The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis (1973)

‘You’ll find the blurb, the summary inside the jacket, is rather misleading as regards one crucial point. But I think that’s more or less legitimate, don’t you? After all, the whole raison d’être of a murder story is to trick the reader. Isn’t it?’ (p.160)

This is a historic murder mystery novel, set in the summer of 1936 – as we know from a casual reference to an obituary in a newspaper of schoolmaster and ghost story writer M.R. James (died 12 June 1936).

Peter Furneaux loses his virginity

The Riverside Villas Murder is a third-person narrative which (mostly) sees events from the point of view of good-looking, precocious, 14-year-old schoolboy, Peter Furneaux. He lives in one of a row of modest semi-detached houses backing onto a little river in a small suburb on the edge of south-east London (there is a description late in the book of the drive from Waterloo Bridge, through Brixton and Norbury, to his house).

As well as liking model airplanes and toy soldiers and comics and cakes, Peter is precociously sexually active, part of a circle at his grammar school which swap (mostly theoretical) notes about sex, and which also engages in largely ‘innocent’ mutual masturbation. For example, he goes to his pal, Reg’s house, where they read comics, discuss war stories, play old-fashioned jazz records and, when his mum pops out, appear to wank each other off… before returning to the comics and toys.

Inevitably, there is a local girl, the object of his obsessions, 15-year-old Daphne who lives across the Green and ignores, or pretends not to understand, his hesitant flirtations, resulting in Everests of anxiety and frustration.

One central thread in the story is Peter’s incredulous discovery that his young, glamorous, good-looking married neighbour, Mrs Trevelyan, fancies him. He realises this at a dance at the village hall. She dances with him perfectly normally, as all the other married couples and older singletons are politely dancing, or exchanging partners between dances. But when the lights go out she presses herself against him and whispers that she really likes him. A week or so later she invites him over for tea, which his innocent parents approve of, and Peter has to spend a whole day with a hard-on, trying not to shoot his bolt too soon, and agonisingly awaiting the 4 o’clock appointment. When the moment comes, Mrs Trevelyan does not disappoint, taking him upstairs to the bedroom where she takes a dominant role, at least three times, to Peter’s utter amazement, flooding his mind with sensations and memories which dominate his consciousness for the rest of the book.

So this, the most powerful thread in the first parts of the novel, amounts to a coming-of-age or losing-of-virginity tale.

Mr Inman is murdered

But the novel is titled and marketed as a murder mystery, which it also is.

Through Peter’s eyes we get a sense of his parents and their small circle of friends: Captain Furneaux, injured in the Great War, unable to use his right arm, stuck in a dowdy job as an estate agent’s assistant, and his snobbish wife; the neighbour Mr Trevelyan and his vivacious wife (who we’ve met); quiet Mr Langdon, who likes doing his allotment, and his wife; short, fair-haired Mr Inman and his wife, and so on.

1. Early in the novel persons unknown break into the fusty local museum and steal a random collection of old coins, as well as an ancient mummified body, variously described as prehistoric, or Roman or Celtic. Of no obvious value, anyway. At this point we are introduced to the trio of policemen who will be involved throughout (see below).

2. At the local dance (where Mrs T presses against Peter) there is an argument and semi-fight as Mr Inman, clearly drunk, starts making insinuating comments about Trevelyan, Langdon and Peter’s father, causing them all to look uneasy until someone eventually confronts Inman and pushes him over onto a table full of drinks, before his wife rounds him up and takes him home.

3. A few days later, Peter is reading a comic in his front room when there’s a bang at the French windows and Mr Inman bursts in, in a bad way, dripping wet from having fallen in the river, bleeding from the head, barely able to breathe. Peter runs out into the garden, shouts for Mrs Trevelyan to come help, which she does, then phones the police. While he’s doing so, Inman expires. When Mrs T was with him alone. The same Mrs Trevelyan who looked embarrassed by Inman’s insinuations at the dance. Hmmm.

The police soon find a murder weapon, a truncheon-like club with a nail driven through it, which appears to have battered Inman’s temple and penetrated his brain. Statements are taken. The area is scoured. No witnesses are found and nothing can be added to Peter’s terrified account.

4. A week or so later Peter is in the bath (playing with himself), his mother making up the bedrooms, when he hears a knock at the front door, his father answer it, and then a scuffle, shouts, a loud bang. Grabbing a towel and running downstairs he finds his father slightly wounded with a cut around the ear, lying under the heavy hall dresser which has been pushed on top of him, and another version of the truncheon-with-nail abandoned nearby. As the police who question Peter point out – nobody actually witnessed any attacker or assault? So Peter’s father could have faked the attack, pretty harmlessly scratching himself and pulling the dresser on top of himself? Why? To throw the police off the scent if he was Inman’s murderer. Hmmm.

