Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ten Little Indians: William Henry Blore

Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

This article contains spoilers.

“It would have been equally impossible for [Golden Age detective novelists] to have created a policeman who beat up suspects, although this was a time when American newspapers wrote about the Third Degree.  Acknowledging that such things happened, they would have thought it undesirable to write about them, because the police were the representatives of established society, and so ought not to be shown behaving badly.”
 —Julian Symons, author of Bloody Murder

“Blore...was a bad hat!”
—Sir Thomas Legge, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard

Blore in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Curt: William Henry Blore is charged by Mr. Owen with having “brought about the death of James Stephen Landor on October 10th, 1928.  William Henry Blore is a former policeman, ex-C.I.D. (he’s now running “a detective agency in Plymouth”). 

But who was James Stephen Landor?  When queried about this after Mr. Owen has made his phonograph charges against his guests, the following exchange occurs:

Lombard said:
“What about yourself, Mr. Blore?”
“What about me?”
“Your name was included in the list.”
Blore went purple.
“Landor, you mean?”  That was the bank robbery—London and Commercial.”
Mr. Justice Wargrave stirred.  He said:
“I remember.  It didn’t come before me, but I remember the case.  Landor was convicted on your evidence.  You were the police officer in charge of the case?”
Blore said:
“I was.”
“Landor got penal servitude for life and died in Dartmoor a year later.  He was a delicate man.”
Blore said:
“He was  a crook.  It was he who knocked out the night watchman.  The case was quite clear against him.”
Wargrace said slowly:
“You were complimented, I think, on your able handling of the case.”
Blore in the 1965 adaptation.
Blore said sulkily:
“I got my promotion.”
He added in a thick voice:
“I was only doing my duty.”
Lombard laughed—a sudden ringing laugh.  He said:
“What a duty-loving, law-abiding lot we all seem to be!”

Of course the cynical Lombard is correct.  Everyone on Indian Island is hiding something, most certainly including Blore. Blore is an individual unthinkable in the Golden Age mystery, according to Julian Symons: the crooked English cop.

To be sure, such characters are exceptions in Golden Age English mystery, where English writers were far more comfortable admitting police corruption in the United States (“We’ll have none of your American third-degree here, my good man!”). In And Then There Were None, righteous spinster Miss Brent reflects this view when she pronounces that Mr. Owen’s accusations against a judge (Wargrave) and an ex-Scotland Yard man (Blore) of course are “far fetched and ridiculous.”  To Miss Brent’s tidy and complacent mind the idea that Wargrave and Blore, representatives of the state, could be guilty of murder (and in their official capacities, no less) is outrageous.

However, contrary to Julian Symons, bad cops do appear now and then in Golden Age English mystery (besides Blore, other notable instances that come to my mind are found in the fine works of Henry Wade). 

Blore in the 1974 film
Pretty late in the book, Blore admits to Lombard (the two scoundrels share an instinctive understanding of one another) that he in fact took a bribe from professional criminals and committed perjury to frame the hapless Landor for the crime:

“Oh well, here goes, Landor was innocent right enough.  The gang had got me squared and between us we got him put away for a stretch.  Mind you, I wouldn’t admit this—“
“If there were any witnesses,” finished Lombard with a grin.  “It’s just between you and me.  Well, I hope you made a tidy bit out of it.”
“Didn’t make what I should have done.  Mean crowd, the Purcell gang.  I got my promotion, though.”
“And Landor got penal servitude and died in prison.”
“I couldn’t know he was going to die, could I?”

This is a nice exchange, because it neatly reveals the extremely narrow limits of Blore’s moral conscience.  Blore perhaps feels a little guilt over the fact that Landor actually died as the result of his, Blore’s, dishonest actions, but the idea of Landor serving life in prison because of them doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

Blore is nicely limned by Christie throughout the book.  She effectively captures his essential thuggery and his lack of gentlemanly status though his language and her description.  Blore’s idiom definitely marks him off from the other guests (the Rogers excepted, though Blore doesn’t drop his h’s under pressure like Mr. Rogers does):

Blore in the 1989 film
“He’s a madman!  A Loony!”

