The Crime of The Century by Kingsley Amis (1975)

You couldn’t be our man, because it would have to have meant a bloke who writes detective stories had started setting up a detective story in real life, and that kind of thing only happens in detective stories. (p.129)

Amis was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a detective serial to run in the paper in the summer of 1975. Just two years earlier he had published another murder mystery, The Riverside Villas Murder, suburban in setting, domestic in subject, historic in period (1936) and with much extraneous semi-autobiographical material about the lead figure, the 14-year-old boy, Peter Furneaux.

So, as he explains in the 1986 introduction to the paperback edition, Amis set out to use the ST commission to try and write something at the other end of the spectrum: grand, big public crime, hundreds of coppers called in, meetings in Whitehall, nation’s best minds on the case, etc. And, due to the serial nature and tightness of space in a newspaper, forcing him to drop almost all extraneous elements of his style in order to focus on plot, plot, plot (multiple red herrings) and more plot.

It’s his shortest text so far, at 130 pages in the Penguin paperback, divided into seven chapters, each with a cheesy cliff-hanger – ‘when they tore off the attacker’s mask, the two men stepped back in amazement’ / ‘At that very moment the two men in the hall heard the sounds of gunfire from an upstairs room,’ sort of thing.

Plot

Young women are being murdered in London, stabbed multiple times, then dumped with a couple of letters cut out from newspapers pinned to their clothes. First one has S and O. Next one U and T. Gruesomely, s-o-u-t-h-e-a-s-t is being spelt out.

Quickly a ‘committee’ of national experts is convened, including a top civil servant, a psychiatrist, a hang ’em and flog ’em politician, a famous barrister, several senior coppers and – a little unexpectedly – a famous rock star who turns out to have extensive underworld contacts and to have helped the authorities before, and Christopher Dane, the well-known crime writer.

Each chapter throws up wildly false clues and trails:

  • The barrister is seen returning home suspiciously late on the night of one crime, knowing his alcoholic wife is in a drunken stupor but will provide him with an alibi if required.
  • A gang of three chancers calling itself itself the British Liberation Army starts sending in blackmail notes – give us £200,000 or there’ll be another stabbing – and when they refer to unpublicised details of one of the victims, the authorities are forced to comply, a reluctant senior copper meeting one of them on an unnamed heath with a bag of loot, the heath completely surrounded with plain clothes men, but the crook astonishing them all by climbing on to a horse tethered nearby and galloping off faster than any man could pursue. This line of plot gets more complicated when one of the three says he plans to continue the blackmail scam after the others agree to quit while they’re ahead; so they kill him and dump his body with cut-out newspaper letters on it, to confuse…
  • Meanwhile, a creepy man named Mr Addams goes down to the shed at the bottom of his garden, locks himself in while his wife is in the main house watching TV, and places flags with the victims’ names on a big map of London on the wall, adding their cases to the creepy file he is keeping, fingering his knife. Hmmm. Towards the end of the novel he sits bolt upright, walks into the living room, asks his wife where his bike is (he should know), cycles to the nearest police station and hands himself in for the murders. The psychiatrist the police call up declares Addams has total amnesia combined with some sort of copycat psychosis.
  • In a separate development two men drink up at a pub while the bosomy barmaid closes up. They offer to walk her home but she says it’ll be fine, not far to go, and sets off through the empty streets. Very empty. Very creepy. And then someone darts out from a darkened doorway. A hand goes over her mouth, another hand moves a blade to her chest — but she is a strong lass, seizes the smothering hand and knife hand, head butts the attacker as others come running out their houses, attracted by the noise, and they pull of his mask to reveal…. (this is one of the cheesy chapter-ending cliff-hangers)… the crime writer? the radical psychiatrist? the leading QC? No, the disgruntled she’s dumped a few days earlier. Oh.
  • All the time there is a kind of meta-fiction at work, because the work opens with a page of crime detection which we are just getting into when it is revealed to be the first page of Dane’s next crime thriller; he is having trouble with it, but had been working on a plotline of a number of girls getting murdered. Is he acting out his own storyline? Is someone reading his typescript and acting it out? Preposterous. In the committee meetings, he appears to make predictions about the next developments which are proved to be eerily true.
  • In fact, quite early on Dane develops the theory that someone on the committee itself is responsible, and shares it with the only two men who have cast-iron alibis, the two policemen on it, Barry and Young. Their escalating suspicions lead them to set a police guard on all the committee members, with subsequent discussion/debate/assessment of which of them it could be and what their motivations and how strong their alibis, and so on.

After this orgy of disinformation and wild goose chases, the most suspected individual (the reactionary MP) himself tells the police he thinks the whole thing is part of a conspiracy which – abruptly and implausibly – is targeting the Prime Minister himself! Just as an anonymous phone call comes in that ‘the last one will be at 2.30’ ie Prime Ministers Questions!! It is 2pm!!! Police cars career across London, the MP and Barry race into Parliament, through the lobbies, arriving among the throng just as Big Ben rings the half hour, and… and…

Whodunnit? Get a hold of a copy and find out.

Thoughts

The restriction on space immeasurably improves Amis’s style by making him dump all the mannerisms I have enumerated in previous reviews. Every scene, every encounter, every scrap of dialogue is pared to the bone and serves a purpose, generally fleshing out the half dozen or more red herrings which keep the ‘plot’ ticking over nicely. It is an easier, slicker read than any of his previous books.

That said, plot is not Amis’s strong point. An enjoyable enough concoction, a beach read, I didn’t believe a word, and laughed at the supposed thrilling climax. Recently I reread Frederick Forsyth’s debut, The Day of The Jackal, surely one of the best thrillers ever written.

It is linked to this novel because both have as a central feature a committee trying to solve the case from which vital information is leaked to the perpetrator. The comparison makes Forsyth look like the Terminator and Amis like an affable geezer who likes crosswords.

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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