Colonel Manton

Amis is thought of as a conservative-minded man writing traditional novels, but what strikes me about almost all his novels is their oddity. What disrupts the possibility of this being a ‘normal’ murder story is the odd relationship between the three main policemen involved in the investigation: Detective-Constable Barrett of the County CID, his superior – Detective-Inspector Cox – who he dislikes and enjoys needling; but both are swamped by the larger-than-life figure of Colonel Manton, a retired military man, living in a big house from whose living room he calls the silent attendant, Mrs Ellington, by sending Morse code messages on the bell push, among other eccentricities.

Manton’s entire approach is disarmingly offbeat, telling the uniformed officers to carry out house-to-house enquiries while pointing out it will reveal nothing; ordering them to leave no stone unturned at the murder scene, ditto; confidently expecting the murder weapon to have no fingerprints and not to be the actual murder weapon, and in general giving the impression that he effortlessly knows who the killer is although, as he explains to Peter, the trick of detection is not knowing who’s guilty – it’s marshalling the evidence to prove it.

Manton interviews Peter a couple of times (as well as his father, Mr Langdon, Mr Trevelyan and the others in the little circle). But is then given a much longer and more powerful scene three-quarters of the way through, when he invites Peter to a vast afternoon tea. Coming hot on the heels of Mrs Trevelyan’s afternoon seduction, Peter half expects the Colonel to be after something similar and is prepared for him making a dirty-old-man pass or even exposing himself, something Peter’s pseudo-worldly-wise attitude is ready for.

However, nothing of that sort happens, the Colonel just interviews him in depth about his life and loves and character and hobbies, about model aircraft and girls, before moving on to a detailed discussion of contemporary jazz, which they both like to listen to on the BBC or on big long-playing discs sheathed in thick cardboard. Peter declares his favourite band is probably Ambrose and his Orchestra, while the Colonel not only plays him some hot discs by Louis Armstrong, but impresses him by sitting at the piano in the living room and bashing out a 12-bar blues in true stretch piano style. Peter leaves awed by the breadth and depth of Manton’s wisdom, not noticing – as the reader maybe has – how many sly questions about his father, about Langdon et al, Manton had slipped into his display.

From this point onwards the novel is seen through two points of view, from Peter’s intense, close, self-conscious, flustered perspective; and from scenes featuring the indomitable Colonel Manton as he alludes to his various theories to his sidekick, Barrett; alludes to, but never (frustratingly) fully explains. But this makes the book sound too rational and straightforward, when it is anything but…

Super-acute observation of himself and others

Having read 12 Amis books, I feel confident sketching out key elements of his worldview.

The dominating feature of Amis’s voice and presence is a super-self-consciousness of his own behaviour and thoughts, an over-ratiocination which questions every motive and subjects every flicker of consciousness to multiple interpretations, combined with a projection of this onto other people, resulting in a hyper-awareness of other people’s speech, facial gestures, behaviour, in all its ambiguity.

In the early novels this is played for laughs, the air of manic play-acting and over-interpreting other people’s behaviour, treating himself and everyone as if they are acting at least two roles at the same time, contributed to the madcap humour.

But from The Anti-Death League (1966) onwards, the humour is turned right down, sometimes completely absent, whereas the self-awareness remains at the same level or, in some texts such as the ostensible ghost story, The Green Man, reaching an unpleasant level of intensity. It manifests itself in:

  • ascribing multiple motives to almost every scrap of dialogue or bit of anyone’s behaviour
  • in jokey comparisons of his own or other people’s behaviour to actors performing B-movie roles
  • in casting entire ways of thinking into the mock-heroic military style which (we can see from this book) derives from Amis’s own schoolboy reading of war stories and comics
  • in picking up the absurdity inherent in many common phrases and demonstrating this through repetition or unusual manipulation, stretching phrases until they nearly break

Examples

The frequent deployment of the throwaway add-on to any sentence, ‘… or something’:

Back in the sitting-room, [Peter] stared out of the french window at the saturated, scrubby little garden and tried to feel pleased, or relieved, or something… (p.131)

Mock military metaphor Of Peter’s first experience of sex.

He had pictured the business as something rather like drifting down a river in a small boat on a summer afternoon; the reality turned out to be something equally like leading a cavalry charge across rough country under a heavy artillery barrage. (p.136)

Playing with everyday phrases

Was the colonel in fact the strange man that so many people so obviously thought he was? That remained to be seen, and Peter hoped it would go on remaining. (p.146)

At the end of the novel Peter prepares to go across and chat up Daphne. This is a good example of Amis’s tendency to playfulness taking him to the border of incomprehensibility.

[Peter] washed his armpits and slapped into them some of his mother’s talcum powder, put on a clean shirt and a pair of long trousers, gave his hair a good brushing – he could not be absolutely certain, just ninety-nine point nine recurring per cent certain, that Daphne might not be present for a few seconds before she went wherever whoever the hell it was was taking her out or after he brought her back. (p.195)

Whoever. Whatever. Wherever.

