Friday, February 13, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Death of a Unicorn,” by Peter Dickinson

(Editor’s note: This is the 42nd installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Keith Raffel, who spent two decades “toiling” in California’s Silicon Valley for high-tech companies, large and small, before completing his first mystery, Dot Dead [2006]. Smasher, its sequel, will be out in September. He’s working on a new thriller, while also writing for the blog Inkspot, as well as his own blog, Dot Dead Diary.)

When asked to finger a worthy addition to The Rap Sheet’s lineup of “forgotten books,” I didn’t want to suggest any of the usual suspects. So no Ross Thomas, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ross Macdonald. What then? I began a room-by-room investigation of my bookcases. Finally, on the top shelf in the living room, I found a few titles by a neglected master, Peter Dickinson. Bingo! But I hadn’t read any Dickinson since the 1980s. Tastes change. Sometimes picking up an old book is like bumping into an old flame. You know that feeling: How could I have ever been so besotted by her?

I’m patting myself on the back now, though. Ensconced in my favorite armchair, I re-read Dickinson’s Death of a Unicorn (1984) in an evening. Drawn into a vanished world, I was not released until I snapped the book closed at the end of page 206. Oh, wait. Occasionally, the writer in me raised his green head and reminded me to be envious of the elegance of Dickinson’s sentences and the twists of his plotting.

Before going on, I have to issue a warning. When I write fiction, I like to put the action right up front. In my first book the hero is knocked unconscious on page 1. By the second page of my upcoming novel, the protagonists have been run down by a black car. Dickinson is playing a more subtle game. If you restrict your reading of crime fiction to books with short sentences, 500-word chapters, and a chase or murder on every other page, Death of a Unicorn is not for you. We Americans gobble down a Big Mac in our cars; the French ideal is a dinner during which each bite is savored and each course complements the one before. Dickinson is definitely a writer from the Cordon Bleu school.

As I read Death of a Unicorn, I feared it might not fit the crime-fiction category at all. Only on page 117 (of the American hardcover edition) was any such concern dispelled beyond doubt. Still, from the first few sentences, I was propelled forward by an undercurrent of foreboding.

The book is split in two parts, both narrated by Margaret Millet, a deceased earl’s daughter and heir. The story opens in 1952, when she is only 20. The titans of the wartime era, such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, still bestride the political landscape. The bigwigs of British society are looking rearward in their efforts to bring back the good old days of England’s Edwardian greatness. Lady Margaret, “Mabs,” is rebelling against both her day’s reactionism and against her mother, who expects her to hew the line and focus on maintaining the family estate. At a party, Mabs meets the mysterious “B,” who hires her for his magazine, Night and Day. She starts writing a column that satirizes British society as only an insider can, and simultaneously starts an affair with B.

B remains a little murky, but his appeal to Mabs is clear. He’s everything the men in her mother’s circle are not. He’s a colonial nouveau who doesn’t hide his desire for money--which he’s perfectly willing to cut corners to obtain. Mabs seems modern in both her pursuit of a career and her guiltless embrace of premarital sex. Her formidable mother finds the job and affair equally intolerable, fearing above all that Mabs is trying to wriggle out of familial responsibilities. Mabs’ younger twin sister shares their mother’s concern for selfish reasons: she has no desire to be shackled to the family estate. Finally, the affair comes to a fatal end in the wake of what looks like an almost random crime.

In the second half of Dickinson’s book, we skip ahead three decades. A former colleague, who is writing a history of Night and Day, gets in touch with Mabs Millet. Like the bullet fired in Sarajevo that escalated step by step into World War I, a brief conversation between Mabs and that colleague is followed inexorably by disclosures of fraud, treachery, and murder.

When I read Death of a Unicorn the first time, I identified with the younger Mabs, the rebel. Now that I’m about the same age as the Mabs of this book’s second half, I feel the poignancy of her reflections on her guileless past. She’s writing pot-boiling romances to support the old estate. Her mother would not have approved, but their motivations were the same--loyalty to land and blood. In a nice twist, Mabs makes money now from people who love wallowing in the Edwardian Age in which she sets her romances. As one does in middle age, Mabs has turned into one of her parents; she is self-aware enough to know it, too. With the gain of perspective and the loss of youthful idealism, she can uncover what really happened to her, the magazine, and B 30 years before. She’s not in the least surprised by those who’d ignored the law in pursuit of self-interest and tradition. She works out the chain of events that led to murder and the reader goes right along with her. And in the end, Mabs takes shrewd revenge on the person who betrayed her.

