Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 3)
Amis, Kingsley 1922–
A British satirical novelist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Amis is also a poet and critic. Although still best known for his first novel, Lucky Jim, Amis is admired for his satirization of many social structures and several literary forms. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
A lot of things have been annoying Kingsley Amis recently. Distressing as this must be for him, it is an advantage for his readers, who are usually best served by his worst out-bursts of temper. Girl, 20 gives a good bawling-out to a wide range of offenders: boutiques, trendy pubs, young people, rich socialists, husbands, wives, children and other minority groups. If the stage is not actually strewn with corpses at the end (and Mr. Amis has a perfunctory, Jacobean-fifth-act way of settling up his plots), at least most reputations are shot.
"Having it Both Ways," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 24, 1971, p. 1138.
The Riverside Villas Murder offers no comfort to those who look for consistency in Kingsley Amis's work. There have been rumours for some time that he was writing a detective story, and not just a detective story but a classical puzzle, of 1930s style though 1970s vintage. "Perhaps no detective story can attain the pitch of literary excellence. Perhaps it can only offer ingenuity raised to the point of genius," he suggested in an essay on great detectives from Dupin to John Dickson Carr's Dr. Fell, who seems upon the whole to be his favourite….
This new book is an attempt to revive the tradition. It has been given a period dustjacket, it is set in the 1930s, and it uses a trick of the time in offering particular pages for study by those who "may wish to pit their wits against the author's and solve the mystery for themselves." (They will be very lucky if they get any help from the pages named.) The victim, who in the traditional manner has done a very fair job of insulting or threatening several of the other characters at a local dance, staggers in through the french windows of fourteen-year-old Peter Furneaux's home wet from immersion in the nearby river, says some audible but at the time meaningless words, and dies, apparently from a blow on the head with an improvised spiked club. The detective is Colonel Manton, Acting Chief Constable, helped by a stooge or two plus Peter; there are red herrings, a reconstruction of the way in which the victim might have got to the particular spot in the river from which he reached shore, and a last chapter called "How Can They Prove It?". In fact they can't, and like many another fictional detective of the period, Colonel Manton offers the criminal the only honourable way out.
But The Riverside Villas Murder is something more and less than a period detective story. Mr. Amis is not one to take any convention too seriously, and on one plane he is simply having fun. The story is a good deal concerned with Peter's search for sexual experience…. The period detail is done with beautiful unobtrusiveness, and seems just right in books and dance bands named, and in the language used by these particular people in their outer London suburb…. The trouble comes with the plot, which is shaky at best, and often outrages our willingness to suspend disbelief. Without giving away any secrets, it can be said that the reason for the reconstruction of the victim's trip down river is preposterous, and that the behaviour of both victim and murderer approaches the incredible. The plot is clumsily made, and the result is in parts lively Amis, but an indifferent detective story. Whatever its other qualities, the best work of the period, like that of Carr and Ellery Queen, ends with a surprise startling as thunder. This shock of surprise is something we just do not get from The Riverside Villas Murder….
What seems to have been lost or stifled is the good humour, and actual enjoyment of what he was doing, shown in Mr. Amis's first two brilliantly farcical novels, and most of the genuine tenderness in those books and in the early poems. Such feeling is rare in his recent work, although it can be found, for instance in a delicate little article about his father. Fabian Amis and Conservative Amis are perhaps both simpler, less sophisticated, more sensitive and easily hurt characters than either has been willing to let on.
There is one other novel which shows Mr. Amis's talents often at full stretch, the underestimated The Anti-Death League (1966). The springs of this book are in Mr. Amis's liking for sensational spy stories, and it may also owe something to an admiration for Chesterton, and in particular to The Man Who Was Thursday, a comic metaphysical thriller full of anarchists named after the days of the week, all of whom turn out to be policemen….
To the extent that The Riverside Villas Murder is a joke or an evasion, it can only be regretted, but there is no recipe for the production of a novel like Girl, 20. Kingsley Amis's gifts are unique in his generation of British novelists. What sort of books are produced through them in the future depends on his own ability to order his talent.
"The Turns of a Plain Man," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), April 6, 1973, pp. 393-94.
