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The thrills of summers past

On the beach, nothing beats a good detective story

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

How my heart sinks at the sight of those little features on ‘summer reading’. Follow these recommendations and you will strain your shoulder and your purse, buying and carrying books that will stay unread at least until the cool blast of the autumnal equinox, and probably forever afterwards.

Ignore the log-rolling, the favours to friends and publishers, the favouritism of the bookshop display tables. As an occasional author, I long ago realised that at least half the book reviews in Britain are written by people who haven’t read the book they are writing about, and don’t much care. If you want something to read in the summer months, plunge instead into a secondhand bookshop (there are still some there) and seek out the intelligent thrillers and detective stories of the recent past.

For that moment when the sky darkens, and great masses of rain smack against the window of the isolated holiday cottage, or for the hot French midnight when sleep will not come, or for the winged hell of the airport and the plane, equip yourself with a bag of fraying green Penguins or crumbling, stained Pan paperbacks. If you’ve had the sense to take the slow train instead, well, better still. They may come to pieces in your hands, but they will beguile you and leave you better than you were before. None of these recommendations is mercenary or written in the hope of a favour in return. Everyone involved is dead.

If you’d like to imagine yourself broke on the platform of a central European railway station, on a frozen night in Hitler’s Europe, and suddenly offered an alluring but risky way out of your difficulties, I’d start with Eric Ambler, in his Popular Front days. In Uncommon Danger, you’ll end up meeting the only thoroughly charming GPU agents (a brother and sister) in English fiction, sneaking across the Czech frontier and almost meeting your end in pre-Munich Prague. Or if Italian travel is more in your way, let Mr Ambler conduct you to Fascist Milan to witness a state-sponsored murder on a foggy night (in Cause for Alarm) and introduce you to the practical details of espionage and corruption, not to mention the appalling General Vagas, with his heavy maquillage, his hatred of his wife and his love of the ballet. If you’ve ever imagined snatching a ride on a passing goods train, or jumping from a moving express to escape capture, this is the book for you. But you’ll also receive some interesting instruction in how Mussolini’s state actually worked, and encounter the tragedy of a great man whose mind has been overthrown by persecution. There’s plenty more where that came from. Ambler was a clever and well-educated man, who knew his Europe, especially its shady corners and the weak points in its frontiers.

He was also, oddly, an engineer — one of the few things he has in common with another genius of readability, Nevil Shute. When not building the R-100 airship or setting up his own aeroplane-making firm, Shute did secret work for the Admiralty. If you want profound characterisation, probably best turn elsewhere. But if you want a kindly understanding of the British people, mixed with compelling plots so good that they shut your ears to airline safety drills and the squalling baby in the next seat, these are for you. There are one or two duds (The Rainbow and the Rose and Beyond the Black Stump should stay on the shelf) but how about a prophetic thriller about metal fatigue in airliners (No Highway), a plot to murder the Queen mixed up with a future fantasy of a Britain sick of socialism (In the Wet) or a clever condemnation of racial prejudice revolving round the fate of a black American soldier accused of rape in wartime England (The Chequer Board)? His novel of Britain in the Blitz, What Happened to the Corbetts, was actually written before war broke out and is both a remarkable piece of foresight and a wistful last glance at pre-1939 southern England.

These books, if not actually out of print, are very hard to find because they are so blazingly unfashionable. Patriotism isn’t a joke. Middle-class people aren’t axiomatically stuffy fools. There’s a strong dislike of state socialism, interestingly allied with a loathing of snobbery and a great liking for Australians and Canadians.

Josephine Tey, one of the greatest writers of detective stories of the past century, has a similar problem for modern reviewers, though I have to admit that, unlike Shute, she was a bit of a snob. I can never decide which of her (regrettably few) books is the best. What amazes me is that so many people who ought to read her have never even heard of her — not even of the unique The Daughter of Time. In this, an injured Scotland Yard detective, confined to bed, reopens the case of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. As with all her books, a moment comes when you feel yourself falling through what you thought was a solid floor. The same is true of The Franchise Affair, where two obviously guilty people turn out not to be, and of Brat Farrar, in which a fake is the real thing, and the real thing a violent, secret horror. It’s the way she does it that is so wonderful, along with her confident conservative view of a fallen world.

No time, alas, to do more than mention Constantine FitzGibbon’s gloriously lurid 1950s account of a Soviet takeover of Britain, brought on by a Ban-the-Bomb Labour prime minister a bit like Michael Foot. Curious that its title, When the Kissing had to Stop, sounds as if it were devised by Rupert Murdoch but actually comes from a plangent poem by Robert Browning. But that’s thrillers for you — always despised as cheap and vulgar, yet often the fruit of fine minds and packed with thought. Why do we look down on them so?

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.

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