In one of the old Chinese legends, a great swordsman is challenged to cut off the head of a condemned man with a single stroke of his blade. He smiles, his sword flashes, but the target remains upright and breathing. Spectators belittle the swordsman. Then he asks the target to bow and the man’s head rolls off his neck onto the floor. In similar fashion, Dickinson turns the saber of his wit on the hidebound England of the 1950s with its disdain for the new, and then in this book’s second half turns around and gives the same treatment to the greedy Thatcherite 1980s. Of course, the aristocracy disdains the very idea of making a living. Mabs writes:
It was a real job. I adored it from the beginning. ... [Mummy] hadn’t minded me working for Mrs. Darling [in a shop], because that wasn’t a real job.
Here’s the hypocrisy of how women were treated in those days:
I thought of Veronica Bracken, the first time I’d noticed her, at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. ... “Isn’t this super,” she whispered. She flexed her brown shoulders like a cat in a patch of sun. Her hair shone. Her eyes were very dark brown. She seemed to be floating an inch above the floor. ... And within a year she’d had an abortion in Paris and put her head in a gas oven and been found just in time by the concierge.
And here’s how the nabobs of the English aristocracy were able to squelch the nouveaux:
Suppose Mummy were to talk to Aunt Minnie about me, and then Aunt Minnie snapped her fingers at [her husband] Sir Drummond--well, I couldn’t imagine Sir Drummond sitting on one of his boards and putting forward a coherent financial argument against some enterprise of B’s, but I could imagine him going a bit red and pulling his moustache and saying, “Don’t care for that feller myself. Heard something the other day ... ” And that might be enough. It was what Sir Drummond was for, after all, being a sound chap and hearing things.
Mr. Dickinson knows whereof he writes. He attended England’s most prestigious and aristocratic prep school, Eton, and graduated from Cambridge. The magazine Mabs works for sounds an awful lot like the late, great magazine Punch, where Dickinson started working in 1952. He left when he began tapping out crime fiction on his typewriter. Instantly recognized for his talent in the genre, his first two books, Skin Deep and A Pride of Heroes, won Gold Daggers (the British counterpart to America’s Edgars).

Dickinson seems to have stopped writing crime fiction about a decade ago, in order to focus on poetry and children’s fiction. Still, from 1968’s Skin Deep (published as The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest in the States) to 1999’s Some Deaths Before Dying, Dickinson wrote 22 books of crime fiction. Although independent American publisher Felony & Mayhem has resuscitated three of those novels, including Skin Deep, most are out of print. (Hint, hint to Felony & Mayhem and you other publishers out there.) In the meantime, it’s easy to find used copies of them. If you have appreciation for great writing, memorable characters, and times gone by, open a Peter Dickinson now. Death of a Unicorn is the perfect place to begin.


Martin Edwards said...

I've not read much of Dickinson, but I enjoyed those books I have read and I agree he is a 'neglected master'. From memory, I think he's one of the very few to have won two CWA Gold Daggers.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks, Martin. Now at least two of us think so! Anyone else?

David Cranmer said...

I've never read Dickinson. I will keep it in mind. Thanks.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE OLD ENGLISH PEEPSHOW was terrific. I think I read most of his books in the seventies and eighties.

Anonymous said...

Peter Dickinson is one of my favorites. I highly recommend King And Joker and its sequel Skeleton-In-Waiting, two suspense novels involving a fictitious and eccentric Royal family.

Anonymous said...

A disgracefully forgotten crime writer in the UK and the only person to win a CWA Gold Dagger two years running. SOME DEATHS BEFORE DYING was a brilliant return to crime (he writes very successful children's fiction) but went almost unnoticed here.
- Mike Ripley (England)

G.M. Malliet said...

Read him years ago. Must return to him (and many neglected others). Thanks for reminder!

Keith Raffel said...

An addendum: Peter Dickinson is still around at age 81. He's married to Robin McKinley -- I read a couple of her books to my oldest daughter years ago.

Anonymous said...

I love Peter Dickinson, too, and thanks for the Felony shoutout! We have Sleep and His Brother in production right now, coming out in July.

Becky said...

I've never read Dickinson either, but would be very interested in doing so. Since finishing "Threshold," a high-octane noir in-your-face thriller, by Bonnie Kozek, I am on the lookout to another equally great mystery novel to read.

Gavin Grant said...

Hope you don't mind me leaving a note here: we've just brought Death of a Unicorn back into print—with some book group questions for those who are tempted: