|The Archdeacons: The Ven John Craggs & The Ven James Castleton
(creator: C A Alington)
|The Very Rev C(yril) A(rgentine) Alington D.D. (1872- 1955) was educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Greats (Classics). Later on he became a Doctor of Divinity. He went on to teach at his old school, Marlbrorough. He was elected a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford in 1896, was ordained in 1901, and went on to teach at Eton. He became Head of Shrewsbury School, then of Eton. (It was while he was at Eton that the American actress Tallulah Bankhead was said to have seduced several Eton schoolboys. But when the First Lord of the Admiralty (!) was sent to investigate, Alington preferred to keep the school free of scandal and refused to provide any information, so no-one still knows if there was any truth in the allegation or not. And in those days the headmaster of Eton could get away with it!)
In 1933 he became Dean of Durham, and he was also Chaplain to King George V. He wrote over 50 religious, autobiographical and other books, as well as a series of novels, including the still amusing if lightweight Blessed Blunders (1954), and the detective stories featuring the two Archdeacons described below. He was also a composer of hymns. He was married to Hon. Hester Margaret Lyttleton; they had six children, including Patrick who was killed in the Second World War, fighting in Italy. One of his daughters married Sir Alec Douglas-Home who was to become UK Prime Minister. He had been one of C A Alington's pupils at Eton.
The Venerable John Craggs was Archdeacon of Thorp, an old English market town. He was "young, passably good-looking and decided in his utterance" and was "the younger and less conventional" of the two archdeacons. He, "though his dignity was but of two years' standing (at the time of the first book), was already beginning to be a name of terror to negligent clergy under his supervision." He was "a man of some means", and, like the author, a cricket enthusiast, indeed "the best coverpoint we ever had at Eton".
The Venerable James Castleton was Archdeacon of Garminster. He was a "elderly, plain, and benevolent". His Bishop had been "heard to lament, with an affectionate sigh, that in his archdeacon's administration the velvet glove was more apparent than the iron hand." He is described by his nephew as "as good as gold .... but he can never make up his mind, and he's always so dreadfully afraid of hurting other people's feelings". He is concerned that "I am so shortsighted that I am always getting into trouble for failing to recognize people I really know quite well". He is "a man of varying moods, and at times the victim of an inferiority complex which seriously weakened his judgment".
Both archdeacons had had all the benefits of a classical education, and the books are full of classical and literary references, together with many more supplied by the author. There are clerical ones too, as when Castleton asks Craggs, "Do you remember the story Bishop Paget used to tell about the optimist who fell down the liftshaft at the Hotel Cecil. 'Even then' (he used to say) 'the poor fellow's constitutional optimism did not desert him: for, as he passed each landing, he he was heard to call out in loud and cheerful tones: All right - so far!' ".
Neither of the archdeacons ever seems to talk about religion or even to pray - but perhaps that is how archdeacons are. Or perhaps the author takes all that for granted. But it seems an odd omission coming from a dean of Durham who was the author of so many religious books.
As the archdeacons are sometimes called by their names, and sometimes by their titles, it is at first quite easy to get them confused.
Archdeacons Afloat (1946)
"The great thing about Hellenic Tours," observed Craggs sententiously, "is that you can be reasonably sure that your fellow- passengers won't either wear too little or drink too much - and that's a comfort in these days! " But his fellow passengers turn out to be a much odder lot than he could have anticipated. They include the formidable and demanding Lady Mary whom Castleton describes as "one of those selfish old creatures who think they are made to be waited on". Then there's a "a fellow who looks like a Greek, with an ugly Englishman in tow". The Greek, a Mr Michalis, speaks the most extraordinary pseudo broken English. Then there is Miss Bustard, a classical scholar, whose main satisfaction is waiting for blunders to be made by the boring and not too well informed lecturer who accompanies the tour.
