Detective fiction with a difference by Cally Phillips

 Got your attention?  
Spoiler alert. This is not really a post about detective fiction. It’s about having to be a detective in order to read fiction.

An alternative (long) title might be: In this democratised world of fiction you can read any book you like as long as it’s not ‘Safety Last.’

It will not have escaped the notice of regular readers of this blog that I have been engaged in a collaborative venture with the writer known as Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1859-1914).  Because I have a bit of the detective in me naturally – ie, I’m keen on researching as deeply into something as I can – I  discovered that one of his daughters was also a published writer. (Julia Jones/Allingham Family bells ringing anyone?)

Ruth Mary Rutherford Crockett (1888 -1957) wrote under the name Miss Rutherford Crockett, or simply Rutherford Crockett. This in itself provides search engines with something of an issue.  However, I managed to find that she was published twice by Collins with ‘A Gay Lover’ (Collins, 1925) and ‘Safety Last’ (Collins, 1926) So I set about trying to find these books.

In the process I discovered that Abe Books is in fact owned by Amazon (interesting fact?) and that there is no readable copy of ‘Safety Last’ in the known universe (there’s a bit of a caveat to that coming up later.)

I tried all the possible library options (short of reference only collections) and finally bought a hardback copy of ‘A Gay Lover.’  Now, this title serves to show how completely language use and ‘meaning’ has changed in under 80 years.  And the novel itself is very definitely ‘of its time’ (whatever that phrase means to you.)

It’s a whole other post to review and comment on the actual book (which I will do one day) but for now here is what would be the back cover ‘blurb’ although it is in the front of this hardback 7/6 edition.

‘Miss Crockett bears a name famous in the literary world, and in A Gay Lover she gives convincing proof that literary ability is an inherited characteristic. Her heroine, Sarah, is a charming and convincing character study. She inherits from her father a strong character, a desire for an independent career, and a great joy in life. As she says herself ‘I have no business to find life intoxicating but I do.’  Sarah is eventually faced with the problem ‘marriage and a Literary Career: Can they be Reconciled?’ and the story tells of her personal solution. The setting is partly on the Scottish border-land and partly in a Cathedral city, and the book gives an admirable and sometimes satirical picture of provincial society and manners. Her publishers feel convinced that in A Gay Lover Miss Crockett has made a splendid start in what should prove to be a very successful literary career.’

What can I say about that? I could write 5,000+ words on it easily.  There are many striking points and things that make the modern reader (detective) ponder.  The one that hit me most was the deliberate? disengenuity of whether ‘she’ is Sarah or Miss Crockett.  Then there’s the issue of inherited literary ability, the confidence from her publishers, (perhaps that’s not unusual) and  the ‘famous’ father with whom she now shares the infinity of complete obscurity, and we haven’t even touched on the subject matter or style of the book itself.

I started reading the book and within a couple of chapters decided I wanted to find out more, read more from her.  Interestingly (for the detective) she was writing contemporarily with Virginia Woolf (in fact ‘A Gay Lover’ came out the same year as ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and I think there’s a compare/contrast article in that) but in ‘A Gay Lover’ I read an irony towards such modernism, which intrigues me.  I’m a detective in the ‘story’ of literary ‘fashion’ at the moment you see.  I feel a quote from MacBeth coming on:

'If you can look into the seeds of time,
and say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.'

My question is - why did modernism flourish? 

During my detective work (we all need empirical evidence)  I managed to get a load of contemporary reviews and ‘snippets’ of information, such as that she (Miss Rutherford Crockett not her character Sarah) wrote for Girls Magazines, for Music Magazines (and so was obviously for at least some time a ‘jobbing’ writer) and edited at least one book, as well as judging music and elocution competitions.  Of the actual woman I can find nothing at all. No picture, nothing. She was still writing in 1932 as I found reviews of some serial fiction in 'The Weekly Scotsman'.  I haven't managed to track down any of this actual fiction yet though. Finding primary sources is proving tricky. I ask again: Why did modernism flourish? 

And the cruellest cut. Redoubling my efforts to find a copy of ‘Safety Last’ I found a review which told me it was the sequel to ‘A Gay Lover.’  Is there anything more aggravating than not being able to read part two when you are loving part one? Well, reading the review which tells you what happens comes close!

I have tracked down ‘Safety Last’ to the reference section of The Scottish National Library and The British Library.  Neither will loan out the book.  And 20 years or more ago I made a pledge that I would not read a fictional work in a reference library, it’s not the way to read fiction.  I need to be able to curl up in comfort with or without an ereader, and enjoy fiction.   And even if I relented, it would take me a 12 hour day (assuming I could read the book in 4 hours) and cost well over £100 to get to the nearest copy. Ridiculous.

The British Library do have a photocopy service (Document Supply) though I can’t find ‘Safety Last’ as available when I search their impenetrable site.  I’ve failed with this ‘ruse’ for other books previously.  Some books it seems, we just are NOT able to read.  You can buy any colour car as long as it’s Black, has become: you can read any book as long as it’s not ‘Safety Last.’

So – if anyone reading this has a) a copy of this book (yeah, right) or b) a way to get hold of it (not helpful advice of all the ‘usual’ channels, I’ve tried them – interlibrary lending included) via a private library or some truly secret and clever mechanism for getting out of print books, I’d really like to know. 

I know that I am very afraid of Virginia Woolf. I suspect Miss Rutherford Crockett wasn’t and if only I can get hold of a copy of ‘Safety Last’ I may be able to get on with writing about how and why she throws up a challenge to the belief that modernism is the be all and end all in women’s fiction in the 20th century. (I made that last bit up to be contentious… you know, like when they don’t arrest someone they know to be the murderer, to give them rope to hang themselves.) I welcome correspondence from other detectives of literary fictional fashion. 

For a third time: why did modernism flourish? Could it be that it was the form used by the dominant ideology? And could this explain the connection between Miss Rutherford Crockett's sad demise into obscurity which mirrored her own father's?  Does Kail by any other name taste as sweet? Is there such a thing as an anti-modernism genre?  But that's a much bigger detective story. It may be political. Man, after all, even in fiction, is a political animal.  And I will not love Big Brother. George Orwell made me promise that in 1984. 


This is fascinating, not least because I had never heard of her.I'm not surprised you found The Intellectuals and The Masses interesting when you read it! There are all kinds of writers - and sometimes I think it's women writers in particular - who seem to have been right royally screwed by the 'establishment'. The same goes for playwrights. I could name Ena Lamont Stewart and Joan Ure here in Scotland - playwrights of huge promise who eventually gave up the somewhat unequal struggle to get their voices heard. (And we both know about that, don't we?!) Re getting hold of the book - it might be worth approaching one of the university libraries. Their 'inter library loan' requests for academic research are sometimes more likely to be honoured than those from public libraries. I managed to get a couple of very rare books from the NLS when I was researching Gigha - that was through UWS library. But it's a very long shot!
Kathleen Jones said…
I hope you find her Cally! But it's not cheap tracking down authors and books, as I've found in researching biographies. Do you know if she married? It will be on the 1881 census, which most libraries have copies of. You can then track children etc. Some descendant will have a book! Good luck.
Interesting thoughts on Modernism - the why of both the movement in art and literature. In art it seems to be connected with the arrival of new media that freed artists from being representational. Maybe something similar for literature. WWI was a big turning point too and changes to class structure and opportunity creating new elite groups? Hmmm.... food for thought.

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