It must be 30 years since I saw Billy Wilder’s movie version of Witness for the Prosecution, with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. Many of the details are now vague, but the main twist isn’t one you forget. So the new BBC adaptation suffered from a lack of surprise in that particular respect. In most other ways, though, it was pretty startling. In particular by being so harsh.
Nobody cares about the fucking maid.
Period thriller trappings and cosy Agatha Christie branding notwithstanding, this was brutal, unforgiving stuff. Its dismal nicotine-stained world of post-slaughter generational despair, the sneering prurient hypocrisy of the courtroom, oozing and dripping with malevolent righteousness, the frumpy innocent punished while the beautiful guilty frolic. In such a place, in such a time, having witnessed up close the most massive betrayal imaginable of the ostensible values of ostensible civilisation, why wouldn’t someone plot and scheme to get rich from one or two more local terrible acts? And why shouldn’t he or she live as happily ever after as those who organised that larger, more fruitless catastrophe?
You men. You fucking men.
Adaptrix Sarah Phelps, also responsible for last year’s steely And Then There Were None, has argued repeatedly that Dame Agatha was a gimlet-eyed radical, surgically dissecting social mores and hypocrisy under the cloak of middlebrow pulp. Which wasn’t really my impression when I read a few of her books many years ago, but maybe that was me. Maybe it was sampling error — Christie is another of those authors who churned out so many boatloads of popular fiction that it would be easy to pick half a dozen misrepresentative examples. Or maybe the hard edge Phelps currently champions is actually her own invention imposed on the soft clay of Christie’s easy reading schlock.
Who knows? More importantly, given how searingly well it works, who cares?
Suffice to say that if next Christmas brings a Phelps-scripted version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Death on the Nile, or even notorious West End squatter The Mousetrap, I’ll be watching.
In the end I went for World of Tiers, but ran out of steam somewhere in the second book. Farmer was a better writer — prose stylist, at least — than Zelazny and the story jogged along likeably enough, but eventually it seemed too familiar and too generic and the novelty wore off. I may still dig out To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but I need a bit of a pause first. There’s only so much pulp a person can take in one go.
Back at the start of the year, again at least partly in reaction to a variety of grim events in the real world, I had a massive binge on Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr, with similar gripping-but-eventually-exhausting results. There’s some more of those stacked up around the place too, which I’ll get to in due course.
One of the peripheral lessons of that episode was that Amazon marketplace sellers make it surprisingly easy to get hold of (at least some) interesting, quasi-forgotten and disposable old fiction that nobody can be bothered to republish even in ebook form. Some of the popular writers of yesteryear were astonishingly prolific, churning out hundreds of well-crafted tomes over careers spanning decades. Mass market publishers would print them in tiny type on toilet paper with almost no margins and sell them for pennies to a voracious reading public, adding little blurbs in the back to urge the reader to send them, after reading, to our brave boys overseas, to keep them entertained in the longueurs between battles with Huns and Japs. So many words, long since cast adrift. So many fiddly copyright issues it’s not worth anyone’s effort to unpick nowadays.
Which is a shame, really, because some of that stuff remains eminently readable. Dated, maybe, occasionally even offensive, but fascinating both as a window into another world and as fiction in its own right. In this year of victories for ignorant and toxic nostalgia, it’s hard not to wish people would get better acquainted with the past through the evidence of its actual words, rather than trying to foist their half-baked fantasy version onto a real world that has no use for it at all.
All of which is an awfully roundabout way to note that I managed to pick up a replacement copy of Roadmarks for the laughable sum of 10p (plus shipping). So if and when I get a second pulp wind, that’ll probably be top of the reading list.