Guns in the Vicarage: On the Textual Criticism of Detective Fiction


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Textual criticism isn’t a discipline often employed in the study of detective fiction, as far as I know.  The establishing of reliable texts, the comparing of variant printings and manuscripts, arguing over disputed readings and emendations, tends to happen more when dealing with older or more generally valued texts.  We probably don’t need the kind of exertion to establish exactly what Ngaio Marsh or Agatha Christie wrote which would be necessary for Chaucer or St Paul.

Though there are some similarities between the action of textual criticism and the plots of detective novels.  In both cases the investigator examines “witnesses”, keeps a shrewd eye out for discrepancies, and has to construct a story about what “actually” happened from the story as it is told.  We deduce that a particular scribe mistook the word “Burton” for “Barton”, for example, or that a manuscript was damaged so it spelled out “I can’t go on” rather than “I can’t go on Friday”.  A lot of branches of research are compared to the actions of a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but I think textual criticism has some claim to a comparison.

However, in my roaming through the novels of the four ”Queens of Crime” (Allingham, Christie, Sayers, Marsh) there are occasional moments when the text throws up a problem which needs solving.  I’ve written about this before, in the case of the variations in the wording of the sonnet in Gaudy Night.  This month a couple of Ngaio Marsh novels provided passages which I think need explanation.

The first comes in Killer Dolphin, the US edition of Death at the Dolphin – and the fact that it’s the US edition matters in my theory.  One character is a playwright and director, and he lives with a friend who specializes in stage design.  He comes home in one scene to find the designer working on a model for a production:


That might not be an obvious problem.  The title of the play is quite plausible, and it sounds like a vaguely high-tone arty piece, with plenty of potential for dramatic scenery.  Except it made me pause.  Because I have never heard of the play Venice Observed, but I have heard of the play Venice Preserv’d and the travelogue Venice Observed.

The former is a 1680s Restoration political tragedy by Thomas Otway, one of the most memorably grubby examples of the genre.  One scene particularly stays in the recollection, in which the senator begs the dominatrix to spit in his mouth and pretend that he is her dog, and she tells hm to hurry up and come because she’s getting bored.  It was more successful than most examples of the genre, possibly because it was so obviously about contemporary politics whilst claiming to be about political crises in historical Venice, and entered the repertoire in a small way.

It would be perfectly reasonable for a theatre club to be producing Venice Preserv’d in the mid twentieth century.  The revival of the “Older British Dramaists” (Renaissance and Restoration playwrights other than Shakespeare) was carried out in large part by small theatre groups and societies, such as the Phoenix Society at Cambridge.  So my suggested emendation to the text, “Preserv’d” for “Observed” would at least make sense on the surface.

The travel book Venice Observed was written by the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, who also famously wrote The Group and Groves of Academe.  (Highly recommend, incidentally.)  As far as I know, it was never adapted into a play, nor do I know of another play from that era with the same title.  A slight complication is introduced by the fact that I’ve always assumed McCarthy’s title is a pun.  Her two Italian travel books were entitled The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed, which I took for granted were plays on Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Otway’s Venice Preserv’d.

If McCarthy did indeed have those titles in mind, the confusion between “Observed” and “Preserv’d” in the US edition of Marsh’s novel has a rather better pedigree than most typographical errors.  In mistaking one for the other, the typesetter in fact reproduced McCarthy’s mild play on words, though accidentally.

My suggested emendation to the text of Killer Dolphin can be cross-checked relatively easily.  Consulting the UK edition of the text, I find that it was indeed Venice Preserv’d that the designer is working on.  But there is still a theory to be developed about the mistake.  After all, this is not simply a mechanical slip, like setting “an” for “and”.  The person setting the type had to substitute a new word for the existing one, and we need an explanation for why they did so.

