C. S. Forester

by Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith

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Although C. S. Forester is best known, and will most be remembered, for his Hornblower series and other tales of dashing military actions, he served his apprenticeship writing mystery thrillers that are well worth reading. Of these, Payment Deferred and Plain Murder (1930) are the most successful. Both works follow the inverted format; that is, the stories are told from the viewpoint of the criminal. His protagonists are ordinary working-class people who somehow summon the nerve to commit murders, then suffer the disrupting consequences of their acts. Avoiding a common failing of classical mysteries, Forester put life into the plots by logically developing the complications and tension that consume criminals’ lives after they perform these desperate acts. His mysteries then chronicle the killers’ descent into the horrors that inevitably follow. Forester would have nothing of the classical English tea cozies with their bloodless victims, parades of clues, and faintly comedic overtones.

Payment Deferred

William Marble, a shabbily dressed bank clerk who serves as the protagonist of Payment Deferred, is a man on the ragged edge of destitution, sorely pressed to pay the debts looming over his rented house in a dreary London suburb. He holds to a thin thread of respect from his coworkers and his family, a frail, weak-willed wife named Annie and two children. He would be an alcoholic but for the fact that he cannot afford to buy enough whiskey. Opportunity knocks one blustery evening in the form of Jim Medland, a distant nephew from Melbourne. Jim has come to visit his only surviving family since the death of his mother. He makes the mistake, however, of flashing a wad of bank notes in his wallet. Marble’s mind churns at the possibilities, and the reader is surprised to discover a mind capable of strong focus, at least for brief periods of time. This mental nimbleness under pressure is characteristic of all Forester’s mystery protagonists and goes a long way toward rounding out their personalities. The same powers of superhuman concentration are also an important element of Forester’s later series hero, Horatio Hornblower, a much more sympathetic character.

Marble offers drinks from his last precious bottle to young Jim and hints at the possibility of an inter-family loan, a prospect that Jim dodges most firmly. Now comes the crux of Marble’s life: Feigning that he has heard someone cry out, he rushes upstairs, still holding the glass of whiskey he has been pouring for Jim. While there, Marble laces the drink with potassium cyanide from a cabinet of photographic chemicals. He returns with the glass and urges Jim to drink; death comes quickly for young Jim. As the body must be disposed of, that night Marble digs up a dormant flower bed in his rear garden and buries Jim. No one will miss the visitor from Australia or disturb the weedy gravesite—except in Marble’s mind.

Now the story truly begins. Forester paints one man’s degeneration into all-consuming obsession of which Edgar Allan Poe would have been proud. Marble gives Annie money to pay off the most urgent bills, but he withholds the larger denominations from Jim’s wallet for fear that they will be somehow traced back to the missing Australian. Marble’s need for money heightens when he realizes that his landlord could someday put him out of his house. New tenants might dig up the garden and discover the body. Nevertheless, Marble rises to meet this crisis as well. His job at the bank involves dealing with foreign currency exchange, and he puzzles out a risky but wildly profitable plan to trade on the volatile French franc....

(This entire section contains 1881 words.)

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He uses a local bookmaker to front for him, buys into the exchange market at a strong leverage, and exits the next day a newly rich man. Forester invents the scheme’s workings with a marvelous richness of detail, giving the reader a sense of looking over Marble’s shoulder as he follows the market’s fluctuations. Readers cannot help being drawn into plots so carefully researched and written; this strength of Forester’s writing goes far in explaining his great popularity.

At this point, all would seem well for Marble. The money, however, does not buy happiness. Gradually, he concludes that there is no escape for him even after buying the house. He purchases an extensive library of crime and forensic books, brooding over them for hours while drinking and watching the muddy tangle of weeds in his back garden. In a desperate attempt at diversion, he has a brief affair with a predatory dressmaker, Madame Collins. Annie finally realizes that her husband is a murderer, plunging Marble into a fresh paroxysm of terror that she will betray him. He pays her more attention, the very thing for which she has hungered, and for a time the Marbles are closer than ever—until Madame Collins sends a letter threatening to expose her affair with Marble unless he pays her off.

When Annie catches influenza and is put into a sickbed, Marble refuses the doctor’s advice to get nursing help. Annie discovers the blackmail letter by mistake, its contents throw her into despair, and she crawls to the photographic cabinet for the cyanide. Her suicide is assumed to be murder at the hands of her husband, leading to a conviction for his wife’s murder, which he has not committed, rather than for his nephew’s murder. Marble has therefore not escaped payment for Jim’s murder; it was merely deferred, with interest in the form of years of anguish over the horrible secret.

