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Malice In Wonderland

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Fontana, London, 1961
(first published 1940)
(price: ?; 192 pages)

dedication: For Paddie

The blurb on the back:

'Watch out for the Mad Hatter!'
Within seconds the dancers found themselves the helpless victims of a series of bizarre and malicious practical jokes. Surprise, anger and then fear gave way to mob hysteria as terror seized the ballroom.
Who was the perverted Mad Hatter?
What was his sinister purpose?

opening lines:
Young Mr Perry was going to camp. Not a Territorial camp, nor a Scout camp, nor yet a Concentration camp. Mo, a very different lay-out indeed; a camp which would have made any nomad tribesman rub his eyes in amazement and take to his heels.

It's not often that we get a visit from a Poet Laureate, so we should celebrate the appearance here of Cecil Day Lewis (father of Daniel, you know), who - in addition to his now terribly dated poetry - wrote about twenty detective novels under the pseudonym, Nicholas Blake. The featured detective was Nigel Strangeways, a sophisticated, educated kind of sleuth, clearly intended as something of a self-portrait.

This is the sixth of the Strangeways books, and it's pretty typical of the series and indeed of the more rarefied end of the detective market in the Golden Age. Set in a holiday camp (such institutions were a fast-growing novelty at the time) named Wonderland, it features a criminal who calls himself the mad Hatter and stages stunts that refer to Alice in Wonderland. A bit thin, in terms of story, but there's a tone of paranoia about it all that seems particularly resonant for a book first published in 1940. And that makes it quite interesting.

As does the presence of a Mass Observer. For those who don't remember, Mass Observation was a peculiarly 1930s institution, in which sociologists attempted to record the lives and opinions of the British people. Thousands of people participated in the scheme, wandering around with clipboards, noting down what they saw and heard. Sounds a trifle intrusive when you state it baldly, but it was a fantastic piece of research that remains a source of joy. The Mass Observer in this book has gone to have a look at a typical holiday camp, and chief amongst his questions is whether working class holiday-makers will be dissatisfied with their lot when they have to leave this kind of comfort and sybaritic living behind them:

The luxuriant Sleepeesi mattress wooing the tired reveller into the arms of Morpheus, the water (H. and C.), the electric light, hanging wardrobe and 100% damp-proof walls ... Luxury indeed. (p.14)

In fact it's worth noting that this is one of the few pieces of work in British fiction set in a holiday camp. There's Hi-De-Hi, of course, and there's Joe Orton's Erpingham Camp (often overlooked but still entertaining), but not much else. Which seems a shame, given the massive part they played in British life in the 20th century.

Nicholas Blake
Cecil Day Lewis