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Who Murdered Lady Ashbrooke?

A Coat of Varnish

by C.P. Snow
Scribner’s, 328 pp., $10.95

If honors, age, and output added up to reputation, Lord Snow ought by now to be the Grand Old Man of the British novel. But he is not—not in Britain anyway. The old “Two Cultures” feud with F.R. Leavis—over Snow’s proposition that the gulf between scientists and nonscientists threatened to be unbridgeable—seemed to do Snow little professional harm at first, but it has had some destructive effects in later years. For one thing, Leavis was abominably rude to Snow, who accepted this with a kind of stolid disgust (“A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent…”); and the result has been that ever since, many British critics and less-than-critics have been able to disparage Snow freely, happy in the knowledge that he has suffered worse. (“He is,” said Leavis, “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.”)

Then again, Snow did appear to be proposing himself as one surviving link by which Science and Non-Science were being, and might continue to be, held together. “There have been plenty of days,” he confided in 1959, somewhat fatuously, in his original Rede Lecture, “when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues. I mean that literally.” It was taken literally. And not very kindly, either, by the mono-cultural literati, quick to resent any suggestion that the books which were meat and drink to them were no more than nightcaps to Sir Charles, as he then was.

The part of Leavis’s message that stuck in their minds, therefore, in spite of its unpleasantly gleeful formulation, was the assertion that Snow was not really a literary figure at all: “…as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.”

If rehabilitation from this charge has lately been attempted, I must have missed it, but the line a pro-Snow faction might take can be imagined, viz: Charles Percy Snow, born a poor boy in Leicester, 1905, worked his way up to be Baron Snow of Leicester. The route this career took was not especially devious, but on the other hand it was longer and steeper than such ascents are likely to be again, now that society is no longer surprised to discover brains among the poor. Snow has therefore been an invaluable inside witness to the creation, and later the administration, of what has come to be called the Meritocracy. One generation of meritocrats, almost by definition, appoints the next, and nobody sifts the character references of a generation with more diligence than Snow. His literary godfather is Balzac. It was Balzac’s mockmodest claim that society was doing the storytelling, and that his own function was merely “secretarial.”

Now C.P. Snow might justly offer himself, within his own society, as that very “secretary” which Balzac pronounced himself to be (and knew very well we wouldn’t take him for): a man capable of judging, and allowing his readers to perceive, where ambition left off and good fortune began; where social maneuverability was essential and where, abruptly, it became a drawback; where the private emotions were fuel, and where they were freight. But this process, in itself, is seldom exciting. When acted out, it is often a matter of private consultation, one body of experience rubbing up against another. Yet this is the way things are done; and if people are ever to understand, realistically, how and why things are done at this level of society, then they must go along with the mood of the reconstruction, whether it enthralls them or not. One thing they cannot do is deny that this mood is characteristic of the English. “They size up men as coldly as a trainer examining horseflesh, yet their public manner is always careful, starched, externally ‘correct’—and this, too, is strength.”

That last sentence, borrowed from Alfred Kazin’s article on Snow in Contemporaries, suggests that Snow looks a far more importantly typical figure when seen from abroad. In fact, his essentially explanatory mode suits an overseas audience ideally, and is probably the very aspect of his work that raises the promptest protests in Britain. Snow’s latest book does not overstate its ambitions, but it does not fail to patronize the British reader. As early as the second page of the narrative, one is annoyed to be confronted by a socio-economic essay on the origins of the upper-class nineteenth-century housing development known as the Belgravia district of London. It’s not that the information is at all offensive or even useless in itself: simply that it’s merely a hunk of research, standing squarely in the way when one longs for progress. Snow has not bothered to disguise it; it is information, after all.

