An Unusual Blend of Poetry and Fantasy

RIP Peter Dickinson.

Looking at the obits, especially those from his home country of England, it becomes apparent that Dickinson is most beloved for his Young Adult speculative fiction, a large and significant body of work admired by contemporary greats like Peter Pullman, Neil Gaiman and Paul Cornell.

Eva is a spectacular tale of a young girl’s mind placed inside body of a chimpanzee. On Dickinson’s website, he comments, “80% of my mail, almost all of it from the USA, is about this one book.” I’m also lucky enough to have an original edition of the amusing and absurd “pseudo-scientific monograph” The Flight of Dragons.

However, my true bond with Dickinson, is not with his fantasy but with his crime fiction.  The Anatole Broyard quote from the New York Times obit is ideal: “A kind of spoiled darling of people who prefer what might be called avant-garde suspense writing.”

Unlike his YA work, it seems like Dickinson’s mysteries are being forgotten. At the least, none of the many modern crime writers I follow on Twitter mentioned his passing.  That’s too bad, for he once was lauded by his peers. Rex Stout, Edmund Crispin, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, H.R.F.Keating, and others blurbed him with rare enthusiasm.

Donald E. Westlake was a champion, and included Sleep and His Brother on his list of ten best mysteries.

Westlake also loved Anthony Powell. Among the many similarities between Powell and Dickinson is an absolute determination not to make it easy on the reader at the top of the book. I still remember my struggle with starting Sleep and His Brother.

The sack, however prettily beribboned, tends to destroy a man’s confidence; and there had never been much of that in the first place.

Pibble halted on the wide and weedy gravel to mime amusement while he studied the hideous façade and nerved himself to face the children. Childless himself, he liked the young in theory but found that he became gawky and gruff in their company—a manner which was sure to be worse with the kids at the Foundation. From one of Mary’s rambling parentheses he had learned that it was part of their treatment to open the door and greet strangers; besides, with the Foundation so poor, it saved the wages of a doorman.

The Foundation had the decorators in. Painters nuzzled at windows like bees at a lavender bush; on one of the corner spires workmen spanked copper sheeting into place; the other spire was finished and now its rich metal waited for the subduing verdigris; meanwhile an elderly man was poised at its pinnacle tinkering with a fresh-gilt weathercock; a fuzz of scaffolding blurred the right-hand corner of the building, but even the sections with which the workmen had finished were not exactly clean-lined, so lavish had the architect been with terra-cotta swags and ornaments. It was curious to think of ultramodern, no-nonsense Reuben Kelly toiling away behind those curlicues. Better not tell the lady that one knows him—it’ll only cause further complications in an already tedious and embarrassing mission. With a tiny groan Pibble drove himself across the flattened remains of bindweed and trefoil to the porch.

Drab November made it so dark under the arch that he had to peer for a bell or knocker; but before he had located either the hinges moaned and the door swung slowly open as if this had been the opening sequence of Aunt of Dracula. Inside, instead of the predictable Gothic gloom and chill, the air was almost sultry and the colours jazzy but impersonal. Below a huge sweep of carved wooden stairs a solitary figure slept on a modern settee. Wooden pillars sprang from the op art carpet to the wedding cake plasterwork of the ceiling. The total effect was as if some minor hall at the Victoria and Albert had been commandeered and redecorated to be an airlines terminal. Even the sleeper had the look of someone who has fallen asleep not because he needs the rest but because the world has become too boring to stay awake in; so he sleeps here, now, regardless.

Pibble hesitated across the threshold.

“Hello,” said a voice from behind the door, a child’s voice, very slow but steady. The door began to moan shut and Pibble moved out of its way.

“Copper come. Lost ‘is ‘at.”

That was a different voice, but it had the same strange lightweight drawl.

“Lovely,” said the first voice. Now Pibble could see that it belonged to the nearer of the two children who were pushing the door shut. They made it seem an effort—not an effort to move the door but to move their own limbs. Mary had said they’d be fat and sleepy, and they were; mentally and physically handicapped, and that was obvious, too; so all the way up from the bus stop Pibble had been preparing himself to greet some slow, revolting dumplings with piggy eyes above lardy cheeks, and to react with adult friendliness and feigned ease.

