Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Race Against Time

I recently read 'VANTAGE STIKER, a little known Golden Age crime novel from 1931 by a writer called Helen Simpson. Martin Edwards mentioned it to me, and told me it was very difficult to get hold of, but as often happens, the London Library came up trumps. I enjoyed it. She is a lively and engaging writer. The novel is very much of its time and reminded me a little of Nicholas Blake's early novels. Dermot is a witty sardonic young man working in a government office. He suffered an head injury in the First World War that makes him liable to uncontrollable rages. He is the ideal person, then, to be framed for the murder of the Prime Minister (no less!)and that is just what happens. At one point a friend points out that if the true murderer isn't unmasked, Dermot could hang in a matter of weeks. As Dr Johnson is supposed to have said, 'Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' It concentrates the mind of his friends, too, and is the engine of the plot in a number of other novels, notably Agatha Christie's MRS GINTY'S DEAD. Of course it is still a plot device that's available for writers setting novels in US states that still have the death penalty: Andrew Kavlan's TRUE CRIME springs to mind, and there are many others. There isn't quite the same sense of urgency when it simply a matter of imprisonment which can be reversed. Perhaps even as I write this there is someone researching a PhD thesis on the impact of the abolition of the death penalty on the British crime novel. I wonder if in their modest way these novels helped to bolster opposition to the death penalty in suggesting ways in which an innocent person could be hanged for a crime they hadn't committed.

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