The Golden Age
Andrew Garve (1908-2001)
by John Higgins
by John Higgins
In Andrew Garve’s 1976 novel Home to Roost, Walter Haines, the narrator and central character introduces himself as follows:
What I really wanted to do was to write books—preferably crime books. I had managed to produce a couple of full-length stories in my spare time, while I was at the Gazette, and both had been published, with modest success. So I knew that I could write—and in my late twenties I decided to take a chance, throw up the job, and apply myself full time to the writing of detective and adventure fiction, in what I hoped would be the stimulating atmosphere of London.
It was a hard slog to start with. I lived and worked in a squalid bed-sitter in Camden Town, and it was a problem sometimes to keep body and soul in proximity. I typed like a maniac from morning till night, and as far into the night as my landlady would allow. In order to survive, even at the most meagre level, I had to turn out four or five books a year under different names. They were of fair quality as action stories, but they were certainly not great literature. My strength, so far as I had any, lay in constructing tortuous and ingenious plots, with unusual backgrounds and a meticulous attention to detail. A loose end to me was like a botched-up bit of joinery to a cabinet-maker. My weakness was in portraying people. At that time I rarely gave any thought to the workings of my own mind, let alone to the minds of others. I was much more interested in the mechanics of a plot, the fitting together of the pieces, than in the mental processes of the people involved in it. As a result, my characters tended to be from stock and rarely came to life as individuals. They were there merely to fill the roles that the story required. It was a grave defect in a writer.
This is in fact a rather honest self-portrait of Garve himself. He was a competent writer, able to describe a process, pace a story, and give real tension to accounts of escapes, open sea voyages, cave exploration or mountaineering. When you read The Ashes of Loda, his 1965 thriller about a British journalist escaping from Moscow across Ukraine in January, you will surely want to put on an extra sweater, if not an overcoat, scarf and gloves, so convincing is the description of a Russian winter. He was clever, too, at establishing a sense of place. But mostly he was a magnificent plotsmith, with a particular skill at devising unbreakable alibis and then showing how they get broken. His chief weakness was dialogue, which was often rather too careful, sometimes coming out like drawing room comedy or an episode of Paul Temple on radio. As a result, characters often seemed stereotyped and flat, especially the minor characters needed for the plot, such as policemen, doctors or lawyers. He is always readable, but what you remember from his books is the events, not the people. In his half dozen best books his ingenuity is dazzling.
Garve’s real name was Paul Winterton. He was born in 1908, the son of a left-wing journalist and MP, Ernest Winterton. In 1928, after graduating from the London School of Economics, he spent nine months in Russia and was initially attracted to Soviet communism, though gradually losing his rose-tinted spectacles. He worked for the Economist and later for the News Chronicle and became their Moscow correspondent from 1942 to 1945. He had already written two novels using the pen name Roger Bax. One reason for using a pen name may have been to hide his authorship from his employers; his 1940 novel Red Escapade had a strong anti-Soviet story line which could have led to his deportation or worse if his Russians hosts had made the connection. The wickedness of the communists is a recurring thread in his post-war books, but I doubt whether he ever gave up his leanings towards socialism or voted Tory.
In 1950 he switched publishers from Hutchinson to Collins and adopted the pen name by which he became best known, Andrew Garve. By then he had written six novels using the name Roger Bax, including one very good one, Blueprint for Murder (1948). He used a third pen name, Paul Somers, later in his career for three books in which he tried to establish a set of series characters, Hugh Curtis and Mollie Bourne, rival crime reporters for London newspapers. These books were not a great success and were for a long time quite hard to find, but are now available again under the Bello imprint, as are almost all of Garve’s books.
In 1953 he helped set up the Crime Writers’ Association and was its first joint secretary (with Elizabeth Ferrars). He went on to write forty novels, some of them conventional crime stories, some thrillers with exotic settings, before deciding to give up writing in 1978 (although he lived on another 23 years). His journalistic background meant he could write fluently and copiously, sometimes producing three books in a year, though he tended to write fairly short books, most of them running to about 50,000 words, short measure by modern publishing standards.
Garve’s ingenuity sets a problem for any reviewer, how to convey his ingenuity without giving plot spoilers. One such challenge is set by his 1960 novel The Far Sands. Here we have a decent hero who marries one of a pair of identical twins (and no, this is not going to be about mistaken identity). A few months later his new sister-in-law is found drowned while her husband, a diabetic and a non-swimmer, has died from having his insulin supply (which he always carried with him) removed while he was stranded on an inaccessible island, the insulin being found in the wife’s handbag. The coroner’s verdict is that the wife’s death was misadventure but that the husband was murdered by his wife’s deliberate theft of the insulin. There are strong hints that the wife had a lover, and has killed her husband for his considerable wealth. The evidence seems strong, but naturally the twin sister refuses to accept it. She knows her sister well enough, she asserts, to know that she did not have a lover and could not have committed murder. This places the hero in a dilemma, wondering whether he, too, has married a devious and deadly gold-digger, or whether to take her far-fetched conjectures seriously and go looking for a blackmailer and assassin who seems to exist only in his wife’s imagination.
Naturally, what we have here is a frame-up, but unusually it is one where the victim of the framing is already dead. Garve used the title Frame-Up for one of his books, but there were seven others, including this one, for which the title would have been equally apt. Bear in mind, too, that all these books were written before the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, which often adds considerable urgency to finding the truth. Although it soon becomes clear that the sister’s conjectures are going to turn out to be fact, the way in which they are confirmed, and the villain exposed is astonishingly tense and vivid, resulting from the hero’s insight that the best way to expose and defeat a blackmailer is to blackmail him.
