Thursday, August 05, 2004

Colin Watson -- crime writer extraordinaire

There are at least three reasons for recommending the crime novels of Colin Watson. As detective stories they provide a respectable puzzle; they are written in wonderfully elegant prose; and they are funny. If that isn’t enough for you, you’re in the wrong blog.

Biographical details about Watson are sparse; the books themselves seldom tell us much about the author. But he seems to have been born in 1920, and he worked as a journalist. He produced the first of twelve crime novels (plus one other) in 1958; the last book appeared in 1982. And he died far too young in 1983. Along the way (1967) he picked up a Crime Writers Association silver-dagger award for the quality of his output.

Almost all of Watson’s novels are based in the fictional town of Flaxborough, the location of which is always left vague. If forced to guess its position, from the evidence in the books, I would have said Norfolk, but Watson apparently worked in Lincolnshire. In any event, he chose to be imprecise; the explanation, I feel sure, is that much of what he wrote about was based on his experiences as a small-town newspaperman.

Watson usually has the same cast of policemen: Inspector Purbright, Sergeant Love, and of course, the Chief Constable, Mr Chubb. Some of the villains appear more than once, too -- Miss Lucilla Teatime, for instance. But Miss Teatime almost counts as an honorary police person: she is utterly criminal in both intent and action, but she nevertheless sometimes sees it in her interests to provide the Inspector with a little assistance. (Mr Pratchett, you will recall, also has a character called Teatime -- a young man from the Assassins Guild. Though in his case the name is pronounced Tay-atty-may; he is from the Italian branch of the family no doubt.)

It has often been suggested that the names of Watson’s characters alone, like those of Wodehouse, suggest the generally humorous tone of things. Through these pages stalk such stalwart characters as Harold Carobleat, Stanley Biggadyke, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, and the Fleet Street journalist, Clive Grail. But do not be misled by the labelling; these are serious people, and the villains among them are capable of very nasty acts indeed.

As for the elegant prose – well, it would be invidious to give too many examples as they always look rather feeble when removed from context. But, taken from a book opened at random, I rather like this: ‘Anderton grinned and made a rapid chewing motion. Bradley, fearful of impending expectoration, drew back a little.’ All right, so I’m easily pleased.

The BBC wisely bought the television rights to Watson’s books, and they made an entertaining seven-part series in 1977; Anton Rodgers played Inspector Purbright and Brenda Bruce was Miss Teatime.

I read all of Watson’s Flaxborough series as and when they first came out, and I have recently re-read them in chronological order. They remain a rare treat, and are much recommended to anyone with an affection for the crime-fiction genre or for English eccentricity and humour.

Finally, let it not be forgotten that Watson wrote a scholarly and entertaining study of the crime-fiction genre itself, entitled Snobbery with Violence.

If you would like to see a bibliography of Watson’s work, you can find one here. And there is a longer essay on the man and his work written by Jeffrey Ewener.


Natalie Bennett said...

Well you sold me, thank you. I just jumped on to Ebay and bought one of the Flaxborough series.

Kathryn said...

I totally agree. I found one of the Flaxborough novels on the shelves at my local library many years ago and was hooked.

I think I'm going to have to see if I can get hold of them again - a revisit of Flaxborough is long overdue!

Anonymous said...

I know this is way too late, but I just hit your Colin Watson thoughts by chance, and wanted to say how much I agree. Watson was one of the best light crime writers we've seen - erudite, funny, a neat (and resolving) plotter, and a creator of some great characters - Lucy Teatime and Messrs Love and Chubb amongst them.

I always understood that Flax was vaguely based on Boston, but there are a few references which cast doubt on this. The map on the endpapers of the Chronicle is simply misleading and (from internal evidence within the stories) very inaccurate.



Anonymous said...

Colin Watson lived in Lincolnshire.For a time before he died he lived in Horncastle with his wife Peggy,which is where I knew him best. This would have been in the early 1970s when I was born. Later towards the end of the 70s he moved to another town in Lincolnshire but I cant remember the name. It was there that he re-married and we lost contact with him. His daughter Micky lives in Oxfordshire and his son Jeremy lives with his wife in France. I live in Manila with my family. I am his granddaughter Disa.

Joe Barone said...

It looks to me like you need about one comment a year on this post. I just read my first Colin Watson, Cofin Scarcely Used, found in a used bookstore. I loved it. I agree he is well worth reading.

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Anonymous said...

Oh so nice to hear about this excellent author. I know that his last novel Whatever's been going on in Mumblesby is based on the Lincolnshire village of Mumby. Clearly from others comments it was typical for him to use a disguised Lincolnshire village as the setting for his books and I have reason to believe that his characters may likewise have been based on individuals he knew in and around Lincolnshire. I was saddened to read elsewhere that the people of Folkingham were in the main unaware of their local great talent deceased 1983.

Anonymous said...

Another year, another comment

Anonymous: what makes you sure that Mumblesby is based on Mumby, apart from the similarity in nmaes?

Is there something in the text, or are you basing your certainty on private information?

S Radmore

Anonymous said...

I don't care where the novels are set (I am Scottish), but they are all to me quintessentially English and the style and wit of the writing renders them a joy. I have recently had a clear- out of books necessitated by moving but I cannot part with Colin Watson's novels as they are a periodic joy to revisit and have been a mainstay over the years since I first came across a large print edition in my local library in the 1980's (which introduced Lucilla EC Teatime). I also remember as a child seeing one of the tv adaptations but have scant memories of that. The combination of elegant prose full of humour, the slow pace compared with what passes as action packed today, and the wry observations of human foibles continue to make me laugh and appreciate a gifted and entertaining author.

Anonymous said...

Agree with every word you say. It is amazing how such a talented writer has 'slipped under the radar' among modern readers.

However it is interesting to compare his work with the ITV Midsummer Murders stories. I wonder if Anthony Horowitz is a fan too.

Anonymous said...

I really liked Robert Barnard too, but I think Watson was better. Both should be better known.

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying reading them all again on
my Kindle as they are being released each month during 2018. I've just finished A Flaxborough Crab and loved it.

Unknown said...

Have been a huge fan for the last 45 years. Always assumed Flaxborough in Lincolnshire as described several times as only an hour from Nottingham. Also with docks etc. close to North Sea. Few (or no) hills and extensive farmland suggests Lincolnshire to me!

Anonymous said...

I first came across the Flaxborough Chronicles in reissued paperback when the TV series was broadcast in the 1970s, and I've been a huge Colin Watson fan ever since. Although the novels' unspecifically Lincolnshire setting is clear, they present a wickedly perceptive analysis of any English provincial town, especially a Northern one, written with elegance, glorious humour, cool detachment and zest for life's curious variety. They also take a mature, tolerant, knowing but understanding moral view, in the persons of the two most memorable series characters, Inspector Purbright and Miss Teatime. I return to these books (and the four TV dramatisations) with unfailing delight every time, and have finally cured myself of the fatal habit of 'lending' my copies to friends, then trawling the internet to source replacement copies. Colin Watson's similarly amusing and acute analysis of the 20s-30s thriller genre and its readership, 'Snobbery With Violence' is a classic no whodunit, thriller or 007 fan should miss.