We stumbled upon Maurice Procter’s 1956 novel by a roundabout route while searching for something else and, when I realised it was available for Kindle, I made an impulse purchase.
When I’m not obsessing about and over-thinking beer, I sometimes obsess about and over-think crime fiction. This book struck me as a weird hybrid of the American ‘police procedural’ (Ed McBain, Hillary Waugh) mashed together with British ‘angry young man’ social realism. In practice, that means the crime is grubby and small, the setting seedy, and the principal police characters a bit more psychologically complex than usual. (But only a bit.) Bill Knight, a burly undercover constable from Sheffield, is embedded in a working class community in fictional ‘Airechester’, where he struggles to balance ambition with his tendency to impulsive violence, and to manage his love life under circumstances which mean he cannot be or behave as himself. When the landlord of a local pub is killed, he finds himself involved with a rough local family whose son, the sinister Gunner, is the chief suspect. There aren’t many other suspects, in fact, or lots of twists — this isn’t a fiendish golden age whodunnit — but, as a crime novel, it’s compelling enough.
But what about the pub stuff?
It’s fiction, and set in a made-up city, so not all that useful as a historical source, but it is clear that Procter spent plenty of time in pubs and seems to have seen them as the prime points in any given landscape. His detailed descriptions of temporary décor, atmosphere and the subtle interactions of people — things that contemporary architectural texts and serious historians aren’t always so good at — bring these places to life:
Lounge bar it was called, but it was not a place of thick carpets and potted palms. The bar, the stools, and the table tops were of plain dark-brown wood. The tables had strong iron legs, and they were bolted to the composition floor. The pictures on the walls were girlie advertisements for champagne cider and similar drinks. The four beer pumps had blue-and-white handles. But the place was clean and the girlie pictures were attractive, and on the shelves behind the bar was a bright display of bottles which promised drinks for the most exacting connoisseur of spirits and liqueurs.
As well as the pub where most of the action takes place, The Starving Rascal, others are depicted, each given its own distinct character, like the Running Stag:
Being on a main thoroughfare of the city it had a clientèle which was different and more varied in type from a Champion Road tavern. It was also different in appearance. It was, in fact, a gin palace: all red leather, black Bakelite, plate glass, chromium plate and neon lights. It was a place where the manager was not acquainted with his customers and did not want to be.
At one point, a character, Gunner, enters a kind of frenzy trying to drink as much as possible in the ten minutes before closing time; and elsewhere, an Irishman brandishes a bottle at a migrant Pole for similar reasons:
Oh, that was an impulse of the moment. Timothy drunk my beer. I coulda throttled him. It was too late to get any more. After time, you see. But it was all a mistake. He said he was sorry.
One thing that is particularly striking is how often Procter portrays hard, hard-drinking, manly manual labourers drinking halves — there’s no compensatory compulsion to be seen to drink only pints.
It’s striking, too, that a great deal of the plot hinges upon the idea that the lease on a fairly low-down pub in a poor area might nonetheless be a goldmine under the right management — an inheritance worth having.
Perhaps the best line in the book, though — the one we’ll no doubt end up quoting again — occurs during the conversation over the corpse in the pub cellar which opens the book:
The doctor nodded again. ‘I believe that some brewers advise a certain fixed temperature for keeping their beer,’ he said. ‘British bellies can’t do with icy ale.’
If you’re interested in this period in British history and enjoy, say, early Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe) or Z-Cars then this is probably worth £4.99 (Kindle). A pulpy second-hand paperback edition with a garish cover would probably be even more fun, though.