Thursday, 10 January 2013

Gwendoline Butler R.I.P.

Gwendoline Butler, a crime novelist of distinction, whose writing career spanned half a century, has, I have been told, died at the age of 90. She was a member of that generation of novelists who did not seek personal publicity or engage in self-promotion, and it may be for that reason that her work is much less discussed than one might expect. I never met her, nor corresponded with her, but over a period of thirty years I occasionally dipped in to her work and found it interestingly different. Just possibly this may explain why her books seem never to have been televised.

By a very strange coincidence, I've just downloaded one of the new books on Bello's list of re-discovered classics.This is The Odd Flamingo, by Nina Bawden, which I've discussed before on this blog. And it has an introduction by - Gwendoline Butler. The edition of the book that I'd read previously had an introduction by Julian Symons, who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all crime fiction critics. Yet I think it's fair to say that Gwendoline Butler's appraisal of Bawden's book is at least as insightful as Symons'. It's very clear that she was a highly intelligent and also very thoughtful woman.

Marcel Berlins, another of the finest crime fiction critics, once said in a review: "Gwendoline Butler writes detective novels that, both in method and atmosphere are things apart, not only from the main body of crime writing, but even from the mass of general fiction." And there is certainly a strangeness, bordering at times on the quirky and fantastic, about some of the stories of hers that I've read.

That said, although I have perhaps ten of her books on my shelves, plus one or two short stories (one called "Ladies who Lunch" sticks in my  mind even now, though it's getting on for 20 years since I read it), that represents only a fraction of her output. Apart from a long series under her own name, featuring a cop called Coffin who rose through the ranks to become, in Coffin on Murder Street, "Chief Commander of the Police Force in the newly created Second City of London", she also wrote books as Jennie Melville and created a female cop, Charmian Daniels. Coffin is intellectual, but "never judged arrogant or uncaring". I had the feeling he was very much the sort of man she herself admired, and no doubt that explains why she wrote books about him from 1956 to 2002. Despite her preference for a low profile, she and her books definitely deserve to be remembered.


Deb said...

I'm so sorry to hear this--I really enjoyed her Coffin books. First Margaret York, now Gwendolyn Butler. Sad news.

Kacper said...

"Ladies who Lunch" is... I can't even think of the words. It's a story that's unlike anything I've read before or since and I, too, think about it sometimes and feel disturbed all over again. I think it might be time to reread it.

Aside from that and a few other stories, I've only read one of the Charmian Daniels novels, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit - Butler's has a very distinctive style that gets under your skin. I'll have to look out for more of her work.

Miranda James said...

I am a big fan of Butler's (both the Coffin books and the Charmian Daniels books she wrote as Jennie Melville). I wrote her a fan letter once, and she replied with a charming letter, along with a signed paperback copy of one of her books. I later met her at the St. Hilda's Crime Weekend, and she gave an interesting talk. She created one of the first truly professional female police officers in the genre with Charmian Daniels, and she deserves to be far better known. Her books may not be for everyone, but they are inimitable.

Ellen said...

I miss having any new Coffin books. I have read all I could get my hands on,. It is true, there was a different style about her writing. At first I found it rather peculiar, but after a while I didn't even notice it. I hope they will republish a lot of her books now. Thanks to a great lady who entertained us so much.