Friday 12 June 2009

Forgotten Books - Hopjoy Was Here

My latest entry in Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books comes from the pen of the late Colin Watson. For many people, Watson’s name is most closely associated with his study of Golden Age fiction, Snobbery with Violence, a jolly good book if rather meandering. But I think his best work came in The Flaxborough Chronicles.

Julian Symons reckoned that Hopjoy Was Here was the best entry in the Chronicles, featuring Watson’s regular cop, Inspector Purbright. The book was first published in 1962, and spoofs early James Bondery, along with a teasing mystery about the disappearance of a lodger named Hopjoy – has he been hammered to death and then had his body dissolved in acid?

The story enjoyed a new lease of life when the Flaxborough books were televised as Murder Most English with the late Anton Rodgers playing Purbright in the late 1970s. My paperback edition is a tie-in from that time, although I didn’t get to watch the show, and I don’t know how good it was. It only ran for one series, comprising seven episodes.

You get a flavour of the Watson style from the opening paragraph:

‘Never before had the inhabitants of Beatrice Avenue seen a bath carefully manoeuvered through one of their front doors, carried down the path by four policemen, and hoisted into a black van. Everybody watched, of course….A postman was frozen in silent contemplation five doors farther up. A butcher’s boy and two window cleaners huddled in temporary comradeship with a rate collector on the opposite kerb…Twenty or more children, mysteriously summoned by their extra-sensory perception of odd goings-on…savoured the affair with the discrimination of experts, comparing it with…last summer’s impaling of the greengrocer’s horse, and the wonderful, blood-chilling entertainment in Gordon Road the previous Easter when Mrs Jackson had gone bonkers and thrown all the portable contents of the house…down upon some men from the council.’

What lover of English mysteries could resist reading on?


Philip Amos said...

I had not noticed the passing of Anton Rodgers. I first noticed him in a BBC adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop which a quick check tells me was in 1962, tempus fugit, and also featured a wonderful Quilp from Patrick Troughton, also much missed. I wish my last recollection of Rodgers were something other than May to December, in which he was inexplicably required to adopt a rather irritating Scots accent.

But more germane, I read Watson with great pleasure, but the name Pirbright my mind immediately transmuted into Pibble for some reason, perhaps a hint that I should say I should be much pleased to see Peter Dickinson mentioned in a Forgotten Books post one day. I really do think that wonderful writer of such fecund imagination may be the most overlooked in the genre.

Peter Rozovsky said...

What marvelous, affectionate fun Colin Watson had with crime stories, and what a stinging social critic he was.

I could not resist reading on when I first read that opening paragraph.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Martin Edwards said...

Philip, I agree that May to December wasn't what I'll remember that likeable actor by. Patrick Troughton was even more of a favourite.
I agree about Dickinson, though I've only read three or four of his books.
Peter, I've just discovered that some of the Watson stories have just been put out on DVD.

Michael Walters said...

Excellent post, Martin. I'm a huge fan of Colin Watson's books - over the years I've managed to collect the whole series (plus the excellent 'Snobbery with Violence') in second-hand editions, but I keep hoping that some enterprising publisher will re-issue them. Watson's delightfully gentle English cynicism has aged very well, I think, and much of his satire remains relevant today. And thanks for the tip-off about the Flaxborough DVD - like you, I never saw the Anton Rodgers series, but I can imagine him making a rather good Purbright. I notice that Sgt Love was played by Christopher Timothy, which also strikes me as good casting.

pattinase (abbott) said...

His name is suddenly turning up. Someone else just did a blog entry on him. I really enjoyed his books.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for the teaser--I'll have to check out the book. Intriguing!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Steve Lewis said...

By sheerest chance, this is the episode of Murder Most English I watched last night. It sounds as though they followed the story line of the book quite faithfully, including all of the spy spoofery and the abundance of neighbors and other local folk, some of whom had important roles to play, others of whom were mere onlookers.

The mystery had me thinking I was way ahead of Inspector Purbright, but no, I wasn't.

I may have to watch the end again, though, before I write up a full review on my blog, as there's one small point that's been bothering me. Being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, some accents sometimes throw me.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Michael - I agree about Chris Timothy.
Steve - that's an amazing coincidence!

Kerrie said...

Martin, could you check whether it is Pirbright or Purbright? I have the latter in my records.

I really liked THE FLAXBOROUGH CRAB - I hope my rusty html renders the link ok

vegetableduck said...

This is available on DVD, but I tend to be a bit dubious about these BBC mystery series from that era. They often look very on the cheap by today's standards with that videotaped look and those obvious sets. The Peter Lovesey Victorian series was like this, though Wobble to Death worked pretty well, being mostly shot in the stadium setting. A Case of Spirits, however, was obviously filmed on stage sets and it was kind of distracting when compared to the Poirot, Marple, Holmes, Campion, etc.

This is getting OT from Martin's post, but how was the Maigret series, do you recommend that? I love Michael Gambon.

I give Snobbery with Violence a few good licks here and there, though I give it its due in places too. CW certainly made some good points, though everything he said does not apply across the spectrum of the genre at that time.

It's interesting that his mysteries have gone out of print, because I think people were assuming in the 1970s that he was one who might have long-term staying power in print. Shows you can never tell!

Martin Edwards said...

Kerrie, you are absolutely right. It is Purbright. Sorry!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt. You are right about the 70s sets. I've just started watching another series from that era and the sets are quite poor - a pity, because the story is great.
I watched some of the Gambon Maigrets and they were okay, but rather lugubrious, and I have never found the mysteries in Maigret that memorable. Perhaps I haven't read the right books.

Steve Lewis said...

As it happens, I mentioned the production values in the review I just posted on my blog,
if I may plug myself, but only in passing.

Wobbly sets and soap opera camera work don't bother me all that much, as long as I'm enjoying the story, which I did.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Steve. You will always be welcome to promote your marvellous site on this blog!