Friday, 1 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Big Ben Strikes Eleven

Happy new year! As I've mentioned, it's going to be a busy one for me in terms of writing projects. I'm also aiming to keep this blog going in 2021 and I hope to include occasional pieces about crime writing technique. My website has finally been revamped, and the updating process will continue in the coming months. Let me encourage you to get in touch via the contact page as well as by comments on this blog if you have any questions or suggestions. 

After watching the understandably muted new year celebrations, I thought I'd ring in the new year with a post about a truly forgotten novel which is rather interesting, even if its title isn't as relevant to the story as one might expect.   

David Magarshack (1899-1977) is remembered today as a notable translator of Russian, in particular the work of Dostoievsky and Gogol. He was born in Riga when it was within the Russian Empire and he fled to Britain after the First World War because of the antisemitic legal regime in his homeland. He studied at the University of London and tried to make a career in journalism, with limited success. In the 1930s he followed fashion and tried his hand at writing a detective story. The result was Big Ben Strikes Eleven.

The ambition of this novel is illustrated by its sub-title: 'A Murder Story for Grown-Up People'. What does this mean? To a modern reader it seems rather patronising, as if the debut author is saying that most mystery fiction is written for childish minds. I doubt that was his intention. What I think he was probably trying to get at was that he wanted to write about character and motive, to make his book something more than a crossword puzzle type of whodunit. Possibly he saw himself as a Dostoievsky of commercial crime fiction. I confess that I'd not heard of Magarshack until he was mentioned to me by Elinor Shaffer, who in turn introduced me to two fellow academics, Muireann Maguire and Catherine McAteer, who have given me some very helpful insights. 

This story concerns the death of the rich and (naturally) unpleasant Sir Robert Boniface, who is found shot in his blue limousine. There is a possibility that he committed suicide, although the sub-title kills off that interpretation. We are introduced to a fairly narrow range of suspects, and the detective work is undertaken not by a brilliant amateur but by two Scotland Yard men, Superintendent Mooney and Inspector Beckett.

Dorothy L. Sayers gave the novel a rave review and I must say that the calibre of writing is truly remarkable for someone who had arrived in Britain less than fifteen years before the book appeared in 1934. The prose is a little ponderous, though, perhaps a side-effect of Magarshack's literary ambitions. I've read his second novel, Death Cuts a Caper, but found it fairly turgid, despite some interesting elements in the storyline such as the use of tarot cards. He wrote a third novel (which I haven't yet read) but then abandoned crime for translation, where he achieved much more success. Perhaps he'd discovered that writing murder stories for grown-ups is harder than it looks.  


Kacey Crain said...

I didn't know that Magarshack wrote detective novels. I only knew him from his translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which seems to be out of print. I think that that's a shame, as from what I've read (I'm only halfway through) it's very readable and I believe it's a very accurate translation as well. I'll definitely be on the lookout for a copy of Big Ben Strikes Eleven. It sounds like a very enjoyable book.

Also, happy new year!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Kacey and happy new year!

Jamie Sturgeon said...

Many years ago two of his books used to turn up quite regularly: Big Ben Strikes Eleven, also his last crime novel Three Dead. There was no great demand for them then even in dust-jacket but like most 1930s crime novels you never see them now, don't think I've ever had Death Cuts a Caper

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks for this essay. I did not know about Magarshack's mysteries. His translations are quite good. Your conclusion that writing murder stories for adults can be harder than it looks is apposite. Maturity is in the individual, not in the genre. It is immature and egotistical to characterize oneself as above the work one is doing. That does not make one want to seek out the writings in question, except as a critic as you have done. Nice assessment on your part.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I didn't know him

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I'd be interested to read DM's third book, but only if it's better than the second!

Unknown said...

Have read & enjoyed "Silent Nights" Thank you and (late) Happy New Year!
I note from the copyright page that this collection originally appeared in 1936.
As somewhat desultory collector (I have the majority of the Cyril Hare, Marjorie Allingham, & Sayers books) I'm wondering as to the author/editor of same. Haven't found it listed as 'Silent Nights". Comment(s)??
Thanks, & Stay Safe!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Unknown. I'm not quite sure I understand the question. Silent Nights is a relatively recent book, not from 1936. Are your referring to a particular story in the collection?