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Monday, September 19, 2016

The novels of Alan Melville

The British Library's Crime Classics series has unearthed quite a few interesting old tales over the past few years and seems to have been successful enough for there to be more titles in the pipeline for 2017. In 2015, they reissued two novels by Alan Melville, describing them as  "witty, satirical" and "light-hearted". Dorothy L. Sayers, reviewing Quick Curtain in 1936 for the Sunday Times, believed the book "blows the solemn structure of the detective novel sky-high."

Melville was less interested in accurately depicting police procedure, Sayers complaining that his "happy policeman" never turned in a report or acknowledged any superiors and spends all his time bullying the local bobbies; which reasonably describes most British cop dramas from Midsummer Murders to A Touch of Frost. Instead, Melville kept his plots light and entertaining, taking pot-shots at a number of types to be found in the theatre and putting entertainment ahead of accuracy.

Whilst Sayers preferred procedure and found Melville wanting, someone who played a little looser with his thrills appreciated his skills, thriller writer Sydney Horler said of Melville, "He possesses an engaging sense of humour; his dialogue is quick and bright and witty; his characters are alive and amusing. In short, he can write." During a talk at the Berwick Rotary Club in 1936, Melville quoted a letter from a member of the public which ran: "As a rule, nothing keeps my sister and I up after 9.15, but we stayed up till 10.15, and consider your book was well worth it."

Melville had a broad sense of humour and was a popular broadcaster and raconteur on radio. On an episode of Quote, Unquote broadcast shortly before his death, he explained that he would always look through The Times obituaries every day to see if he appeared. And one day he had, although the obituary in question was for another Alan Melville, the South African cricketer who had died six months earlier.

One wonders how he would have reacted to Wikipedia, which carries a comparatively learned entry for him but which fails to note that Melville was not a real name. He was born William Melville Caverhill in Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland, on 9 April 1910, the only son of William Allan Melville (1876–28 April 1925), a timber merchant, and his wife Janet McCrae Caverhill (c.1876–30 December 1929).

The family lived at Castle Terrace, Berwick, William attending the local Berwick Grammar School before becoming a boarder at Edinburgh Academy. Leaving at the age of 17, he was apprenticed as a joiner for five years at the offices of Messrs Allan Brothers, Tweed Saw Mills, at Tweedmouth.

His first writing effort was at the age of 16 when he penned a 2,000-word article for the paper London Calling, which was accepted but the paper folded before it could be used.

In 1932, he was the winner of a literary prize, winning an essay competition run by the publishers of "Everyman". His essay, "My Perfect Holiday", won him a trip to Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Britain, which left Southampton on 13 August 1932, arriving in Quebec five days later. The trip included a short stay in the Chateau Frontenae, Quebec.

Soon after, Caverhill sold a series of short stories to the BBC's North Region "Children's Hour", which he read himself. This put him on the path of becoming a writer and broadcaster, selling short stories and articles written at the timber yard, to the daily press, as well as acting with the Berwick Amateur Dramatic Society. He followed these with his first novel, Week-end at Thrackley, which was sold to Skeffington. The book was well received by the public, although less so by the Spectator:
Week-End at Thrackley is the House-Party again—the house party collected by an eccentric old man for his own purposes. Mr. Melville's host and the adventures of his wealthy guests are sketched on extravagant lines. Jewels, secret cellars, and (alas!) surprise identities are mixed with some light humour that deserves a better plot. (The Spectator, 2 March 1934)
Melville later adapted the novel as a radio serial and it was filmed in 1952 by director Kenneth Hume as Hot Ice. Week-end at Thrackley was publshed in February 1934

It was followed in October by Quick Curtain.
Written in a crisp, clear-cut style with no superfluidity in words, "Quick Curtain," Alan Melville's new novel, holds the reader's attention from start to finish and should have as great a run as his first novel, "Week-end at Thrackley," which was entirely sold out. There is no doubt Alan Melville can write, and he etches in his descriptions with deft strokes of the pen bringing the whole mystery vividly before his readers, but always keeping, as a writer of a good mystery should, the solution to the end. The story has a novel opening and in the first few pages we get a murder and a suicide—actors in a musical comedy, "Blue Music," on its first performance. The mystery of these happenings is not solved till the show had been put on again, and between these two performances sensation follows sensation. Berwick has every reason to be proud of our young author, Alan Melville (Mr Melville Caverhill) (The Berwick Advertiser, 1 November 1934)

