Friday 1 February 2008

The Sleeping Bacchus

I’d never heard of The Sleeping Bacchus until fellow blogger Xavier recommended it a few weeks ago. Now I’ve tracked down a copy, and the immediate reaction it inspires is that crime writing is a world full of curious connections.

The book was written by Hilary St George Saunders. Wonderful name, sounds like a pal of Lord Peter Wimsey, perhaps even Bertie Wooster, but not exactly well-known. However, he produced a good many books under the rather more famous pseudonym of Francis Beeding, in collaboration with a critic and Shakespearean scholar called John Palmer. I’ve mentioned the Beeding books – one of them was the basis for Hitchcock’s Spellbound – before. Palmer and Saunders were both Balliol men, but Palmer was 13 years older, and in fact they first met in the 1920s, when working at the League of Nations’ Permanent Secretariat. By the time Palmer died in 1944, they had written fifty novels, and Saunders had diversified into writing official Government booklets about subjects like the Battle of Britain.

Saunders wrote only the one novel under his own name, published in the year of his death, 1951, but its genesis was extraordinary. In 1937, he and Palmer were strolling along the Quai Voltaire in Paris when they came across a tattered copy of Le Repos de Bacchus, by Pierre Boileau (who later also found fame in collaboration, with Thomas Narcejac, co-writer of Vertigo.) They both liked the ingenious central idea and decided to buy the English rights if they could, but war intervened. Not until 1949 did Saunders revive the idea and write the book by himself. By then, though, the original model was out of date, so radical re-working was required. But Saunders acknowledged Boileau’s permission ‘to adapt for my purpose certain scenes and situations depicted in his novel’. Off-hand, I can’t think of any English crime novel with a similar origin.

By this time, Saunders was working as a librarian in the House of Commons. In his acknowledgments, he mentions his gratitude for the help given by, among others, Stanley Hyland. At that time, the name of Hyland was unknown to crime fans. In fact, he too worked as a Parliamentary librarian. But in 1958, he published the first of three diverse crime novels – a classic detective story called Who Goes Hang?, set in the House of Commons, which attracted much critical acclaim. Rather more, in fact, than The Sleeping Bacchus.


Kerrie said...

Is there a contracted pronunciation of St. George, Martin?
You know like St. John is something like sinjin (excuse my Oz accent please)

elizabeth r said...

havent got anything clever to say as i havent read the book just wanted you to know that i love your books and i always knew you would make it!x

Martin Edwards said...

Kerrie, I don't think there's a contracted pronunciation - or maybe I'm not posh enough to know it!
Elizabeth r - you wouldn't happen to be Elizabeth from Northwich, by any chance? Do let me know!

elizabeth r said...

yep the one and only

Martin Edwards said...

Wow! great to hear from you and I'm thrilled you like the books. Please do drop me an email and let me know your news.

Palmer descendent said...

John Palmer was my great-grandfather! I found this post because I was searching for information on him. And my grandfather had one of those funny names, too: St. John. But he hated it so much he never used it.

Thanks for the information about Palmer's relationship with Hilary. It's useful.

Martin Edwards said...

Palmer descendant. Good to hear from you. I'm interested in Palmer, please can you tell me any more about him?