -- his political satire broadcasts can sometimes be heard on CBC Radio in Canada. His first mystery short story was published in the May 2003 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He lives in Toronto.
Colin Watson’s Funny Old World
Secret Agent of the Absurd
It's been twenty-two years since Colin Watson died. He was one of the most wildly funny writers England has produced, which is saying something. He was also a brilliant stylist -- he's certainly the only crime writer I know of who has been compared to William Faulkner -- and an inventive and devious crafter of mysteries.
He's been out of print for more than a decade. Even his single foray into non-fiction - his acclaimed social history of Golden Age mysteries and their readers, Snobbery with Violence - which was long available in a Mysterious Press edition, has lately been allowed to lapse into obscurity.
A similar darkness enshrouds the man himself. There are no biographies, no critical examinations beyond a couple of character studies by the late Earl Bargainnier in the journal Clues, and not one doughboy or doughgirl in the army of Ph.D. students in EngLit, CrimeLit or PopCult has seen fit to grind the man up into thesis mulch. On the web there's only a single site devoted to Watson (though it's a fine one, http://www.idir.net/~nedblake/watson_0.html, created by William Nedblake of Kansas City) along with a scattering of uninformative Google hits.
Watson's original readers knew they were on to something good. He published a dozen novels between 1958 and 1982, to the accompaniment of an ever-expanding chorus of delighted reviewers. In the US he appeared more sporadically, but to critical acclaim - beginning with his 1962 novel, Hopjoy Was Here (the New Yorker called it a "macabre and jolly English tale" while Anthony Boucher in the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Watson has an unforgivably sharp eye for the ridiculous"). By the 1970s, a TV series based on Watson's books had hit the airwaves in Britain, a distinction that usually confers superstar status upon an author - think of Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, Robert B. Parker. Yet Watson's profoundly low profile managed to remain unelevated.
Nor did he command attention even in the flesh. In his book jacket photos he looks positively mousy. The wife of H.R.F. Keating, who with her husband attended dinners of the mystery writers' Detection Club, barely noticed at those affairs the quiet grey-haired, grey-moustached man who was Colin Watson (he had been elected to the exclusive Club in 1970). She thought he might be a schoolteacher - the quiet, scholarly, typically English kind. Then she read his books. The poor woman was shocked. "Rabelaisian" is the polite word often used to describe them. For instance, from 1969's The Flaxborough Crab (or, in the US, Just What the Doctor Ordered), we find the annual picnic of the Trent Street Darby and Joan Club, a charity for the town of Flaxborough's indigent elderly, under the relentlessly cheerful direction of Miss Pollock, a local do-gooder:
"Brought your knitting, dear? That's nice." She patted, in the manner of a dog-lover, the grey head of old Mrs. Crunkinghorn.
[After lunch, Miss Pollock tries to interest the dear ladies in a game of "Name the Flowers" ...]
She held aloft a dandelion.
"That's naught but a poor little piss-a-bed," declared old Mrs. Crunkinghorn promptly and with disdain.
Miss Pollock looked taken aback. "Well, actually, I would have thought …"
"That's what that is," Mrs. Crunkinghorn affirmed. "A poor little piss-a …"
"Yes, the old country name, I expect. Ah, now what's this next one, I wonder?"
In her hand was a straggle of stalk from which hung several diminutive white bells.
"Tickle-titty," said Mrs. Crunkinghorn, without hesitation. "That's what that is, my old duck."
Hastily, Miss Pollock put it down and selected what she was sure was a perfectly innocent wood anemone.
"Poke-Me-Gently. Very good for green-sickness, my mother always reckoned."
Onto the discard pile went the specimen of Poke-Me-Gently. Raising another flower - a lank, brownish-yellow affair - Miss Pollock deliberately avoided the leading contestant's eye and looked appealingly to the further part of her audience.
"Now, what about some of you other ladies? Wouldn't you like to have a try?"
"Old Man's Vomit," snapped the omniscient Mrs. Crunkinghorn. "You don't want to hold that too near your dress, me dear."