Not all Garve’s heroes were decent chaps. In several books there is no hero, only a villain or villains, and the tension lies in the question Are they going to get away with it? In some cases, the crime is murder and we know the villain’s plans are sure to misfire if only to satisfy conventional morality. One such book is Murderer’s Fen (1966), which brilliantly plays with the time factor so that the reader is persuaded that a murder has been committed when, in fact, it has not yet happened and there might still be time to prevent it. Another is The Broken Jigsaw (1961), in which two killers who have sunk the body of their victim in a new reservoir have to deal several years later with a drought which looks likely to uncover the corpse.
Two other books have central characters who are amiable confidence tricksters devising schemes which they hope will bring them wealth. One of these books, The Megstone Plot (1957), was turned into an excellent film starring James Mason and Vera Miles, A Touch of Larceny (1959). Here a naval officer in a tedious shore job contrives to go missing, leaving a series of traces suggesting that he has stolen a top-secret file and defected to the Russians. He plans to return in a week or two, demonstrate that he has gone on a sailing holiday, been shipwrecked, and is completely innocent, the missing file having dropped behind a filing cabinet. This will mean that he can sue the newspapers that have meanwhile branded him a traitor. Naturally the plan goes badly awry, though the film version, unlike the book, manages to squeeze out a happy ending.
The other book featuring a confidence trickster, in fact a pair of confidence tricksters, is one of Garve’s most ingenious though least plausible, The Long Short Cut (1968). Anthony Bliss and his glamorous newly-met collaborator Corinne Lake use a chance event to develop a money-making scheme. They happen to be at a nightclub on the night when the owner is wounded in a drive-by shooting. Called to give evidence which will convict a notorious gangster, Bliss pretends to be frightened of the gangster’s associates, and agrees to testify only on condition he is given police protection and help in emigrating after the trial. Actually, he has worked out a plan to use the police protection as a means of helping a crooked financier to jump bail and get out of the country, and expects to get well paid for it. The bulk of the book consists of the detail of the plot, which includes an account of how to obtain a genuine British passport in a fictitious name, anticipating by three years the similar and more famous account given by Frederick Forsyth in Day of the Jackal (1971). The whole thing has the kind of intricate design and dovetailing that puts one in mind of a Chippendale cabinet or a Fabergé egg, beautiful even if improbable. It also has one of the sharpest last-page shocks in all crime literature.The Sea Monks (1963), he gets this aspect triumphantly right. It is quite unlike any other book of his and is, to my mind, his very best, fit to be ranked with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), with which it has some similarities. We start with four teenagers, led by a thug called ‘King’ Macey, who set out to rob a Plymouth cinema of its takings. The manager intervenes and is shot dead; the police arrive, and the gang are pursued to the harbour but manage to hide in an old boat which they cast off. Adrift in fog, they are wrecked beside the ‘Swirlstone’ lighthouse (a barely disguised Eddystone) and rescued by the three keepers, the ‘sea monks’ of the title. But Macey must stop the keepers reporting their presence by radio, so he brings out his gun and starts an ordeal that will last until he can find a way of getting back to land undetected. He dominates and terrorises the other six people so that it seems impossible that anything can thwart him or prevent wholesale slaughter. The final part, in which he is defeated not by people so much as by nature itself and his ignorance of it, is utterly gripping and convincing.
I have suggested that Garve’s weakness was in establishing strong credible characters, but in one book,
I have suggested that Garve’s weakness was in establishing strong credible characters, but in one book,
One other book whose plot I will risk spoiling is Home to Roost (1976), the one I have already quoted and second last one he wrote. It is a book that remains puzzling even after you have finished reading. The first quarter describes a marriage being undermined by the intrusion of a TV actor who is a smooth seducer with no conscience. Haines, the wronged husband, eventually decides to commit murder, and devises what seems to be a perfect alibi. When the murder is committed, Haines is far away in Spain and could not possibly have come back in time. Later, however, the police accuse another man of the crime, another whose marriage has been ruined by the dead man. Haines decides it is his duty to confess to save the other man from almost certain conviction. But convincing the police that he did commit a murder is anything but easy. He has to re-enact the whole event under close police supervision. The process is rather like a Paul Daniels magic show in which the trick is being explained. Or is it? Meanwhile the other suspect seems not to want to be exonerated, and in the end the reader is left in some doubt as to who actually killed the actor. This is perhaps the most characteristic and certainly the most baffling of Garve’s plots. It is certainly quite different from anything written by any other crime writer, something which can be said of half a dozen of Garve’s best books. Nevertheless, it is highly readable. Whatever his shortcomings, Garve was always the kind of writer who is both kind to the reader and hugely stimulating to the intelligence.
John Higgins has lived and worked in Thailand, Norway, the USA, Tanzania, Turkey, Egypt and Yugoslavia, teaching English between 1963 and 1986, and later lectured at Bristol and Stirling Universities. With his wife Muriel, he became involved in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) and put together a number of innovative pieces of software, including the first versions of a program later released as STORYBOARD, ECLIPSE, RHUBARB and DEVELOPING TRAY. In 1986 John left the British Council and taught in the School of Education of Bristol University. He and his wife are now retired and live in Shaftesbury in Dorset. He has researched the life of the writer Victor Canning, and maintains a website covering his works. He has also edited Andrew Garve’s writings on Russia and written about them for the Literary Encyclopedia.
for a complete list of Garve’s works.
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