Monday, 26 May 2008

Saturnin Dax

Most people seem to remember the names of detectives much more easily than the names of their creators. It’s quite sobering how reputations can fade; it’s true even of writers who sell very well. Who, for instance, now recalls the name of Marten Cumberland? Yet, although never in the front rank, he was at one time well regarded. ‘The Sunday Times’ said his work was ‘solidly intelligent’, ‘The Observer’ thought him ‘most dependable’ and the TLS described him as ‘a born story-teller’.

I’ve picked these comments almost at random from a long list of positive reviews to be found on the dust jacket of a book called The Charge is Murder. It was first published in 1955, the year of my birth, yet it seems today to belong to a vanished age. I remember my father reading a few Cumberland novels, borrowed from the library in the 1960s, but I’ve never bothered with them. Until now, having chanced upon an eBay auction, when this novel was for sale; the copy bears a personal inscription from Cumberland (‘with savagely good wishes’) as well as a literary agent’s stamp. So I thought I would bid – and there was no competition.

During his lifetime, Cumberland was best known as the creator of a wily French detective, Commissaire Saturnin Dax. It’s a good name for a character, I think, very memorable, if slightly suggestive of an evil alien mastermind from 'Doctor Who'. The Charge is Murder sees Dax investigating the murder of a man whose body is found in a shabby cinema. He has been shot, but no weapon can be found, and there is no clue as to his identity.

Cumberland lived from 1892 to 1972 and the first of the Dax novels appeared in 1940. There’s one title I love (haven’t read the book): Murmurs in the Rue Morgue, published in 1959. Very pleasing, don’t you think?

William A.S. Sarjeant wrote a CADS supplement about the Dax books, called A Policeman in Post-War Paris, and it contains plenty of info for anyone interested in exploring further. I believe Geoff Bradley, editor of CADS, may still have one or two copies available.


Karen (Euro Crime) said...

I looked at one of his titles in my recent(ish) trip to Hay. Unfortunately I didn't buy it and have been regretting it since. I have been watching a couple of his titles on ebay but not yet taken the plunge. The library hasn't got any either. That supplement sounds interesting.

Martin Edwards said...

Karen, if you'd like Geoff Bradley's contact details, let me know and I'll forward them on to you.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, Marten Cumberland has created a little problem. Born in London in July 1892, the problem has a risen because there is no one of that name in the English birth registry for the time and place! Cumberland used pseudonyms, is Cumberland another alter ego? Does anyone have any idea?