“I’ll knock your ruddy block off.”

Unlike Miss Brent, say, Blore isn’t well-schooled in hiding his emotions.  At various pressure points in And Then There Were None he turns purple/red with emotion and he sweats copiously, having to mop his face with his handkerchief.  Not used to swanky social functions, he has trouble tying a tie.  Yet he also helps in the kitchen after both Mr. and Mrs. Rogers have expired, telling Vera that he’s a “domestic sort of man.”  One gathers Blore is not married (an interesting thought: outside of the Rogers, none of the Indian Island guests are) and has to do for himself to a great extent.

Until Mr. Owen “does for him,” that is. 

I must add here that this is one case where I’m dubious about Mr. Owen’s murder scheme:

I watched them from the windows of the house.  When Blore came up alone I had the big marble clock poised ready.  Exit Blore....

The pair of surviving Indians finds Blore “spread-eagled on the stone terrace on the east side, his head crushed and mangled by a great block of white marble.” 

So much for the notion that there is no blood and gore in genteel English mysteries!  I vividly remember reading for the first time of Blore’s terrible end, even though it was over thirty-five years ago.

By the by, credit the wily Christie with informing readers early on that the marble clock was shaped rather like a bear.  How many people ever spot that?

Ah, but it all sounds so simple when Owen tells it, doesn’t it?  Me, I don’t know.  Admittedly (and I do want to stress this), I don’t have any experience in trying to kill people with big marble clocks poised on upper story windows, but this particular murder method strikes me as pretty chancy.  Of course, as we will see further when discussing the final two deaths on Indian Island, luck truly was with our murderer....

***

Patrick: Well, Curt, you’ve said nearly everything I wanted to say about Blore, and I’m sure I couldn’t do it any better!

I remember being puzzled at Symons’ assertion that the cops are never crooked in Golden Age mysteries. Putting aside Henry Wade, you will find crooked cops in many other authors’ works (though, as you say, they are the minority!). Agatha Christie herself has, on occasion, made the investigating police officer the murderer. John Dickson Carr also did this at least once. And in one of these books (which I will quote without crediting the author or the title), the following exchange occurs:

“My best man! What’s the police coming to?”
[The detective] said:
“Even policemen have private lives! [The murderer] was a very proud man.”
Blore in the 1945 film

And that, of course, is a very interesting point. Very often, in reading Golden Age mysteries, both author and reader can forget that the investigating police officer is a person with his own thoughts and feelings. In the particularly subpar stories, the officer exists only to tear at his slowly-receding hair and shout at Poirot (or whoever is investigating) “Heavens, man! Are you mad? What possible significance could the burnt-down candles and the wilted daisies have?”

This is what can make the police-officer-as-murderer a surprising twist, but here, Christie aims higher than just giving a shock-ending to the proceedings. As Sir Thomas Legge so aptly puts it, Blore was a bad hat— a thoroughly nasty sort. Corruption, for him, is not that big of a deal so long as you’re not caught— even when being stalked to the death by Mr. Owen for his crime, he takes the time to grumble about how he should have been paid more for his perjury! The only thing that remotely bothers him here is the victim’s death— but that isn’t his fault, surely?

A big bear hugged one...
Blore never struck me as a particularly sympathetic sort, and unfortunately, in Christie’s stage adaptation of And Then There Were None, his character gets rather botched. While the play as a whole is enjoyable, the tone is altered into that of a mystery-comedy (hoho, ten people will die, what fun, what?), and as part and parcel of that, the last three little Indians have their characters inexorably altered. It is particularly weird to see Blore turned into the comic relief. One of the running jokes is his obsession about getting something to eat—right before Wargrave’s death there’s an extended debate on whether Blore should bring biscuits or not—and right before Blore is due to die, the following dialogue occurs:

BLORE. I say, Captain Lombard, what about a nice bottle of beer?
LOMBARD. Do stop thinking about your stomach, Blore. This craving for food and drink will be your undoing.
BLORE. But there’s plenty of beer in the kitchen.
LOMBARD. Yes, and if anyone wanted to get rid of you, the first place they’d think of putting a lethal dose would be in a nice bottle of beer.

