Just when you thought we were done with War In Heaven, I have another guest post to offer you. This is by CW scholar David Llewellyn Dodds. Enjoy!
The Corpse and Its Contemporaries
War in Heaven, published in early summer, 1930, has, to my way of thinking, gone from a story set in the contemporary world to a classic ‘period piece’ without any loss of vitality. It was drafted, as The Corpse, four years earlier, having been finished in time to be offered to, and rejected by, Faber, by the end of May, 1926. I do not know how much or little The Corpse differs from War in Heaven as we know it. But the Twenties seem to have been a rapidly and even wildly changing literary landscape as far as ‘mystery’ and ‘detective’ stories went. And some facts about literary context at the turn of 1925-26 strike me as interesting.
In her paper “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?” (2011), Sørina Higgins refers to “the inimitable, Chestertonian Archdeacon” – partly and very justly so, I take it, in comparison to (as well as contrast with) G.K. Chesterton’s clerical detective, Father Brown. Now, when Williams was writing the novel, only the first two of the eventual five books of Father Brown stories had been published.
But in its humor, where treatment of characters, dialogue, and diction in general are concerned, Williams’s debt does not seem limited to Chesterton. There is, indeed, an intertextual clue (as well as a humorous touch of characterization) when Barbara Rackstraw introduces the retired publisher, Gregory Persimmons, to Jeeves, and her husband, Lionel, goes on to explain something about him to his old boss. At the time Williams was initially drafting the novel, only the first three of Wodehouse’s books with Jeeves and Wooster stories had been published (the most recent only in October 1925).
A more straightforward detective novel than The Corpse had already shown the influence of Wodehouse: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? (1923), her first Wimsey novel and the only one to have appeared when Williams embarked upon his story.
James Brabazon, in his biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, says of the literary figures who were Lord Peter Wimsey’s “progenitors” as “silly-ass aristocrat with nerves of steel” (like Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel), “being a modern silly-ass (in 1921), who does he take his cue from but Bertie Wooster? – who must of course be accompanied by his Jeeves, now transmogrified into Bunter.”
Whether Williams had read Whose Body? by early 1926, or not, I do not know, but War in Heaven, and presumably, The Corpse, exhibits a similar combination of Wodehousian verbal humor and characterization with moral and metaphysical seriousness.
Father Brown and Jeeves and Wooster were, of course, already famous by the turn of 1925-26, and Whose Body? was selling well enough for Unwin to want to publish more Wimsey, but their fictional worlds of humor of character and style and diction, combined by the two detective story writers with depth and seriousness, were still new and close by in their freshness, when Williams started his entertaining second novel. Not a Wodehouse pastiche, nor even, as Sørina Higgins observes, primarily “a mystery to entertain”, but very much, I think, intended to entertain in various ways, and to be (may I say) seriously entertaining.