Too Much of Water (Bruce Hamilton)

  • By Bruce Hamilton
  • First published: UK: The Cresset Press, 1958

Alice Campbell’s Travelling Butcher had reduced me to a nervous wreck. My GP prescribed a long sea voyage with fine music and plenty of good murders.

By the mid-Fifties, the English detective story had become a comedy of manners with murderous accompaniment. Some of the best practitioners were amateurs, like Bruce Hamilton, brother of Patrick ‘Gaslight’ H.

We’re on the S.S. Goyaz, travelling from England to Barbados via Portugal. Our amateur sleuth is Edgar Cantrell, one of the finest conductors of Brahms in the country. Most of the passengers are engaging – a mixture of minor celebrities (countertenors, cricketers, retired judges), Bajan sugar planters, teachers, and first-time travellers.

But the ship also carries a few pestilential nuisances. There’s the bore who pursues his fellow passengers with facts about gross tonnage, displacement, specific gravity, and the Principle of Archimedes. There’s the brattish child who runs his toys over adults’ feet, and throws pussycats into the sea. And one or two others. And they’d none of ’em be missed.

Too Much of Water is one of the finest shipboard mysteries. Barzun and Taylor rightly included it in their 100 Classics of Crime Fiction: “A superb sea mystery… The prose is excellent. There is much about music to delight these two readers, and just the sort of humour they relish” (COC).

The cast is large – more than 20 passengers; at first, they may seem underdeveloped, but over the course of the voyage, they emerge as distinct personalities. Plenty of wit and amusing dialogue. There are three or four good murders, an absorbing problem of time and opportunity, and a playful tribute to a certain Agatha Christie novel. The culprit is well-hidden; I didn’t suspect X. until the moment we’re meant to, when Cantrell discovers a revealing photograph. The amateur’s solution is cleverly clued – the psychology of the musical listener is particularly fine – but as the charming murderer tells him, there’s no proof. Justice seems stymied until a surprise confrontation resolves the issue. It’s a deus ex machina, but audaciously done.

Other reviews: My Reader’s Block; Cross Examining Crime; Martin Edwards

DIGRESSION ON MUSIC

Music lovers will particularly enjoy this book; we even attend a shipboard concert of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Barzun and Taylor’s introduction to the Garland reprint contains an unashamed pun: “In this story the author makes excellent use of music and musicians. Their presence adds to the charm of the work while keeping to the plausible – what is more so than a concert at sea? Here the very vessel is subject to absolute pitch, for it is a small one…”

I was delighted to find one character wondering why romantic opera – including Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (THE opera of the 19th century) – had fallen out of favour. Cantrell puts in his place an unsympathetic “culture snob who gets all his ideas at second-hand” (the sort of person who will insist, for instance, that Mozart is unsurpassed and Divine, without having heard Gluck or Cherubini or Salieri).

There’s a sympathetic evaluation of Saint-Saëns, “a universal whipping-boy almost since he died. Now all the eggheads pitch into him – you’d think it was an unforgivable moral delinquency not to be a supremely original creator. Which of course he wasn’t. but he’s never a bore, and for craftsmanship, good crisp writing and superb orchestration he takes a lot of beating.”

Some of Saint-Saëns can sound correct without being inspired (e.g. the operas Proserpine and Hélène), but his finest pieces are greatly rewarding; besides the popular favourites (the Carnival of the Animals, the Organ Symphony, the Danse macabre, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ and the Bacchanale), he wrote some lovely chamber music (e.g. the Septet in E-flat) and fantasies (Africa). His best opera is certainly Henry VIII – a much better operatic treatment of the Tudor monarch than the far more frequently performed Donizetti’s Anna Bolena – but there is much to admire in Ascanio (involving Benvenuto Cellini and a suffocated corpse) and Le timbre d’argent (a nightmarish phantasmagoria). The man was also a genius; it’s hard not to admire someone who travelled the world (one of his operas premiered in Vietnam), or who could write symphonies and operas with one hand, and essays on mathematics, astronomy, optics, philosophy, and aesthetics with the other.

Another character is a British countertenor. The Fifties saw the rebirth of this vocal type, starting with Englishman Alfred Deller, for whom Benjamin Britten composed the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960). (Easily Britten’s most enjoyable opera – both funny and beautiful, with a hauntingly lovely finale. I say this as someone who finds Britten’s music generally dreary, and who gave up on screenings of Peter Grimes and Gloriana.)

“This curious music revival,” Hamilton writes, “has, very unfairly, involved its exponents in some ambiguities of reputation, for the general public, so far as it is at all aware of counter-tenors, tends to regard them as being necessarily castrati – from which it is a wholly illogical but quite simple step to consider them as being of doubtful sexual orientation.”

I had been rather indifferent to the countertenor voice until last year, when I listened to Leonardo Vinci’s (no relation) Artaserse (1730), while working my way through the 18th century on my opera blog. That featured FIVE countertenors (two of them playing women’s roles – the opera was written for early 18th century Rome; the Catholic Church thought it was immoral for women to appear onstage, but was fine with men dressed as women making love to each other), including the phenomenal Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cencic, and Franco Fagioli. (Those three, incidentally, are gay; Deller wasn’t, nor is a rising star, the breakdancing Pole, Jakub Józef Orlínski. Nor, come to that, are the two best-known Australian countertenors, Tobias Cole and David Hansen.) I listened to Artaserse half-a-dozen times in a week; it has that effect – at least two people have listened to it non-stop for weeks; one says it’s his favourite opera after The Marriage of Figaro, while another was inspired to create a graphic novel. I quickly acquired albums by Jaroussky, Fagioli, and Cencic; it’s some of the most thrillingly virtuosic, beautiful singing you’re likely to hear, male voices soaring into the stratosphere, as agile as any coloratura soprano.

6 thoughts on “Too Much of Water (Bruce Hamilton)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s