I think the answer can be found in the context of the printing.  Just as the US edition gave the novel a slightly baffling cover, we might attribute the change in word to a transatlantic misunderstanding.  A typesetter working for Harcourt Mifflin in the 1960s might well be familiar with the ruthless prose and dry East Coast wit of Mary McCarthy, but unfamiliar with the satirical tragedies of 1680s London.  They might well also be unfamiliar with the small theatre groups of midcentury Britain, with their penchant for Early Modern drama.  The swapping of one word for another might have been unconscious.  But it might also have been intentional: after all, “Preserv’d” is not a word in modern English, so the typesetter might have thought the title had been mangled in the original version, and that in substituting “Observed” they were actually correcting an earlier type mistake.

It’s not a major point about the novel, and it’s easily correctable by consulting another edition, but I like the way that this typographical error tells a story about the way Marsh’s book travelled and was interpreted.  It is, in its way, a piece of literary history about what people expected to find in a detective novel, and how they bent the text to their expectations.  And, of course, it is sheer deduction.  I have no supporting evidence for the story of the typesetter who knew McCarthy but not Otway, and who thought they were repairing a flaw in the text.  I only deduce their existence from something which doesn’t fit in the fictional world of Inspector Alleyn – a discrepancy in the story I was told – and from what I know of the literary and theatrical context of the time.

The second textual crux appears in Marsh’s Overture to Death.  I was reading a paperback reprinted within the last twenty years when I came across this passage:



This, also, gave me pause for thought.  Of course it could be part of the story but since no-one else in the scene remarks on it, I assume there has been a textual error.  I suspect there was no beretta on the table by the hymn books, but rather a biretta.



A Beretta



A biretta


The one is a weapon made by one of the oldest gunsmiths in Italy, and popular in midcentury thrillers.  The other is a form of clerical headgear worn by Catholic clergy.

I thought originally that it was a variant spelling I didn’t know.  After all, they are both Italian words, and English has not always incorporated words using only one spelling.  But I could not find any reference to the hat spelled “beretta”. So I concluded that there had been another mistake in the typesetting.

This is a pleasing error for more than one reason.  Firstly, because both words are clues to the character of the clergyman about to appear in the scene.  Although the paragraph suggests this is a perfectly average clerical house, the existence of a biretta is supposed it distinguish it from other rectories.  The wearing of a biretta by a clergyman of the Church of England indicates distinctly Catholic or High Church leanings, especially in this period.  This later becomes an important part of both the plot, as does the fact that this parish has recently resumed the use of the sacrament of confession.  It’s not quite so dramatic a clue as the presence of a beretta might be, but it is certainly a part of the murder plot.

Secondly, I like this error because it also suggests an emendation which has been made by the typesetter.  The lack of capitalization (“Beretta” takes a capital letter, as does the “Colt” which appears correctly elsewhere in the text), and the fact that this error appears twice in the text, suggest deliberate alteration.  The person setting the type must have assumed that “biretta” was simply bad spelling, or a misreading of the manuscript, and altered it to what they assumed the writer had meant.

In doing so, they revealed their expectations of the genre, and perhaps their previous experience of crime novels.  They do co-exist in some novels, no doubt, but birettas and berettas suggest different subgenres of crime.  A reader confronted by the name “Beretta” without further comment might be expected to distinguish it by name from a Smith & Wesson or a Walther PPK, whilst one who is told a “biretta” was on the table should probably mentally contrast it with a mitre, a shovel hat and a preaching scarf.

Just as the error in Killer Dolphin suggested a geographical misunderstanding, I think this one indicates a understanding of genre, and possibly time.  Marsh writes the kind of novel where being able to tell the religious tendencies of someone from their clothes might help you in solving crime, but the typesetter thought they were in a novel where telling firearms apart was more useful.  It’s possible that this also reflects a change in decades, to a period when the latter knowledge was more widespread amongst readers of crime fiction than the former.

Both are very small mistakes, and I found them both rather entertaining.  Nonetheless, I think working them through and deducing what has happened to produce these textual problems gives us a real, if small insight into the literary history of detective fiction.