Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"The Villainy Is of a Much Less Pronounced Description"

By James Payn (1830-98).
Online scanned facsimile editions available (see below).

James Payn was a Victorian writer in the Dickens tradition who likewise meandered into the crime fiction field:
By nature James Payn was a humourist of the older or Dickens-like school, delighting in puns and turns of thought which owed their laughter-giving quality mainly to their unexpectedness, delighting also in semi-farcical characters like his Chinamen and the Wardlaws in "By Proxy," delighting most of all in half-cynical sketches of exceedingly good but rather out-of-the-way old ladies and young women. 
He had succeeded, however, with "Sir Massingberd," and that gave him ever after what he would himself, we fancy, have described as a Miltonic twist, a disposition to make of a Satan his central figure and the cause of all the mischiefs in his story.
His Satans were seldom very formidable. They never in the twelve or fifteen of his novels that we have read and remember murdered any one, or lusted after any one, or succeeded in any of the villainies they devised. They are simply utterly selfish scoundrels, caring nothing for anything but success in their own immediate plans, and riding rough-shod over anybody who might stand in their way.
Even Ralph Pennicuick in "By Proxy," though he dooms his best friend to death by slow torture, is essentially no more than that; and in most of them, as for instance in the capital story, "Kit: a Memory," the villainy is of a much less pronounced description, the villainy of a swindler merely; as in "The Confidential Agent," also a most enjoyable story, it is that of an ordinary robber . . . 
They [his Satans] are, however, fairly interesting, they act as motive powers to cause the necessary complications, they produce strong situations, and their fate as a rule produces the necessary curdling of the blood. For it was part of Mr. Payn's intellectual idiosyncrasy to hate his villains very hard. He never really explains them, never allows them good qualities unless it be a power of loving selfishly, and never lets them off, but just hangs them up, as we doubt not in real life he would have been delighted to do. One of them whom he specially hates he boils alive. — THE SPECTATOR (2 April 1898)
A CONFIDENTIAL AGENT was published in three volumes which still survive on the Internet:
~ Volume 1 HERE.
~ Volume 2 HERE.
~ Volume 3 HERE.

- Wikisource has a Dictionary of National Biography entry on Payn HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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