The genius of this book lies not in the tight, well-crafted plot but in the portrayal of the characters, particularly Marble. He is not only a sluggish and pathetic man who bullies his sitting-duck wife from the dubious comfort of a Victorian chair; but he is also the nervy, collected man who conceives and carries out the murder of a relative, all the while entertaining the victim. He is the man who can crack the code of international finance and parlay his modest spoils of murder into a small fortune. He is also, however, the man who buries the body directly behind his house and spends the rest of his life in abject terror that a careless gardener or stray dog will uncover the bones. Marble is a marvelously developed character capable of brilliance as well as stupidity. It is this element of the book that sets it apart and, most likely, led The Times of London to include Payment Deferred on its list of the ninety-nine best crime stories.

One Wonderful Week

One Wonderful Week (1927) followed quickly after Forester’s first commercial and critical success, but it is flawed by an uneven tone that rebounds unsettlingly among light comedy, slapstick, and crime. Where Payment Deferred maintains a consistent pace of degeneration into obsession, this book reminds the reader that it is, after all, only words printed on a page. It is a decided departure from Forester’s usual mastery of verisimilitude.

Plain Murder

Plain Murder returns to the format of Payment Deferred with a story of three clerks at an advertising firm who murder their superior because he has learned of their bribe taking and intends to report them to the firm’s owner. Morris, their ringleader, comes to distrust the weakest conspirator and contrives his death by an apparent motorcycle accident. Oldroyd, the other surviving conspirator, fears Morris but cannot seek police protection, for obvious reasons. As in all of Forester’s works, the plot flows smoothly and logically. It leads to a flawed ending, however, in which Oldroyd, the weaker character, steps unconvincingly out of the role Forester created for him to save himself and Morris’s wife from being killed.

With all three of Forester’s mysteries, readers might object to a few elements of style that today seem somewhat quaint. The books suffer from frequent shifts in points of view, even though Forester handles them smoothly. Another minor irritant comes in the form of heavy-handed authorial intrusions such as the one concluding chapter 11 of Plain Murder, “Those that read to the end of this book may better take their choice of these conflicting opinions.” In Forester’s defense, however, these lapses from modern stylistic standards were considered quite proper when he wrote them.

Other Works

Leaving the world of mystery, Forester turned to novels featuring equal measures of history and adventure. The General (1936) featured a British officer who reflected the World War I military philosophy of dogged, frontal assaults and trench warfare. On a slightly deeper level, the book is a bitterly ironic comment on the stupidities of war. Another important work is The African Queen (1935) , the romantic adventure of a cockney mechanic and a never-married missionary in equatorial Africa, which was made into the classic Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn film. During World War II, at a time when England needed its spirits lifted, Forester wrote several rousing tales of modern naval fiction; the best of these, The Good Shepherd (1955), was not actually published until after the war.

For all the merit of Forester’s crime fiction, he will be most remembered for his Hornblower series. Read voraciously in the United States as well as in England, Horatio Hornblower came to dominate Forester’s efforts much the same as Sherlock Holmes dominated those of Arthur Conan Doyle. Forester ultimately wrote ten Hornblower novels (plus The Hornblower Companion, 1964, a book of naval charts and miscellany surrounding the entire saga) and was working on the eleventh when he died. Nevertheless, the book was published complete to the point at which illness stopped his work. In some ways, Hornblower’s roots can be traced to William Marble of Payment Deferred. In spite of Marble’s capacity for quick thinking at critical moments, the balance of his brutish personality sours his life. When Forester coupled this same trait of decisive thought with Hornblower’s essential nobility, he crafted a character with whom readers are proud to identify.

Forester relished burdening his hero with the awesome responsibility of command, terming him “The Man Alone.” Forester’s use of this device, however, did not spring to life with the Hornblower saga. In The Hornblower Companion, he credits this concept as first having been used in Payment Deferred, writing, “The murderer, who, having committed his crime, dare confide in nobody and must plan his future actions without assistance, is one example of the single-handed man.” Thus he had William Marble exercising his ironic command long before Hornblower walked the quarterdeck. Another strength of Forester’s later writing first seen in Payment Deferred is his deft infusion of technical material into the plot, charging readers with a sense of being present at the scene of the story and leaving them believing that they have learned something. International finance was the subject in that early mystery; square-rigger seamanship and naval warfare were later detailed in the Hornblower series.

Unquestionably, Forester’s characters are fascinating, and his verisimilitude is brilliant. These strengths alone may be enough to explain his popularity, or perhaps he wove some other magic through the pages that is too subtle to identify. Either way, one thing is certain: Forester’s works provide escapist literature in the best sense of the term.


Forester, C(ecil) S(cott)