Alan Melville's "Quick Curtain," which is recommended by the Crime-Book Society, is a highly flippant and diverting story. A famous actor is shot dead in full view of the audience, and the other actor who held the revolver (dummy) is found hanged in his dressing room. Inspector Wilson and his son Derek take the case in hand, do some fine sleuthing, and (after another murder) dramatically capture their suspect. When they are proved wrong in every particular this unconventional story exceeds itself. (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 16 November 1934)
Melville's third novel was published on 6 June 1935 and was set on a golf course a few miles south of his home town on Berwick-on-Tweed. As could be expected, it was given a positive review in the local paper:
One reviewer has described Alan Melville's latest novel as "a giddy story of a padre sleuth." It certainly is amusing, and definitely the best he has done yet. This is the first of his books to be given a local setting, the story being laid round about Berwick, and most of the action takes place on Goswick gold course, although in the book it is called "Cheswick." The descriptions of "Hell" bunker will arouse sympathetic feelings in all golfers who at one time or another have suffered therein, but, fortunately, none of us have had the experience of finding the legs of a dead body sticking out of the whin, as was the experience of "The Vicar in Hell"—the "Hell" has, of course, nothing to do with the nether regions.
    Though the setting of the novel is recognisable as local, it is quite obvious that the characters in it are entirely fictitious, especially the Vicar, who reads detective stories in the pulpit while the curate is intoning the lessons, and who on one occasion, at morning service, had read out the opening of Chapter VII of Death Comes to Loamchester Towers instead of announcing that the choir would render the anthem "Ye gates, lift up your heads"!
    The book opens with an epilogue and closes with a prologue, while the chapters in between unfold the story. The epilogue describes how the Berwick police (also obviously fictitious characters) get in on a gang of "dope" runners at the Cliff House, Cheswick, which later becomes a fashionable hotel.
    The Vicar is a sleuth to the manenr born, and, for a "man wearing his collar the wrong way round" obviously enjoys the situation when Sir Horace Hackett is found dead in "Hell." He goes to a lot of trouble to take and identify footprints. The inquest which follows was held in the local schoolroom, and there are some sly digs at the idiosyncrasy of the local newspaper "to fly off at a tangent about the latest news of anybody or anything, no matter whether such news was connected with the business in hand or not. Rather fun, in a way: there was always the possibility of finding that Mrs Haliburton had had a baby in the middle of last Saturday's football match."
    The clue to all happenings comes in the prologue, and the mystery is well kept to the last.
    The novel has been selected by the Crime Book Society as their first recommendation for the month, and Alan Melville has just renewed his contract with Messrs Skeffington & Son for a further three novels, the first of which will appear in the autumn. (The Berwick Advertiser, 6 June 1935)

In "The Vicar in Hell," Alan Melville tells a delightfully witty story. A great men is found shot, revolver beside him, in a bunker known as Hell. Suicide is the verdict, but the Vicar, who reads thrillers in church, identifies footprints and finds they belong to several respectable people. He doesn't find the murderer's footprints, however, and the latter gentleman succeeds in camouflaging another murder as suicide before making his departure in safety. (Aberdeen Journal, 20 June 1935)

The alarmist title of this original and stimulating novel is accounted for quite simply. A certain bunker on a golf course has the character of Hades, and while searching it for a ball the estimable vicar made a grim discovery that involved a long tortuous inquiry. Mystery and pathos commingle, and the finale leaves the reader with curious impressions. (Dundee Courier, 16 July 1935)