Everywhere you look in Watson (or, in Mrs. Keating's case, at him) you find this same combination of superficial blandness deceptively concealing an uproar of animal spirits - like a hymn book hollowed-out to hold a hip flask. Watson gives us geriatric gentlemen patting bottoms, matronly housewives jumping into orgies, MI5 agents running up huge unpaid bar bills for reasons of National Security, austere solicitors blackmailing the local gentry. Not that the blandness is a disguise. It's in the very nature of the animal spirits to aspire to respectability, decorum, social standing - indeed, these are their most coveted desires, along with their neighbour's ass and so forth. The absurdity runs through the world from top to bottom. If we don't usually see it, the fault is ours, for not looking deep enough, for letting our eyes skip away before the startling reality asserts itself, and our romantic notions of an orderly, easily classified world are exploded. Watson does look deep enough, and he hasn't a romantic bone in his body. He allows the absurd to assert itself, aggressively and hilariously. It's no wonder that an artist with such a vision of the world around him should choose to write in exactly that genre that makes a specialty of playing with deceptive surfaces and suddenly revealed depths - the mystery novel.
Now, when it comes to paying serious attention to the mystery novel, the French put the English-speaking world to shame. They recognize, as we generally fail to, that some of the finest writing published today, by any criterion, can be found in the category of crime fiction, by writers like Keating, Hillerman, Westlake (especially his wonderful The Ax) and many others. And the best work of many writers not normally included in the crime genre has nevertheless been crime fiction - Margaret Atwood, for instance, or Jonathan Lethem, and even Muriel Spark.
If the French have a fault, it's that they maybe take it a bit too seriously. Where we English-speakers rarely consider any writing to be literature unless it borders on the incomprehensible, the French don't feel they're really coming to grips with a writer until they can say incomprehensible things. I've seen articles describing Derek Raymond as a "Soldier of the Invisible," whatever that is, and Jean-Patrick Manchette as a "Situationist Romancer," which isn't a whole lot clearer. It's in this spirit of Gallic hyperbole that I would dub Colin Watson the "Secret Agent of the Absurd."
All twelve of Watson's novels are set in Flaxborough, his fictional town of 15,000 inhabitants in the literarily obscure eastern part of England - just above that bump you see in the lower right-hand corner of the map of Britain, yet not so far north that you get into the rich literary soil of Yorkshire. It's a flat, featureless landscape that manages to combine an inhospitable climate with a noticeable lack of economic opportunity. As though aware of the inhospitable façade their home may present to strangers, the locals are ever anxious to ensure that no false impression be conveyed:
Ross leaned across him, calling to the squat, sceptical looking man who lounged against one of the sign's supports.
"I say, I wonder if you could tell me in which part of the town I can find the police headquarters."
The man silently regarded the casual balance of the traveler's forward-thrust shoulder, its suiting of hand-blended New-biggin wool and linen dyed to the colour of Chartres Cathedral, the musicianly hands that sprang so surprisingly from wrists as powerful as a road driller's. He shifted his glance to Ross's face; a patient face, not very handsome, the face of a questioner and connoisseur, a trader - in the last resort - of pain.
When the man's slow scrutiny reached Ross's eyes he saw they were lifted to absorb the message of the tall, clean lettering above them. FLAXBOROUGH WELCOMES CAREFUL DRIVERS.
The man politely awaited the descent of Ross's gaze before he carefully cleared his throat and spoke.
"Piss off," he said. (Hopjoy Was Here, 1962)
"A high-spirited town," another resident describes it. "Like Gomorrah." By the time Watson published the first edition of his critical history, Snobbery with Violence, in 1971 (the second edition came out in '79), Flaxborough was already 13 years old. It's hard, nevertheless, not to see the seed of its conception in Snobbery's discussion of what he calls "the Mayhem Parva school" of English mystery stories. "Parva" - Latin for "little" - is a fairly common suffix for English place names, and speaks to the sentimental English ear of spiritual peace, social order, and ancient privileges. It is the unreality of the villages of Styles and St. Mary Mead and so many, many more, with their true origins in the fantasies of the almost totally urban-dwelling middle-class - "sufficiently picturesque to chime with the English suburb-dweller's sadly uninformed hankering after retirement to 'the country'" - that irks Watson. Flaxborough is his retort. There, the telltale signs of life and commerce and social conflict and bodily functions, which have been so industriously scrubbed away in Mayhem Parva, can run riot.
