Sunday 7 December 2008

Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?

H.H.Munro used the pen-name ‘Saki’, and earned a considerable reputation as writer of elegant, often gleefully cruel short stories prior to his death while serving in the First World War. BBC 4 recently put together three of his best tales under the title ‘Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?’ in an hour-long programme that I thought beautifully done.

The stories are ‘The Storyteller’, ‘The Lumber Room’ (which I was introduced to as a schoolboy one English lesson long ago) and, best of all, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, in which the killer of Mrs De Ropp is revealed.

Saki was not, in any meaningful sense, a crime writer, but ‘Sredni Vashtar’ is a story about a sort of crime. I first came across it as a result of a reference in a classic crime novel, Verdict of Twelve, by Raymond Postgate. Postgate’s book is, arguably, the best novel ever written about the workings of juries, and is one of my favourites. Postgate’s other crime novels were, by comparison, a disappointment, although some people rate them more highly than I do. He became much better known through his Good Food Guide, and he also had a family connection to those crime-writing Fabians of the Golden Age, GDH and Margaret Cole.

As for Saki, he was clearly a complex character (his mother was the aunt of Dornford Yates, another popular yet enigmatic writer.) It’s suggested by some who have studied his life that he was gay, but unable to come to terms with, or at least publicly acknowledge, his sexual orientation. These days his name is, if not forgotten, far from well-known. But to my mind he is one of the best short story writers.


Kerrie said...

I remember Saki Martin. Didn't realise who he was. Perhaps The Lumber Room was the story that was in our short story collection at school. Did you realise some of them are on Gutenberg?

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting, thanks. I didn't know that, and in fact Gutenberg is something I think I should check out. When I get a bit of spare time!

Philip Amos said...

Postgate's Verdict of Twelve is a splendid work. Having the young victim name his pet rabbit Sredni Vashtar is a very nice touch, and not without significance. Enough said. A couple of points about Postgate. His sister Margaret did, indeed, marry G.D.H. Cole, but Postgate also had a family connection to another crime writer, a fictional one I prefer not to dwell on, in Jessica Fletcher -- Postgate was Angela Lansbury's uncle, having married the daughter of George Lansbury, the Labour Party politician and erstwhile leader, whose son was married to Angela's mother. I'll just say, because I think Postgate would have appreciated it, that what he might best be remembered for is The Common People 1746-1946, a classic work he co-authored with G.D.H. Cole. And for Verdict of Twelve, of course.

Martin Edwards said...

I love the Angela Lansbury connection, Philip. I'm sorry Postgate did not write more crime. His other two crime novels are ok, but minor works in comparison to Verdict of Twelve.
The Coles' detective fiction haven't lasted too well, but I have a couple waiting to be read.

Anonymous said...

Martin, what good timing, just finished the Coles chapter! I might recommend The Death of a Millionaire or The Brothers Sackville.

Another good jury deliberations novel is Eden Phillpotts' The Jury (natch!)

Postgate's seccond crime novel struck me as too obviously a straight novel in masquerade. The last one wasn't bad, but rather dour and dull, it seemed to me.

Saki has held up so well, young people always seem to like him, generation after generation. A personal favroite of mine is The Toys of Peace, about the attempt to get boys to play with peace toys, something that could come straight from today.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi, Curt. I'll add those two to my Coles list.
I've never heard of the Philpotts book - will look out for it. Ditto the Saki story.
Looking forward very much to seeing your work on the Golden Age of crime fiction.