A visit to St. Andrews yesterday to hear Frank Kuppner read at Stanza had put me in mind to read his first novel (of sorts), A Very Quiet Street, first published over twenty years ago. A Very Quiet Street takes as its starting point a famous Glasgow murder of 1908, famous not so much for the murder itself (of an elderly woman, Marion Gilchrist, in her own home) but for the trial and conviction of Oscar Slater that followed. Slater was linked to the case via a pawn ticket for a brooch that he attempted to sell shortly after the murder (a brooch was thought to have been stolen, though other valuable jewels had been left). Although it soon transpired that Slater had pawned an entirely different brooch prior to the murder taking place, he remained the prime suspect, and was convicted on the evidence of a number of witnesses who identified him, though their original descriptions given to the police had not tallied, and despite the fact that he had an alibi.
I am giving nothing away here as Kuppner provides a detailed account of the case in his introduction. Indeed if the novel were simply about the Slater case then it would not be a novel at all. The novel also contains elements of autobiography. These are of two main kinds: firstly when Kuppner recalls his childhood, when he lived near where the murder took place; and secondly, contemporaneous with the writing of the text. An example of both can be found in Chapter Thirty-Six. It begins:
“A couple of weeks ago, I read in that day’s newspaper that an old lady of, I think, 83 had been battered to death at he home in I forget exactly which street…”
The same chapter also contains a reminiscence of a visit to his childhood home by detectives when he was a teenager:
“They were I think investigating a murder (no less) in the St. George’s Road…”
(The “I think” in both examples exemplifies the informal tone)These autobiographical detours are often used to point out coincidences, frequently geographical when discussing his childhood; related to the discovery of new sources when occurring as he writes (a new book found in a second hand book shop; a chance meeting with someone who knows something about the case). The latter heightens the sense of investigation, creating the illusion that some vital clue will be unearthed as to the identity of the real murderer as in the traditional whodunit.(Kuppner even includes notes in italics added as he is editing the text). The former creates the impression of a city haunted by its past. That the city itself is an important aspect of the novel is clear from the frequent digressions into architecture:
“Pursuing a little further the question of Miss Gilchrist and the architecture of Glasgow we may remark that Blythswood Square, which is the only typically Edinburgh Square to be found in the Western Metropolis (by the Edinburgh architect, John Brash) was begun in 1823, when Marion Gilchrist was not yet conceived…”
The use of asides is employed throughout, with up to seven sets of brackets closing as a series of added comments comes to an end. These asides are often used to question the very point that Kuppner is making, and this sense of unending possibilities is one of the central themes of the novel. Kuppner does not simply limit himself to the possibilities surrounding the murder, commenting on Gilchrist at one point:
“But if, say, three months earlier, she had fallen victim to a normal minor ailment of the aged, she would be no more to us now than any other of the little old ladies who must have died in West Princes Street, of whom nothing else whatever is known.”
Of course, in isolation this seems both obvious and meaningless, but the saturation of the novel with such statements creates a sense of the unknowingness of life and of the fleeting nature of our possession of it, not simply in terms of mortality but also memory. Above all, this is a novel about memory, form the memories of the witnesses to Kuppner’s own memories, from the chance that allows these characters to remain within our folk memory to the memory of the city of Glasgow itself.
To some extent, Kuppner’s work foreshadows that of Iain Sinclair and Gordon Burn. A Very Quiet Street has never been reprinted, but it’s worth searching out, something that can now be done without relying on the kind of chance discovery to be found within its pages.