J. B. Priestley

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J. B. Priestley Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

J. B. Priestley’s early novel Benighted (1927), published in the United States as The Old Dark House (1928), was more of a gothic horror story than a detective story, and I’ll Tell You Everything (1932), written with Gerald Bullett, was an early spoof of the cloak-and-dagger tale then gaining in popularity. It was with his last three crime novels, Saturn over the Water: An Account of His Adventures in London, South America, and Australia by Tim Bedford, Painter (1961), The Shapes of Sleep: A Topical Tale (1962), and Salt Is Leaving (1966), that Priestley hit his peak as a detective-fiction writer.

Saturn over the Water

Saturn over the Water is a good book and much more of a mystery than the earlier novels. It owes something to Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) and has delicious reflections of John Buchan’s The Power-House (1916), The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), and his neglected The Courts of the Morning (1929). Tim Bedford, a successful painter, promises his dying cousin Isabel Frame that he will find her estranged and missing husband, Joe, and tell him that she still loves him. It is a soap-opera opening to a nicely constructed and skillfully plotted novel of intrigue, travel, and involvement with a secret organization. This group is busily plotting to force the Northern Hemisphere to destroy itself through biological and atomic warfare, leaving the cabal, whose sign is Saturn over the water, free to create a new and better world in their own image in South America, Australia, and Africa.

Bedford’s only clue to the whereabouts of the missing scientist, Joe Frame, is the hastily scribbled list of names, places, and things in his last letter, posted from Chile. He is intrigued by the mystery, especially when he identifies one of the names as that of another English scientist, Frank Semple. Semple had worked with Frame at the Arnaldos Institute in Peru and had returned home psychotic and had committed suicide. Bedford travels from London to New York, then to Peru, Chile, and Australia, each stop identifying more of Frame’s list and bringing him into contact with shadowy people who will ultimately play major roles in the solution of the mystery. Bedford, unknown to himself, is in reality a pawn in a power struggle, the catalyst the opponents of the cabal have needed to bring the global plot to an unsuccessful conclusion.

Similar to Richard Hannay’s foes in The Thirty-nine Steps and The Power-House, the opponents in Saturn over the Water are men with superhuman intellects, men capable of exerting powerful influence over lesser minds. Using the concept of the astrological changing of the ages, Priestley matches the Saturnians against those under the sign of Uranus, the peaceful ones.

As Bedford makes his journey, Priestley makes use of his stops to comment on the neo-Nazi mentality, the threat of communism, the misuse of technology, and the strange world of the arts. Although Priestley himself espoused Fabian socialism, he despised Marxist principles, instead identifying himself as anticonservative politically.

The characters here are not as exhaustively drawn as those in Angel Pavement , but the reader does get to know them well enough for their motivations to be acceptable, at least for the more realistic of them. Other characters, especially as the novel nears its end, seem fantastic: Mrs. Biro, the clairvoyant; Major Jorvis, the Australian police officer through whose form the Saturn superintellect works; and Pat Daily, an apparent drunken junk dealer who is in fact the Old Astrologer of the Mountain and the “force” representing the Uranian side of the new age. As the novel ends, the reader is pleased to find that Tim Bedford and Rosalia Arnaldos, the granddaughter of the founder of the institute and the Saturn cabal, have married. She has inherited the institute and Arnaldos’s vast fortune, and together they dedicate their resources to the betterment of humankind. Still, the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that although a battle has...

(The entire section is 1,641 words.)