And there is Mr. Birtley "a housemaster at the well-known school of Harchester, who concealed beneath a somewhat pompous manner a keen sense of humour, and whose love for clothing his opinions in stately polysyllables gave much entertainment to the rest." So he comes out with things like, "I confess that I have never shared the desire to immolate myself like Empedocles by plunging into the crater of Etna. As a matter of fact, I have long cherished the suspicion that he was impelled from the rear by some of his disciples. I know several pedagogues who would need to approach the crater with considerable precaution, if any of their pupils were at hand."
But things start to get awkward when a woman passenger seems to recognise one of the archdeacons. As Castleton says, "A ship in which strange ladies addressed unknown archdeacons by night, and fled screaming at the sight of their faces, was something entirely foreign to his experiences, and promised ill for a peaceful holiday .... Never, since a rural dean (subsequently suspected of hydrophobia) had endeavoured to bite him in the leg, had he had so unpleasant an adventure."
But worse was to follow: it turns out that some of the passengers are much involved in Greek politics, and a trip ashore goes disasterously wrong when a whole party of them are captured by brigands, who turns out to be led by a fellow passenger, the most eccentric character of them all. Craggs discovers that he is a fellow Old Etonian (!), who, speaking with an impeccable Oxford accent, complains that "it's so difficult to keep good servants in these days" and proposes to charge his prisoners £30 a night for food and accomodation: "I hope you won't be here for more than three days, but there would be no extra charge if you decided to stay the whole week."
The author started the book with a quote from Don Quixote: "This is done for the diversion of our thoughts", and indeed it is all diverting and gently entertaining, as when, on a tour of Athens, another passenger, the overbearing Mrs. Burslem compares the Parthenon, "considerably to its disadvantage, with the Manchester Town Hall". As she explains to Castleton, "It's not what I would call a homely place, and, by all that I can see, the draughts must have been something terrible, and no one can deny it is in a shocking state of repair."
The book is also full of little digressions and comments from the author himself, such as: "On Delos there are some admirable stone lions, and it is a great regret to the chronicler that neither of the events of the day took place in that setting, for it is one which he would have liked to describe, but truth is a stern master." The characters digress too: "Craggs was reminded of what he called one of the best misprints he knew. It occurred in the description of some geologists landing to investigate an unknown island. 'Imagine.' it said, 'our surprise to see lying on the beach a large number of erotic blacks!' Spooner could have told them that they meant 'erratic blocks'." This was a more acceptable joke then than now, but the whole book is very much written in the style of the period. At times it sounds pompous, even affected, and all the literary quotes get rather tiresome, but always, underlying everything, is the author's sense of fun. This is its saving grace.
It ends with the surprise wedding of one of the archdeacons - something totally unexpected to the reader and indeed, like the whole plot, quite beyond belief. But, if you enjoy this sort of writing, it's all quite good fun.
Archdeacons Ashore (1947)
Sir Michael Mohun (leader of the bandits in the previous book!) who is also staying with Craggs, has his own reasons for wanting to find out what this message was - even if he has to disguise himself as an archdeacon to do so, It is he who, helped by Castleton's nephew who works at the Foreign Office, does the real detective work. Armed with a letter from Lord Amberdale, the eccentric Lord Lieutenant of the county and an uncle of his, he asks the Garminster police to tell him what they know about the dead man. "If you think you can help us to identify this poor fellow, sir," the local Police Inspector says,"you'll be doing us a real service."
Meanwhile, the Inspector is baffled: "If it was one of those regular puzzlers you meet in detective stories, at least you'd have something to work upon. A locked room, and no way in, and a body inside. ... If I was Sherlock Holmes or Poirot or Peter Wimsey, no doubt I'd have made an arrrest by now; but being just a plain Inspector of Police I don't mind saying it's a wash-out." It's lucky that Sir Michael is not so easily thwarted, although even he can't altogether prevent a dangerous explosion right near the end of the book.
Eccentric but interesting characters include the already mentioned Lord Amberdale, the Lord Lieutenant of Blankshire, the county in which both archdeacons live. He is the amiable if confused Chairman of The Society for Distressed Persons, which arranges jobs for immigrants from abroad who claim to be oppressed at home. This society proves to be at the core of the plot.
