“Payment Deferred” by C.S. Forester (published by Penguin Books)

Dark tale is as noir as they come

Cecil Scott Forester was the pen name of Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith (1899-1966), an English historical novelist famous for his tales of naval warfare. His most notable books were the 11 Horatio Hornblower stories about a Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic era, and “The African Queen”, filmed with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It was the 1926 crime novel, “Payment Deferred”, though, that got his struggling career off the ground.
6. January 2024 5:52

Born on August 27, 1899, in Cairo to English parents and educated in Camberwell and Dulwich, UK, he became a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London but left to write. if Forester were mentioned to the average reader nowadays they would likely recall Hornblower, whose saga has tended to overshadow all else by the author. However, starting in 1922 with a life of King Victor Emmanuel II of Itay, Forester first churned out hack biographies, plus articles and stories for trade magazines and papers, written out of sheer necessity to make ends meet.

During the next few years he produced further historical titles on King Victor Emmanuel and the unification of Italy, Napoleon and his court, Empress Josephine, King Louis XIV of France and Admiral Nelson – subjects he really knew nothing about. His entry into the field of general fiction was with the novel “A Pawn Among Kings” and a volume of short stories, “Paid Piper”, both in 1924.

Then came “Payment Deferred” in 1926, written when he was 25, and “Plain Murder” in 1930. it was arguably through these first two crime tales that he made his name, both very popular at the time and helped along by “Payment Deferred” being turned into a 1931 Broadway play and a 1932 film, both starring Charles Laughton as murderer William Marble.

But Methuen, his usual publisher, had rejected the book. Forester said that “though struck with the ability of the work, they think it is distinctly too morbid to have a popular appeal”. In their letter accompanying the returned manuscript, Methuen said they “could not possibíy make themselves responsible for introducing the book to  the public”. Moreover, It was “not at all their class of literature, and they did not think it would sell”.

The rebuff spurred Forester to change his literary agent but publishers Collins, Heinemann and Jonathan Cape rejected it as well. Finally publisher John Lane put it out on his imprint The Bodley Head and it became Forester’s first major success, especially with those adaptations for stage and screen.

He could now enjoy the promise of financial stability and he sought pastures new. Apart from two more historical works in his later years, “The Naval War of 1812” (1957) and “Hunting the Bismark” (1959), from 1930 onwards he wrote and published mainly fiction.  The Hornblower saga began with “The Happy Return’ in 1937, and two of the novels, “A Ship of the Line” and “Flying Colours”, were jointly awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1938. The series spanned the era 1793-1823.

But what was it that made “Payment Deferred” a book “distinctly too morbid to have a popular appeal” in 1926? Does it still appear that way in 2023, when we supposedly live in an age of deadened sensibilities? (Can our sensibilities be more deadened than they might have been in 1926, only eight years after the immense slaughter of the Great War?)

Still, Forester himself confessed, with relish, that his plot was one of “grim horror almost unrelieved” and “black hopeless misery”. The story centres on William Marble, a nonentity of a bank clerk living with his wife Annie and their teenage children Winnie and John in bleak circumstances. They are a lower middle-class family in a dubious street in a south London suburb. Annie is careless with money and Marble owes considerable sums to the local traders as well as his workmates. One shopkeeper is threatening to call in the bailiffs, and this would result in the sack at the bank. Marble is without hope, facing ruin.

Salvation, of a sort, comes in the unexpected arrival of his nephew Jim Medland from Melbourne, Australia, the son of Marble’s sister, who had emigrated to the antipodes a dozen years ago and whom Marble had basically forgotten. Jim was a little boy at the time and now he is no more than 20.

The sister died six months ago and her husband a year before. The young man had just arrived in England that very day, checked into a hotel and immediately come to visit his only relatives. So not a soul in England knows anything about him.

When Marble sees the bundle of money the young man has, he also sees opportunity out of his predicament. He poisons Medland’s whisky with the potassium cyanide that he uses in his photographic hobby, and buries him in the back yard.

It takes considerable skill on the part of the 25-year-old author to describe the growing horror of the plot. Marble is an ordinary but desperate man committing a monstrous act, leading to events spiralling horribly out of control. Marble becomes a prisoner of himself, keeping constant watch on the garden grave in fear of discovery and an inevitable hanging.

The family don’t know about the murder but the whole evolving situation causes terrible trouble for them all. We follow the collapsing stages of his and his wife’s minds, from when he realises he is going to commit a heinous crime, to when the slow-witted Annie finally arrives at the horrible truth. The children have their own problems, the neighbours gossip and a conniving lover attaches herself to Marble, deepening the morass.

Misery, drinking and violence ensue. When the denouement arrives, it isn’t the ending that we readers perhaps expected, and Forester again carries it off well. If we had read this in 1926, we would surely have marked him as an author to watch. The novel may never have been out of print, and we have noted editions from 1941, 1951, 1963, 2011 and now as part of the 20 books in Penguin’s Crime and Espionage series of 2023. As well as the play and film there has been a radio adaptation.

C.S. Forester had a severe stroke in 1964 that confined him to a wheelchair, and he died in Fullerton, California, on April 2, 1966. He had written a third crime novel, “The Pursued”,  in 1935 but publication was cancelled for some reason, and for many years the novel was presumed lost, even by the author. The manuscript turned up at auction almost 70 years later, and 45 years after his death it finally made it into print in 2011, to acclaim.

The move away from crime writing early in his career is said to be perhaps the reason Forester’s contribution to the noir genre has failed to attract due credit or recognition, and he became far better remembered for the seafaring Hornblower. A treat awaits those readers ready to expand their horizon.

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