Kingsley Amis's new novel is a straight detective story, with a murder, several puzzles, clues, a great detective, and an eminently satisfying and unexpected villain. So bald a statement is a necessary introduction in order to ensure that nobody will be tempted to pore over The Riverside Villas Murder in search of portentousness, significance, ambiguity, or any of the more tiresome characteristics too often found in the work of a straight novelist who has turned aside from the main road of his work into the byways of such subgenres as crime and adventure. More, the book is straight detection because Amis intended it to be such: It is written out of a great love of the detective form and deliberately set in a period—the Thirties—when that form was at its most popular….
Amis invites comparison with the masters; he has performed well. His story is about the murder of a man who, just before his death, behaves extremely unpleasantly at a neighborhood dance and utters gnomic threats directed at a number of his acquaintances. The detective is a splendid eccentric: Colonel Manton, assistant chief constable—something of a cross between a district attorney and a sheriff—homosexual, connoisseur of jazz music, and intellectual bully. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of a boy whose father is suspected of the crime, and who feels an obscure, though not really sexual, attraction to Manton. The clues are numerous and the subsequent rationalization of them quite splendid. Having not yet fully developed the character of Manton, Amis cannot be said yet to have reached the heights in detective fiction—one feels that he is not yet willing to devote enough creative effort to it, which would involve a subtraction of energy from his other work—but he has most certainly achieved his end of inventing a splendid period piece of fiction.
Patrick Cosgrave, "The Pleasure of Murder," in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1973, pp. 42-4.
Kingsley Amis has some of the suaver qualities of a clubroom raconteur. His stories seem to be told over brandy and cigars. But they are not retellings after the fashion of the club bore. He assumes the company of his peers, those upon whom a certain amount of wit, irony and the play of a fanciful intelligence will not be totally lost.
By making the hero of this detective story [The Riverside Villas Murder] a 14-year-old boy, Amis cleverly combines, in mild parody, two ultra-British literary forms—the mystery thriller with the boyhood adventure yarn.
T. E. Kalem, "Club Pro at Work," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), September 10, 1973, pp. 92, 94.
["The Riverside Villas Murder"] moves slowly because Amis indulges himself in remembering period dance music and slang: "He could tinkle the ivories all right." But if you can stand it, you'll like it—the mystery is fair and solvable—though this is not to detective stories what Amis's "The Green Man" was to ghost stories, a genre production brought up to a good novelist's standards.
Peter S. Prescott, "Vintage Gumshoe," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1973, pp. 101, 103.
Kingsley Amis's slim volume "On Drink" is a welcome and worthwhile addition to this fall's publishing lists. For one, it has the exceptional characteristic of containing some useful tips, such as soaking lemons or limes in a bowl of warm water in order to make them juicier. Simple and yet at the same time it works. It also happens to be written for the manually undexterous and alcoholically intemperate, two categories nearly all of the drinkers I know fall into quite nicely. But best of all, Kingsley Amis has written a work affirming the wisdom of drink….
While Mr. Amis's work will hardly protect us from the ravages of the anti-alcohol conspiracy (the liquor industry is a far more apt ally, rich too), it does offer consolation for the weary drinker tired of battling the health nuts. It also makes fine reading, especially when recovering from a hangover.
Phil Tracy, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), October 25, 1973, pp. 34-5.
I am not normally an Amis enthusiast. I dislike his nasty, elitist politics and his tendency to keep rewriting the same adolescent hero in adult disguise. (See Lucky Jim, One Fat Englishman, etc.) But he has the virtue, rare in England, of refusing to accept an imposed definition of what a Serious Writer ought to write about. Recently he's elaborated on James Bond, written science fiction and an excellent ghost story, The Green Man. Now he's chosen to romp about in a consciously conventional armchair mystery which I found immensely enjoyable.
The Riverside Villas Murder could easily have been a sniggering send-up but it isn't…. Deliberately archaic (much reference to Marie Stopes and Jim and Amy Mollison) and bestrewn with false clues, it's done with relaxed skill and almost hits the lazily sinister note I used to associate with a cracking good mystery read. I was mildly shocked at how easily I guessed the killer, but that could be part of Amis' cleverness. The other part is that, for once, his adolescent hero actually is 14 years old.
Clancy Sigal, "Band of Outlanders," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 27, 1973, pp. 25-6.
[Even] when he is engaged in a piece of nostalgic game play [as in The Riverside Villas Murder], Mr. Amis's prose is probably the most pleasant to read of any good writers of English today. I know no other writer who can forgo all ornament without either aridity or pseudo-simplicity.
