Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Novels of William Mole

The Hammersmith Maggot (1955) by William Mole is a crime fiction novel prized among the cognoscenti. It introduces a louche series character, Casson, a wine merchant who also enjoys amateur detection: he has a conscientious business partner who looks after things while he is sleuthing.

The Maggot is an unusual novel about an aesthetical blackmailer. At least, he is a would-be aesthete, a lover of rare and beautiful things from a modest background who considers that he has a perfect right to possess what he wishes. He uses blackmail discreetly and with restraint, learning just enough about his victims to exploit ambiguous situations. Usually, his victims are in fact without real fault, but apprehensive, or else have only minor peccadilloes. The blackmailer chooses them with care and plays them deftly. The portrait of this character is cunning, although undoubtedly with a dash of snobbery: how dare this vulgar interloper want the finer things in life?

There is an excellent fuller review of the book at the Pretty Sinister Books blog.

Two further thrillers in the Casson series followed: Goodbye is Not Worthwhile (1956) and Skin Trap (1957). All three of the books tend to rely on what may now seem rather over-confident psychological analysis. The plotting is rather cold-hearted. Nevertheless, they create a morbid interest in their amoral villains and build up a strong feeling of tension. This and the panache of the suave wine merchant hero, who has a aspects of Bond to him (he appeared just two years after Casino Royale) give the novels a distinctive flavour.

Mole had earlier written two novels of a different type, Trample An Empire (1952) and The Lobster Guerillas (1953). The first of these is a romping adventure and chase thriller in which two young people pit themselves against a sinister government Minister whose autocratic plans they have uncovered. It was compared with Chesterton’s romances. There is also something of the swift breezy quality of Edmund Crispin’s novels. The Sunday Times called it ‘stylish and civilised’.

The second concerns an attempt by a motley band of partisans, smugglers and insouciant bravadoes to set up an independent enclave in the Camargue in Southern France in the aftermath of WWII. The Daily Telegraph described it as ‘written in the true swashbuckling fashion . . . people with strange picturesque characters.’ A peevish reader might think Mole’s books are a bit too swaggering and archly sophisticated, but on the other hand they certainly have a vivid, vigorous quality. And they linger.

William Mole was in fact the pseudonym of William Anthony Younger (1917-61), the son of Sir William Younger, Bart, of Auchen Castle, Moffat, Scotland: but he was later a step-son of Dennis Wheatley. It was presumably the latter who introduced him to the wine trade, in which Wheatley was keenly interested.

He was educated at Canford, a modern co-educational private school in Dorset, and at Christ Church, Oxford. As Younger he wrote four volumes of poetry, which was romantic and sensuous, rather archaic, but with a certain rich elegance.  He also wrote articles on wine and travel, and with bis wife Elizabeth a book about Portugal. She also wrote her own crime novel, as Elizabeth Hely, I’ll Be Judge I’ll be Jury (1959). William Younger died in Greece in 1961 aged 43 from a fever.

A Checklist of Books by William Younger

As William Younger

Madonna and Other Poems (Boar's Head Press, 1935)

Inconstant Conqueror. Poems (Hutchinson & Co., [1938])

The Dreaming Falcons. Poems (Hutchinson & Co., [1944])

The Singing Vision [poems] (1946)

Blue Moon in Portugal by W & E Younger (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956)

Gods, Men and Wine (Wine and Food Society; Michael Joseph, [1966])

Orpheus. Selected Poems 1939 – 1960 (Flixton Press, 1985)

As William Mole

Trample an Empire (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952)

The Lobster Guerillas (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953)

The Hammersmith Maggot (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955). Also in Penguin (1963)

Goodbye is Not Worthwhile (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956)

Skin Trap (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Temple Bar Bookshop, Dublin

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

'Still She Wished for Company' by Margaret Irwin - Centenary

Still She Wished for Company (1924), Margaret Irwin’s novel of a timeslip between the late Georgian period and the contemporary Nineteen Twenties, is another novel that celebrates its centenary in February. It tells of a modern London office worker, Jan, and an 18th century country house daughter, Juliana. Seemingly they could have nothing in common: except that they sense each other’s presence.

