CORBETT BEGETS CORBETT
It’s easy—too easy—for modern writers to get all smarmy and critical and nitpicky and make sport of James Corbett. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, I recommend William F. Deeck’s book: The Complete Deeck on Corbett—he’s as nitpicky as it gets, and he’s quite funny doing it.
To be honest, Corbett’s not the greatest genre writer of his era. But pulling silly or funny or incomprehensible quotes from any of his 43 novels and using that to ridicule him may tell more about the writer who does that than Mr. Corbett himself. He published 43 novels in 22 years. As might be expected, he didn’t do a lot of going back and editing—nor, apparently—did his editors. (An example: One paragraph about the murder of a man made to look as if it had been suicide was written, from a different viewpoint, but with the same specific points repeated on the next page.)
I decided to try to find the context and underlying factors that made him appear so idiosyncratically awful to we modern folk. I admit some trepidation, though, after reading Mr. Deeck’s book, the feeling of being in the same sort of danger that faced detectives such as Kurt Russell in The Mean Season or Matthew McConaughey in True Detective who, in looking too closely at the mind of a serial killer, were sucked down into the monstrous miasma of the disease, resulting in total mental breakdown.
But I pressed on, hoping the mind of a serial murder mystery writer wouldn’t harbor such infectious ruin. And a serial murder mystery writer he was—43 novels published in 22 years! Definitely—according to his critics—a “Stop Me Before I Write Again” compulsion.
But let’s put it in context. Corbett was born in 1887. Victoria was Queen, Robert Cecil was PM, and the Irish Crimes Act had just been passed—suspending trial by jury in Ireland. The Thin Red Line had finally settled Shaka Zulu’s hash with rifles and cannon against spears and shield and made Zululand a British Colony. And Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whiskey was distilled for the first time on Christmas Day of that year.
This—his last of the 43 novels—was published in 1951. In his native England that year, Winston Churchill was re-elected as Prime Minister, and the British National Health Service was still listing Mental Diseases of Negroes such as drapetomania—“the irrational desire of slaves to attempt to escape,” and dysaesthesia aethiopica—“the disease that causes slaves’ laziness and free negroes to engage in rascality.”
In the USA, Harry Truman was obliged to remind Dugout Doug MacArthur of the US Constitution and the Chain of Command, Remington Rand delivered the first Univac, and the Rosenbergs were tried and executed.
Around the world, there was a blue sun seen all over Europe, the result of forest fires in Canada, and there was a State of Emergency declared in Egypt because of riots. Okay—some things are the same.
In his time, before the word took on any sexual meaning, Corbett was what they would call: “A queer fellow.” (Jan Morris once wrote about how unfortunate for the language it was—turning a most useful and descriptive word into a sexual derogatory.)
“Queer” in a sense of “Odd,” but more intensely so.
A house I once rented could be called “queer” in that meaning. It was charming and attractive, all redwood on the outside with clever rustic touches inside. And also inside, something was not quite what it should be. It took a while to realize why. There wasn’t an actual right angle in the place. Not a single corner was 90 degrees. Every one was just a bit off—93 degrees or 87. As I said, charming and attractive, but also a bit disturbing.
So with James Corbett (not to be confused with the boxer, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett nor the rifle-toting Jim Corbett, author of Man-eaters of Kumaon).
He was a James, never a Jim. James Corbett was structurally sound and had many excellent features, charming, interesting, but all were—by usual standards—just slightly out of plumb.
Sometimes it seems, as Mr. Deeck pointed out, that English wasn’t his first language, and he had no idea what language it might have been. Actually, there is one I know of, in which both syntax and reality are so mutable as to change willy-nilly. That is the one spoken by the Siberian Chukchi people—an Amanita-using shamanistic reindeer-herding tribe who, in their stories make Mr. Corbett’s tales sound like a Dick and Jane Reader. Of course, I only read them in translation.
Maybe it’s not the syntax. Noam Chomsky created this sentence as an example: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Syntactically perfect but also incomprehensible. And to say that ideas may be both colorless and green strikes me as somewhat Corbett-esque.
Some of the queerness is due to the way language has changed over the years. He uses words that are either archaisms or local jargon or humorous versions of both.
He often over-describes, filling a sentence all chock-a-block with adjectives, but more, it seems, from a sense that his readers—1930’s and 1940’s—weren’t familiar with police procedures nor medical ones.
But when he gets to something all English schoolboys know, say, a portion of turbulent English history, his narrative is purely as spare and referential as that of a minimalist poet.
The murder has taken place in Castelton House, a 15th century mansion still in possession of the original family, but one which is supposedly under a curse. And Detective-Inspector Croft has been sent to investigate and he regards his destination’s history on arrival at the stately home:
History . . . Here it was, surging invisibly around him. Birth, death, pain, laughter, tragedy, tears, quarrels, love, hate. 1432—Henry VI, Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses . . . The Casteltons building and settling in the midst of feudal upheaval—a great Catholic family bringing the Church into the home.
The Reformation . . . Mary, Elizabeth. Protestantism . . . the pursuivants . . . the crude political pressure . . . persecution . . . loyalty to the Crown . . . the grim holding on to an untenable position . . . forced abjuration of an ancient faith, never to be restored. It was all here.
Made me think of the abstract artist of the same era having to justify his art, showing that he could paint portraits quite well, but preferred the way he was doing it.
And of course, the villain telling the captive of his cleverness, is, today, the stuff of standup comics, even though in this case it doesn’t end with the Flying Squad crashing through the door. But that’s a matter of a style being repeated so often it no longer has meaning.
So, if you’re looking for the nitpicks and the howlers, again, I recommend checking online for Mr. Deeck—there are several sites with transcriptions of his address to mystery writers, listing all the Corbett incomprehensibles, but there is one supposedly high on the WTF list that I find delightful, and even use it as a sig from time to time.
It makes me realize that perhaps none of his critics have noticed the man had a very British, very dry sense of humor.
The phrase I love is: Like searching for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys.
If you know that ostriches are open plains desert birds and wouldn’t be found in any forest, with or without monkeys, then it makes perfect sense. It’s about what we might call a snipe hunt.
“So I asked the Commander of the company looking for WMD’s in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. ‘Were you able to find any?’ ”
“Get real. It was like searching for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys. Of course not.”
So read on—let yourself enjoy it. It’s quite a tale, actually. Quite satisfying.