Then there is his sister-in-law, Lady Strathmungo, stuck with a Scottish title she does not like: "Where is Strathmungo? I've no idea. The minister used to write to me every year to help him with some Presbyterian bazaar - I must have sent him more than thirty sofa cushions in my time, and ashtrays and things. But I've choked him off at last," Lady Strathmungo would add triumphantly. "There was a horrible marble statue, one of those young women who have some difficulty in keeping their clothes properly arranged - one would have called it improper if it hadn't been a copy from the Greek: I'd sent it to every bazaar round here, and had to buy it back myself every time. So I sent him that, and it's safe at Strathmungo, and he's never asked me for anything since!" It was her daughter who told Craggs that her Uncle Willie (Lord Amberdale) had rung "me up to say he was ending me a little cheque: he said he hoped it woluld be useful for the housework". Then who should turn up the next afternoon but a little Czech - one of the supposed refugees that Lord Amberdale was helping!
You could speak differently of foreigners in those days, as when the Police Sergeant told Sir Michael: "Well, sir, of course we knew he was a wop or a dago - not that we get very many of them here, and I couldn't say myself I see much difference betrween 'em". And Lady Strathmungo calls the French: "Nasty, conceited people who think they're the salt of the earth. When they can fight they try to invade us: when they can't, they ally with us and let us down."
Lord Amberdale, though, is "a very typical Englishman - kind-hearted, good-humoured, simple-minded, self-satisfied, touchy and obstinate, guiding his life by a set of principles somewhat arbitrarily selected and often very imperfectly understood - a silly old buffer, perhaps, at whom it was easy to laugh, but with a laughter which had in it a real tinge of affection, and more than a grain of respect." An example of this when he has to speak at a public meeting in the Town Hall in Garminster. He is introduced by a very left wing Bishop (modelled on the real-life "Red Dean" of Canterbury?), who said we should be prepared to learn from our neighbours about new ideas "which were being so successfully translated into action in Eastern Europe". Amberdale (who "had been engaged in rearranging his notes, which seemed to have fallen into inextricable confusion") rose to his feet and began, "As the Bishop has so truly said, we have a duty to our neighbours; and our first duty is to teach them how to behave" (loud and prolonged applause). "That has always been our duty, and it remains our duty still. I remember, when I was a boy, hearing how, not long before, Lord Palmerston ...."
As in the previous books, the author always has room for amusing passages even if they are not at all relevant to the plot, as when he lists "the sounding cararact of names" which the New York Central Railway offers the intending traveller, including "Wampsville, Canastota, Casaneroga, Chittenango, Minoa, de Witt and Syracuse, with Buffalo awaiting him at his journey's end. Who would not enjoy asking for a ticket from Rome to Green's Corners, or from Poughkeepsie (if he knew how to pronounce it) to the solid certainty of Yosts?" Nothing at all to do with the plot, as are throw-away remarks, taken one suspects from the author's own experience, such as: "The longer one doesn't take over (preparing) sermons, the longer they get!" Then there are the comments on awful hymns (he was a hymn writer himself) such as the Christmas Carol with just three verses. Craggs explains, "The first began
It is Craggs who suggests, "If the practical affairs of the world were managed by women they wouldn't be in such a mess as they are now, because they've any amount of commonsense, aren't nearly as lazy as men and are much more ruthless. A woman Prime Minister would sack an inefficient colleague every morning before breakfast and think nothing of it. That's their sphere, and the sooner they realize it the better for us all. But why they insist on claiming artistic gifts as well - that's what I can't understand." His wife does not argue with him, but goes off on the practical task of coffee making. "John liked doing it himself," she explains, "but he always breaks the machine!"
I liked too a passing reference to a sociologist. Sir Michael had pretended to be one because "No-one has any idea what it means!" However, by using this pretence, he manages to unearth the strange fact that out of thirty so-called"oppressed" refugees, the great majority admitted that they had not been oppressed at all. This provides him with the key to the murder.