The author is appreciated by supernatural fiction enthusiasts for some subtle ghost stories, most notably ‘The Earlier Service’, an anthology favourite. Her stories in this vein were gathered in Madame Fears the Dark (1935). However, her wider acclaim was as a historical novelist, particularly with her portrayal of the early life of Elizabeth I, Young Bess (1944), and its sequels.

Irwin had used phrases from children’s rhymes for two earlier novels, How Many Miles to Babylon (1913) and Come Out to Play (1914), and Still She Wished for Company takes its title from an eerie children’s story and rhyme, usually known as ‘The Strange Visitor’. It was collected in late Victorian fairy tale books but probably has older origins.

A lonely woman is spinning at her wheel: ‘and still she sat, and still she span, and still she wished for company.’ Then, as if in answer to her wish, a figure appears, in stages, starting with the feet. She remains unperturbed throughout, with the refrain as each part appears, ‘and still she sat, and still she span’ (etc). But when the head appears she puts a series of questions about each of the limbs, until the last question of all: ‘Why have you come here?’ ‘For you,’ is the reply and then the whole scene vanishes.

Irwin’s novel uses several echoes from this chilling tale. Her two young women protagonists are also lonely and longing for a richer life: and their glimpses across time are elusive, so that they have to gradually build up a picture of each other (though not in the literal way of the rhyme). It is also a dark stranger, Juliana’s long-exiled brother Lucian, who adds a sense of menace to the story. Even so, Irwin’s novel is a steadier and gentler work than its brisk, bizarre source, notable instead for its restraint and sustained air of mystery: wisely, Irwin never exactly explains the timeslips.

It is well-known that full length ghost stories are very hard to achieve, but Irwin tells most of the story in the 18th century scenes, thus adding the period interest of her historical novels to the attractions. Another attraction is the sustained visionary quality. Although there are hints of Lucian’s diabolism and dabbling in seances, the novel is not inspired by any specific spiritualistic or esoteric background. Instead, her characters move in a half-lit world of dreams, reveries and visions, alongside their everyday preoccupations. The author creates a wistful, melancholy, poetic atmosphere that takes the book beyond the conventions of the form. I was reminded in some ways of the atmosphere of J Meade Falkner’s The Lost Stradivarius (1895), both books having for their time a slightly old-fashioned feel.

There is an excellent longer discussion of Still She Wished for Company at the blog The City of Lost Books, written in 2019 by Rob Maslen, formerly co-director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow University. This notices in particular how the book conveys the changing roles of women, and the things that do not change. This is another important element of the novel that gives it a continuing resonance today.

Still She Wished for Company is a well-liked book. There was a Fifties reprint (the easiest hardback edition to find), a Penguin paperback and an edition in the Peacock paperback series for young adults. It was also reprinted in the Chatto & Windus Landmark Library (1968), alongside such as titles as Widdershins by Oliver Onions and Don Tarquino by Baron Corvo. It is a thoughtful, enduring work that has lasted its hundred years well.

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Dracula's Forgotten Brides

Withnail Books of Penrith have just announced the latest in their series of well-designed chapbooks devoted to literary rarities and other arcana. This time the booklet is devoted to a film theme. 

Dracula’s Forgotten Brides: Dorothy Tree, Geraldine Dvorak, CorneliaThaw is a celebration of three elusive characters in Tod Browning’s celebrated 1931 Universal Pictures film starring Bela Lugosi.

Adam Newell, the author of this original study, notes: ‘Their combined time on screen is barely more than a minute. They remain entirely silent. Their names do not appear in the credits. And yet, for any viewer of Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film it is impossible to deny the impact of Dorothy Tree, Geraldine Dvorak and Cornelia Thaw as the brides of Dracula.’

The study includes ‘rediscovered interview quotes, more than 60 rare photos and illustrations, and new research’ and reveals surprising aspects of the actresses’ lives and careers. 

The 40pp chapbook is in a limited edition of 250 copies, with a specially commissioned frontispiece by World Fantasy Award-winning artist Les Edwards. Each copy also comes with a signed and numbered print by Sharon Gosling.