Friday, 9 October 2015

Forgotten Book - The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face

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..


6 comments:

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks Martin - will definitely get "Death of an Airman" first.

Unknown said...

When I first saw the heading Forgotten Book - The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face, I assumed it must refer to a book by the prolific R. A. J. Walling (fl1927-1949) whose publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, 'branded' many of his works with a title beginning "The Corpse with..." or "The Corpse in...". A West Country journalist and editor who was nearly 60 when wrote his first detective novel, Walling had many admirers among those who valued a mystery more for its ingenuity than its characterization. (Unsurprisingly, the fiendish crossword setter Torquemada was a fan.) But he slipped into obscurity not long after his death in 1949 and remains there today. Speaking from memory I don't think you mention him even in passing in The Golden Age of Murder - which is fair enough, since he was never a member of The Detection Club, but at his best he's as enjoyable as, say Connington, Knox, Whitechurch or Val Gielgud.
But The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face turns out not to be one of his corpses after all (although they did number a Blistered Hand among their afflictions, as well as an Eerie Eye, a Floating Foot and a Grimy Glove!). So the shade of this truly forgotten writer still waits to be summoned back into the light...

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Unknown. You've hit on the reason why RAJW doesn't feature in my book. In fact, I have a Walling book - the one about the Squeaky Voice! - waiting patiently to be read. And once I've done that, I will be sure to give him a mention here.

Clothes In Books said...

I've been seeing his name in the reference books for many years, but have never managed to read anything by him. So perhaps, as Sergio says, start with Death of an Airman.

Martin Edwards said...

Agreed, Moira, it's easy to find and a good, unorthodox mystery.

John said...

Oddly, this book and PASS THE BODY (aka THE CRIME IN KENSINGTON) are the two books by Sprigg I enjoyed the most. I liked the weird and supernatural elements in the final third of CORPSE... and I remember those parts over everything else.