Bullets and Bayonets

The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Spoilers for The Cornish Coast Murder throughout.

One of the things that this extraordinary summer has allowed me to do has been to catch up on reading my way through my shelf of ‘to be read’ books. I don’t mean that the shelf has become emptier; I have been buying nearly as many books as I have read. Nonetheless, I have finally read all but one of the books that were waiting to be read when we moved house two and half years ago. (Wade Davies’ mammoth Into the Silence at over 600 pages is still proving too much of a challenge; I will tackle it eventually.) So last week I finally got around to reading John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of several British Library Crime Classics editions that were given to me as a Christmas present several years ago.

The Cornish Coast Murder, first published in 1935, the same year that Dorothy L. Sayers published Gaudy Night, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, is very much a standard Golden Age detective novel of the puzzle variety. That is, the focus of the narrative is on the murder plot, with very little in the way of characterization. Indeed, the characters are such archetypes that the key players tend to be referred to as the Inspector, the Vicar or the Doctor (although we are given their names and some physical description). The interest and momentum of the book is generated by uncovering the method of the crime (including possibly the first description of the sort of forensic tracing of bullet trajectory popularised by early series of CSI), with contemplation of motives and morality reduced to an afterthought in the final few chapters. It thus fits well into Alison Light’s description of the interwar whodunit as ‘a literature of convalescence’, ‘as insensible to violence as it could be. … As many critics have noted (usually dismissively) it is the lack of emotional engagement in the detective fiction between the wars which matters.’ [1]

So no, The Cornish Coast Murder is not one of the great novels of the Golden Age. This is no The Nine Tailors (1934), The Beast Must Die (1938)or even And Then There Were None (1939). But of particular interest to a social and cultural historian of the First World War with an interest in detective fiction on two counts. Firstly, there are the various suspects and witnesses. Since writing my Phd, half of which looked at the figure of the wartime hero in interwar detective and crime fiction, I have been on the hunt for ex-servicemen, and particularly disabled ex-servicemen, in such fiction. The Cornish Coast Murder stands out for having not just one such character, but four. Two of them are said to be suffering from a psychological wound of war. Three of them are suspects, one a witness and one, ultimately, the murderer. The second, related, aspect of interest is the murder weapon, a service revolver, described in some detail. Indeed, as with ex-service characters, there is not merely one but a second which acts as a significant red herring for much of the novel.

Taken together, these two aspects of the novel mean that there is an awful lot of war and its legacy, for both individuals and society, in this book. This stands in direct contrast to Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz’s assertion that ‘In the interwar period, detective fiction retained its distinctive autonomy as a genre, refusing to embrace the subject matter of the war or its repercussions in the present.’ [2] In making her argument, Sokolowska-Paryz quotes John Scraggs’ assertion that ‘The Golden Age fixation with the upper class, or the upper middle class, is further compounded in British fiction of the period by the fact that the physical and social settings are so isolated from the postwar depression that it is as if the Great War never happened.’ [3]

These are pretty extraordinary assertions. One only has to have even a passing acquaintance with the works of Dorothy L. Sayers to take issue with both of them. The war and its legacy for the present are central to her novels, whether in the form of her shell-shocked ex-service detective (Whose Body? (1923)and passim), plots which turn on the ex-service status of suspects and victims (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), The Nine Tailors (1934)), or passing references to social impacts such as the refugee crisis and ex-service employment or lack thereof (Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness (1926), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Gaudy Night). Sayers, to be sure, is something of an outlier within the genre, both in the sophistication of her novels as socially reflexive literature and the extent to which the war is referenced throughout, but she is certainly not alone. Examples of war reference can be found in the work of Ngaio March (Enter a Murderer (1935)) and, of course, both Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings have wartime backgrounds. Like these, what Bude’s plethora of ex-service characters demonstrates is the extent to which the war underpinned everything in interwar society. It did not need to be made the explicit subject of interwar detective fiction (although it could be); its violent legacy, including moral panics over both the brutalisation of ex-servicemen by war service and, conversely, the psychological damage inflicted by war which might lead them to lose control which forms the definition of Ronald Hardy’s shellshock in Bude’s novel, is always there, emerging at various times and in various ways, as it must have done off the page as well as on.

Sokolowska-Paryz and Scraggs’ arguments, and indeed Light’s, can thus be read as an interesting manifestation of the debate about what makes for an ‘authentic’ depiction of the war by post-war fictions. This debate has been going on since at least 1919, and not solely in relation to literary fiction. As Mark Connelly has argued, for the film critic Annie Winifred Ellerman, who wrote under the pseudonym Bryher, ‘realism about the war could mean one thing – only its horrors and miseries. This ideological position then categorically denied that chivalry, honour, or bravery were part of the reality of war. Alternatively, if they were accepted, they were either wasted in such an ignoble pursuit and/or such a tiny component of war as to be irrelevant. In turn, this meant that any depiction that foregrounded these qualities was inherently flawed, and worse still, fundamentally immoral.’ [4] Conversely, Cyril Falls, the literary critic and ex-serviceman, complained in 1959 that ‘The flood of anti-militarist literature, for the greater part fiction, which poured from the presses, deriding the leadership from top to bottom, treating patriotism as a vice when not a fraud, as it was bathed in blood and rolled in mud, was astonishing. It was far from being representative’.[5] While two sides to the debate of what constitutes an ‘authentic’ representation of the war clearly emerged in the interwar period, it is interesting that the Bryher position seems to have come so clearly to dominate contemporary criticism of the detective genre. If it isn’t brutally realist and violent, then it is not, by Sokolowska-Paryz, Scraggs or Light’s argument, a depiction of or reference to the war and its social legacy in Britain. While Sokolowska-Paryz does discuss the more heroic representation of the war in Anne Perry’s Joseph Reavley novels in her analysis of contemporary detective fictions about the war, these form only one of the five series she examines, with all the others adhering to the disillusionment narrative.

