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The Asterisk Club

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I met Pamela Branch only once, at a dinner party given by the literary agent David Higham and his wife. Pamela was strikingly beautiful, with large eyes, curious as a cat’s. The talk turned to an author whose new novel was getting a lot of attention and I remarked that her husband had recently died. ‘How did she do it?’ asked Pamela with interest, ‘Poison, was it?’

Pamela had already published her fourth novel, Murder’s Little Sister, which begins,

The yellow cushion looked too frivolous in the oven, so Enid Marley went and fetched a black one. That did not look right either, but it could not be helped. Since she had no intention whatever of dying, she was determined to make herself as comfortable as possible . . .

She had thought it all out with great care, planned each detail, revised it, scrutinized it from every angle. She knew well that it was a drastic ploy, but it was the only one left untried. Somehow, she had to recapture her husband. It was not that she loved nor even liked him, but to be deserted by no less than three men – all of whom had quite frankly married her for her money – was ridiculous, humiliating, monotonous.

She was born Pamela Jean Byatt on 27 November 1920 in Ceylon, the daughter of a tea-planter. Her upbringing was that of a conventional colonial girl – or was it? Her earliest memory was of trying to persuade an elephant to swallow a home-made aspirin the size of a croquet ball. (The elephant did not oblige.) She claimed to have lived in Kashmir, learned Urdu, hunted with guns and with falcons, trained racehorses. The last at least seems unlikely; she later wrote, ‘I hate and fear horses. There are a lot in the field next door. They watch me doing my face in the mornings. Our eyes lock. And it’s perfectly apparent that they will never understand me and I never want to understand them a

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I met Pamela Branch only once, at a dinner party given by the literary agent David Higham and his wife. Pamela was strikingly beautiful, with large eyes, curious as a cat’s. The talk turned to an author whose new novel was getting a lot of attention and I remarked that her husband had recently died. ‘How did she do it?’ asked Pamela with interest, ‘Poison, was it?’

Pamela had already published her fourth novel, Murder’s Little Sister, which begins,

The yellow cushion looked too frivolous in the oven, so Enid Marley went and fetched a black one. That did not look right either, but it could not be helped. Since she had no intention whatever of dying, she was determined to make herself as comfortable as possible . . .

She had thought it all out with great care, planned each detail, revised it, scrutinized it from every angle. She knew well that it was a drastic ploy, but it was the only one left untried. Somehow, she had to recapture her husband. It was not that she loved nor even liked him, but to be deserted by no less than three men – all of whom had quite frankly married her for her money – was ridiculous, humiliating, monotonous.

She was born Pamela Jean Byatt on 27 November 1920 in Ceylon, the daughter of a tea-planter. Her upbringing was that of a conventional colonial girl – or was it? Her earliest memory was of trying to persuade an elephant to swallow a home-made aspirin the size of a croquet ball. (The elephant did not oblige.) She claimed to have lived in Kashmir, learned Urdu, hunted with guns and with falcons, trained racehorses. The last at least seems unlikely; she later wrote, ‘I hate and fear horses. There are a lot in the field next door. They watch me doing my face in the mornings. Our eyes lock. And it’s perfectly apparent that they will never understand me and I never want to understand them at any price whatever.’ What is certain is that she studied art in Paris after the Second World War, then came to London and attended RADA for a year. There she met Newton Branch, like her a bit of a fabulist, and married him. They went to live in Cyprus and both of them tried to write. Pamela was more successful than her husband and sold her first novel to Robert Hale in 1949. Paper was rationed and books were still being produced to austere wartime standards. Before it appeared in print, she had finished her second and got herself a literary agent. She wrote to him on 7 June 1951:

The contract for my first book, The Wooden Overcoat, was signed in October 1949. The book appeared in April 1951, the delay being attributed to an explosion. I have now had a letter from Mr Hale which tells me that the publication of my second book, Lion in the Cellar, has been postponed until ‘early 1952’. The contract was signed in August 1950. I do appreciate the difficulties of the paper shortage, but surely this is an exaggeration? I do feel that at least there should have been a fire.

Her agent, David Higham, intervened and got publication brought forward to November 1951. In The Wooden Overcoat Pamela Branch had brought a fresh new voice to crime writing. There had been humorous crime novels before, but none that poked such fun at murder. She was to continue in this vein for the rest of her short career. The Wooden Overcoat introduced its readers to the Asterisk Club, a residential establishment on the Embankment in Chelsea, whose membership is limited to wrongly acquitted murderers. The Club is run by Clifford Flush, once known as the Balliol Butcher, who since 1937 has lost no fewer than three women friends, all of whom have mysteriously fallen from moving trains. Flush, who now realizes it to be an unsatisfactory method unless put into operation over a viaduct, tells a prospective new member of the Club,

The fourth survived. They brought her into Court in plaster of Paris . . . Of course, when I was acquitted, I was obliged to marry the woman. Mercifully it lasted a bare three months. She committed suicide. Don’t look like that, old chap! I assure you I was in Aix les Bains at the time – which was perhaps fortuitous, because, as a final disagreeable gesture, she jumped off the Flying Scotsman.

