#13: Hugh Walpole
He yearned to be one of the great and the good of the literary establishment, and an invitation to join the prestigious new Detection Club boosted his fragile ego. Yet throughout his life he remained an outsider.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
Hugh Walpole was a household name, writing bestselling fiction in a variety of styles and genre. From ghost stories to bildungsroman, family saga to gothic horror. He penned literary biographies, plays, and the screenplay for the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield (we’ll come back to that last one later on in this post).
His celebrity extended to popular lecture tours, and he was keen to be in the public eye. Wodehouse dismissed his career as ‘two thirds publicity’, commenting that he was always endorsing books and speaking at luncheons. Others have described his generosity as a patron, privately offering financial support to younger writers – although some friends felt that he was too encouraging of some mediocre talents.
In some ways Hugh Walpole’s career seems to have mimicked that of another founder member of the Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts. Like Crofts, Walpole was tremendously popular in his day – when the Detection Club did their first round robin story, he was regarded as the lead name in a project that also featured Sayers, Berkeley, Christie, E. C. Bentley, and Knox.
Today Walpole has essentially been forgotten. While that is not necessarily surprising in the context of detective fiction, of which he was only an occasional author. After becoming a huge success in the twenties, in the thirties Walpole’s work began to be dismissed as dated or insubstantial. When he died in 1941, an anonymous obituary in the Times described his style as workmanlike. This would, no doubt, have devastated Walpole.
The book I’ll be discussing today, The Killer and the Slain, was published the year following his death and, Edwards argues, the combination of wartime publication and the author’s death meant it was ‘destined for obscurity’. This is a tremendous shame because it is an absolute gem of a read and certainly my favorite of the books I have read so far as part of this project.
The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole
Originally published in 1942
As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.
The Killer and the Slain is not a work of detective fiction. It has clear crime elements – the murder that we see committed – but its focus is more on the conditions that lead John Talbot to murder and the way that the crime affects him subsequently. The reason I would suggest that it sits on the edge of the genre is its incorporation of supernatural elements, whether they are real or some kind of psychological manifestation, reminding me somewhat of James Hoggs’ The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
The novel, narrated by Talbot as a reflection and account of his life written in his final days, tells of his bullying at school by the far more popular Jimmie Tunstall. Jimmie would insist on calling him ‘Jacko’, make fun of him and his creative endeavors to the other boys, and physically harassed him, making Talbot really uncomfortable. Jimmie insisted that he was really awfully fond of Talbot, dismissing his complaints as sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. When Talbot finally makes another friend, Jimmie sabotages it. Talbot is relieved when the torment finally ends and he leaves school to take over his parents’ antiques business and to try to make a success of himself as an author.
His world will come crashing down years later however when, having started a family and found some moderate success as a writer, his path crosses once again with Jimmie when the latter takes a home near his and insists on socializing together. Talbot is unable to resist and feels that a cycle of bullying is about to start once more, leading him to murder as a form of self-preservation. In its aftermath however he finds that the act has fundamentally changed him and he begins to turn into the man he has killed.
One of the things that immediately struck me about the book was how much of Walpole is in the character of John Talbot. We read Talbot’s insecurities about the quality of his work, only thinking one of his novels an artistic success, and we see how he craves recognition. Talbot, like Walpole, was miserable at school, struggles to find acceptance, and literary success at first. There is also a rather fascinating brief passage in which Talbot dissects the qualities of the 1935 David Copperfield adaptation that Walpole himself had written:
It’s a long picture, Copperfield. Little Bartholomew and Rathbone as Murdstone were as good as ever. Pity they had to get an American for Micawber. The first half of the picture is much the best.
I was also struck by the rather open discussion of sex, lust, and frankness about infidelity that runs throughout the novel. These themes are not unique to this book, but it avoids euphemism in many instances, addressing the themes quite directly. Jimmie’s lust for life and sex is mirrored by Talbot’s inexperience and discomfort, leading the latter to settle for a loveless, unequal marriage which he enters despite his bride’s warning that she doesn’t love him, hoping that his love will eventually be reciprocated.
There was even some suggestion of erotic undertones to the pair’s relationship. One of the inciting incidents that sets Talbot against Jimmie is the trauma of the latter exposing him while getting changed for swimming, and we are told that Talbot is deeply uncomfortable with Jimmie’s touch. The relationship between the pair is highly controlling, with Jimmie delighting in Talbot’s discomfort and talking of possessing him and discussing the especial bond they share. When Jimmie discovers Talbot’s writing, he suggests the introduction of ‘a bit of skirt’ to liven things up, and he delights in causing Talbot great discomfort with graphic descriptions of his infidelities. It is as though Jimmie recognizes that Talbot is either asexual or homosexual and is taking pleasure at teasing him, knowing that Talbot is too uptight to recognize it in himself.
