H.R.F. Keating considers the extraordinary imagination of Peter Dickinson
Peter Dickinson. Photo © Fay Godwin
You might feel that a successful crime novelist whose final book, Some Deaths Before Dying, came out in America as recently as 1999 would still be holding his place in readers’ minds. But think how many hundreds of mysteries have appeared since that not-so-distant time. The pace of modern living: that’s the cliché. Unless a mystery writer produces, more or less, a book a year, the shades soon fall. As they did for Peter Dickinson when his British publisher abruptly declined Some Deaths, and, though it was published in the States to appreciative reviews (“like caviar, an acquired taste that can easily become an addiction”—Time), he had to struggle to find another publisher in Britain. He came to feel then that the effort required to write mysteries at the level he aimed for—and the effort is as demanding as that of running a whole business—was too much. He has, however, continued to give us his fine stories for children.
No doubt, here and there, you can still find readers who have some at least of his score of mystery novels securely in their heads. You could not easily forget, for example, a classic detective story set in an upside- down palace in Arabia with a delightful female chimpanzee as the sleuth, who, in a Christie-style final confrontation, exposes the murderer by arranging childlike, coloured shapes into a meaningful order. That’s the plot of The Poison Oracle, Dickinson’s 1974 book. And it is typical of the extraordinary imagination that is his chief gift to the crime novel.
Another brief example is his 1968 debut, The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (which originally had to be called Skin Deep in England because an old wiseacre at his publisher said books with insects in the title never did well) had murder among a primitive New Guinea tribe who had come to inhabit—guess where—the attics of a row of London houses. The book won the Gold Dagger for that year. As did, in the next year—a feat not yet surpassed—his mystery called, in England, punningly, A Pride of Heroes, and in the US The Old English Peep Show (because a smart New York publisher didn’t get that pun?).
Dickinson’s multifarious imagination, however, is not his only gift to crime fiction. He so much liked detective stories that, during his seventeen years on the staff of that now defunct but once essential magazine Punch, he regularly reviewed the then still highly popular genre. In his own books, he has said, his aim was to keep closely to the play-fair rules, the puzzle solved by intelligence, the clues scrupulously present however disguised. But to those clues he brought his own frolicking style. As you read The Lizard in the Cup, where Superintendent Pibble, protagonist of the first five Dickinson books, is wandering around a nursing home after he has had a mysterious breakdown, you come across a fleeting reference to the kitchen preparing that former staple of British school fare, roly-poly pudding. You smile, perhaps. But later when the enticing odour enters Pibble’s nostrils once more, he takes note, while the reader is busy smiling, of the fact that leads him to solve the crime. Only Dickinson could do that, true detection cunningly made to look like no more than an amusing social detail from past times.
Almost all Dickinson books—the later ones less pure puzzle stories—are set, or partly set, in one particular past time. This is that now literally fabulous era that trickled to its end in the years just after World War Two, carrying with it a whole cargo of upper-class life. At that time, it was the accepted thing to incarcerate your sons in boarding schools such as Eton, where Dickinson himself was educated, and there to feed them on such suety stuff as roly-poly pudding. These sons were also inculcated into a code of behaviour which, for example, made the esoteric game of cricket into a sort of fetish, or which insisted on the particular wearing of special clothes for special occasions (how many buttons, it stipulated, you should fasten on your waistcoat). No wonder the Time reviewer I quoted earlier felt obliged to warn that the Dickinson books are “an acquired taste.”
It is a taste British readers, doubtless, find easier to acquire than American ones, who are perhaps baffled by that rule-bound code of good manners added to by the habit of peppering speech with the odd Latin tag. But sip at the edges of this almost fairy-tale way of life, and there is to be found sweetness beyond even roly-poly pudding.
The underlying reason for that tastiness in such abundance is that Peter Dickinson is a very fine novelist per se (excuse my Latin). His writing is wonderfully evocative and wonderfully easy to read, bar perhaps the occasional learned word—accipitrine or columbaceous, both describing noses. But keep the dictionary for later. Read dizzyingly on. As you do, you will find such descriptions of opening the door to that New Guinea tribe in their London attics “as the caged smells weltered out.” Or, in that solve-the-puzzle story, which also puts into a reader’s mind the way we are all thoughtlessly accepting that we are destroying the world we live in, The Poison Oracle, there is a passage evoking the “the ugly noise of the lung-fish adapting themselves over thousands of generations to live in an altered world.” There, in a single phrase, we are given not only the marshes that surround the palace—all Arabia is not sandy desert, remember—but the ideas that lie behind the weirdnesses of that story. A truly remarkable writer.
A PETER DICKINSON READING LIST
Mystery fiction for adults
James Pibble series
Skin Deep (1968); US: The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest
A Pride of Heroes (1969); US: The Old English Peep Show
The Seals (1970); US: The Sinful Stones
Sleep and His Brother (1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)
The Green Gene (1973)
The Poison Oracle (1974)
The Lively Dead (1975)
King and Joker (1976)
Walking Dead (1977)
A Summer in the Twenties (1981)
The Last Houseparty (1982)
Death of a Unicorn (1984)
Perfect Gallows (1988)
Play Dead (1991)
The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1992)
Some Deaths Before Dying (1999)
In addition to his highly regarded literary criticism, H.R.F. Keating (1926-2011) was also the creator of the Inspector Ghote series and the "Hard Detective" series featuring Det. Superintendent Harriet Martens.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #90.