Watson is a realistic writer. Sex there is aplenty in Flaxborough, and violence, venality, greed, depravity, and sometimes a shocking lack of manners, but he is not just amusing us with rude cartoons. Actions have consequences, in Watson's world as much as in our own.
Addicts of British TV shows and movies often observe that they never show the violence in isolation - as opposed to the way it's treated in the North American product where it's only there to make a big noise, throw some blood around and, if the story's supposed to be a mystery, to provide a corpse. Instead we see not just the violence but its consequences, the effect it has on real people - horrified friends, devastated families, shattered lives.
Certainly Britain produces its share of crap TV, and the United States more than its share of quality shows, so it's unfair to categorize them in this way. But it points up the marked differences between a cartoon, no matter how sophisticated, and a three-dimensional depiction of real people interacting in all their complexity.
Watson provides that complexity not just in his violence (which he usually chooses to suggest rather than to graphically describe) but in his comedy as well. Sex, for instance, is never shown without its inevitable accompaniments - resentment, dishonesty, ulterior motives, clumsiness, disappointment and, especially, social awkwardness. These are the things that can make readers want to avert their eyes. It's hard to imagine anymore a sex act that would have this effect on its own.
Three-dimensional actions create three-dimensional characters, and Watson's are as lively and tangible as any to be found in fiction. As in any series, the main characters return again and again. Minor characters are brought in as required, but these too come back in different books, and sometimes in the later novels new characters are introduced who are the children of older characters in the earlier novels. The effect is to make vivid the reader's sense of small-town life, where genealogy is not just a hobby but a kind of Social Positioning System, a tool for locating exactly where you stand in any situation.
H.R.F. Keating praised "the solidity of Watson¹s Flaxborough saga" in his own critical study, Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books. "Watson," he said, "created in his imaginary Flaxborough a place it is not preposterous to compare with the creation of Arnold Bennet in his classic Five Towns novels, or even perhaps with William Faulkner¹s Yoknapatawa County.
At the centre of the Flaxborough web stands Inspector Walter Purbright, a tall, fair-haired, modest man who finds so much enjoyment in the absurdities and self-contradictions of the people around him that it's hard not to see him as the Author's Representative. As Watson explains in his book of criticism, Snobbery With Violence, "It is in the aside, the casual reference, the quoted remarks of a character, that a novelist's true opinion is to be found, rather than in the main body of his narrative."
Master & Man
Purbright is a scrupulously polite investigator. This is in part because of the Flaxborovian's alertness to social distinctions, which is ever-vigilant and sensitive as a Honolulu sunburn. Police inspectors do not rank high on that scale and, Flaxborough being the sort of place it is, many of its most suspicious characters are always ready to telephone the Chief Constable and inform him that his man is getting above himself. But the fact is, politeness is simply in Inspector Purbright's nature. He would not give offence needlessly. He has a sharp eye - "jocularity on the part of a solicitor is one of the surest signs of evasiveness," he observes at one point (Plaster Sinners, 1980) - but a kind heart.
He certainly shares that eye with his creator. I would argue that Watson had the same heart, too.
It's hard to explain this point to anyone who is not lucky enough to have read Watson. There are other satirists - hundreds of them - and even many who can compare with Watson in their grace and marksmanship. But there is another distinction to be made - not so much one of degree (of talent, or hilarity) but of type. There is a quality of gentleness in Watson. Not in his humour, which is ruthless, but rather in his approach, in his touch. It comes through in the style, but in a sort of accumulative way - it's hard to pick out an illustrative quote. Rather, it's a sense one is left with after the book is finished.
Another satirist as powerful as Watson, and an almost exact contemporary of his, was the American writer Terry Southern - screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove most famously, as well as the co-author of Candy and author of The Magic Christian.
