22 January 2015

Brian Moore: The Last of a Paperback Writer



Murder in Majorca
Michael Bryan [pseud. Brian Moore]
New York: Dell, 1957

Murder in Majorca features no murder. There is a death, but it's an accident.

Brian Moore's working title was Free Ride Home. The free ride is offered to Isabel Kenner, the estranged wife of aspiring journalist Chuck Kenner. Home is the United States. Isabel and Chuck met two years ago in Paris; she was a student, he was an ex-serviceman with dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent. What little money they had was quickly spent, though there were efforts to economize. The couple relocated to Spain because the living was cheaper, eventually ending up on Majorca (the cheapest of the cheap).

"It had begun gaily, like a ride on a carrousel. But the carrousel slowed down."

It was on Majorca that their relationship came to an end. Chuck made arrangements for Isabel to return home on a free Pan Am flight from Paris to New York. His story was that he knew someone who worked for the airline.

At the aérogare Isabel met a man who handed her a first class ticket, two ten-dollar bills and a small package she was to deliver to someone who would identify himself as "the bridegroom". No mule, she returned, package in hand, to Majorca.


And that's just the backstory.

The action begins with Isabel's return. At the airport she meets Gregory Fall, an American magazine photographer who has arrived in Majorca on assignment. Neither realizes it immediately, but Greg's contact is none other than Isabel's ne'er-do-well husband Chuck.

Murder in Majorca was the seventh of Moore's disowned paperback thrillers. In his true bibliography, it follows The Feast of Lupercal, one the best novels I've ever read. Though Moore wasn't aiming quite so high here, I don't hesitate in saying it's one of the finest thrillers going. He shows his muscle by telling the story from various points of view. Isabel, Chuck and Greg make three, but there are many more. As in the real world, some are more interesting than others. Compare Maggy, who might be dismissed as a bit of a tramp, with former Waffen S.S. officer Helmuth Freitag. The latter is as sinister and complex a character as one could hope to find. Lest things become too dark, kleptomaniac Amée David provides tragic/comic relief.

Moore's next novel,  The Luck of Ginger Coffey earned a first Governor General's Award. Decades passed before he returned to the thriller. There were occasional flirtations with the genre, but these were at the suggestions of others.

Alfred Hitchcock approached Moore with the idea of a cold war thriller after Vladimir Nabokov turned him down. The resulting film, Torn Curtain, led to a falling out that gave birth to fat, flatulent Bernard Boweri in Moore's 1970 novel Fergus.

In 1971, he published The Revolution Script, but blamed that misstep on Jack McClelland.

The first Brian Moore book I bought upon publication was 1985's Black Robe, a historical novel set in seventeenth-century New France. The next, Colour of Blood, was his first thriller in three decades. Lies of Silence and The Statement followed. They're the sort of books Graham Greene, who considered Moore his favourite living author, would have described as "entertainments". Murder in Majorca is very much in their league.

I'm betting Greene wouldn't have written it off, despite the title.

Trivia: In the excellent Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist, biographer Denis Sampson suggests that Gregory Fall's occupation was inspired by photographer John Vachon, whom the novelist had befriended in post-war Poland.

Moore contributed the Introduction to Poland 1946: Photographs and Letters of John Vachon, published in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution.

Weirdness: Four years after Moore's Murder in Majorca, Consul Books published a paperback with the very same title and a remarkably similar cover.


I wonder whether it features a murder. If so, does it take place in Majorca?

Object: A squat 158-page paperback with one further page devoted to other Dell First Editions, including Jack Finney's The House of Numbers. It's attractive enough, but I much prefer Eyre & Spottiswoode's hardcover British first:


Access: Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and eight of our academic libraries have copies of the Dell edition, but they're all non-circulating. That said, cheap copies are plentiful. As usual, the online deals are found with booksellers who aren't aware that Michael Bryan was Brian Moore. The cheapest offered – "Very close to very good condition" –  can be had for eight American dollars. The most expensive copies are being flogged by two American booksellers, each asking the  absurd price of US$150. Their descriptions are identical. Pay no more than US$25.

The cover illustration by Barye Phillips depicts a scene that doesn't appear in the novel.

The Eyre & Spottiswoode edition is quite rare; the sky's the limit on this one, I'm afraid. Take heart – and advantage – of the fact that Moore is under appreciated and undervalued.

Flamenco pour un requiem, a French translation, was published in the late 'fifties as part of Presses de la Cité's Collection un Mystère series. Frank Jansen did the words. I have no idea who tweaked the cover.


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2 comments:

  1. I've owned the Dell edition of this book for 40 years or more and never read it. Now I might have to dig it out and give it a try.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't think you'll be disappointed, Bill.

    ReplyDelete