29 May 2008

Soft-Boiled Crime

Murderer's Maze by John Marsh 1957



This is a lightweight hardback in a dustjacket that is as tatty as the bombed-out plot of post-war Soho that it depicts. I like the cover art, and the guy in the trench coat with the grim expression promises a cracking good yarn.

First thing on a random opening is the line "Who will you say I am? A pick-up from Harridges?" From this I detect that the moral boundaries of the day are going to be tested a little. (A pick-up indeed!) Also, perhaps to avoid giving offence by placing real institutions into the hopefully salacious world of irredeemable sleaze that I am about to encounter, a flimsy disguise has been put onto any place names - in this instance by creating a hybrid of Harrods and Selfridges.

Leaf through: no pictures, about 190 pages and clear enough type that it will probably take only three or four sessions for the average reader to get through. Perfect for airport or bus station.

The front bits tell me that this is a first edition (I doubt there were any more) dating from 1957. The publisher John Gifford produced quite a lot of pulp detective stuff through the 50s and early 60s, including the great Vernon Warren.

Looking into it. Having spent the requisite three or four sessions whizzing through this, I have come to the conclusion that John Marsh is probably a psuedonym used by Enid Blyton when she felt like knocking out a crime novel.

Basically there's a villain who has built a vast underground headquarters beneath a bomb site in Soho where, with the help of some hastily sketched ne'er-do-wells, he plots the robbery of a vising foreign dignitary's jewels. Our hero is a sensible drinker and private eye named Felton who is brought out of a long sulk about the back-story death of his wife when he stumbles upon this case in the process of helping a charming Australian girl clear her dead brother's name after a war-time spying scandal.

There's a romance between the girl and her brother's one-time RAF pal Martin (a simpering foil to the rugged Felton), plenty of hiding in cupboards and overhearing dastardly plans and a bruised hero who strolls off at the end of the book with gratitude ringing in his ears


Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is what it says about publishers' gauging of the 1950s crime-reading public. It could be that the audience for the real thing as delivered by Chandler, Hammet or Simenon with his extraordinary psychological insights was considered to be a sophisticated niche. The general readership wanted something that was easier to get a handle on, that was not morally ambiguous and, above all, something that wasn't really 'dirty'.

For a book with the trappings of a hard-boiled detective story, it is incredibly coy - the sort of book that spells 'damn!' 'd--n!'. In fact I'd quite like to know what hideously offensive word has been bleeped in the following quote that occurs during a scrap between a couple of the ne'er-do-wells:

"Put that blade away," someone else shouted, throwing down knife and fork and jumping up.

"It's time someone carved the s____'s heart out!" another man yelled.

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