C. S. Forester And Crime Fiction by Martin Edwards
It is strange that historians of the
genre have been slow to acknowledge the notable contribution made to crime fiction by Cecil Scott Forester (1899-1966). In part, this lack of recognition may be due
to the fact that Forester, whose real name was Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith, moved away
from crime early in his writing career, and became celebrated as the author of books such
as The Gun and The African Queen as well as the series of
historical seafaring tales which featured Horatio Hornblower. It may also be because, even when creating his masterpiece of
suspense, Payment Deferred, Forester evidently regarded himself as producing
a "straight", realistic novel rather than as blazing a new trail for the heirs
of Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle. Yet today few would dispute that he was ahead of his time in the
criminal field and perhaps it is not too fanciful to argue that modern chillers such as Deep
Water by Patricia
Highsmith and One Across, Two Down
by Ruth Rendell - to take examples almost at random
- fall within a tradition first established by Forester's short but remarkable debut in
Payment Deferred was first published in l926. That was also the year in which The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd appeared, giving rise to a fierce debate, which now seems rather quaint, as to whether Agatha Christie had "played fair" with her readers; at the same time, The Benson Murder Case launched Philo Vance on his extraordinary career to much acclaim form enthusiasts for classical detection. Meanwhile in his preface to an anthology entitled Crime And Detection, E.M.Wrong was saying, "What we want in our detective fiction is not a semblance of real life ... but deep mystery and conflicting clues!"
Seen in its proper historical context, Forester's achievement seems all the more impressive. In his (posthumously published) memoir Long Before Forty, he provides an interesting account of how, as a young man who had already begun to make a little money out of writing, he came to write a doom-laden story about the downfall of a suburban murderer and thereby to establish himself as an author of note. Although in The Singing Bone (1912), R. Austin Freeman had devised the "inverted" story in which the murderer is seen at work before the detective commences his investigation, with Payment Deferred, Forester struck out in a fresh direction.
The plot-line of the book is simple. William Marble is a middle-aged bank clerk with an extravagant wife, two children and a host of debts. When a rich nephew from Australia pays a visit to the Marbles' little house in Dulwich, the clerk's desperation is such that he robs and kills the stranger, burying him in the garden without alerting his wife's suspicion. A profitable speculation on the fortunes of the franc soon means that Marble becomes very rich. But he is haunted by his crime and, in an excellent final twist, ultimately suffers an ironic fate.
Although the book sold well, and has often been reprinted, it has seldom attracted the interest of the critics. In the first full-length survey in England of crime writing, Masters Of Mystery by H. Douglas Thomson, Payment Deferred is not mentioned at all. In the same year, 1931, the more perceptive Dorothy L. Sayers bracketed Forester's book with Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles in her introduction to Gollancz's second series of Great Short Stories Of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Describing the two novels as "interesting studies in murder rather than detective stories", she forecast that before long a formula for combining the two types of story would be discovered by somebody.
The prediction was borne out sooner even than Sayers can have anticipated with the publication, again in 1931, of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett. But it seems clear that Hammett and his successors in America developed the crime novel without paying much, if any, regard to the parallel movement towards realism in the United Kingdom and in his much-admired Murder For Pleasure, Howard Haycraft was able to provide an account of the first hundred years of crime fiction without referring to Forester once.
The uncertain way in which the commentators have treated Payment Deferred is reflected by the way in which our most celebrated critic of crime, Julian Symons, has wavered in his assessment of the book. He thought it merited inclusion in the list of the l00 best crime books which he produced for The Sunday Times in l959, but on reflection decided that it did not qualify for a mention in the first edition of his history of the genre, Bloody Murder, which came out in l972. The central theme of that work was that "the detective story has changed into the crime novel" and Symons depicted a more or less clear historical progress, including the rise of the detective novel in the early years of the present century, the "Golden Age" of the Twenties and Thirties and then rebellion against amongst both British writers and their American counterparts. Amongst the British rebels he numbered Richard Hull, C.E. Vulliamy, F. Tennyson Jesse and Raymond Postgate, but his starting point - having quoted from the well-known preface to Anthony Berkeley's The Second Shot (1930) was to say: "The promise of a novel with a detective or crime interest made by Anthony Berkeley was fulfilled by his alter ego Francis Iles. Symons continues by describing both Malice Aforethought and the second book which Berkeley (A .B. Cox) wrote under the Iles name.
Yet it is plain that in The Second Shot Berkeley is describing the changing nature of the crime writer's concerns at that time, rather than making a forecast. Malice Aforethought boasts a final surprise which is, in fact, very similar to that at the end of Payment Deferred. It is easy to believe that the earlier novel exerted a considerable influence upon his approach, although it should be added that the best of Berkeley/Iles books display a dry wit which Forester rarely attempted.
Intriguingly, the major change to the structure of Bloody Murder in the second edition of 1985 has seen Symons relegate the British "rebels" of the Thirties to the section in his chapter on the Golden Age of the decade which discusses achievements and limitations in that period; Hammett, Chandler and company are dealt with in a separate chapter on "The American Revolution". This time, Forester does rate a mention, albeit in the midst of a variety of "curiosities and singletons". "Low-toned but compelling" is the description which Symons applies to Payment Deferred and the other crime novel which Forester wrote, Plain Murder.
Plain Murder came out in l930, again before Malice Aforethought and it is clear that, although it is an excellent story told with considerable style, the latter did not have as much originality as has often been claimed. Having said that, one must admit that in Plain Murder Forester did not do much more than repeat himself . Three advertising men resort to killing a colleague as a means of avoiding dismissal and the grim prospect of joining the dole queues. The ring-leader, Morris, acquires a taste for crime, but eventually gets his come-uppance. Once again, the book displays Forester's gift for conveying the despair of the lower middle class at a time of economic crisis and the circumstances in which that despair can lead to murder. His description of the world of advertising, too, bears comparison with the pictures created by Sayers in Murder Must Advertise and by Symons in The 31st Of February.
Perhaps Forester felt that he was not able to contribute much more to crime fiction; for whatever reason, he turned his attention to other subjects. A couple of his short stories, "The Turn Of The Tide" and "The Letters In Evidence", still crop up occasionally in anthologies and show that he also had a talent for the short form; the latter story is one of the few epistolary tales of crime, the best know example of that sub-genre being Sayers' novel The Documents In The Case.
It would be regrettable if commentators and historians were to continue, by and large, to overlook Payment Deferred. It is more than simply a remarkable effort by a young, inexperienced writer. Its publication was a landmark and, unlike many detective stories of the time, it remains splendidly readable today. The neglect into which it has fallen is, one might say, as baffling as it is criminal.
Article originally appeared in CADS and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Geoff Bradley