Comparisons with B-movie stereotypes

The colonel, eating sandwiches, watched him with a benign air, though you would not have had to change it much for it to suit a poisoner who was very full of himself. (p.154)

The colonel bustled off, reappearing to Barrett’s view before the police car was out of sight. He now wore a green-and-brown-check suit with a highly suspect matching cap, a combination that suggested a bookie thinly disguised as Sherlock Holmes, or the other way round. (p.179)

The two set off side by side down the Meadow, reminding Barrett of a pair of supposed schoolmasters he had once seen in a film. With mortar-boards and gowns on, they had paced a lawn beside a chapel. (p.182)

The dénouement

Whodunnit? Well, there are more twists in the second half.

  • Colonel Manton arrests Peter’s father, much to the latter’s horror.
  • The police are posted a letter with cut & pasted newsprint drawing their attention to two other suspects.
  • Some time is spent on Mr Hodgson, a retired policeman himself, who was called out to a job in a non-existent part of London during the hours of the murder. Hmmm, dodgy alibi…

All the time the two strands – Peter’s and Manton’s – progress in parallel. There is a bizarre sequence where the colonel invites Peter to re-enact the journey of the nearly-dead Mr Inman along the river ie gets him to change into swimming trunks, have a rope tied round him by attending constables for safety, and then put in the river where Inman probably fell or was pushed, to see what the current actually does to it. This re-enactment does turn up something when Peter, from his water-level view, spots the actual murder weapon jammed in the mud – but it is still a very odd way of carrying on, as the attending coppers mutter, and Barrett wonders whether Cox was right in saying the whole thing is just a ruse for the colonel (who is one of ‘those’) to get close to the nearly-naked body of such a pretty boy…

The climax comes the night of a particularly violent storm when Peter and his mother have been invited round to the Hodgson household, the latter feeling sorry for the Furneaux, now that Peter’s father is in custody. At the height of the storm the windows are mysteriously smashed and rain pelts in. Peter runs out into the rain to bump into various policemen in rain-capes waving torches but, on a hunch, hares off to a culvert through which the little river flows. There, his hunch correct, he finally meets the true murderer who is fleeing the scene, and they fight in the dark and then fall into the flooded river.

Peter’s suspicions are confirmed. It is Mrs Trevelyan. She stops fighting when she realises it is Peter. She allows herself to be taken back to her house. There Colonel Manton is waiting beside an extraordinary contraption she has rigged up using the kind of elastic straps Peter uses in his model planes, attached to furniture, to create a large catapult.

With this she has been firing golf balls through the Hodgson’s windows, shattering them. (Why?) Peter is dismissed and told to go back to the Hodgson household but loiters outside the window and hears Mrs Trevelyan refuse to admit anything until Manton says he will be forced to prosecute her for having under-age sex with a minor (Peter). ‘Confess now or see Peter’s name dragged through the mud.’ Peter hears all the spirit go out of her voice, as she admits everything, then signs the confession, to this effect:

She was having an affair with Inman (short and fair and, now we come to think of it, rather like Peter in look and build) but he had a guilty conscience and was threatening to tell everyone. So she rigged up the catapult in her front room, had the french windows open, and the next time he paused at the garden gate o his way to visit her, shot him in the head with a model plane modified into a dart. She disguised herself as a man and staged the assault on Peter’s father to try and prove his innocence. Same motive for sending the cut & paste letter, to throw suspicion away from Peter’s father. And the break-in to the local museum and theft of the mummy in the early chapters? She stole it to practice on.

Manton allows her to go back to her house knowing she will do what she does next – which is commit suicide, stabbing herself and letting her body fall into the flooded little river to be found downstream hours later.

Peter’s father is released, Manton apologises for the arrest (knowing Peter’s father was innocent, aiming to flush out the true culprit) to Peter and explains everything on the long car ride back from a police station in central London to Norbury, during which he also sort of confesses to being ‘one of those’ and that’s why they shouldn’t really see each other again, old chap.

Peter takes all this in his stride and emerges a far more confident, adult boy, who steps right up to Daphne’s porch, refuses to take no for an answer, and insists he will be taking her out that night. The whole ordeal has not been an ordeal at all, has left no visible scars, and just made him a more confident young man.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this summary brings out the sheer oddness of the story. Not an Agatha Christie or Peter Wimsey adventure at all. Something at the same time more strange and troubling in its peculiarly alienated attitude to human nature, in its disconcerting frankness about various sexualities, while also being wildly improbable and a little cack-handed in basic plot mechanics: a giant catapult? golf balls? a model airplane reworked as a weapon?

Above all, there is the strange inconsequentiality of it all. The entire experience seems to have bounced off Peter as it does off the reader. It’s a highly competent, oddly insightful, occasionally funny, but very superficial experience.

Dallas Blues by Louis Armstrong

One of the vintage jazz tracks played and discussed in the novel by Peter and Colonel Manton.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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