CS Forester is immortal thanks to his adventure stories featuring the Royal Navy hero Horatio Hornblower; many a naval buff would rather discover an unpublished Hornblower yarn than find out the real truth about what happened on the Marie Celeste. And now a long-lost Forester has been published; not a Hornblower, though, but a crime novel.
Forester, whose real name was Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, wrote The Pursued in 1935 and originally intended to publish it in between the first two Hornblower novels. But since it has always been a publishing axiom that switching between genres throws the reading public into unmitigated confusion, he was advised to wait, and all copies of the typescript were subsequently lost.
In his autobiography (published in 1967, the year after his death) Forester expresses the hope that The Pursued will one day turn up, and in 2003 a copy did, sold anonymously at auction and snapped up by two sharp-eyed members of the C S Forester Society.
Forester had already published two crime novels before he wrote The Pursued, both now re-issued. Payment Deferred (1926), an absurdly under-rated book, and Plain Murder (1930), are both about hard-pressed suburb-dwellers whose sense of self-worth is invested in the expensive tokens of respectability that swallow up their salaries. Keeping up with the Joneses drives them to murder for money.
The Pursued is set in similar territory. Marjorie Grainger is a housewife who returns home from a night out to find her sister Dot, whom she left babysitting, dead with her head in the oven. Dot, who was unmarried and lived with their mother, is revealed at the inquest to have been pregnant and the verdict is suicide. But Dot was murdered by Ted, Marjorie’s boozy boor of a husband, to prevent her revealing that he was the father and unleashing a scandal that will cost him his job.
Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, both guess the truth, but neither will expose Ted for fear of shaming the family. So Mrs Clair cooks up a secret, terrible revenge. Like Miss Marple she brings divine retribution on the wicked, but unlike her she is not a disinterested, quasi-symbolic figure and has to be made into a plausible character. Forester struggles: he may tell us that “in the exaltation of spirit resulting from the hatred which consumed her” she becomes “a cunning and farsighted psychologist,” but he can’t quite make us believe this transformation from mild-mannered housewife to scheming manipulator.
Wisely, he spends more time concentrating on the passive but far more convincing Marjorie. Forester is particularly good on how desperation makes her cunning as she tries to avoid sex with Ted without making him suspect that she knows the truth. Although much of this is conveyed through euphemistic hints, the book still seems much franker than most period detective stories.
Forester expertly creates suspense while building up a picture of mundane lives in a way that recalls Patrick Hamilton. And the incidental detail provides a snapshot of a lost Britain. Where is the first place a woman goes to if she has left her home suddenly after committing a crime? To a milliner’s, of course, because being hatless will attract attention.
Michael Dibdin, one of the tiny number of commentators who have recognised Forester as a pioneer of naturalistic crime fiction in Britain, felt that he might have become one of the crime greats. But, he wrote, detective story-writers of the period “were required to submit to voluntary emasculation in order to maintain the profitable and reassuring sterility of the Golden Age product, so Forester not unnaturally preferred to run away to sea.”
Perhaps we should not lament too much. Hundreds of later crime writers have followed Forester’s lead even if they have not read his books. And a career in crime might have deprived us of Hornblower; and then we might never have had Patrick O'Brian’s novels or even (since Gene Roddenberry claimed to be influenced by the Hornblower saga) Star Trek. But The Pursued is still a very welcome bonus from beyond the grave, and is just as exciting as most of the more highly coloured crime stories that outsold Forester’s.