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Invisible Ink: No 110 - Peter Dickinson

Are books dumbing down? Peter Dickinson's work hasn't.

This author is still writing after four decades, but within his early output lies a problem that affects many writers. Dickinson was born in 1927 in Zambia, attended Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and worked as an assistant editor and reviewer for Punch magazine, back when it was still funny. His first books were published in the late 1960s, and he split his output between fiction for children and more grown up fare, most notably the James Pibble mysteries, five volumes of which were published at the rate of one a year, the sixth falling later in 1979.

He latterly turned to writing fantastic fiction for young adults, with explorations of time, magic, love, politics and power set in possible pasts and futures. Dickinson's gripping plots are classically styled, and his prose is an elegant delight far removed from the workaday language of many young-adult authors. So where's the problem?

That's caused by Detective Superintendent Pibble of the Yard, an earthy investigator who does his best thinking in the pub, with "good bitter, fresh bread, mousetrap, bangers." The Glass-Sided Ant's Nest (1968) deservedly won the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger, and a more peculiar crime novel would be hard to find. In it, a tribe of erudite New Guinea natives are discovered grieving for their fallen chief in a London house. He has been battered to death with an owl (taken from a bannister) and is found with a double-sided penny in one hand. The unravelling of the plot reveals a gender-switched marriage, a bowl of blood, and a weird smell of burning rubber, all of which provide clues.

The Pibble mysteries are enormous fun but are now out of print. (I found one edition available at £65; original price 95p.) Whereas fantasies keep their timeless appeal, crime novels are subject to changes in society and language. Dickinson's anthropological exploration is not only demanding; it chucks up phrases that would make a modern editor blanch. "Wog" and "nig" are obviously unacceptable in modern times, but in the context of the book, which takes a keen interest in the structure of New Guinean society, they are used within the mindset of certain characters. Would it be acceptable to republish them untouched now? These erudite thrillers read as period pieces and deserve to be re-presented as such. They are too smart to be lost.