THE RIVERSIDE VILLAS MURDER (1973) by Kingsley Amis

Amis_Riverside-Murders_penguinFrom its mid 1930s setting to its convoluted murder method, this is an affectionate (if sui generis) hommage to the Golden Age mystery – from a seemingly unlikely champion, the angry young ironist of 1950s British literature, Kingsley Amis. But he was a huge fan of John Dickson Carr and this is a clever combination of a traditional detective story with the author’s trademark fascination with sex and class, told from the point of view of Peter, a fourteen-year-old boy on the brink of entering the adult world.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

The colonel went to his shelves and returned with a book called, it transpired, The Hollow Man. “You might find this amusing. Be sure to leave it on the hall table when you depart. Thank you, and good afternoon.”

It is the summer of 1936 (we knows this only indirectly from a newspaper carrying news of the death of ghost story writer MR James) and our story is seen entirely through the eyes of Peter Furneaux. His main interests are big band music (Amis gleefully gets to use the N word when having his older characters casually and without overt racist intent to refer to American jazz players), model airplanes (his father, Captain Furneaux, was shot down in the first world war, losing most of the use of his right arm) and best of all, sex. Thankfully this is not a book about the embarrassments and social failures of a gauche adolescent but quite a sweet tale, though admittedly a bit naughtier and ruder than one might expect in a traditional whodunit! But then, it was the 70s when Amis was writing, though there is undeniably an edge here because Peter’s initiation comes through a woman twice his age – had the sexes been reversed, this would be very hard to accept. But Amis makes it clear that he knows very well what he is doing and that there will be a price exacted …

What he had imagined so often and so long, and what actually happened on Mrs Trevelyan’s bed, resembled each other about as much as a fox-terrier and a rhinoceros.

Amis-Riverside-penguinThis novel is one-part humorous bildungsroman but also celebrates the classic detective story, beginning with the theft of an ancient skeleton – nicknamed ‘Boris Karloff’ – from the local museum. The very eccentric Colonel Manton decides to take charge, for no great reason other than he is bored with his lot. At a local dance Peter and his father sit at a table with their neighbours Mr and Mrs Trevelyans, the Hodgson, whose daughter Peter rather fancies despite her being so stand-offish, and Mr and Mrs Langdon. A local journalist, Christopher Inman, is also at the table  – a little the worse for wear after too many drinks, he  accuses all of them of having secrets that he might reveal in his local rag.

“We detective johnnies like to get a feel of the atmosphere surrounding an affair such as this.”

It’s not long after the confrontation at the dance that Inman, fatally stabbed in the head, arrives outside Peter’s house and dies after uttering a few non-sensical words while Mrs Trevelyan rushes off to get the police. Manton takes charge, and is clearly having a great time lording it over his less bright juniors – but he also takes a shine to Peter and lends him his copy of a John Dickson Carr classic, from which Amis quotes extensively and which may hold the secret to a complicated case. The problem is that all the suspects – those round the table that evening at the dance, have solid alibis except for Mrs Trevelyan, who like Peter was at home but neither could have hit Inman with the necessary force given their rather petite frame. While Peter is excited about the prospect of investigating a murder, he is perturbed that his father is one of the suspects, even after he is apparently attacked in their home (sadly, there were no witnesses). But Peter is even more enthralled by his affair with the kindly Mrs Trevelyan, who dispenses much wisdom to the callow youth. Manton and the police start looking to crack some alibis, especially that of Mr Hodgson, an ex-copper with a chip on his shoulder now working as a private inquiry agent.

“After all, the whole raison d’être of a murder story is to fool the reader. Isn’t it?”

Amis_Riverside-Murders_pantherThis book is more Amis than Carr, but I did enjoy the fairly complex murder method employed by the murderer. Nick over at Existential Ennui gave this book a fine review, pointing to some valuable material on Amis and his affection for Golden Age fiction, which I hadn’t really taken on board before. I should have though because I did know that Amis was best friends with the composer Bruce Montgomery, who wrote Carr-style mysteries as ‘Edmund Crispin.’ The murder plot itself is perfectly competent if no great shakes – but Amis is clearly having lots of fun, especially when he helps his readers to the the pages with the most salient clues – in my edition (the 1985 paperback reprint, pictured at the top of this review), it appears thusly:

“Those who wish to pit their wits against the author’s and solve the mystery for themselves are advised to study pages 61, 82 and 160”

One of these takes you to a very long extract from Gideon Fell’s ‘Locked Room lecture’ from The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins). This is why I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Locked Room’ category as it is so devoted to Carr, with his classic impossible mystery crucial to the unravelling of the plot:

vintage-silver-locked

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Edmund Crispin, Friday's Forgotten Book, John Dickson Carr, Kingsley Amis, Locked Room Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to THE RIVERSIDE VILLAS MURDER (1973) by Kingsley Amis

  1. Oh, this sounds interesting, Sergio! An innovative way to look at the sub-genre and as you say, pay homage to it, without actually going full on into it. And an interesting idea for a protagonist too. Thanks for sharing

  2. realthog says:

    I remember not hugely enjoying this when I read it in my callow youth, but your review suggests I should give it another try.