The early chapters of the book set up the building tension between the pair and the specific circumstances that will lead to murder. That moment is really quite dramatically and suddenly realized, the circumstances fitting Talbot’s character really well while also setting up a little intrigue that will be used later in the story.
The focus of the narrative though is not on the murder itself but the transformation that occurs to Talbot afterwards. Talbot who has seemed uptight, prim, and awkward up until this point, becomes coarser, lustier, and warmer in his relationships with others. There are some predictable ways that this plays out but also some more interesting and subtle ones, like the shift in his marriage and relationship with his son. Walpole portrays that shift very effectively, using it to suggest a sense of liberation for his protagonist, not dissimilar to how murder alters the protagonist in Simon Brett’s much later book, A Shock to the System.
We can take a supernatural reading of what happens and suggest that Talbot has been possessed by Jimmie’s spirit. Certainly many of his behaviors seem to evoke things Jimmie would say or do, and others perceive the increased similarities too. At times Talbot starts to act contrary to his wishes, almost as if he is struggling to control an external force that is making him act a certain way. Another, more psychological reading would be that Talbot has experienced a mental break, caused by the stresses of what he has done, and it has resulted in some split within his personality. Guilt makes him imagine his victim and he is, to some degree, punishing himself by destroying the things that he loves the most.
Here, once again, I was reminded of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (a book I need to reread and write about at some point soon). That story split its narrative in two, presenting two different readings of action, one psychological and the other supernatural. In contrast, Walpole combines his two narratives into one, having the character himself represent his perceptions of what is happening to him while occasionally giving us perspectives of others in conversation. This works very well as it embraces the strengths of the first person perspective, showing us what Talbot believes is happening while acknowledging that he might simply be going mad.
The final aspect of this book that I want to reflect on is its discussion of World War II and specifically of Hitler. The events of the first half of the book take place over a span of years starting with Talbot’s childhood and moving through his marriage into midlife. Hitler gets his first mention after Jimmie has returned into his life, with Talbot reflecting on the uncertainties of the world and thinking unhappily of Hitler ‘planning cold ruin and bitter destruction’.
The next mention happens after Talbot has committed his murder and is pondering just why he is changing. He tells us that for years he had hated the Nazis ‘almost with hysteria’ but when he hears two elderly people raging about Hitler, he begins to feel compelled to defend him, wishing to argue that Germany has been wronged and that she had to act to do what’s best for their country. Later in the novel he becomes more outspoken and full-throated in his advocacy of Hitler and his ideas, drawing considerable disapproval, and describes himself as ‘Hitler’s forerunner of vengeance’.
Talbot sees parallels between himself and Hitler. He is sympathetic to him because Talbot wants to justify his own actions. Aggression, in his case cold-blooded murder, was required because of a wider, unfair situation. He is asserting that he had to do what was needed for his family’s interests – to protect his son from Jimmie’s influence and his wife from being seduced. Acts of aggression are, he thinks, justified by being treated poorly and ‘spat on’.
Towards the end of the novel Walpole has one of the most likeable characters in the novel directly confront Talbot, forcefully condemning Hitler as one of the ‘strongest instruments of evil the world has seen for hundreds of years’, and telling him he must reject that same evil inside himself. This moment was not only necessary from the point of providing a condemnation of a regime with which Britain was at war, it also ties back into the novel’s theme that the potential for evil lies within everyone.
This brings me to the least satisfying part of the novel, that of its end. Having realized his themes, Walpole has to provide a resolution to his narrative but that presents some challenges. One is that its ending cannot really surprise while staying true to its themes. That doesn’t necessarily bother me – I often enjoy seeing an inevitable ending realized – but the issue here is one of execution. A decision taken at the end requires Walpole to abruptly shift to a different storytelling style and it feels a little clumsy and awkward, particularly given how quickly he wraps everything up. Had the author used other storytelling styles earlier in the novel, this shift would have felt less stark, but the execution here feels quite sudden and inelegant in consequence.
In spite of my disappointment in its last few pages, I have to say that I view this book as a triumph and that this has been one of the most engaging reads I’ve undertaken on this project so far. Though it is not in any way a detective story, I appreciate its focus on developing and exploring its protagonist and admire the quality of storytelling on display. I’ll be curious to read more Walpole in the future, though I know only a fraction of his work lies within the genre. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be glad of them.