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Colin Watson: Flaxborough, and Mayhem Parva
#1  Pulpmeister 09-30-2020, 01:05 AM
NOT A LOT of writers can get away with humorous and satiric detective stories, but Colin Watson (1920-1982) succeeded.

His "Flaxborough" chronicles, eleven novels set in the fictional East Anglian port town of Flaxborough (loosely based on Boston, Lincs) feature Inspector Purbright as the mild and subversive head of the local detective force, having to deal with his Chief Constable as well as the famously, or infamously, intractable East Anglian locals.

The titles of the novels give the satirical game away:

Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958)
Bump in the Night (1960)
Hopjoy was Here (1962)
Lonelyheart 4122 (1967)
Charity Ends at Home (1968)
Broomsticks over Flaxborough (1972)
The Naked Nuns (1975)
One Man's Meat (1977)
Blue Murder (1979)
Plaster Sinners (1980)
Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby? (1982)

Hopjoy was Here sees Purbright investigating an acid-bath murder while a James Bond-like secret agent is in town investigating a missing undercover operative who was keeping surveillance on a top secret research project on the coast nearby.

Blue Murder has a team of investigative reporters from a News-of-the-World type London tabloid arrive in town to investigate a story that notable Flaxborough locals have been involved in the pornographic movie industry.

Broomsticks Over Flaxborough explores what happens when the local witch and warlock coven starts to unravel.

The Naked Nuns is an investigation into what looks suspiciously like the "white slave trade" operating out of Flaxborough, even more so when a notorious American gangster is in town.

The final novel, Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby? had dark doings in the hamlet of the title, when a wealthy elderly man dies and his very young and vulgar widow, who inherits everything, comes under attack from her late husband's family.

All good fun, and good detective stories too.

COLIN WATSON also wrote "Snobbery with Violence", 1971. The subtitle is "English Crime Stories and their Audience". He invented the name "Mayhem Parva" for the little English villages in which so many British detective stories take place. ("Parva" being "Little", as in such real village names as Ashby Parva...)

The main thrust of his investigation is encapsulated in an observation by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu over 200 years ago:

"Perhaps you will say I should not take my ideas of the manners of the times from such trifling authors; but it is more truly to be found among them than from any historian: as they write merely to get money, they always fall into the notions that are most acceptable to the present taste."

Or, as he demonstrates, the mass sellers like Christie, Wallace, Horler, "Sapper", Buchan, A E W Mason, Conan Doyle and Co. were fully aware of their audience's "manners and times", and "always fall into the notions that are most acceptable to the present taste".

He then goes on to examine the world view of the ordinary English at large in the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1950s, comparing the grim reality of the period with the image in popular crime and thriller literature, which is a very illuminating and entertaining exercise. There is also a look at the "glamour" merchants like E Phillips Oppenheim, and the gap between his golden view of Monte Carlo and the real thing.

Highly recommended, and it highlights the transitory nature of what's right and proper in the public mind. Yesterday's popular paradigm is today's subject of cancel culture. The social ideas and manners which we today take as "most acceptable notions" will, equally, not be shared by our not-too-distant descendants.
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