The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face by Christopher St John Sprigg, first published in 1935,is a rare book by an author who has returned to public attention almost eighty years after his death in the Spanish Civil War. I've expressed my enthusiasm for his work on this blog more than once, and I'm gratified by the success of Death of an Airman, republished this year by the British Library. This particular novel displays once again his appealing sense of humour, although I do have reservations about the book as a whole.
The title is a good one, I think, although it is a long time before that particular corpse actually makes an appearance in the story, at a point where the plot complications are already coming thick and fast. I don't think I'm giving much away at all when I say that one minor but entertaining feature of the story is the use made of fake tan!
The first part of the book is set in one of those English villages beloved of Golden Age novels. Sprigg amuses himself at the start by having his vicat - of course the vicar plays a part in this kind of story, how could he not? - muse that "Nothing ever happens in Little Whippering". This is, naturally, the cue for all kinds of mayhem to take place. A mysterious and irascible stranger is the new tenant of "The Wilderness" and it soon becomes clear that there are dark secrets in his past. In due course, the body count starts to rise...
In the second part of the book, the actions shifts to an imaginary African country, where a policeman called Campbell pursues his investigation into a rather convoluted crime. One of the most interesting passages in the book comes when a senior British official says: "It's easy enough to call some deep-seated sentiment a superstition. Come to that, the British Empire s a superstition. There's only a group of independent nations acknowledging the imaginary domination of a hereditary Crown. Another superstition. There's no such thing as the British race, there's just a queer mingling of Normans, Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Danes, and ancient Britons, with a good many French, Dutch, Italians, and Jews. Still another superstition! Yet these superstitions were real enough for men to die for them in millions during the war!"
I feel sure this passage represents the views of Sprigg, and I kept his views on race in mind when I considered his depiction of black people in the book. He was a progressive, yet there are snippets in the novel which, because of the language used, make for slightly uncomfortable reading nowadays.
More generally, I'm not convinced that the book works. I liked the witty lines, and there are plenty of them, and the plot has some neat twists, but it's rather rambling and - personally - I found it lacked grip in comparison to Death of an Airman. However, it illustrates Sprigg's praiseworthy fondness for trying to vary his approach, as well as his considerable writing skills..