by Desmond Stewart
Harper & Row, 352 pp., $15.00
Some years ago, a retired inspector of police from Philadelphia wrote a memoir of the Criminals-I-Have-Known sort. One instructive part of it explained how helpful criminals are to detectives by signing their names to all their crimes. We all know about Adler’s “life style” today, but the inspector showed that for the criminal there is a “crime style” too—a habitual, inescapable, individual way of doing wrong. He cited among others a burglar who specialized in stealing the expensive suits of natty dressers and might well have become the nation’s Closet Robber No. 1 but for his crime style, which was twisted by a detestation of the male vest. He could never bring himself to steal a vest, so when the denuded owner called the cops, one glance at the closet with its neat line of hangers dressed simply in vests allowed them to exclaim immediately; “Well, well! So old Bill’s out of jail, is he?” and send a police car to pick him up at once. The poor man spent most of his life in prison, and though some will say that he could have amended his crime style easily enough if the police had tipped him off to what was wrong with it, the psychologist would probably disagree. Only an analyst could have teased out the basic vestphobia and given society a perfected three-piece thief.
Every critic knows that a crime style of sorts is responsible for a bad book. The same “hand” can be seen at work from start to finish, always hitting the wrong note, always pointing the wrong way, always repeating the wrong writing. All the bits that betray the badness have a sameness that can be recognized every time they come up; they give the bad book its significant monotony. Most important of all, in a way, is the effect these repeated badnesses have on the critic, because they prevent him from seeing the occasional goodnesses. Even when the critic does see these goodnesses, he doesn’t pay them much attention because they are so surrounded with the badnesses he has come to hate, and these, in turn, exert a terrible power over his honest judgment and drag it not only into personal bias but callous injustice.
Desmond Stewart, author of T.E. Lawrence, is a particularly difficult case because his crime style is as multiple as it is singular. Some critics would insist that his intolerable use of metaphor was the most recognizable thing about his writing—the thing that remained on the hanger above all. They would support the argument by quoting from p. 53: “A seedling had been planted which was to be fed by the nitrates of fact and watered by the dew of legend”—though the more humorous-minded might think that p. 219 offered an even finer example of self-identification: “After a four-year hiatus the glacier-powerful molars of national interest were soon to resume grinding.” A nice question might arise on p. 210, which shows the …
Snuggling with Lawrence February 9, 1978