Blore's laughable death in the 1989 adaptation
But, as we all know, the method of murder is quite different from the one suggested here! And you are very right to say that luck was with Mr. Owen—if the last duo, Lombard and Vera, had kept their heads, they would have been able to deduce that none of them was the killer! For what was the murder method? The clock was pushed down onto Blore’s head. There was nothing discovered like string or anything of the sort, which would indicate a booby trap—the murderous booby-trap, incidentally, is what 1987’s Desyat Negrityat resorts to, and it keeps Mr. Owen’s identity secret for just a bit longer (though the effect is wasted when we see Mr. Owen’s corpse get up before Vera can hang herself!). So, if it wasn’t a booby trap, the clock was pushed. Vera and Lombard were together at the time, Blore surely could not have committed suicide in such a way. This should have led them to deduce that there was someone else on the island after all, and Mr. Owen’s plans would have been royally screwed (if you will pardon my French). But their logic was muddled by panic, and that is why Mr. Owen ended up winning the twisted little game after all.

16 comments:

  1. One big problem I have with the 1945 movie is that there is no "bear" involved in Blore's death. Also, in Christie's stage play there is no foreshadowing of the bear clock, although their is a bearskin rug as a red herring.

    Death by falling object is certainly plausible to me, although Robert Barnard complained that it was utterly impossible to kill someone in the manner attempted in Hercule Poirot's Christmas, although an identical booby trap in a later novel was considered acceptable due to the reasons behind it.

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  2. My favorite example of such is in Margery Allingham's The case of the Late Pig! Really ingenious and much safer for the murderer too, I think.

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  3. You continuing analysis of la Christie's novel continues to impress - congrats guys. I hope you eventually sum it all together. Bravi.

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  4. With regards to that paragraph from Symons though, I remain unconvinced however that his general point, and the reasoning behind it, has really been challenged. To suggest that in the torrent of mystery novels and short stories from the 20s and 30s there were some examples in which the policeman was the murderer was an inevitability one would have thought. That this would be dealt with seriously in terms of institutional corruption and abuse of power, which is the point being made, remains I think equally rare for exactly the reasons the critic gave.

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  5. A corrupt and murderous policeman also occurs in one of Edmund Crispin's novels - in fact, it is BECAUSE the murderer is a policeman that the murders, plus another attempted murder, take place, aided by the way other characters simply do not consider the policeman as a possible criminal.

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  6. Sergio, I agree that bad cops were much the exception in Golden Age English mystery fiction (indeed, I imagine they are an exception in fiction today as well, though less of one); but Symons conjectures that English Golden Age mystery writers had an ideological predisposition never to show police behaving badly. Whether they uniformly had such a predisposition, some did manage to portray cops as murderers and/or corrupt. With Blore, there's a really obvious case of cop corruption, in the bestselling Golden Age English mystery of all time

    Granted, I can't think of a novel that focuses as intently on police thuggishness as Symosn' Progress of a Crime!

    But my aim with the study of the genre is to find the nuaunces that are there!

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  7. Les, indeed! He's a bad'un. And Crispin was a diehard Tory!

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  8. God, that stage adaptation was horrible.

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  9. Curt I wouldn't for a minute doubt your superior expertise in this area. But on the other hand, in the main example (no spoilers) where Christie makes her policeman the villain from the GAD era he proves to be the bastard child from the wrong side of the family; and TEN LITTLE INDIANS is by its nature completely outside of the traditional GAD style (no heroes, all villains, no detective). Which is to say, Symons was basically right, wasn't he? To suggest that we can nitpick our way into a few examples where this was not the case does no damage to his argument whatsoever. Where are these GAD books that offer a Marxist view of society like Hammet's RED HARVEST?