Southern was a screamingly funny writer, whose specialty was to mimic the voices of the self-important and the triumphantly bland with uncanny precision, then to place them in a context of mind-boggling inappropriateness and let the absurdity shine through it like the sun. Think of the classic scene at the end of Strangelove where Slim Pickens rides the nuke out of the bomb bay like a rodeo rider, waving his Stetson and howling out a rebel yell. Or Keenan Wynn as the tough sergeant who reluctantly agrees to shoot open the pop machine so Peter Sellers can get a dime to call Washington and tell them World War Three is starting - but grimly warns him that, if there's any mistake, "you'll answer to the Coca-Cola Company."
Southern and Watson even sighted on some of the same targets - easy ones, maybe, like the ad men Southern mocks in a chapter of Magic Christian and Watson wickedly depicts in his 1972 Broomsticks over Flaxborough (US title, Kissing Covens).
But there's a difference between the two men in approach, perhaps even in intent. Southern is always the hipster, standing outside of what's going on, laughing at the squares. There is no sense of commonality between him and the people he satirizes. These are the people, after all, who are going to destroy the world, in Strangelove, or who, in Magic Christian, are made to swim through boiling shit just to grab a few bucks.
Watson never gives the impression that he stands apart from the objects of his satire. He handles his characters - even the most godawful - with a certain respect. I do not mean that he is "laughing with them, not at them." On the contrary, he laughs them to shame. But what he also does is refuse to distance himself from them. These foibles, flaws, weaknesses, failings, twistedness and cussedness are not just theirs, he seems to say. They're ours. Aren't we ridiculous? Humanity is his target, and Watson - humanely - includes himself. And us, for that matter.
The only writer I can think of who shares this odd combination of clear-sightedness and kind-heartedness, of bitterness of satire and sweetness of nature, is Kurt Vonnegut. Stylistically, the two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in their vision and their humanity they stand side by side. Maybe it's significant that they both started out in the 1950s as genre writers, Vonnegut setting his creations in outer space or in the future, while Watson was building his imaginary town in the English countryside.
What is fascinating about Watson is the personal degree to which he took this view. If Flaxborough was a whirlpool of hilarity beneath a bland smile, so was Watson himself, as Mrs. Keating's reminiscence shows. But he was not, as she imagined from looking at him, a schoolteacher. He was a newspaperman.
Worse, he was an English newspaperman - employed on the Canadian-born press baron Lord Thomson's chain of exuberant English publications - the sort that make USA Today look like a slightly drier version of the Congressional Record. Watson's job was to write the editorials - "leading articles" or "leaders" in the UK parlance - which would be run, to save money, in a number of smaller regional papers at the same time. These would be commentaries on the events of the day, in the unsigned voice of the Thomson chain itself. They were distinguished by their strong tendency to support Sound Policy, Social Decency, and the Conservative Party. It was not considered necessary to close with an injunction to the reader to push back his chair from the breakfast table, jump to his feet and lift up his voice in a patriotic rendition of "God Save the Queen" - but rarely did a Thomson leader contain any ideas or observations that might discourage such response on a voluntary basis.
Watson's job was not to challenge readers' opinions, but to support them, to flatter them, and ultimately to encourage them to renew their subscriptions. It required an instinctive grasp of the unspoken attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, aspirations and fears of the English middle-class. The challenge was to receive these half-formed feelings, process them into the shape of coherent ideas on a variety of topical subjects, and hand them back again.
This became Watson's life work, though he retired as a full-time journalist when his books began to sell. The same process of observation, intuition and expression became the basis of his satire over the next twenty years. And the goal of Snobbery with Violence was precisely to reverse this process, as it operated in the Golden Age mystery - to trace back the expression (often only half-expressed) to the unspoken assumptions that lay behind them, in the lives and hearts of the readers who consumed the books in their millions.
So it should be no surprise that the Flaxborough series closely follows the evolution of English society during a period that was perhaps its most transformative since the Reformation. Watson wrote his first novel in the immediate aftermath of Suez, when the last pretence of British imperial power had its face rubbed in the dust of Sinai. His last was published as Margaret Thatcher, faced with riots, strikes, economic failure, and rebellious MPs, salvaged her political future with a neo-imperial invasion of the Falklands.