“Hello, you two,” he said, muffing the rehearsed tone and producing instead the note of surprise and pleasure with which one greets a real friend at a boring cocktail party.

Two circular faces smiled and blinked in the bright lighting: a boy and a girl, he dark, she carroty, both about twelve years old. Their skin was heavy and pale, but not tallowy; both seemed to be wearing several sweaters. Pibble felt an instinct to pat them, as, thirty years before, when the porch would have held a litter of garden twine and mole traps and broken croquet mallets, the visitor to this hall would have patted the large and lazy hound that came to sniff his trouser cuffs. Pibble held out his hand.

The boy’s hand rose slowly, like some barely buoyant object wavering up through water. Pibble felt his face stiffen at finding how cold that touch was. The girl, though she seemed to have her eyes shut, must have noticed the change, for she smiled sleepily at him.

“Cold ‘and, warm ‘eart,” she said.

“George,” said the boy, drawling the syllable out to enormous length. His eyes were large and soft, and had a ring of darker green round the edge of the light green iris—the cathypnic ring, the first symptom.

If you are lost: James Pibble is a gentle ex-cop: He’s been fired. He’s sad about this. (“The sack, however prettily beribboned, tends to destroy a man’s confidence; and there had never been much of that in the first place.”) He’s been asked to help out at a foundation for telepathic children. (This is why the girl says, “Copper come. Lost ‘is ‘at.” She telepathically understands Pibble’s situation: His hat is gone.) The telepathy seems generated by their cathypnic condition. The kids mostly sleep, eat, and move slowly about the foundation, uttering the occasional premonition.

A Pride of Heroes (also known as The Old English Peep Show) is less extreme, and a good starting point for those new to the author. Dickinson himself called it a “baroque spoof.” At the old mansion now being run as a theme park, Pibble meets first a darling lion cub, then a whole pack of rather charming lions who hurt him a little bit by accident, and finally a serious man-eating lion, who of course is the “murderer” (although Pibble himself just barely escapes). It’s one of my favorite sequences in all of crime fiction.

Dickinson’s final Pibble, One Foot in the Grave, is set in a rest home for the elderly. His last (non-Pibble) crime novel, Some Deaths Before Dying, has a similar milieu. Other Dickinson themes include mysteries set within an alternate monarchy (King and Joker, Skeleton-In-Waiting),  memoirs of the last gasp of British glamor from between the world wars (The Last Houseparty, A Summer in the Twenties), and tangled politics in former colonial possessions (Tefuga, The Poison Oracle).

This is all very English stuff, of course, and what help gives his work real bite is the way Dickinson always dishes the dirt, and not just in fiction: The brilliant essay on maids and butlers “Murder in the Manor” is strongly recommended for fans of Downton Abbey.

As a crime writer, Dickinson’s flaw is reasonably standard for his era, which is an over-emphasis on psychology. (The same charge could be entered against Ross MacDonald and Ruth Rendell.) Crime fiction should be for escapism, not for, say, assessing the mind of a pedophile as in The Last Houseparty.

Hindsight (the book which Broyard rightfully refers to as a spoiled darling) is nearly a masterpiece of meta, yet the great psycho-sexual reveal at the final climax rings hollow.

I’ll always love Hindsight anyway. Here’s the description from the website (Dickinson is one of the few writers where reading about the plot might help before starting the book):

Paul Rogers, a crime novelist, gets a letter from the biographer Simon Dobbs, asking why the boys of St Aidan’s Preparatory School referred to Molly Benison as “Mad Molly.” Dobbs is writing a life of the writer Isidore Steen, and Molly, one of the rackety beauties of the period between the wars, had played some part in the great man’s life. Rogers had witnessed the event that led to the nickname, but to give the full flavour of it he finds it easiest to write about his younger self in the third person, as if it were a chapter of a novel. Dobbs, who had also been at St Aidan’s, but had left before the Molly incident, accepts this, asks further questions, and in return tells Rogers details about the school staff. Rogers continues the novel, increasingly uncertain whether he is actually recovering buried memories or imaginatively creating incidents.