It's an extraordinary story and obviously dated, but it's still fun to read, and has a more coherent plot than the first book.
Blackmail in Blankshire (1950)
Amberdale Park has now passed into the possession of the late Lord Amberdale's niece Cynthia, who is married to Sir Michael Mohun. Archdeacon Craggs is their close friend, and it is one of his clergy who first seeks his help. He explains he is being threatened by an anonymous letter-writer who refers to some incautious verses he had sent to Toots, an Oxford shop assistant, when he had been an undergraduate 20 years earlier. They end:
There are lengthy digressions on subjects like village fetes and cricket, about which Mr Trentham comments. "It seems to me a trifle slow".
There are the usual clerical jokes, as when Sir Michael says, "Tricky things, hymns. Do you remember the architect who came to the opening ceremony of a church he'd built, and found the only hymns provided were How dreadful is this place and The powers of Hell have done their worst? He went home and cut his throat!"
There are more in-jokes too as when the author explains that "Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there is no denying that the detectives of fiction are infinitely stranger than those of truth; things have indeed come to such a pass that any real detective who may seek to cultivate a harmless eccentricity is practically certain to find that it has already been earmarked as the private property of one of his fictitious colleagues." So he not only has to steer clear of dressing gowns and opium (Sherlock Holmes) but "can hardly hang a picture straight without being accused of trespassing on the Poirot preserves. Even the most ordinary actions will provoke unflattering comparison: should he look at his boots for inspiration, he will be thought to be aping one famous detective; should he seek it from his wife, to be plagiarizing from another. His very personal appearance is dictated by a series of unreasonable prohibitions: he can no more wear an eyeglass than he may cuiltivate a taste for first editions: a carefully trimmed moustache is debarred to him assurely as a reference to brain cells.'
So Inspector Greenwood has been left with only one idiosyncracy to mark himself out, on which he "had fastened with unerring eye. 'My only real distinction as a detective' (he would say) 'is that I cannot stand the taste of beer.' When one considers how much beer has been drunk not only by Bulldog Drummond and his associates but by innumerable sleuths .... and how many of their discoveries have been made by conscientious haunting of bars, it must be admitted that the distinction was as genuine as the handicap must have been immense."
The very numerous literary/poetic quotes can slow down the story as when the author is describing the difficulty of choosing a fine day for an event to take place months later: "The English summer, borrowing the prerogative of April, is as ready to 'weep its girlish tears' as to 'laugh its girlish laughter', and does either, as is only proper, with a more than girtlish intensity, so that to choose, several weeks ahead, a day in August when it will most probably be fine is as risky as selecting a winner for the Grand National." And even the arch criminal, when finally unmasked, turns out to have taken his name from Dickens and quotes Shakespeare" "'Tis not in mortals to command success."
Eventually, however, we get back to the plot. When there's a discussion about the possible identity of the blackmailer, Sir Michael jokes to Cragg's wife Cynthia, "Your knowledge of detective fiction should have taught you that it's always the most unlikely man who does the trick, read your Agatha Christie! She always puts it across to you in the last chapter. My own idea, if you really want to know, is that your husband's the man. It was only the other day that I heard him quoting with approval a maxim from The Wrecker: 'Get hold of a rich man and make him squeal!' That's exactly what a blackmailer does."
A more likely suspect seems to be a solicitor who acts as an agent for the blackmailer - but why he was never struck off the rolls defies belief. Perhaps because none of the characters in this story even think of reporting him!
Despite the usual amusing moments, though, it is the most discursive and least satisfying story in the series.
Gold and Gaiters (1950)
Castleton also "found it a little difficult at times to reconcile loyalty to a bishop who (it was credibly reported) had a framed photo of Stalin on his desk, and to a dean who paid a similar compliment to the Patriarch pf the Orthodox Church." And he had problems too with Canon Ponting who "was an ardent Evangelical, and secretly a little contempuous of the Cathedral and all that it stood for. In his opinion, it ought to be chiefly used for large mission services of a revivalist nature" and all its treasures sold.
