COLIN WATSON – Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and Their Audience. Eyre & Spottiswoode, UK, hardcover, 1971. St. Martin’s Press, US, hardcover, 1972. Eyre Methuen, UK, hardcover, revised edition, 1979. Mysterious Press, US, softcover, 1988 Faber and Faber, UK, paperback, 2009.

   I could never quite understand why one of my favorite books about the crime genre incited such violence in some readers, who bore a grudge against Watson for his informed and informing book on mystery and thriller fiction between the Wars that seemed completely out of proportion to anything he actually wrote.

   Watson, after all, was the popular author of the Flaxborough/Inspector Purbright novels that revealed the darkly comical reality beneath the English village setting of Agatha Christie and others.

   Yes, he was opinionated. Even I disagree with him on some points and authors, but he is never less than succinct in his arguments, and there is no malice in them. He merely sets out to deal with the social history behind the genre in that important era and to explain its origins and nature, and does so brilliantly, with delightful cartoons from Punch, that reflect the subject of many chapters.

   If nothing else he coined a phrase to describe the village mystery so common to Agatha Christie that has stuck because it is so apt: Mayhem Parva.

   Julian Symons’ Mortal Consequences seemed much more controversial to me, Kingley Amis’s James Bond Dossier more eccentric. Just what nerve had Watson struck?

   The book opens with an epigram from Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On: “…that school of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good class tweed through twentieth-century literature.”

   Snobbery with violence hardly seems an unfair description of the genre from Agatha Christie to Bulldog Drummond, and indeed to James Bond who Watson defends from the charge of “sex, snobbery, and sadism” by simply pointing out Ian Fleming was no more blatant nor vicious on that count than anyone else.

   So what is it exactly about this well organized and argued book that upset so many. I confess on rereading I was trying pretty desperately to discover that when I ran across the following passage on Bulldog Drummond, Sapper, and the rise of Fascism in England.

   Popular fiction is not evangelistic; it imparts no new ideas. Fascism sprang, in Britain as elsewhere, from frustration caused by economic chaos and political ineptitude. That same frustration had made readers susceptible to improbable heroics, but acknowledgement of a common source is not the same as saying Moseley’s Fascism derived from McNeile’s fiction.

   And there it was, the passage that set forth Watson’s “controversial” theme that inflamed what Amis once called “little old maids of both sexes”, the thing that enraged many of his critics. Watson had dared to suggest that popular fiction, far from the monster poisoning the minds of readers, was not actually the source of all societies ills, but merely reflected the prejudice and opinions of the average man, that people indeed got the entertainment they wanted and would accept in popular fiction, and were not swayed to prejudice by the blathering of a Bulldog Drummond or to snobbery by a Lord Peter Wimsey, nor to sexual obsession by James Bond, but that H. C. McNeile, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ian Fleming were merely highly successful at hitting on what the audience wanted and would accept at the time.

   An audience that, as he quotes Margaret Lane Edgar Wallace’s biographer, audiences wanted “excitement without anxiety, suspense without fear, violence without pain, and horror without disgust,” to which Watson added crime without sin and sentiment without sex.

   If there is a better description of the mystery novel and thriller in the between the Wars years, I don’t know what it is. He goes on to point out that the reader was an active participant in the game being played, not ignorant of reality enough to buy the sophistication of an Oppeheim drawing room or casino or a Christie great house where a murder will soon occur, but “able to disregard the voice of experience and reason in interest of his own entertainment.”

   In short the reader was not being plied with clever drugs, but willingly seeking the stuff out, rewarding a Sax Rohmer who confirmed his own fear of foreigners and foreign sorts, a Sapper or Sidney Horler catering to the average man’s self doubts with their “splendid” sportsman manly man heroes and slim topping women pitted against wealthy unsporting master criminals, slinky foreign women, inscrutable Easterners, and low East End types. The writers weren’t even prostituting themselves, they had merely stuck upon a gold vein of public prejudice and opinion.

   This was the era of the lending library and the newly literate middle and lower middle classes equally prejudiced against the very rich, the foreign, and the poor. The era in England when an entire generation of young vital men had died in the trenches in Europe and the world no longer made sense and people were desperate to make sense of it. The writers who succeeded, who prospered were not preaching, but merely reflecting, and the more accurately they reflected their audience the more successful they were, and when they could do so with minimal disturbance of the social order they were rewarded.

   Watson touches on the strangely clipped and emotionless language of the era, the blathering of a Drummond, Wimsey, or Campion, the topping girls, the sometimes silly language, even the bloodless violence.

   Many of course had been through the 1914-1918 war themselves. What seems to a later generation to be a slightly comic affectation might well have been a defensive mannerism born of an experience so appalling that it rendered millions emotionally emasculated.

   Again, the audience and not the writers determined the voice. The sheep were not led, but leading because to go against the prejudice of the flock was to risk a blow to the pocketbook. “Foreign was synonymous with criminal in nine novels out of ten, and the conclusion is inescapable that most people found that perfectly natural.”

   What Watson is saying that really hits home is that when we are condemning a popular writer like Rohmer, Horler, Sapper, or Edgar Wallace we are actually condemning grandpa and grandma or mom and dad, who read this because they believed this, not because they were being force fed prejudices they had not been schooled in well before they read thriller fiction.

   The same was true of Ian Fleming, of Mickey Spillane, of Stephen King, or Lee Child today. We get the popular literature, the movies, the music we support that reflects what we believe and what we value. Pretending we are led down the garden path by what we consume is like blaming the apple tree because some of the apples aren’t ripe yet.

   Charging commercial institutions with failing to educate the public taste is an indulgence from which intellectuals (*) will only be deterred when they grasp that a non-existent contract can neither be breached nor enforced. If commerce is to be indicted for anything, it can only be for commercialism, and whether that is a crime or not is a political question.

   Watson also makes a good argument for the value of this kind of fiction which, as he points out, reflects the material life of its time in a way more serious literature does not down to the smallest detail of daily life in its need to be grounded in recognizable worlds familiar to the less than sophisticated reader. He also points out that during the heyday of the lending library readers had something like 180 to 210 books a week to choose from across all genres, but certainly in the mystery genre. Even figuring a reader reading one book a week the competition was fierce for the reading dollar. Readers, not writers dictated what was acceptable in their chosen reading with their money.

   I’ll leave with Watson at his most cogent. If you disagree with this conclusion, and I don’t discount any disagreement, please quote a single legally and psychologically proven case and not apocryphal accusations or criminals and their representatives seeking an out by unfounded claims of victimhood is all I ask.

   The influence of books is of a more subtle and involved nature. The most lasting, and therefore the most serious, harm they can do is to confirm — to lend authority to, as it were — an existing prejudice or misconception. During the long and lively discussion of the influence of “undesirable” literature upon behavior, there has come to light not a single case in which a formerly normal person (my italics) has been induced by his reading to commit a violent crime.

(*) Intellectual in England does not only connote the Left alone. There are equally those on the Right condemning the taste of the “common man” and the Middle Class.