Sunday, 8 December 2013

Penguin no. 1959: The Hammersmith Maggot
by William Mole

Cover design by Romek Marber.
Women drink because men drink or because they are in physical pain: sometimes because they have lost a lover, more usually because they have lost their looks. They never drink when they are happy. Men are more difficult, more double-faced. They drink for both reasons: to swell happiness or to dull misery. Lockyer was not happy: that much was perfectly plain. But why was he miserable?

I could never really believe in Casson and his hunt for a blackmailer. It didn't matter how often the narrator justified his actions, and he seemed intent on justifying them every few pages, there was very little about Casson's behaviour which made any sense: his motivation seemed irrational, his confidence in his own conjectures seemed delusional, and his willingness to neglect his business while devoting his time and money to the search for a blackmailer defied belief. With every advancing page, all I could see were the flaws.

It was something of a surprise, therefore, to find that The Hammersmith Maggot had been selected as a classic of crime by Barzun and Taylor. I have no idea what it was they found so compelling - the book I read featured an unappealing protagonist, fairly pompous prose ('two barges were leaning heavily on the bare mud, looking like torpid louts still unrecovered from the night's full swell of intoxication'), some doubtful wisdom, such as that on the drinking habits of women quoted above, and an unbelievable plot. It was the type of story in which the criminal helpfully leaves the single clue upon which his detection will ultimately depend, and where the sleuth turns up trumps with every guess.

In the beginning it seemed to be all details: we know what Casson reads, touches, thinks and does. We know the streets he walks along, the cigarettes he smokes, the meal he has for lunch, the year of the wine he chooses as an accompaniment. On the only day he turns up at his office with the intention of putting in a full day's work, we know what he does at 9am, 10am and 11am; when he has a film developed, we are told every step of the process. Perhaps all this was meant to emphasise the slow coalescing of his ideas as he searches for an answer from a handful of (exceptionally convenient) clues or perhaps the author simply wanted to advertise his knowledge. I found it distracting, and it slowed the progress of the plot.

Casson is really the wealthy wine merchant Alistair Casson Duker. His life is an easy one, and exactly the kind to which the blackmailer aspires - a home in Mayfair, premises in Vigo Street, a Rolls in the garage, and membership of a club in St James's Street; part of his fortune was inherited, part he has accumulated himself. He possesses an easy confidence, a sense of his own superiority and a certainty that he is right.

But he also seems unusually inquisitive and given to prying into others' affairs. While he explains this trait by fashioning himself as a collector of oddities and someone who experiences curiosity as an itch, the truth is surely that Casson is nosey and manipulative. When he observes the normally strait-laced Henry Lockyer, Director of Gammans Bank, throwing down one whiskey after another, his concern is not for the man but for the mystery: he is determined to know why he is behaving this way. He affects to offer assistance, but he is actually intent on taking advantage of Lockyer's intoxication to keep him drinking and talking.

He discovers that Lockyer has been blackmailed. One thousand pounds have been paid to a man named Bagot to dissuade him carrying out a threat to visit a police station and identify Lockyer as homosexual. This is, apparently, an almost perfect crime - the allegation alone would ruin Lockyer's career, so its baselessness is irrelevant, no evidence need ever be produced, and the blackmailer can feel confident that his crime will go unreported. Lockyer certainly has no intention of pursuing the blackmailer, preferring to drown his sorrows in whiskey, but Casson decides that he will go in search of Bagot anyway. And while his principal concern is with catching the criminal, partly for his own entertainment and partly to rid society of the menace the man represents, Casson is also concerned with ensuring that the police don't step in and take credit for his work.

There was nothing I liked about Casson. The blackmailer may have committed a murder - Casson cannot know for sure - and he may well be deserving of no pity at all, but I still found the enthusiasm Casson feels for his demise, an enthusiasm shared by Superintendent Strutt of the West End Central Police Station, rather morbid. They appear to relish the fate awaiting the man (that is, death by hanging) should he be caught, tried and convicted. And if he cannot be caught, Casson will be content to torment him psychologically in the hope that he may come to believe that suicide is his only way out. This contempt for the criminal is captured in the title: the maggot is not a reference to an obsession; it expresses the disdain these two characters feel for the man Casson is hunting.

First published by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1963.


  1. You sure don't sound like you liked this book at all. Apparently, however, one of the selling points for this book was that Queen Elizabeth liked it (for what that is worth). This was one of three books about Casson Duker the author wrote in the 1950s.

    1. I did a quick search through the Penguin list, and this is the only title by William Mole which shows up, so perhaps the other two Casson Duker stories were never published as Penguins.

      I didn't enjoy it; I thought its faults were so evident that I was stunned to read that it had been lauded. Books this poor stay with you, so that you can never forget where you were when you read them - I read this while I was away at a Biometrics conference, and I am sure the two will remain intertwined in my mind forever more.

    2. As you stated, Barzun and Taylor liked this book. In fact it was on their list of top 100 crime novels they selected for republication in the Garland series. Barzun was of course a very well-known scholar. When I look at his list, however, it seems to me that some of his choices are very well-known and others are idiosyncratic and largely forgotten. Sometimes, I think that people mistake a critical judgment for something that they like. It would not surprise me if the Mole book were on their list simply because it hit them where they lived. I have their reprint copy of this book, so I ought to get around to reading it and making up my own mind.



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