As usual, there is an interesting cast of characters including Mr Emsworth, recently retired from being a successful Housemaster and Acting Head of Harchester (a public school that sounds like a happy combination of Harrow and Winchester). The author obviously sympathises with him, knowing from his personal experience what it was like to leave a school where he had been happy, and he seems to share the head's view that when a teacher retires he should "make a clean job of it" and go and live elsewhere, in this case near Garminster.
While there, Emsworth takes his old colleague Mr Birtley (the same Mr Birtley who appeared in Archbishops Afloat, the first book in the series. He is taken to meet the Archdeacon, about whom he only remembers "his coming to preach once at Harchester ..... it was a very nice simple sermon about stumbling blocks and how to avoid them" It had stayed in his memory because "he had nearly fallen down the pulpit steps as he came out: it struck me as an apt illustration of his discourse". But in Archbishops Afloat the two of them had met on the cruise. Both seem to have forgotten all about it. Or could it be that it was the author who was forgetful?
It is Birtley who comments, "I sometimes wonder whether the knowledge of ingenious crime - so widely spread by clever writers, often of the female sex - may not have sharpened the wits of criminals as well as those of detectives. The criminal who leaves a fingerptrint today, is I understand, now regarded as disqualified for his profession, and the provision of unbreakable alibis is considered as the only sure clue to the offender!"
There are entertaining suspects like the ever-talking bouncy American lady Mrs van Donk who "was a lady of generous proportions" who introduces her young daughter to the Archdeacon, saying: "This is my daughter Melinda, and she's just crazy to look around your old library. Melinda is the President of the Junior Branch of the Crabtown Wild Life, Debating and Marching Society, so naturally she wants to see everything she can!"
Then there's the scatty brained Mrs Ponting who tells Sir Michael that she had once heard his uncle, the late Lord Amberdale, tellin a public meeting that "We ought to think more of Austria - no. it must have been Australia, for he said we should do all we could to help the Maoris - and we must have helped them, I'm sure, or they wouldn't play cricket so well. Arthur (her husband, Canon Ponting) told me they'd won a game only the other day. He showed me a photograph of them, and really one would hardly have known they'd ever been black! I suppose it's the climate - or soap, perhaps? I dare say they hardly ever wash when they're at home!" Not the sort of comment you would make nowadays.
There is also "Archdeacon Jones" from Belize. "Even in days before geography, as taught in schools, had begun to concern itself solely with such things as isobars, subsoils and climatic conditions, few educated Englishmen could at a moment's notice have located Belize. Archdeacon Castleton was not amongst the number." He too seems to be deeply interested in the library and its contents.
Castleton is looked after by his niece Mary, who wants to get married but does not see how she can leave him to look after himself. This is a real situation and you feel for both of them when the Archdeacon tells her, "I simply don't know what I should do without you, Mary. I've always been terrified that someone with stronger claims would carry you off," he went on, with a smile, "and then of course I should have to give you up, but till that happens we can go on happily as we are! If you left me, I should have to resign."
Castleton's friend the Ven John Craggs plays little part in the story beyond telling him how much he is valued, and advising him not to retire: "As for your being nearly 70, what's the matter with that? How old was Winston when he saved the country?"
It is an entertaining book and has the most credible and coherent plot once it gets going. Near the start, the author disarmingly explains, "Our readers may complain that so far they have been given 'but one halfpennyworth of fact' to an 'intolerable deal' of conversation and correspondence: a novel without a hero, they may say, is one thing, but a novel without action quite another. Their complaints are not without justification, but they may rest assured that action is on its way." And so it is. How nice to get an apology for once - although here it is not really needed. Recommended as really amusing and the best book in the series.
|This explanation appears at the start of Archdeacons Afloat, but could be applied to all the books.|
|The third of the Archdeacon books, but unfortunately the Archdeacons only appear briefly in it.|