The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis

You can’t imagine a book more in contrast to Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” than this one; but oddly enough they both feature young men going through traumatic experiences! However, Russia in the 1870s is very, very different from the London suburbs in the 1930s; and the experiences of both young people are radically different!

Oddly, this is the first Amis novel I’ve read; I enjoyed his poetry very much in volume 2 of the Penguin Modern Poets, and I had read about “Riverside” on the excellent Tipping My Fedora blog (which I’d forgotten till I looked the book up after finishing it). The book is a slightly odd one – a mix of coming-of-age story and murder mystery, you find yourself expecting it not to work. However, I found it did and I enjoyed it very much.

riverside villas

The book is set in 1936, and 14 year-old Peter Furneaux is beset by puberty – not easy to deal with in 1930s England. Obsessed by the idea of sex, he spends his time torn between his boyhood pastimes of model planes and reading, and more adult interests such as jazz music on the radio or attempting to have sex with whichever girl he can persuade to consent (in this case, neighbouring Daphne Hodgson). However, the latter interest seems doomed to failure and so Peter and his friends spend a fair amount of time resorting to masturbation.

Being an only child did not mean that you were by yourself too much; on the contrary, you got the whole of your parents reserved for just you instead of divided up into three, say. Peter liked his father, but would have preferred on the whole to have him as an uncle, even one living in the same house.

Peter attends a local dance with his father, hoping to make some headway with Daphne. However, she is anything but interested and in fact Peter seems to get more response from the older (and very attractive) neighbour Mrs. Trevelyan, with whom he shares a close dance. However, the evening does not go well, as a local journalist, Chris Inman, starts making drunken insinuations and accusations. He’s hustled off, but it seems clear to the reader that he won’t be around for long – and indeed it’s no time at all till he staggers into the Furneaux front room with a dramatic head wound and dies in front of Peter.

Enter the local detectives: the most odd and engaging of whom is Colonel Manton, the Acting Chief Constable. Intelligent, obviously bored and not at all your typical plod, he decides to investigate himself. Detective Inspector Cox is sceptical and critical of Manton; however Barrett, Detective Constable in the local CID, has a more flexible turn of mind and is happy to go along with Manton. Watching the latter deal with his subordinates is one of the funniest parts of the book – his sarcasm is wonderful! There are several suspects, as it becomes obvious that Inman knew plenty of local secrets and may well have been a potential blackmailer. Alarmingly enough, suspicion falls on Peter’s father; meanwhile Peter himself is becoming embroiled with Mrs. Trevelyan and also spending time with Manton. The plot thickens and the reader starts to wonder which will come first; Peter’s loss of his virginity or the solution to the mystery. And what does *any* of this have to do with the theft of the local attraction, an ancient skeleton known as Boris Karloff, from the museum??

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

“Riverside” was actually a really fascinating and enjoyable read; despite the oddities of the subject, it actually pulled together well and I suspect Amis intended several subtexts to the book. The sexual element, although initially unusual, actually is very relevant to the story – and a little hard to discuss without spoilers. Let’s just say that one character is able to understand the mindset and motivation of another, which enables a solution to be reached. The characters are well drawn and the portrait of suburbia and its constraints spot on. In particular, the relationship between Peter and his father is sensitively shown and quite touching in parts. Peter himself is a convincing mixture of teenage bravado and youth, obviously still needing the reassurance of his parents. It’s a credit to the adults around him (and also to Amis’ skill as a writer) that he emerges from the events relatively unscathed and with his reputation intact.

As for his father, in a different book and in different hands (Patrick Hamilton? Julian McLaren-Ross?) Furneaux senior would have been a very different, perhaps darker character. As it is, his situation and his failings are only hinted at in the book; his less-than-glowing war career, his somewhat seedy and low-paying job. Class differences are important in this suburban setting, with the size of a meal served being the defining factor in one’s status in the world!

Then of course there is the sexual element; well it was fascinating too to see the differentiation the boys make: fiddling with your friends for sexual relief is fine, but anything more or involving anyone older is pervy and dodgy. In fact, the undercurrent of homosexuality is prevalent throughout the book, whether it be the hinted-at previous indiscretion of one of the neighbours or the reason that Colonel Manton is still single… Again, Amis handles this element sensitively; there is what we would now call an act of paedophilia involved, and this is used as a plot device and a weapon for good; no one is emotionally damaged and I can’t help feeling that Amis is applying common sense to a situation which has probably arisen many times over the decades.

The mystery itself is interesting though probably not the most complex one I’ve read; in fact, I did guess the solution comfortably before the end. Amis is obviously a fan of Golden Age mystery, as he has the Colonel reading classic stories and lending one to Peter. The names and titles dropped include John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, The Nine Taylors, The House of The Arrow – Amis really knows his classic crime fiction, and some of those authors are ones who’ve slipped out of favour but are coming back into the public eye now. Amis plays fair with the reader, offering three page numbers on which to pay particular attention if you’re trying to outwit the author, and this, with the other references to murder mysteries, adds a sense of fun to the book.

“Riverside” ends in with Peter having come through his rite of passage relatively unscathed and a little more mature. I’m finding that the more I think about this book, the cleverer it seems and the more depth there is to it; for what is ostensibly something Graham Greene would have called and “entertainment”, it certainly raises a lot of issues to mentally chew over. This was my first Amis novel, and I’m sure it’s not going to be the last.