In October 1935, a new name appeared in the roster of publisher Rich & Cowan. Neil Carruthers was, in fact, another pen-name adopted by W. Melville Caverhill, as he explained about a month after the book appeared:
A "Berwickshire News" Reporter approached Mr Caverhill to ascertain the reason for the change of his nom-de-plume, and he replied, "I intended to keep this a secret, but it seems to have leakead out somehow.
    "Yes, I wrote the book," he confessed, "and its name is "Eleven Twenty Seven." In case anyone wonders why I wrote the book under the name 'Neil Carruthers,' I should explain that I did not wish to go on indefinitely writing only thrillers, and as my other publishers – Messrs Skeffingtons – specialise in thrillers I had to find a different firm to bring out any 'straight' novels which I might write."
    The publishers of "Eleven Twenty Seven" are Messrs Rich & Cowan Ltd., and this novel is the first book to be published by them, under a very satisfactory contract.
    It is the story of the first prize-winner in a huge State lottery. One of the early reviews describes it as a "sermon preached in terms of farce against the dangers of winning a great money prize." Mr Clink, the unfortunate hero of the story, finds that his troubles—instead of ending when he hears of his good luck—have only begun. He is paraded by the Press, invaded by borrowers and beggars, mixed up in serious international affairs, involved in a very disturbing legal action, and even runs the risk of being suspected as a possible murderer.
    The novel has been well received and has earned enthusiastic reviews.
    "Are you giving up the writing of thrillers?" Mr Caverhill was asked. "Oh no," was the rejoinder. "The position is that, in future, 'Alan Melville' will continue to turn out mystery novels, while 'Neil Carruthers' will restrict himself to straight fiction. My—'Alan Melville's—next thriller is very nearly completed and will be published by Skeffington in the early weeks of the New Year."
    The title of Mr Caverhill's new book, which will be his fifth novel in two years, is "Warning to Critics." (The Berwickshire News, 26 November 1935)
Neil Carruthers was credited with no further novels. Whether Caverhill simply failed to write any more 'straight' novels or adopted another name, the first having become public knowledge, is unknown.

Warning to Critics, was published on 16 April 1936, marking Melville's return to the humorous thriller, and was welcomed by Torquemada of The Observer:
I read Mr Melville's "Warning to Critics" just after finishing Mr Wodehouse's "Young Men in Spats." I hope I shall not be murdered for saying that the former book suffers by the juxtaposition. Mr Melville has flashes of penetrating and genial humour quite worthy of the Master, but he more often uses that other brand associated with equine neckwear. A crucial instance of the latter may be seen in the burlesquerie of the novels for the slating of which Jonathan Gray was murdered by their author. Had the hero been given some real, even though shy ability, we would have been more in sympathy with the crime. But this having been said in defiance of Mr Melville's warning, I must confess that I enjoyed the book and my heart was in my mouth quite a lot of the time. (The Observer, 26 April 1936)
As it happens, the author's warning to critics of a similar fate as the one related in his latest novel is unnecessary for it would be difficult for any of his reviewers to criticise his book in anything but congratulatory tones. It is a murder story that is different. The author plays the part of author-murderer, and tells how his previous novels had been scurrilously abused and ridiculed by a reviewer, Jonathan Gray, to such an extent that literary progress was impossible, and finally his wife denounced him as a failure and left him. Resolved to take revenge, he planned and carried out the critic's murder, and if Gray could find no praise for him as a writer he could have done so for his ability as a murderer. The verdict is not guilty, and his success is immediately ensured. The book is written in light and humorous vein. It makes excellent reading and should prove most popular. (The Berwickshire News, 16 June 1936)
In 1936, the Berwick Advertiser offered an impressive overview of Melville's busy schedule:
Alan Melville's new novel, "Death of Anton," will be published on October 29th by Skeffington and Son, London. The novel is a story of life in a great travelling circus, and should please all who have enjoyed his previous books.
    He is at present working on a novel for early-spring publication, entitled provisionally "The Danube Flows Red." For the first time in any of his book, this novel will have a strong romantic interest.
    He also has several shows down for production by the B.B.C. between now and Christmas. "Some Guy," a revue dealing with various aspects of Guy Fawkes' Day, will be broadcast in the Scottish Regional programme on November 5th, and a humorous feature programme entitled "Guid Gear" is due for production on November 21st.
    The Aberdeen "Children's Hour" programme on November 12th has been written by him and takes the form of an adventure programme entitled "All at Sea." In December a full-length revue, "Paging Panto," comes from Glasgow, with book and lyrics by Alan Melville, and music composed by George McNeill, while a satirical show, "Pursuit of Pleasure," will be broadcast later in the year from Aberdeen.
    Alan Melville's sketch, "The Meenister," which has been broadcast twice within recent weeks, is proving popular with amateur dramatic societies in Scotland. (The Berwick Advertiser, 22 October 1936)
Reviews for Death of Anton were again positive:
Having successfully "warned his critics" Alan Melville is on another tack in the "Death of Anton," his new novel published to-day (Thursday). This is a thriller bound up with circus life, and who does not enjoy a circus? In addition to witnessing the characters on the flying trapese swing through the air "with the greatest of ease" or laughing with Dodo, the clown of clowns, the readers of this new novel take part in a real circus party of "beer and bangers" and just in case the circus may be dull the author adds a few extra thrills in the way of murders. It is an entertaining book. There are six tigers, but they were not responsible for the killings—who was? Well, the reader will be kept in suspese right to the end—a true test of the "thriller." And if there were not excitement enough there is a mystery thread throughout and a detective to unravel it.
    For an evening by the fireside what more could anyone want? (The Berwick Advertiser, 29 October 1936)