The Asterisk Club’s premises are a distinguished, ivy-clad eighteenth- century house. Its members include Mrs Barratt, who has lost more than one husband in questionable circumstances; Colonel Quincey, the treasurer, a man of few prepositions; Lily Cluj, a redhead with green eyes; and the Creaker, so called from the prolonged squeak on two descending notes made by his wooden leg. He had been tried and sentenced to death in 1937. ‘His crime was . . . unattractive. . . However, owing to his comprehensive acquaintance with the underworld, he was able to produce certain spurious evidence which earned his reprieve.’ The Wooden Overcoat concerns a murder committed in the house next door to the Club. The neighbours’ attempt to dispose of the body is inept. With some difficulty, they dump it over the parapet above the river, but they fail to notice that the tide is out. It is time for the Club to step in and sort out the amateurs. The results are wonderfully comic and, as in all good detective stories, it is not until the last page that the true murderer is exposed. Pamela and Newton returned to London briefly before settling in Ireland where she wrote her second book, Lion in the Cellar. This is a perfect Ealing Comedy of a novel, in which Sukie Heap is in possession of an embarrassing corpse. She doesn’t dare call in the police, as her family have all been in the business of murder and suspicion would surely fall upon her. She would have liked to consult Uncle George but ‘decided immediately against it. He would be shocked to the core. He would probably hand her over to the police at once.’ Unbeknownst to her, Uncle George is a successful serial killer whom the newspapers have dubbed The Strangler. So, although Sukie is innocent of the killing, she conceives an ingenious plan for disposal of the body which involves substituting it for a very large stuffed lion. In her third novel, Murder Every Monday (1954), written in London and various rented cottages in England, Pamela returned to the Asterisk Club. Clifford Flush has not murdered anyone for years, but when he feels the urge to kill his bridge partner – the man’s bidding is really quite unforgivable – he is blackmailed into leaving London. He and his fellow members set up a school in the ugliest manor-house in Dorset and conduct weekly residential courses. Flush teaches Grips, Knots, Electricity, Court Etiquette and Alibis. Mrs Barratt is in charge of Anatomy and Forensic Medicine, and Colonel Quincey specializes in Cars and Firearms. All goes well until a student is murdered on the premises. Murder’s Little Sister followed in 1958 and is as comic as her earlier novels, but it was the last to appear. Pamela’s marriage to Newton ended in 1960. Always broke, she worked that year as a Christmas postwoman. Two years earlier, she had written to her agent, ‘I am trying to write a straight novel – a non-whodunit. I don’t know whether this is a mistake, but I do feel I’ve more or less exhausted that other vein.’ In 1962 her divorce finally became absolute, ‘after which the whole world is – well, if not exactly my oyster – anyway my mussel’. She was a glamorous woman, sophisticated, slim and elegant, with cupid-bow lips and masses of dark hair. ‘Beautiful, marvellous Pamela, with eyelashes like bent hairpins’, wrote Christianna Brand. Shortly after her divorce, Pamela married Wing-Commander James Stuart-Lyon. ‘I expect I shall get used to my resounding new name in time but at the moment I still can’t say it without a small guffaw.’ After trying unsuccessfully to find a Scottish fishing pub to buy, Pamela and James went off to live in Ghana where he served as air attaché at the High Commission. In 1963 she wrote, ‘Out here, if anybody finds out that you write, you are immediately suspect. You at once get the However-do-you-think-of-it-all? treatment, then the Everybody-says-I-ought-to-write-a-book-I-write-such-descriptiveletters or the Honestly-my-life-would-make-a-marvellous-story (high-pitched giggle) . . .’ She went on:

My own little number progresses very, very slowly. It’s almost impossible to work out here. The heat is stupefying and it’s curiously difficult to concentrate. Then there are always people nipping and popping. ‘No, no, I won’t have a drink, I know you’re working, I’m only going to stay for five seconds.’ And two hours and four gins later, ‘Oh, I am awful! But you’ve still got twenty minutes before dinner, haven’t you?’

Pamela died of cancer in 1967 at the age of 47. There is no trace of the novel she was working on at the time, but she left behind four perfect gems of comic mystery. There have been other writers of funny detective fiction but none quite like her. Her quirky characters are entirely believable and her outlook, though odd, is always endearing. Reading her books makes one look differently at the world; nothing seems quite straightforward after you’ve finished one of them.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Bruce Hunter 2012


About the contributor

Bruce Hunter spent half a century as a literary agent at David Higham Associates.

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