But he has subtler ways of antagonizing his readers. His is the subtlety of involuntary tactlessness—a familiar phenomenon in Snow, but somehow freshly rebarbative in a context whose purpose is not centrally to instruct or reveal. The new book, A Coat of Varnish, is a simple detective story, unusual in that where you would expect a twist in the tail, or possibly a sting, the tail falls off. Perhaps not unusual even in that. It is hardly a surprise to find an established novelist ducking out of the traditional obligations of genre fiction. Snow, anyhow, denies us the satisfaction of seeing the killer publicly identified, let alone punished, and the book ends with the victim, chilly old Lady Ashbrook, belatedly laid to rest in the Fulham cemetery. “She would be remembered because of the grotesque nature of her death…. It was a kind of immortality Lady Ashbrook would have found disappointing.” Only in these, the novel’s last words, does Snow appear at last to settle for a definition of what he has been aiming to achieve. You could say it has been, after all, a rumination on the lowest form of immortality. (In the British edition, this dignifying idea had perhaps not yet occurred to Snow. The original ending was even more inelegant and leaden: “It would be a perverse way for Lady Ashbrook not to be forgotten.”)

A Coat of Varnish is written in the third person, where Snow is not much at home. The central character, Humphrey Leigh, who is a faded but apparently trusty former spy, manages to lurk behind the storyteller as though he had the narrative line tapped. Indeed, the book so often seems to wish it had been written by Humphrey that one begins to wonder whether Snow isn’t pulling Agatha Christie tricks on us. Is Humphrey’s bafflement a sham? Did he do the murder, skip the country, and mail the book in from Brazil? Alas, this is tantamount to accusing Snow of playfulness, so the answer of course is no. Though depriving itself of a routine resolution, the novel does not compensate with technical affectations.

So who murdered Lady Ashbrook? In between its ill-concealed editorials on social malaises, this is the only lively question which the book, of itself, succeeds in generating. Snow works hard to invest the death with a double energy. First there is irony: Lady Ashbrook has just been cleared of a strong suspicion of cancer when the killer strikes her down. Secondly, there is the physical horror of her demise: it is a hot summer, and maggots are found desporting themselves in her hammer-shattered skull. One has the feeling that Snow grimly enjoys facing up to the fact of these little monsters. Better still, their presence necessitates the calling-in of infestation experts, “the larvae boys.” The special kind of pleasure Snow seems to derive from a phrase of this kind is something we will examine in a moment.

But meanwhile it is worth recording what does not happen to the plot. Snow’s disinclination to establish anything so conventional as a list of plausible suspects is understandable; but his odd solution is to keep the list idea and withdraw vitality from the characters on it. His story moves only by its urge toward a solution: there have to be suspects. Technically, Snow supplies them, but they seem purposefully drab. Lady Ashbrook’s grandson; her grandson’s girl; her doctor; a local lady “for whom Humphrey had affection”; a local unmarried couple “of whom Lady Ashbrook, departing from her general form, had approved”; even Humphrey’s professorial American confidant, a man who “had a knack of making a scrap of conversation sound like a prophecy” (perhaps because his voice was “an octave deeper than an English voice”)—none of these figures begins to enlist the kind of sympathetic interest that would create expectations. They have, in other words, so little potential that we do not feel impelled to look for a potential killer among them.

It’s the act of looking itself that interests Snow. As ever, the people interest him less than the professional process they serve. The Ashbrook case drifts, not unnaturally, into the hands of the police, to whose methods Humphrey Leigh is remarkably privy (ever allowing for his life of blameless service in Intelligence and his old friendship with Frank Briers, the senior detective on the case). When these two professionals and their subordinates get in harness. Snow slips back with relief into the tones of the administrator. One of the “admin boys,” as he might put it. He compiles a dossier on every officer who enters the novel bearing so much as a cup of tea. Any reader who had bothered to take this screening material as useful information would know whom to promote next, and into which department. Humphrey Leigh obliges with the lightning evaluations:

Shingler was much the cleverest of the three, he thought. He was also on the make. It didn’t need much practice in professional assessment to tell one that. At sight, Humphrey rather liked Bale. He might be stiff, sober, overcorrect, a pillar of society. But then you needed pillars here and there, and this one wasn’t an empty man. Humphrey wouldn’t have been surprised to find that he had some private expertness, right outside the force. Flamson didn’t make any impression. Coarse featured, coarse fibered, why had Frank Briers picked him out?

