Friday, 21 June 2013

Forgotten Book - No Walls of Jasper

Few crime books by notable writers are as forgotten as my Forgotten Book for today, No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan, first published in 1930. Yet the book's neglect is in many ways astonishing, because not only was it ahead of its time, it is also very well-written, and reads extremely well more than 80 years after it first came out. I can only blame its lack of fame on the title, which is taken from a poem by Humbert Wolfe (who? you may ask - he was apparently very popular in the Twenties), and which is rather off-putting and inappropriate.

In some ways, the book is in the same vein as Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. Yet the Iles book came out a year later, so it was hardly derivative. Another comparison might be with C.S. Forester's earlier novel, Payment Deferred, or possibly Lynn Brock's later Nightmare. But Cannan's book is distinctive, because of its stylish and readable prose, and because a competent plot is in many ways subordinate to a study of character.

Julian Prebble works for a publishing house, and is fed up with his pretty but down-trodden wife, Phyl. He has two sons, of whom he is a proud but distant father, and he does not earn enough to be able to impress a coquettish author on his list, the glamorous Cynthia. However, he does have a rich and rather disagreeable father, and when it occurs to Julian that his Dad's demise would solve all his problems, his thoughts turn to murder.

I really enjoyed this one. It's a book to savour, because Cannan's description of people and relationships, and Julian's desperate quest for respectability ring so true, even so many years later. Joanna Cannan wrote other mysteries, which I haven't read, but if they are half as good as this book, they must be worth reading. She became better known for children's books, and her daughters became famous writers of pony stories. And perhaps that's another reason why No Walls of Jasper has for so long been overlooked. Writers so easily get pigeon-holed, and that is a real shame.

10 comments:

Christine said...

It's in the London Library (along with several others, one a reprint by Persephone Press). I will get it out next time I go.

John said...

Rue Morgue Press reprinted a few of her books, but they tended to choose only detective novels for their entire line and avoided crime novels. Too bad they couldn't have reprinted this one too. Lately I find crime novels that eschew the traditional mystery formula where plot comes first and instead focus on character and the "whydunit" are far more interesting.

The Passing Tramp said...

Personally I think it's a better book than Malice Aforethought. But Cox had a better publicity machine behind him! I always mention the book in my work when I can, however.

I think perhaps this book was considered simply a mainstream novel, so got less attention as such. Cox and his publisher claimed he was changing the mystery genre.

For eighty years there's been a tendency to treat Cox as almost the sole begetter of psychological realism in English crime fiction, which is far from the truth.

Martin Edwards said...

Christine, I'm confident that you'll enjoy it. Less weird than Vantage Striker!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi John, there are certainly many terrific books in that vein. I've just acquired one of the later Cannans, The Body in the Beck, but the early pages are not encouraging.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I'm much more of a Berkeley/Iles fan than you, I suspect. He certainly wasn't the onlie begetter, but despite his occasional failures I find him fascinating. I suspect as you say Cannan was, and wanted to be, treated as writing a mainstream book. It lacks perhaps the ingenuity and verve of Malice, but the characterisation and portrayal of a slice of soceity are excellent.

The Passing Tramp said...

Malice Aforethought is more wickedly humorous, which I think is the kind of thing people like and expect in their Golden Age crime books.

Malice made a big splash, no denying it. It also helped posthumously that Symons later gave Cox so much credit. As I recollect James did not mention Berkeley in Talking About Detective Fiction. Surprising, since she obviously read Symons and Symons loved Berkeley, or at least a few of his books he loved.

Certainly Jasper should be reprinted.

Keen Reader said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the review.

John said...

Let me build on Curt's comment. A. P. Herbert's only venture into crime fiction The House by the River (1921) is continually overlooked when these early inverted detective novels are discussed. Time for me to write about it.

Rich said...

I've read 'Murder Included' which I would certainly recommend it.