None of this, and none of the political roller-coaster of the intervening years, is so much as mentioned in the novels. But there is a vivid sense of social confusion throughout them, as indeed there was throughout Britain itself. And time passes, over the course of the series, not just with the aging of the characters, but with the evolution of the place itself. The nearby village of Mumblesby briefly appears in 1962's Hopjoy as almost a ghost town, the young people all moved away, the former labourers' cottages only partly inhabited by a coarse colony of elderly rustic sociopaths. By 1982, in Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby?, the village has been gentrified into a residential area for the upper-middle-class, full of junk shops masquerading as expensive antique specialists, and a cynical prosperity founded on agricultural subsidies. Socially it's come up in the world but things have slipped a bit, morally.
A Funny Old World
So why should a writer of such richness and comic energy be so forgotten? I think part of the reason has to be the sheer vitality of the crime genre. So many new crime writers have come along since Watson's death in 1982, and won themselves a readership, that there's less need for publishers to dig through backlists for potential revivals.
Then there is the question of the popularity - with publishers, if not with readers - of comic writing itself. As Jennifer Jordan wrote in "Funny Bones: On Humor in Mystery" funny books tend to stimulate more than the usual degree of caution in the publishing industry. She suggests a number of reasons for this - the subjectivity of humour, its tendency to elicit strong though divided responses from readers - but I think she overlooks an important one: the large number of people who have no sense of humour at all. It seems as total an affliction as colour-blindness. Either you can tell the difference between red and green or you can't. It's far from an uncommon condition, and editors certainly have no occupational immunity.
Nor did Watson ever do much to push himself forward, even in his lifetime. On the contrary, he seems to have maintained an almost Martin Bormann-like invisibility, even, as Mrs. Keating can attest, among his peers. He seems to have been so totally absorbed in his own comic view of the passing scene that he felt little urge to thrust himself into it.
Yet there is another reason within the books themselves. I have said that Watson is at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is unique, but an argument could be made that he has had a tangible influence on contemporary writers who, though very far from sharing his sensibility, have nevertheless learned from his style. Some of the most popular and accomplished crime writers of the day - Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley - though their styles vary considerably, all seem to share a reluctance to include anything that will not merely distract the reader, but will in any way slow the story down.
And Watson's stories are slow. They do not drag, but they move at the pace of a Flaxborovian out for a stroll - not that of a Londoner on a dark, deserted street who has heard stealthy footprints approaching from behind. This quality alone is enough to antagonize English publishers, for whom the memory of quaint English village vicar-and-spinster murders is felt as a national shame, one that can only be washed away in the blood of the mutilated victims of fictional serial killers. The fact that Watson is, in part, actually satirizing the old clichés, is not seen as a mitigating factor - if in fact it's seen at all.
But Watson was a writer of complexity and depth, and it's neither easy nor advisable to read him quickly. Rarely does a corpse show up before the halfway point. The novels are short by today's standards, about 150 pages or maybe 70,000 words, but they can take more time and more concentration than many books twice their length. This is not calculated to appeal to the modern editor at an international publishing conglomerate.
But for the reader who actually enjoys reading, who has a sense of the ridiculous, who likes unravelling a complex plot and getting to know real human beings, Watson is nectar. His books are hard to find, but there isn't a bad one in the bunch. If you do find one, you know you'll enjoy it.
To the question as to why they should be so hard to find, there's no simple answer. Mrs. Thatcher probably put it best when, as one of the most successful British politicians in history, she was tossed out in a revolt by her own party leaders, she observed, "It's a funny old world."
As Colin Watson well knew.
Someone somewhere once observed that writers who try to write about great symbols and icons and archetypes end up creating flat clichés, while those who write about individuals in their living, breathing reality end up creating universals, and speaking to us all. Flaxborough speaks to us all. The idiom is unusual, the pace unhurried, the style rich, reflective, and slow as a country afternoon. But the reality of Watson's imaginary world is palpable. Once we settle into it, it becomes as familiar as a town we've lived in all our lives, and every bit as hard to leave.
Copyright 2004 by Jeffery Ewener
"Oh what a tangled
web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
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