Monday, July 03, 2006

Human Sacrifice in Mayfair

Funny, the fakeries a literary artisan can work on even an experienced reader. Michael Arlen has just done it to me. His Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bedtime Story -- remarkable title -- is in most ways a routine work of its time (1934), place (green fields of the popular English novel), and genre (the fanciful crime-and-detection narrative). It may even deserve its obscurity. But it's remarkable for being, for most of its length, a piece of well-stitched frippery, smooth to the touch and dozy on the brain, which turns, when least expected, into something more louche and lascivious, something that more than hints at extreme depravity.

Michael Arlen is an interesting writer ripe for rediscovery. I came across him recently while reading Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, in which he was name-checked as an avatar of the 1920s and the Jazz Age mentality -- as if Fitzgerald himself hadn't been acclaimed as avatar above all. I knew Arlen's son was Michael J. Arlen, once a brilliant television critic for The New Yorker, as well as author of Passage to Ararat, a memoir on his reclamation of Armenian roots. He'd also written a memoir of his father, Exiles, and it had told the story of an Armenian who moved to England as a young man and was so taken with the country, its culture and manners, that he Anglicized himself in every conceivable way, from language to name to tastes. The only thing he didn't take on, apparently, was English snobbery: the certainty that class determines destiny.

Arlen's great success, The Green Hat (1924), was something of an English equivalent to The Great Gatsby (despite being published a year earlier) in summing up its flappers-and-philosophers moment, even as that moment was playing out. Numerous short stories and a successful West End production of The Green Hat starring Tallulah Bankhead cemented Arlen's notoriety as a generational observer. His foreignness was an open secret and nothing Arlen hid away; yet he came, much like T.S. Eliot or V.S. Naipaul, to be adopted as a more or less honorary Englishman. Unfortunately his career dwindled in a run of pop novels, failed plays, and minor essayistic work; finally a devouring case of writer's block prevented him from producing a word for several years before his death in 1956.

Anyway: Hell! Said the Duchess. Young men are turning up dead in London, their bodies naked and debauched, their throats deeply slashed. Evidence points to a female culprit (soon dubbed "Jane the Ripper"), and the likeliest, albeit least expected suspect is the virtuous Mary Dove, Duchess of Dove and Oldham, young society widow. Those on all sides of Mary -- fair-weather friends, opportunistic politicos, flummoxed CID men -- wonder how this model of respectable upper-class English womanhood could be the perpetrator of such ghastly crimes; when she is spied leaving her Grosvenor Square townhouse late at night for parts and deeds unknown, they begin to wonder how it could not be her.

The novel chugs, motors, tootles along. Margins and typeface are quite large. Pages fly past. It's all very funny and just barely diverting from the cares of the day: that's all popular fiction has to be. The fleet and modest narrative is clued in to the class life of Mayfair, and full of those tasty rhetorical turns once minted by Wilde and Chesterton, observations of duplicitous humanity which are both undeniably brilliant and a mark of the minor sensibility, no matter their truth.

Then there is a quite extraordinary scene. I give nothing away to say that it involves two detectives knocking on the door of a shady foreign man; that his tart phrasing of plain truths disarms the dicks; and that he is seen to be wearing, for some reason, a salmon-colored, shoulder-strapped lady's swimming garment.

Hmm, is the thought, now there's a wrinkle. Soon the climax winds into view and the wrinkle becomes a crevice. The novel turns irrevocably from being a piddling, polite procession of manners into something hell-fired. The man who has become our hero is plunged into a nightmarish little scene whose possibilities could not have been presaged but whose logic makes good enough sense, in addition to being surprising, frightening. The wrought-iron gates of Grosvenor Square are burned red and twisted into the gates of hell, and beyond those gates lies an ending with some small and troubling ingredient of tragedy. The last paragraph is terse, free of pity.

What has Arlen been up to all this time? Quite certainly, more than you imagined he was at the start. But has it been a joke? Or merely the set-up for a joke that never came? Is this the punchline? Why am I not laughing?

I may not be haunted long by this silly tale with its preposterous denouement. But I'm haunted today. And today has several hours left in it.

The Grenadier Pub, Wilton Row, Belgravia, London, June 29, 2006