1 April 2009

Watching the Detectives

The Master Book of Detection and Disguise by Alfred C. Grosse 1936

This is a small paperback that's been squashed and rumpled and probably dropped in a puddle some time in the last 73 years. The front cover shows a distinguished-looking man peering down a microscope in an eerily lit forensic lab with a couple of serious bottles looming in the background. I assume this is ex-detective Grosse himself. The back cover and spine are entirely blank so that if you should leave it face down on a coffee table it can easily be mistaken for a small exercise book.

First thing on a random opening
is a page of italicised text with a subheading towards the bottom indicating that 'Ten General Hints on Disguise' are to follow. I have to turn the page to find out what those hints are.

Number 2 suggests that a little brilliantine or pomade can change the arch of the eyebrows and that a pair of scissors and a good rubbing with a hairbrush will also help. Number 4 advises that a fig pushed underneath the palate will make the voice deeper and thicker, while at number 3 we learn that the same fruit pushed into your cheeks will give a fuller face. At number 7 is the old trick of putting a pebble in one shoe to give a natural limp or, for the more adventurous, a pebble in both shoes so that 'your walk will be even more different from what it usually is'. Round off with number 9 by applying a little black greasepaint to one of your front teeth and hey presto! A fat-faced, gap-toothed, fig-voiced toff who hobbles and has curiously disfigured eyebrows. Should blend in nicely.

The first section of the book consists of seven chapters looking at such things as 'How a Detective Works', 'Finger-Prints', 'Detectives in Disguise' and 'Clues'. At the back is a selection of four-minute mysteries and photo-crimes as well as '7 Tests for Junior Detectives' and a hilarious little catalogue of sleuth-related merchandise. The budget production values of the book are evidenced by the fact that the 'photo-crime' puzzles do not feature any photos, being sets of comic strip drawings instead.

Front bits. Published in 1936 by Quaker Oats Ltd of Southall, this little book was almost certainly a freebie given away in return for tokens collected from cereal packets. The reverse of the title page states that Quaker Oats is 'The Empire's Breakfast Cereal' and shows the famous logo of the jolly Quaker man carrying a box of oats in one hand and a scroll of paper with the word 'Pure' on it in the other.

Looking into it. The 1930s was an era of classic British crime fiction. Readers who were impatient for the next Agatha Christie could bide their time with the equally satisfying Dorothy L Sayers or by revisiting the familiar exploits of Father Brown. These novels and stories all relied on uniquely gifted amateurs to right wrongs that left Scotland Yard's finest scratching their heads.

But there was then, as now, an appetite for true crime stories and a curiosity as to the workings of the real police force. This was met partly by the regular publication of memoirs from retired Detective Inspectors who, as if to dismiss the almost supernaturally intuitive amateurs of fiction, took pains to emphasise the prosaic nature of their work and the value of dogged persistence.

Grosse's little book, which states that it is aimed at 'young people (and their parents)', seems torn between the two positions. Partly because of his audience, he wants to make it as glamorous as possible. But he tempers the anecdotes of criminals collared through the single, brilliantly seen clue with a healthy portion of Quaker work ethic. In fact, this is almost as much a moral tract as a bit of entertainment.

The foreword is quite explicit on this, saying that the book is intended to show 'not only that crime does not pay, but that courage honesty and clean living always bring their own reward.' In between the thrilling accounts of pickpockets, conmen and cat-burglars, the ex-Detective Inspector regularly reinforces the message. His list of things to be done to become a good detective, for example, includes having courage, being honest, washing your hands before meals and having a bath at least twice a week.

Meanwhile, down on the moral low ground, is an army of unsavoury characters who are so self-evidently criminal that it's hard to know why you'd need a detective to catch them. Take pickpockets. They are all, apparently, 'undersized, timorous-looking men, all more or less well dressed, and with a strange partiality for shoes with pointed toes.' And this partiality as to footwear is an invaluable aid to anyone wanting to round up other types of criminal because, we are told, 'all crooks have this liking'.

The policeman's lot was made even happier by the fact that most of the criminals seem to have been half-wits. Grosse's reminiscences of his time at the Yard are littered with characters who probably needed help rather than prison. The burglar who was banged up after having been caught because he liked to fold the housewife's tea towels before leaving the scene of his crime and then went out and did the same thing again as soon as he was released was obviously an obsessive-compulsive sort. And what can we make of the pickpocket who never varied his routine of dressing up as a schoolboy (presumably without the pointy shoes) so that he could start scraps at home time and empty the pockets of the crowds who gathered to watch?

These unfortunates were no match for the inexorable efficiency and moral certainty of the trained detective whose noble calling was deemed a worthy ambition for the young people (and their parents) reading this book. Helpfully, the back section provides some fun opportunities for them to see if they might have what it takes to become the bane of the underworld, and there's even a small selection of useful equipment that can be had by redeeming more tokens from the oats packet.

Having a go at these, I have discovered that I definitely don't have the qualities needed to become a top detective. In my defence, though, I would point out that the puzzles themselves are, disappointingly, a bit crap. For example, the mark on the villain's sleeve in a 'photo' story about the theft of a necklace during a seance just looks like a dodgy bit of printing, though it's a clue that might have worked if they'd actually used photographs. As for working out that the hustlers who con a Scottish businessman on a visit to London by phoning his daughter and getting her to wire money to someone pretending to be her father - well how was anyone supposed to know he even had a daughter?

It's just a shame that the offers for bits of essential detective kit in exchange for tokens have long-since closed. Now I'll never be able to mask my lack of investigative acumen behind a bewildering array of gadgets and accessories such as the 'Seebackroscope' (which allows you to see behind yourself without turning your head), the Chinaman's eyes (which are what they sound like and would probably get you arrested for being racially offensive, or robustly punched for the same reason) or the Finger Print and Autograph Album (in which to collect the autographs and, yes, the fingerprints of celebrities).

The whole thing comes across as the product of a more innocent age. But let's not forget that the generation who would have been the target of this book went on to become the senior officers of the police forces of the 1970s and the hardened villains that they chased. If I ever find one of those fingerprint albums, the first celebrity on my list will be that bloke that played Gene Hunt in Life on Mars.