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  10. Sergio, I'm afraid I can't agree. We have named several examples of policemen who are not behaving in the traditionally heroic way Symons suggests they *always* did-- he leaves no room for nuances. (So when he chastises authors for their inherent conservatism, I simply throw a copy of THE FOUR JUST MEN at him.) Symons once again oversimplified something to make his arguments sound stronger than they really were. That, more than anything else, is his greatest and most frequent crime in "Bloody Murder". Thanks to this criminal record, he makes sweeping generalisations about the genre and created the term "Humdrum", only to throw Henry Wade (?) and Gladys Mitchell (???) into the group-- when the two are literally nothing like what the term is *supposed* to mean. While Symons' study remains the best-- no other book takes such a comprehensive look at the genre in such an entertaining way-- it also remains highly flawed.

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  11. Sergio, if the question is, was the British Golden Age novel generally conservative, yes, I would agree. But is it as extremely conservative as Symons makes out? There I disagree. Symons suggests British authors wouldn't portray cops as bad eggs, that Jewish detectives would have been unthinkable, that the social order was defined as that of the Incas--all these are over-sweeping generalizations. Surely there's space between the Colonel Blimp view of the British detective novel and Dasihell Hammett's Red Harvest, the latter of which is exceptional even by today's standards (by the way, see my blog post where I point out similarity between Freeman Wills Crofts and Ian Rankin: http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/good-cop-bad-cop-freeman-wills-crofts.html ).

    And I say a lot more about this subject in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery--coming soon! Read it and see what you think. I do Julian Symons the honor of taking him seriously and I engage him quite a bit. I've read all his novels and criticism and have enjoyed him, even when I don't agree with him. Edmund Crispin and Symons were great friends, even though they disagreed on about everything, from politics to aesthetics! I'll review a Symons sometime!

    Back to Agatha and Patrick's blog, I love the pictures of all the Blores. I actually think '89 Blore looks the most Bloreish!

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  12. I've only ever seen the 1965 adaption of the film I need to get with it! Great discussion guys:)

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  13. At the risk of putting my foot in my mouth (I'm really far more insterested in how GAD stories work than what they're actually about) isn't Symons wrong because he's misunderstood the thought processes that go into constructing a mystery?

    If the puzzle comes first, then so does the framework that delineates that puzzle. And the police often provide that framework, by discovering (but misinterpreting) clues, reporting times of death, taking witness statements. There can't be any hint of corruption because the superstructure has to seem sturdy for the puzzle to appear solvable. If none of the facts can be trusted then the reader has nowhere to begin.

    A more specific example would be Medical Examiners. In real life I'm sure there are corrupt MEs, bad MEs, even murderous MEs. You could certainly write a good book about it, and probably someone has. But in a GAD story the function of the ME is almost exclusively to provide information about the corpse and the time of death, and to quickly dismiss parts of the solution space that the author isn't interested in permitting. 99% of MEs in mysteries are competent and accurate not because GA authors have an idealised and conservative view of the institution, but for the completely banal reason that you can't write a lot of puzzle mysteries without an (implausibly) accurate time of death.

    I'd say the same is true for the police. I'm sure a lot of GA authors were extremely conservative and viewed the police as noble and incorruptible. But that's a red-herring. I'd say there's very little squalid police behaviour not because they wouldn't write about it but because, by and large, they couldn't. The constant spectre of police information being unreliable would undermine British mysteries far more than their American counterparts.

    So I'd say Symon's mistake is to read politics into a structural inflexibility. But maybe I'm making the same overgeneralisations that he is?

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  14. Richmcd, very interesting point that the "conservatism" of the GA detective novel is more structural than ideological!

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  15. does the book say when blore was born?

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    Replies
    1. i need to know for an english project

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