Webley Mk IV Revolver

Which brings us to the second interesting element of The Cornish Coast Murder, namely the service revolver. In Bude’s novel, the revolver (or rather the two revolvers, one belonging to the shell-shocked suspect Ronald Hardy and one belonging to the murderer) is the subject of much discussion and description. Both are Webley .45s, the standard issue service revolver during the war, with the Mark VI replacing the Mark IV and V from 1915. Issued to officers, pipers, range takers, airmen, naval crews, trench raiders, machine-gun teams and tank crews, service revolvers were not carried by every serviceman but nor were they reserved solely for the officer corps. Thus while Hardy’s monogrammed revolver reflects his former rank as a junior officer and his social status as a middle-class author, the murderer, a manual labourer, ‘scrounged [his] in France, before being demobbed in ’19, and several rounds of ammunition.’ [6] One of the suspects, Cowper, the groundsman at Greylings, served as a Lance Corporal in an undisclosed regiment but never handled a revolver during his service.

While two service revolvers in one novel is slightly unusual, these weapons appear with some regularity in interwar detective fiction. Christie, who as a pharmacists during the war, knew more about poisons than guns, tended to label the pistols that appeared in her novels as ‘army service revolvers’. Sayers, meanwhile, has the murdered in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club shoot himself in the head. The type of gun used is not specified, but given the setting of a serivemen’s club (and the themes of the war and its legacy which are central to this book in particular), the reader might easily conclude that the weapon was a service revolver.

What is interesting is the extent to which in more contemporary detective fiction with a wartime or interwar setting, the service revolver has, in large part, been displaced by the bayonet as a weapon with wartime associations. [7] On my recent rewatching of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for example, I was interested to note that bayonets were used twice, once as a murder weapon in Dead Weight (2013) and once by a disabled ex-serviceman when confronted with evidence of drug theft from a medical clinic in Blood and Money (2015). Sokolowska-Paryz points to the symbolic significance of the bayonet as the murder weapon in Rennie Airth’s Rivers of Darkness (1999), noting that the ‘sexual overtones of the killings is made apparent through the psychoanalytic meaning of the bayonet’ as a substitute penis. [8]

The symbolism of the bayonet, however, goes beyond its Freudian overtones. As Paul Hodges has argued, it was a weapon fetishized during the war and after as one of masculine aggression and face-to-face combat in ways which led to its use in wartime atrocities such as the killing of prisoners of war and the wounded. [9] Used in infantry training to instill aggression in the private soldier, its use as a weapon in modern industrialised warfare was generally perceived by servicemen as futile, a throwback to an earlier age. It is thus the symbolic inverse of the service revolver, a middle-class officer’s weapon associated with duty and honour and fired from a distance. Even when duty leads to violence and the taking of life, there is always an explicable motive, including the defense of the domestic, a common justification for war service. The distance between murder and victim, meanwhile, is particularly emphasized in The Cornish Coast Murder by the fact that the murderer fires from a boat, requiring three widely spaced shots to hit his target. The revolver, therefore, comes closer to wartime artillery as a fatal force, a distanced and almost random form of killing.

The service revolver and the bayonet can thus be read as emblematic of the two interpretations of the war at the heart of the debate over authenticity – the technologically advanced form associated with honourable (or at least explicable) motivations and the middle-officer corps and the brutal, apparently futile form associated with psychopathy and men damaged physically or psychologically by war. It is interesting to note that there appears to have been a decisive shift from one to the other as the symbolic weapon of the war between detective fictions of the interwar period and those of the past quarter century which have the war as its setting. As I start to think about the wider implications of this shift for understandings of the war and its legacy, I would be interested in hearing about appearances of both weapons in other fictions, both then and now. I promise not to wait as long to read them as I did with The Cornish Coast Murder.

[1] Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991), p.70.

[2] Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’ in The Great War: From Memory to History, ed. by Kellen Kurschinski, et. al. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015), p.84.

[3] John Scraggs, Crime Fiction (London: Routledge, 2005), p.48.

[4] Mark Connelly, ‘The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) and the Struggle for the Cinematic Image of the Great War’ in The Great War, ed. by Kurschinski, et. al., p. 317.

[5] Cyril Falls, The Great War (New York: Putnam, 1959), p. 421, quoted in Ian Andrew Isherwood, Remembering the Great War: Writing and Publishing the Experiences of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 160.

[6] John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (London: The British Library, 2014; first published London: Skeffington & Son, 1935), p. 275.

[7] By bayonet I mean here the rifle bayonet; interestingly, the Webley Mk VI could be modified to take a small bayonet as well.

[8] Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’, p. 94.

[9] Paul Hodges, ‘They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em!’: Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 1:2 (2008), 123-138, DOI: 10.1386/jwcs.1.2.123_1.