C.P. Snow Deserts the Corridors of Power to Track a Killer Through London in His 17th Novel

updated 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the old-world tranquillity of his six-story London townhouse, the balding old man scrawls away. At the end of a day's work, his output is 1,000 words. Charles Percy Snow, 74, flicks off particles of stuffing from his worn easy chair and descends to the drawing room. There, a whiskey and soda in hand, he discusses his labors with his wife of 29 years, author Pamela Hansford Johnson. "She's very good," says Snow, "with minor literary inventions—devices to get from A to B."

The major inventions are the prerogative of C. P. Snow—and they have been since he was first published 48 years ago. Lord Snow (he was so honored by Queen Elizabeth in 1964) is perhaps best known for the 11 novels about British society that make up his Strangers and Brothers sequence. It includes the best-seller The Corridors of Power. He has also written half a dozen other novels, volumes of essays and plays, and been both distinguished scientist and high-ranking civil servant as well.

His latest book (like his first, Death under Sail, 1932) is a detective story, A Coat of Varnish (Scribner's, $10.95). It's a passionate tale of murder and decadence in the elegant Belgravia section of London. "I am only interested," says Snow, "in watching the way the world ticks."

In his early days Snow's global vision focused on a dreary middle-class section of Leicester in the Midlands. The second of four sons born to a clerk in a shoe-and-boot factory, Charles was a precocious child. By age 13, he recalls, he was "beginning to chafe at the restrictive provincial background. I was reading books about travel and not traveling."

His horizons broadened when he landed a scholarship to Leicester University College. After a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in physics, Snow went on to Cambridge where he got a Ph.D. and became a research fellow in molecular structure.

His life as a Cambridge scholar was interrupted by World War II. Snow was drafted by the Ministry of Labour as a director of scientific personnel. After the war he worked for 15 years as a civil service commissioner with responsibility for selecting government scientists. In 1964 he joined Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labour government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology.

Through it all, he kept up his writing. Besides the novels, there were essays on what he called the "two cultures"—science and the arts. He has also written biographical sketches of prominent men, from Stendhal to Churchill.

Age has forced Lord Snow to reduce his work load. Other than a weekly column for London's Financial Times, he has given up outside commitments except the House of Lords. Snow regularly attends sessions there, "partly out of habit and to hear things I wouldn't hear elsewhere."

For Snow, a special pleasure in his elevation to the peerage was the coat of arms: It includes snow crystals, a telescope crossed with two pens and a pair of Siamese cats. Snow loves nothing more than to settle in an easy chair in the company of his cats Sirikit (who is 19) and Gabbo (8) and his wife. Of his marriage, Snow says simply: "It's worked."

It also, he admits, rescued him from the ravages of youthful passion. "As a young man, I was misled by certain romantic dreams," Snow says. Novelist Harry Hoff, an old friend, puts it more strongly: "He had an obsessedly sexual interest in physical beauty and then wanted to absorb the person, an instinct which led him to women who were not possessable. He would be reduced to pale, palpitating misery. All of his suffering came to an end when he married."

The agent of his deliverance was herself a passionate sort. Pamela Johnson, now 67, was a close friend of Dylan Thomas in the 1930s. (They were never lovers, she says. "I think he resented that.") Her friendship with Snow began in 1941 after she reviewed Strangers and Brothers. That led to a literary correspondence—and to marriage in 1950. (First, Pamela divorced Neil Stewart, by whom she had two children.) Pamela and C.P. went on to have a child of their own, Philip, 27, an Oxford-educated sinologist.

With Philip off in the U.S. as a consultant on Chinese affairs to the First National Bank of Chicago, the Snows live a quiet literary life. She writes fiction. "He does nothing around the house," complains Lady Snow. "The only time he tried to mend a fuse, he blew himself black all the way up the arm. That was 25 years ago and he never tried again."

Snow is a man who knows his limitations—in life and in letters. "I don't resent comparisons with Trollope or Galsworthy," he reflects. "Proust and Balzac are of a different order of magnitude. I don't fight at that weight. Literary immortality is a child's dream. Even Shakespeare will not mean much in a thousand years. I have said some things about people which are original and true, and if anyone is still aware of that after a hundred years, I'd be quite grateful."

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