    • It’s a question of expectations – I think the depiction of adolescenece cisca 1936 was modelled closely on the author’s own and is very nicely done – how you feel about the murder mystery aspects depends on yout tolerance for pastiche …

  3. richmcd says:

    I really enjoyed this, but considered solely as a mystery it’s an enjoyable but not entirely successful experiment. I think the problem is one of tone. Carrian mysteries tend to start off bizarre and complicated and either stay there or resolve to something simple. This has the impression of being mundane and simple, but the solution is actually rather strange and unlikely, despite being well-clued. I think a lot of readers find that jarring.

    I think maybe there’s a kind of entropy to weirdness, especially in a mystery novel, where the solution usually comes at the very end. You can start off weird and stay weird, or you can have a seemingly bizarre situation with a normal solution, but disguising something weird as something normal for 95% of the running time doesn’t really work. Which is a shame, because the solution is really very well disguised. I wasn’t even close to solving it, and not for want of clues. As you’re reading it it feels rather loose, but it’s actually very carefully constructed.

    Did Amis write anything else like this? I’ve only read Lucky Jim and Colonel Sun. I didn’t realise he and Crispin were such good friends.

    • Thanks very much for that Rich, I think you’re probably right. Amis never came as close to a traditional mystery – The Anti-Death League flirts with espionage but adds SF while The Green Man also has a mystery style atmosphere but is more horror-tinged.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read this book, but did not particularly enjoy this. I rate it as only Average. I found several parts dull. This simply cannot be compared with Carr.
    As richmd mentions, it has the impression of being mundane for the most part, though the solution is strange.

    • It is certainly an unusual beast, I agree – because he quotes from carr and has similar elements you know where he is coming from, but the Amis tone is uttely unlike that of a Golden Age mystery – but I did find it very funny at times, which helps!

  5. neer says:

    I had no idea that Amis had written mystery novels or that he was friends with Crispin. Thanks Sergio. I will see if I can find a copy of this.

  6. Colin says:

    I definitely want to give this a go – both your article and the other comments so far have me very interested.

  7. I should probably read this again, inspired by you. I remember being somewhat disappointed by it many years ago – I think I’d expected more. But I do remember it seemed to give a very convincing picture of 1930s suburbia, and more than I wanted to know about young men’s habits. I always have a love-hate relationship with Amis – so good when he was on form, so annoying when he misses.

    • Thanks Moira and I know what you mean about Amis – I love the stuff drom the 50s and 60s mostly but then it becomes vey hit and miss – this was the first of his I’d read in a very long time actually. The plot is not the thing, though I thought the plot more than serviceable.

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds fun – I’ve only read Amis junior not senior but this might be a good place to investigate!

  9. Patti Abbott says:

    Never knew he had written this book!

  10. I seem to recall Kingsley Amis also wrote a James Bond novel. I’m a hugh fan of Amis’ LUCKY JIM (very funny) and I’ve read several of his other novels. Now, Amis is best known for his correspondence with the great poet, Philip Larkin.

  11. Richard says:

    When I hear or read the name Kingsley Amis I think immediately of New Maps of Hell. This is a new one, I’m surprised he wrote a mystery, though I guess I shouldn’t be since I had no reason to think he hadn’t.

  12. Bev Hankins says:

    I have fond memories of this book (well, mostly just fond vibes since my middle-aged memory isn’t what it used to be). It’s been long enough ago and I remember so little of it, that I probably should revisit it….if only there were world enough and time….

  13. John says:

    Looks like a lot us regulars have read this one, Sergio. Add me to the list. I read it while in high school only a few years after it was published. Saw that title and immediately recalled the teenage narrator and the sexy parts. But it wasn’t until I read your review that the Carr connection came back to me. I do remember looking high and low for a copy of THE HOLLOW MAN and coming up with nothing. Of course it would’ve been easier to look for THE THREE COFFINS since that’s how it was retitled over here, but I wasn’t so savvy back then. Didn’t find a copy until I was living here in Chicago and I was in my mid 40s!

    • Thanks for that John – I do like the fact that so many of us read it at some point but it was Nick’s review that reminded me of it and I’m really glad to get re-acquainted!

  14. Sergio, I have read and enjoyed Amis’s humour including in an sf story but I haven’t read a mystery by him, not that I knew he had written one. I’ll have to revisit the author’s work with the seriousness it deserves. Thanks for this review. Those really are contrasting covers.

  15. Santosh Iyer says:

    I am surprised at the gibberish appearing under my name above. I have no idea how this has happened. It may be deleted.

  16. tracybham says:

    Very interesting info here, Sergio. I was unaware of this book and will probably seek it out someday.

  17. I like that the reference to MR James’ death is there. I love when details like that tell you the date of a book. A recent Wodehouse book I read referred to Sherlock Holmes being dead, and yes, the date of the novel was after he was supposedly killed off, but before he was resurrected.

  18. Pingback: Sex and murder in suburbia | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s