In his entertaining and idiosyncratic study of English crime fiction, Snobbery with Violence, Colin Watson wrote that the English village and small town so popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction was really a mythical creation. He christened this idyllic village, where amateur lady sleuths competed with seasoned Scotland Yarders to nab the least likely suspect, “Mayhem Parva.” Describing it as a cross between a village and a commuters’ dormitory in the South of England, Watson wrote that Mayhem Parva was rural enough to be the picturesque locale so many English saw as the perfect place to retire, yet connected to the outside world by a reliable bus system. There would be a well-attended church, a chemist’s shop where one could purchase weed killer when the occasion required it, and “an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective inspectors.”
The denizens of Mayhem Parva faced “no really sordid, intractable problems, such as growing old or losing faith or being abandoned or going mad. One or more would get murdered; the rest would be suspected for a while; one of them would ultimately be trussed for the gallows, if he or she had not first bitten on a pill smelling of bitter almonds... And then, the air cleared, everything would be set to continue as before, right, tight, and reliable.”
Such is not the case with Flaxborough, the fictional East Anglian city of 15,000 where Watson set eleven of his twelve highly original and extremely funny mysteries. If its citizenry was tight it was because they drank too much and about the only thing you could rely on them for was the persistent pursuit of sin. “It’s a high-spirited town,” commented one of its inhabitants, “like Gomorrah.” Assigned the unenviable task of policing its profligate populace is Inspector Purbright, a capable copper whose many virtues include politeness and a kind heart, and Sergeant Love, his able but innocent (in the ways of the world) assistant.
Flaxborough was loosely based on the Lincolnshire town of Boston where Watson once worked as a journalist, according to his son Jeremy, “but with elements of a whole clutch of little market towns such as Spalding, Sleaford and Horncastle. Over the period from the late 30s to the early 80s that Colin knew these towns, he saw their transition, wrenched out of the middle ages into the modern world. They retained a small proportion of their rows of little pantiled houses and their monolithic churches, but they gained breezeblock and chipboard suburbs and bingo emporia. They also lost a multitude of homely inns, each a mere stagger from the next, and the host of family-run shops and businesses which formed an integral part of the community. It is arguable, however, that the foibles and vices of their citizens remained unchanged.”
No doubt Watson’s years as a journalist in these towns provided him with material for his fiction. Born in Croydon on February 1, 1920, he attended the Whitgift School in South Croydon from 1930-1936. In 1937 he was hired as a reporter for the Boston Guardian. He later worked in London and then Newcastle for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Newcastle Journal as a leader (editorial) writer, theater critic and book reviewer.
Those papers were part of the Thomson chain, a collection of lively newspapers that Canadian critic Jeffery Ewener said would make USA Today look like a “slightly drier version of the Congressional Record.” It was Watson’s job to provide daily commentaries that supported Sound Policy, Social Decency, and the Conservative Party. “It was not considered necessary to close with an injunction to the reader to push back his chair from the breakfast table, jump to his feet and lift up his voice in a patriotic rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ but rarely did a Thomson leader contain any ideas or observations that might discourage such response on a voluntary basis.”
Ewener goes on to suggest that it was not Watson’s job to challenge readers’ opinions “but to support them, to flatter them, and ultimately to renew their subscriptions. It required an instinctive grasp of the unspoken attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, aspirations and fears of the English middle-class.”
In other words, it was the perfect training for someone who was about to become perhaps the greatest English satirist in the field of mystery fiction. In 1958, while still working for the Thompson chain, Watson published the first Flaxborough novel, Coffin, Scarcely Used, to enthusiastic reviews, including one from future Poet Laureate C. Day-Lewis (who also wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake), who called it “a great lark, full of preposterous situations and poker-faced wit.” Following the publication of the second book in the series, Bump in the Night, in 1960, Watson retired to write full time, settling in Hameringham, deep in the Lincolnshire Wolds, along with his wife Peggy, whom he had married in 1940, and his son and two daughters. His immediate success, however, was limited to England. It would be nearly ten years before his first book was published in the United States. The family relied on Peggy’s “real job” as a teacher.
Life in Hameringham further provided him fuel for his books. “Being an author,” his son Jeremy wrote, “he could not be slotted into an obvious layer of the strata of countryside society. He could therefore be comfortably accepted into the company of any element—working folk, professionals, gentleman farmers or the petty aristocracy. Observations of these people and their convoluted lives enabled him to populate his books with a rich tapestry of characters.”
His third book, Hopjoy Was Here, published in 1962, won him a Silver Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association. He earned a second Silver Dagger five years later with Lonelyheart 4122, which introduced one of his most engaging characters, Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, a genteel but cunning lady con artist who would make return visits in subsequent books. While humor was always at the heart of his books, his earliest books were also tightly crafted detective novels (it’s giving nothing away to tell you that the title of his first book, Coffin, Scarcely Used, is itself an important clue). After Lonelyheart 4122, Watson turned away from pure detective fiction and embraced his rogues. If anything his books became even funnier.
In 1970, he was elected to Britain’s prestigious Detection Club where he attracted the attention of H.R.F. Keating’s wife at their annual dinner. She wondered what kind of books this bespectacled, almost mousy-looking man might write. He reminded her of a schoolteacher, reserved and scholarly. Upon reading his books, she admitted to being a bit shocked—and delighted—by his Rabelaisian wit. As Jeffery Ewener commented, “Sex there is aplenty in Flaxborough, and violence, venality, greed, depravity, and sometimes a shocking lack of manners, but he is not just amusing us with rude cartoons. Actions have consequences, in Watson’s world as much as in our own.”
But there is nothing of a crude or salacious manner in Watson’s approach to sex. The vicar’s wife might blush while reading one of his books, but she’d keep turning the pages, feeling only the slightest twinge of guilt.
The books were deemed more than suitable for television and a number of them were dramatized by the BBC in 1977 as Murder Most English.
Watson’s wife Peggy had died the year before after a long illness caused by kidney failure and an unsuccessful transplant. Two years later, Watson moved to Folkingham where he married his second wife, Anne, in 1978. It was there that he continued to write and to enjoy a lifelong passion for music and photography. He took up lapidary and silverwork, which was exhibited and sold locally. He died on Jan. 17, 1983, at the age of 62.
In his Snobbery with Violence, Watson quoted Raymond Chandler on British crime writers of the Golden Age: “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.” Dull is not a word anyone could ever apply to the works of Colin Watson. He remains as fresh and funny—and perhaps as outrageous—today as he did when he published his first book some fifty years ago. After all, the array of deadly sins he satirized—lust, greed, and envy—have never gone out of style.
Tom & Enid Schantz