In the next paragraph, in fact, we are told that “for the past twenty-four hours, Flamson had been more useful to Briers than any of the others,” and it is a measure of how closely Humphrey Leigh is associated with the omniscience of the narrator that the reader resents the receipt of this free-floating, ungathered information.

The problem of solving the murder eventually becomes, for all of us, the problem of living with the idea that the murderer, though virtually known, will escape. One of the suspects—and it really doesn’t matter which—in the course of a long grilling gives signs of fancying himself as a small-time mastermind; but having identified himself as sufficiently egomaniacal and odious to have done the deed, he commits no legally disastrous errors and walks free.

Humphrey felt disappointment and a nagging regret. The man was getting away. It was wrong, it was taunting, it left one with the excitement still lingering, no sort of consummation after which one could sit back. There was no rightness, none of the bliss of justice being achieved and paid for.

Humphrey’s conclusions are in the finest traditions of British Intelligence. He is right. He is also facing up to a paralyzing pessimism. But does Snow show us nothing, then, to set against the insolence of evil? Only work, the fellowship of diligence. There are few things in the world that appeal to Snow more—or more often—than the pooling of intellectual resources, the mingling of judgments. It is the fact that the human race can be formed into committees that makes Snow a meliorist, as well as a source of confusion:

Briers opened a cupboard, brought out a bottle, and they each had a drink. They didn’t return to the subject. What they had said might have been unexpected, even to themselves. They were two stable, experienced men, confiding how at times, against all sense and reason, it was hard to disbelieve.

This little paragraph seems to have been helpfully revised since the British edition (where “What they had said” was “it” and the rest ran on in a single sentence), but still my best efforts fail to come up with a translation of it. Yet the message is plain: two hoary professionals, the kind who run such parts of the world as can be run, are getting down to the job. The feeling spreads quickly: on the next page, a subordinate of Briers’s is ringing Leigh: “Shingler’s voice had a faint inflection, one knowledgeable man to another.” The Leigh/Briers double-act grows, of course, in strength until unshakable conformity is achieved.

Humphrey was not physically coordinated as Briers was, but both were disciplined. They were still sitting on the window seat, neither of them constrained, but neither shifting, men who had been trained to conduct interviews and, except deliberately, give nothing away.

If this sort of scene did not present itself so often to Snow’s eye, it would not be so bad—but it is clearly his perennial, consoling fantasy: two bureaucratic dinosaurs with their eyes fixed on the moral horizon, the pinstriped Butch and Sundance:

As Humphrey finished, he regarded the other man. Between the two of them they had seen a fair amount of what human beings could do.

One is reminded, unfortunately, of the opening jibe of Leavis’s “Two Cultures” broadside, where he draws devastating attention to a remark uttered by Snow of a kind that might well have passed between Briers and Leigh on the window seat, had they been permitted to move their lips:

The only writer of world class who seems to have had an understanding of the industrial revolution was Ibsen in his old age: and there wasn’t much that old man didn’t understand.

Yes, old Ibsen was an expert; one of the larvae boys at heart. What is clear is that Snow loves experience—in the French sense, where the long-term accumulation of data and the deliberate amassing of experimental truth overlap. I think it is probably fair to say that Snow also dislikes “experiences,” in the plural, altogether, until he has laid them to rest among others of their kind. He is remarkably unsensuous, unspontaneous. Even his code-phrase for successful sex in the latest book, “the flesh was kind,” is a reference back—an allusion, if you like—to a remembered body of behavior rather than the remembered behavior of the body.

It’s strange that the two kinds of experience, the immediate and the learned, should be so often seriously at war. Perhaps if the English language made an open distinction between the two, as German does, peace might eventually be restored. It has taken the career of Snow to bring the hostility fully into the open, and he does deserve some thanks, I suppose, for that. His two cultures, of course, have the two respective modes of experience at their root.

A Coat of Varnish, I’d say, is about right as titles go—a thin gloss on what we have experienced before. It would be pleasant to imagine that Snow had been jocularly aware of its tiredness, and had planted a little French joke to that effect in the middle of his book. But when he had a character wearily quote “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” I don’t think he had self-deprecation or irony in mind. As usual, it was simply what he meant to say.

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