Tuesday 15 September 2015

Review of: The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell (2003)

The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell.McFarland & Company: Jefferson NC, USA & London. 2003. pp 213

As its editor candidly admits, this volume is a strange hybrid, or sandwich - nonetheless it made a significant addition to my understanding one of the most enigmatic of writers and men that I have encountered.  In an important respect, because of this book, I have had to revise my opinion on a very important aspect of Williams.

The meat of the sandwich runs from pages 23-117 and is a complete run of Charles Williams's reviews of detective novels as published in various newspapers - these tend to be about 3-400 words in length and cover 3-5 different books.

Around this filling there is a valuable and necessary introductory essay on Williams in relation to detective fiction, and a closing essay (which I could not really engage with, due to my ignorance and indifference) on the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction (this being the name given to the era when Williams was reviewing) - followed by an appendix giving background on the authors and books which Williams reviewed (and an index!).

So the book's ideal reader would be someone who is very interested both by Charles Williams and also by detective fiction. Unfortunately, I am only half of this ideal reader, having very little interest in or knowledge of detective fiction - although I am not averse to it, and enjoyed finding out a bit more.  

For me this books' importance is simply that these detective fiction reviews are very well written. Well written, I mean, from a purely technical point of view. Williams had very little space to write, and an enormous amount to say - and there is, of course, a limit on how 'good' such journalism can be.

Clearly, reviewing a book - itself typically light entertainment - in the space of a few sentences, and trying not to give away any 'spoilers' about the plots ... well, we cannot expect Williams to plumb the depths of the human condition. And he doesn't - but Williams does maintain a high standard of interest, a light and witty tone; and as a bonus Williams sometimes insinuates  a pregnant aphoristic morsel or two, hinting at vistas beyond, for those who are alert and interested.

But the main point about these pieces is that Williams task was very difficult and he did it very well: the writing is clear, accessible, entertaining.

So now - thanks to this volume - the question is answered that so many of us who have struggled and struggled with trying to piece together an understanding of Williams's obscure and often constipated novels, essays, plays, theology and his late poetry ... could Charles Williams write, or not? 

I had previously said No. That Williams was obscure because he could not write clearly. But.. I WAS WRONG.

Williams could write clearly, he was technically adept: therefore his obscurity is wilful, deliberate, intended - presumably part of what he was trying to do.

This pleases me! Because it would be awful to struggle with the sometimes-extreme obscurity only discover that nothing lay behind it but technical ineptitude.

Because of this book, now we know for sure that Williams was able to write in a 'normal', highly professional, fashion. We can therefore struggle with his obscurities, confident that (however irritating) it is part of his style; there is some reason for it - he has hidden some-thing, and we are meant to work hard to find it... presumably because hard work is necessary for us really to understand what it is that he wants us to understand.