Those who like their fiction full-blooded should find satisfaction in Mr Alan Melville's "Death of Anton" which deals with a mystery behind the scenes of circus life. One cannot reconcile Mr Minto with a Scotland Yard detective, nor would the Lord Chief Justice look with complaisance upon the local police arrangements; but ill-doers meet with their just punishment, and what else matters! As may be imagined, a varied assortment of life is met with, including a clown who always carries with him "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," but contents himself with turning over the pages. The types are well-drawn and the scheme excellently conceived and presented. (Western Daily Press, 1 December 1936)

Talking about his writing career in 1936, Melville said:
One of the funniest things about writing is the attitude one's friends and relatives adopt, and another the pecular attitude adopted towards writers that they live entirely on air. The number of people who come up to me and ask personally for a copy of my latest book is staggering and phenomenal. The sooner people realise the better that out of the 7s 6d a novel costs, the publisher gets nearly 5s 6d, the bookseller 1s 3d, and the author, if he is lucky, gets the rest. I do not advise anybody to take up authorship as a really lucrative pastime. It is exciting, but it is risky, and you might as well take up road-sweeping. It is safer and cleaner.
    I do not want you to think I am bitter about this writing business. I get a lot of fun out of it. A great thing is its unexpectedness: you never quite know what is going to happen. I have always liked the sound of the postman's knock, and now it is the most thrilling thing in the world. it may be a bound book, a rejection note, a contract, or, occasionally, a cheque. It is a most thrilling around.
Caverhill worked for several months in the variety department of the B.B.C. in London before being appointed in the programmes department of the B.B.C. at Aberdeen in April 1937. He later moved to Glasgow in January 1939 to take charge of industrial programmes broadcast from all over Scotland, a type of programming he had introduced whilst in Aberdeen which had become a national feature. Caverhill went on to involve himself in documentaries ranging from fishing to the history of tweed.

Before long, Caverhill found himself producing programmes that were to be broadcast to the forces overseas and writing a revue (The Little Revue) in aid of the City of Glasgow War Relief Fund. In October 1940, he was appointed to the Overseas Division of the B.B.C. in London, responsible for writing the programme for the North American service which was being extended. This entailed writing The Robinson Family, about an ordinary family in wartime London, which he wrote for some eighteen months.

While in London he was able to involve himself in writing for a number of revues, including Rise Above It, Scoop and others, before he joined the R.A.F. in 1942.

His work for the B.B.C. seems to have put an end to his writing of novels. One final title, The Danube Flows Red, was almost published in 1940.
Forsaking the detective story for the time being, Alan Melville, in "The Danube Flows Red," has written a story of adventure and intrigue in modern Hungary.
    The scene is laid in Budapest, where Peter Grant is spending six days' holiday as a member of a conducted tour. The tour began as an ordinary one; yet on arrival in Budapest, Peter found himself bundled unceremoniously into a strange car, drugged and driven away to the mysterious building in Buda which he afterwards knew as Castle Schenyadi. From that moment, his visit was anything but ordinary. Kidnappings, risings and murder were crowded into a few hectic days. (Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 25 May 1940)
Although reviewed, the book—written in 1936—was never published. Skeffington & Son (by then owned by Hutchinson & Co.) was forced to almost close down in 1940 and their schedule of books collapsed. They published only a handful of crime/thriller novels in the spring of 1940 (Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, Vacant Possession by Margaret Butcher, Red Escapade by Roger Bax and East of Kashgar by F. A. M. Webster) and The Danube Flows Red seems to have fallen foul of the Blitz, the paper shortage and the shortage of skilled staff, from editors to bookbinders, as staff were called up for the war effort. Skeffinton's offices were bombed out in December 1940.

Squadron-Leader W. Melville Caverhill left the R.A.F. in 1946 and went on to have a memorable career as a playwright and broadcaster. He died in Brighton on 23 December 1983, aged 73.

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