Friday, 23 May 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book

Today I'm glad to have the chance to respond to Patti Abbott's invitation to talk about a book that has been forgotten, but deserves to be remembered.

My forgotten book is Reputation for a Song, by Edward Grierson. It was first published in 1952, and I was originally alerted to its existence by Julian Symons, who spoke of it highly in his classic study of the history of crime fiction. Bloody Murder. Symons was a tough critic, but he rarely praised a book that did not have considerable merit. And when I read Reputation for a Song, I was impressed.

Grierson was a barrister by training, and his understanding of the legal system and its shortcomings is evident in this book. The question is not the identity of the murderer, but whether he will hang for his crime. The key characters are Robert Anderson, an unassuming country solicitor, and members of his family. His wife is too clever for Robert and she encourages their son Rupert to resent her husband. In a final quarrel, Rupert kills his father and he is immediately arrested. There is a long and cleverly constructed trial scene, with different aspects of the truth brought to life, suppressed and distorted by the witnesses in the case. It is a sharply ironic novel, a distant descendant of the best work of ironists such as Anthony Berkeley, Richard Hull and Bruce Hamilton. The final sentence is low-key, yet truly chilling.

Reputation for a Song was highly successful and swiftly became a Book Society Choice and ‘Daily Mail’ Book of the Month. In the US, it was adapted for television. Grierson’s second crime novel, The Second Man, won the CWA’s top award in 1956 and again made expert use of his legal know-how. He wrote a couple more crime novels, as well as historical fiction and a memoir, but he never surpassed that brilliant initial achievement. Perhaps because of this, his own reputation, although not sold for a song, has faded. But even though it is inevitably dated, this novel has something timeless to say about the nature of justice, and it deserves not to be forgotten.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks so much, Martin. Lovely discussion.