Peculiar Crimes and Unexplained Deaths

dead cool

I’ve got an alternating thing going on with my reading at the moment — first I read one of Derek Raymond’s frazzled pulp nasties featuring his nameless police sergeant investigating horrific cases for department A14, Unexplained Deaths, the crappiest, least respected division of London’s Metropolitan Police (“the Met”) —

— then I read one of Christopher Fowler’s warmly elegiac, highly imaginative and thoroughly researched crime shockers featuring octogenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, investigating bizarre crimes for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a crappy and little-respected offshoot of London’s Metropolitan Police.

It seems to provide the variety I need.

While Raymond’s relentlessly downbeat policiers can put you into a bit of a suicidal depression, staved off only by the shameless purple-noir vivacity of his prose, (“He gave me one look, one of the straight kind, turned and got into the back of the Rover. It took off in a puff of rubber fury.”) and hilariously dated yet brilliant dialogue, Fowler’s more gentle work combines lashings of noir grimness and evil with the warmer Agatha Christie tradition in which crime-solving is a civilized, intellectual pursuit. It’s a lovely blend. White Corridors features a classic John Dickson Carr type locked room mystery, as well as a more psychological plot in which the readers perceptions are cunningly twisted around.

It was Carr who created The Department of Queer Complaints to solve Impossible Crimes, and in some respects Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit is a descendant of this august body. Both writers eschew the supernatural while simultaneously evoking it: crimes and settings redolent of the unearthly are shown to have rational explanations, but in Fowler there’s little sense of the paranormal being “explained away” — an eeriness still lingers. His books are also crammed to rupturing with obscure lore and local history, much of which I’m filing away in the drawer of my brain labelled “Useless Information That Makes Life Worthwhile.”

Apparently there’s a movie/TV option on the Fowler books, while I’m trying to interest anybody I can find in films from the Raymonds (Chabrol has already done one — Raymond was always more welcome in mainland Europe, even writing a Parisian policier specifically for the French market) so this post isn’t entirely off-topic.

I feel I should intensify this London crime mood with some suitable film viewing — the wonderful DEATHLINE (known as RAW MEAT in the US — how dreadfully vulgar!) would seem to form a sort of stylistic link between the two series of books. In that sensational ’70s horror cult classic, Donald Pleasance’s irascible Inspector Calhoun manages to royally piss off everyone he meets, much like Raymond’s Sgt. or Fowler’s cantankerous fossil Bryant, while tracking down a cannibal navvie on the Underground.

It’s a film I’ve enjoyed numerous times, particularly for the irrepressible chemistry between Pleasence and his subordinate, Norman Rossington (the Beatles’ manager in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). But I hope soon to have the DVD in my sweaty mitts so I’ll be unable to resist giving it a spin. (If only they’d made a whole series with Pleasence as Calhoun, tackling a modern Spring-Heeled Jack, hippie satanists and the Highgate Vampire. Calhoun is the true embodiment of the British copper’s particular brand of sarcasm. Are all policemen sarky? Our Johnny Hoppers seem particularly good at it.)

Norman Rossington story: when screenwriter Charles Wood spotted Rossington, playing an enlisted man, up front with the officers in the preparation for the final CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, he asked why Rossington wasn’t with the rest of the troops. “Because *I* am a highly-paid featured player,” retorted Rossington. Quite right.

Well, there are only five of Raymond’s series and six of Fowler’s, so this ecstasy can’t last, but while it does I’ll be steeped in London pea-soupers and cockney rhyming slang.

Here is some Cinephile’s Rhyming Slang, which will allow you to discuss movies without The Law getting wise to you:

Apples and stairs = featured players. (As in, “Who are the apples in that new Soderbergh?”)

Hoochy-coochy = Bertolucci.

Dirty Den = mise-en-scene.

La Dolce Vita = Cinecitta. (Also works the other way around.)

Bronx cheer = Lars Von Trier.

Dame Kiri = auteur theory.

Demon barber = Manny Farber.

Aneurin Bevan = SE7EN. (As in, “It had a moody, Aneurin-style title sequence.”)

Medically Ethical = Apeechatpong Weerasethakul.

“It puts you in mind of the days of Jack the Ripper!”

I love the London street scenes in KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, even though they don’t look remotely like London streets. This being Universal Studios, I suspect they might be using bits of the mittel-European village set from FRANKENSTEIN.

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5 Responses to “Peculiar Crimes and Unexplained Deaths”

  1. mrcanacorn Says:

    I recently fond an interesting topic on some horror themed movie blogs called, The One You Might Have Saved Blog-a-Thon. I couldn’t help but wonder what unique twist you could add by having SHADOWPLAY partake in this peculiar task…I’m not sure if it’s your thing, but I had fun doing it myself and would love to see what you could bring to the table. Just a thought…keep up your most excellent work! Cheers, Mr. Canacorn.

  2. Here’s the original post:
    http://arbogastonfilm.blogspot.com/2008/04/one-you-might-have-saved.html

    Kinda creepy! If I were any kind of decent person I would of course climb up on the screen and save ALL the victims of serial killers and desperados in the bloody history of cinema.

    Characters whose deaths seem to me dramatic mistakes are the rabbit in Meet the Feebles, the wife in Fargo and Tommy Lee Jones in Natural Born Killers. Hell EVERYONE in Natural Born Killers is a mistake, but however depraved Jones is meant to be, he protects me from getting killed by people like Mickey and Mallory so I’m more on his side than their’s.

    Characters whose deaths WORK dramatically, by producing shock and sorrow… maybe the young scientist in Day of the Dead, Donald Sutherland in Day of the Locust (not a horror film? it’s horrifying alright!) and maybe Anna Massey in Frenzt, especially since she escaped Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom…

    I’ll write a piece on this if I think of anything else to say.

  3. LOVE the rhyming slang for “auteur theory” and “Manny Farber.”

    As for the *louche* atmosphere that you describe, in connection with vampires and hippie satanists and all that, what it brings to *my* mind is the fiction of Kim Newman. Ever read any? My habit has been to recommend it to everyone and anyone. This, for instance …

    http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/newman3/newman01.html

    He’s vivid, and he’s quite funny.

  4. I shall read the Soho golem with enthusiasm. I quite liked his Dracula series, especially Dracula Cha Cha Cha (Dracula in La Dolce Vita era Rome, meeting all the Fellini and Giallo characters).

    Newman is also remarkable in a purely sartorial sense.

  5. I toyed with “Wallace Beery = auteur theory”. Also Mathew Barney = Marcel Carne,

    Actual rhyming slang features a few cinematic icons already. J Arthur (Rank) = wank. Brad Pitt = shit.

    More unfortunately still, Brad’s little son Shiloh Pitt spoonerises into “pile o’ shit”.

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