Each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter is organized to do its job, and the whole is therefore always satisfactory within its limits. This, of course, is where the trouble comes, for, in his strong moral and esthetic distaste for even the slightest bulge of literary excess or artistic self-indulgence, Mr. Amis increasingly sets forbidding limits to his work.
"The Riverside Villas Murder" contains an almost perfect creation of the character of a young adolescent boy; much exact and delightful social and historical observation of lower middle-class London suburban life in the mid-thirties; a viable, serious (if to me rather repugnant) view of the nature of civilized man and the place of sexual appetite in civilized living; and a heroic embodiment (perhaps a bit oversize and Gothic) of the leader type that civilized society reposes on. This is a pretty full program.
No one can object that Mr. Amis's ideal of spareness should wish to cut its fictional portrayal to the bone, but that he prefers to embody it all in a nostalgic pastiche of an old-fashioned detective story seems a wilful opting out of creative ambition—in a way a parody of the old-fashioned American's idea of the old-fashioned Englishman's insufferable boasting by understatement.
All right, we're all making fools of ourselves by trying to write the great novel, but for Heaven's sake, that doesn't mean that Mr. Amis should tailor his great originality to fit that old dummy the whodunnit. And that somewhere he feels this himself, I suspect, is revealed by the fact that the mechanism of the murder, who did it and how, is at once creaky, obvious, and entirely improbable….
[But] in Mr. Amis's hands, despite all the boring murder stuff, it is always highly interesting and intelligent.
Angus Wilson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1973, p. 6.
Except for the author's imitation James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, which is usually and understandably placed outside the Amis canon, The Riverside Villas Murder is his mildest and thinnest book to date. It is so slight, in fact, that it can't even stand beside his other "genre" novels, The Anti-Death League (a turn on the spy-thriller) and The Green Man (a turn on the ghost story), in which the author at least made some vigorous, though often awkward, attempts to transcend genre. Amis, however, can't quite bring himself here to create a straight mystery entertainment. He therefore focuses intermittently on the sexual trials and tribulations of Peter Furneaux, a handsome, rural fourteen-year-old, who longs for genuine sexual experience (as opposed to that of his own making and that acquired from fun sessions with his friend Reg) and who is really just a pint-sized version of other recent and not exactly charming Amis characters preoccupied with sex…. The first few chapters, I should say, are pleasant and entertaining, as Amis sets the scene, quietly evoking his thirties rural milieu (though I could have done with fewer references to dance bands and numbers of the period), but when the author begins to develop an inept murder mystery, the charm of the book wears very thin very quickly. The utterly absurd resolution of the mystery makes us want to believe that Amis is simply parodying the whole genre, but there really isn't much evidence of this in the rest of the book. Although Amis takes a light-hearted approach to the mystery novel, it is also an unmistakably sincere, almosone. The approach doesn't surprise us considering the admiration he expressed for such writers as John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin in his essay collection, What Ever Happened to Jane Austen? Carr and Crispin happen to be fairly amusing whodunit authors who possess more style and humor than most. We can understand why Amis, the reader, enjoys them. What we can't understand, however, is why Amis, the writer, who is infinitely more gifted than these men, would waste his time, energy and talent trying to emulate them.
Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, p. 782.
Kingsley Amis is a fine writer who tends to dabble—ghost stories, spy stuff, and now a bit of sleuthing [The Riverside Villas Murder]. In the meantime, those of us who believe Lucky Jim to be one of the best comic novels of the century are impatiently waiting for him to discover that he's just too talented an author to write successful cheap fiction. In this attempt, a boy discovers sex against a murder-mystery backdrop. Neither the discovery nor the detection is satisfying. What does satisfy, however, is Amis' way with characters. His may be the best secondary characters—most notably, his old men—since Dickens. And equally satisfying is his style, the often complex sentences falling clear and true with that deceptive ease that marks the master craftsman. And there is no better writer of dialogue practicing today. But none of this justifies a shoddy vehicle. Amis no doubt believed the sex-murder combination would be a financial sure thing. But the mystery isn't engaging enough to bring out the whodunit crowd, and the author's good taste prevents him from writing successful pornography. Having said all this, however, let me hasten to add that critics are always hardest on their favorite authors, from whom they expect more. And although we don't get what we hope for here, bad Amis is still better than the best products of most of his contemporaries.
Patricia S. Coyne, in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 1, 1974, p. 153.