For fun I copied out two of my favorite pages of Hindsight.

…In the end I was surprised to find that the problem the letter chiefly posed was how to answer Dobbs’s casual inquiry about what I thought of Steen.

Isidore Steen, Great Writer, the apposition so automatic as to be almost abbreviable to GW, in my case accompanied by the no-less-honorific GU, or Great Unread. My regular response to the mention of Steen’s name was a collage of ennui, revulsion, and jealousy. Revulsion was strongest. I was repelled for the very reasons that made him attractive to others — the gossip about the man drew them to the books, but put me off. I dislike that whole myth of the artist as shaman, the general larger-than-lifeness, compounded in Steen’s case by his ferocious sexual energies and appetites for both men and women, as well as other forms of rumbustiousness. I really preferred to think of him as a phoney, and there seemed to me quite enough evidence without the chore of ploughing through The Fanatics.  That whole business about the Life Force, for instance, which accounts for much that is tedious in Shaw — I gathered that Steen took it even more seriously. You couldn’t believe that sort of thing and remain a tolerable artist, surely?

My resentment was strong enough to make me feel irritated whenever I read, say, a review or article that mentioned Steen and accepted that his early Saharan explorations had actually achieved anything, or that Baston’s demolition job on the veracity of Steen’s account of his own Lawrence-like exploits in East Africa during the first war had not really demonstrated that To Live Like the Jackal was a pack of lies. I had of course read that book at Eton but unlike most of my friends had not been bowled over by it. The feeling that Steen was not my kind of man or writer was already very strong.

As I say, the distaste was reinforced by what I learnt about Steen as a person. I tended to shut my mind to anecdotes of his friendliness and casual generosity to young writers short of luck or money; I assumed it was a method of getting them into bed with him. Occasionally I came across a quotation from one of his books, and I remember turning on Radio 3 halfway through what was clearly an archive recording of a talk and then listening with real interest and stimulus before learning at the end that the voice had been that of Steen. It was impossible at times like this not to acknowledge that the style was muscular and uncluttered, the point of view sane, some of the individual ideas perceptive, subtle and occasionally prophetic, and the whole approach far less egotistical than I would have expected.

Despite this I continued to resist, though increasingly swimming against the accepted current of thought. For even without the coming centenary Steen’s reputation would been enjoying an upsurge. Most parties and factions, especially those with an ecological bent, were tending to claim him as a father-figure. I had read only a couple of weeks before a piece in one of the Sunday Arts gossip columns about a film of Steen’s life in the offing.

(…)

But did anyone still read Steen? I had to go into Winchester the morning I got Dobbs’s letter and parked my behind the public library, so it was easy to check. Most of his books were in stock, and had been borrowed at least a couple of times in the previous year. Even The Fanatics, that great white whale of a novel, had a recent date-stamp in it. Mine had more, but then Steen had died in 1927, the year I was born. How many date-stamps did I expect my books to carry in 2027? Ridiculous question.

In the end I overcame the urge to pretend to Dobbs that I knew and liked Steen better than I in fact did, and simply said that I had not read enough to be able to form any opinion other than that he wrote good English.

There are more jewels like this scattered about the Dickinson oeuvre for adults, but it is understandable that this style has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps it’s only correct that his YA fantasy work is currently showing greater strength in terms of continued relevancy.

While looking at Hindsight yesterday I discovered this telling passage near the close:

I was quite a clever child, you know. Not brilliant, but quick. In a sense, that was my peak period. I don’t think, for all its acquired experience, my brain has ever functioned quite as efficiently as it did then.  It seems to me quite possible that I not merely perceived things, but began to make connections between them.

Dickinson’s YA books are clearly written for quick children. Surely many of those smart young readers ended Eva, The Weathermonger, or Tulka  just a little more ready for making sense of onrushing adulthood