booksmonthly review of books April 2011 Issue 151
Wonders of the Universe

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A Winter's Tale

 

By Jerry Dowlen

 

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler’s first detective.

 

Gwendoline Butler has written a total of twenty-nine crime-fiction stories that feature her fictional detective John Coffin. In ‘Coffin Knows the Answer’ (Allison & Busby, 2002), the latest and possibly last of the stories, he has completed his rise from the humble rank of police constable on probation in post-war Greenwich to become Sir John Coffin, chief commander of the London police force in Docklands.

 

The Coffin books have elevated Gwendoline Butler to popular acclaim as a foremost writer of post-war British crime fiction. However, what of her three largely forgotten books that were “pre-Coffin”?

 

Receipt for Murder (Bles, 1956)

Death in a Row (Bles, 1957)

The Murdering Kind (Bles, 1958)

 

The leading detective in these stories was an Inspector Winter. He appeared too in Ms Butler’s fourth story ‘The Dull Dead’ (1958) but by then the young John Coffin, described as “mercurial”, had made his first appearance, and it was with Coffin that Ms Butler travelled on. Superintendent Winter, as he had then become, literally “bowed out” – I make a play on words, for it was hinted that he was to marry a lady whom he had met in the fictional town of Bow-on-Sea, in the story ‘The Murdering Kind’.

 

‘Receipt for Murder’ (1956)

 

I close my eyes and try to imagine the young Gwendoline Butler: born 1922, graduated from Oxford with a history degree; already some work as a researcher and a teacher (the latter occupation intrudes into her first book); married to a high-ranking academic; and then I wonder: well, she was motivated to write this whodunit, and afterwards, she got it published; how did this happen, and why?

 

I don’t mean to imply that it was a bad book that didn’t deserve to be published; but, I look at what seems to be a rather pedestrian tale about a group of ordinary (well, perhaps slightly arty) people who live together in a suburban lodging house, and I note that the leading detective doesn’t seem to be a forceful or vigorous character who commands much of a presence at the centre of the action, and I ask myself: what was it that persuaded Bles, the publishers, to take a chance with this story? Was it Daddy and the Old School Tie, perhaps? Or in the early 1950s, when television-watching was still in its infancy, were murder mystery books a dead cert to sell well with the public, so that all publishers merrily churned them out by the bucketload? (With its lodging house setting, and its bundle of lively young people, ‘Receipt for Murder’ strongly puts me in mind of Muriel Spark’s ‘The Girls of Slender Means’; the main difference is that Ms Butler’s book has a murder mystery thrown in, too).

 

I must hasten to say: God Bless Bles (sorry) that they saw sufficient merit in ‘Receipt for Murder’ to grant its publication and thereby give Gwendoline Butler a start to her literary life. When I read ‘Receipt for Murder’ today, in the full knowledge of the richness that has flowed from Ms Butler’s pen in subsequent years, I can readily commend the story as an assured debut: a tidily-crafted murder mystery that is satisfactorily and legitimately resolved at the end, after the reader has been cleverly led up the garden path a good few times along the way.

I celebrate the neat structure of the plot, and the author’s deft touch at narrating the majority of the story through dialogue, which is no easy feat (just try it!).

 

It certainly was not a tentative first stab at writing a detective thriller. I much admire the confidence with which the young Ms Butler successfully executed the dramatic device, as early as the second and third page of the story, of listing the names of all the faces that would appear in a photograph, if such a photograph existed, of all the residents who lived in ‘The Argosy’ lodging house at the time of the murders. Having duly run through the names, Ms Butler then wrote this short and simple paragraph:

 

            There we should stand. All such nice people, and one of us a murderer.

 

So there you go: the starter has cracked the pistol, and it’s up to you, dear reader, to read on and see if you can identify which one it was. I like the style.

 

Let me now discuss Inspector Winter. Inspector Who? Gwendoline Butler took a huge risk, surely, in populating her first-ever crime fiction story (and the next three after that) with such a dull and unappealing detective hero?

 

Interviewed for ‘Crime Time’ magazine some ten years ago, Gwendoline Butler said this about her early writing career:

 

I'd always intended to write, to earn money. As a historian I wrote a history book for children, but nobody wanted it. Not only did I read detective stories, but I knew people who read one a day, so I wrote one whilst at home in Oxford when my husband was doing research in Malta for three months. I went to classes to learn to type, just as later I went to classes to learn to use a word-processor, to be professional and make more money.

 

A publisher I had known at Oxford praised it - but rejected it. At that time Lionel (my husband) was Literary Executor for the wealthy Edward Meyerstein, the novelist and poet. Also involved was the young George Greenfield, later one of the most famous agents. So ‘Receipt for Murder’ was published. It was based on some friends of mine, but had no series detective.”

 

Her final remark “… no series detective” is interesting. I guarantee that anyone reading ‘Receipt for Murder’ would struggle afterwards to write on a postage stamp any memory of anything that Inspector Winter said or did, in the story. Nevertheless, he appeared again in each of the next three stories, so it seems to be a little disingenuous (or forgetful) of Ms Butler to assert that she didn’t have a “series detective” at first.

 

As a new kid on the block, starting out in crime fiction in the mid-1950s, Gwendoline Butler was probably very sensible to recognise that she hadn’t yet thought up a detective hero of eminent flair and personality; and so, instead of trying to rush into inventing one, she made do with Inspector Winter until such time as the Muse obliged her by sending John Coffin.

 

‘Dead in a Row’ (1957); ‘The Murdering Kind’ (1958); ‘The Dull Dead’ (1958)

 

Barely glimpsed in ‘Receipt for Murder’, and taciturn when he did fleetingly appear, Winter of the Yard took a much bigger grip of the investigations in Gwendoline Butler’s next three books. Whereas in the first book ‘Receipt for Murder’ the local Sergeant Helper more than lived up to his name, appearing prominently at all stages of the investigation, Ms Butler allowed Inspector Winter to dominate several sequences of dialogue and action in her books two and three. Readers frequently encountered Winter discussing the case with his subordinates, interviewing the suspects, and beetling around the neighbourhood to follow up clues.

 

In the penultimate chapter of ‘Dead in a Row’, Ms Butler even had Inspector Winter gathering together all the suspects in one room, to engage in the time-honoured crime fiction endgame of peeling open each person’s alibi, actions and motives, and unmasking the killer by process of elimination.

 

That dramatic device was cleverly reversed in the opening chapter of the third book ‘The Murdering Kind’.  This time, unconventionally, Ms Butler had Winter – now promoted to Superintendent – standing in a room with his subordinate officer, discussing the conclusion of the case and the path that had led them to solve the crime. Needless to say, Ms Butler wrote this opening chapter with consummate skill, ostensibly telling us everything, but effectively telling us nothing. We still needed to read the story, for even though in chapter one we had been told the ending, the challenge to us was to fit the specific character names to the general descriptions contained in that unusual first chapter of a murder mystery story.

 

There are hints from Ms Butler that Winter worked his men hard and was not popular with them. Introduced in ‘Receipt for Murder’ as a tall, thin man, sometimes “short-tempered” but other times “polite (though unyielding)”, he was “dour” in ‘The Murdering Kind’, and also “cynical”. He evidently had a rapid turnover of assistants. By my count, young Sergeant Coffin was assistant number five when first seen alongside Winter in ‘The Dull Dead’. Coffin was described physically as tall, dark and dapper, while in personality and temperament he was (to Winter’s private dislike) agile, clever, quick-tongued and unscrupulous.

 

Coffin is undeniably the underling to Winter in ‘The Dull Dead’. It is Winter who busily gets after the murderer, but let’s return to that Gwendoline Butler interview in ‘Crime Time’ and see whether she said anything about the “genesis” of John Coffin?

 

I wanted a Londoner and I thought Coffin was a good selling name - I took it from a family of friends in New England, where it is quite common.”

 

Winter may have disapproved of young John Coffin, but the youngster must have been doing something right, for in Gwendoline Butler’s next (fifth) book ‘The Interloper’ (1959) he had risen to the rank of Divisional Inspector, with his own patch in south east London.

 

In hindsight one can easily find in Gwendoline Butler’s early books several fascinating precursors of incidents and themes that were to proliferate in her later stories.

 

Cats and dogs seem perennially to intrude into her Coffin stories, and not always as minor incidental presences: in ‘The Murdering Kind’, for example, the Hemp family’s pet cat Hake was the front cover illustration to the book. In the far-apart stories ‘Coffin in Oxford’ (1962) and ‘Coffin and the Paper Man’ (1990) neighbouring families had to agree daily rotas for taking their respective pet cats and pet dogs outdoors into the street, for if both animals were released simultaneously they would invariably fight.

 

Fashion designers, fashion photographers, dress shops and mannequins have frequently populated the Coffin stories. Ms Butler came straight out of the starting blocks in ‘Receipt for Murder’ and ‘Death in a Row’ to give us a dress shop as a key location in each story; we saw too in those two first stories, and also in some later stories, that the wearing of a particular item of clothing was a subterfuge employed by the murderer to try and evade detection.

 

In ‘Receipt for Murder’, some of the lodging house residents liked to frequent Luigi, a local Italian restaurant. Such restaurants seem to be an idée fixe with Ms Butler: I can think immediately of the fictional Padovani restaurant that she later placed in Greenwich (‘Coffin on the Water’, 1986) and of Max’s, the regular haunt of Coffin and his second wife Stella Pinero when they eat out in the fictional Second City of London, alias Docklands in real life.

Coffin’s second wife? Ah, but what of his first wife? Maybe there, if nowhere else, I can afford Superintendent Winter equality with John Coffin. For, as I have said, shortly before his exit from Ms Butler’s crime stories, Winter was betrothed to a woman that he had met during one of his criminal cases. Not long after that, Coffin did the same. ‘Make Me a Murderer’ (1961) was Gwendoline Butler’s seventh book, and the fourth one that featured Coffin. A murder investigation led Coffin to Birmingham, where he met and later married the actress Patsy Partridge.

 

Inspector Winter’s cheerless personality seems to have accorded with his surname. Having said that,  the point might be made that Coffin as a surname does not, in the abstract, sound any more heart-warming than Winter! Is this, ultimately, the most striking link between Gwendoline Butler’s first and second detective? – Ms Butler abandoned Winter but she bequeathed to his successor Coffin a surname just as morbid?

 

Jerry Dowlen

November 2010