Friday, 27 July 2018

A Different Sort of Mystery

I know, I know. What I’m about to say is at best ill-advised, and the sound you can hear is that of a whopping great stone crashing through my own glass house. When I go and inspect the damage I daresay I’ll find it more extensive than I thought, but I’m going to say it anyway.

I’ve read a lot of ordinary books recently.

Now the caveats. I’ve actually enjoyed them all. They’ve been well-written and their settings have been appealing. Their characters have been interesting. They’re just the type of book I’m aspiring to write myself, in fact. By ordinary I don’t mean bad. I just mean samey. And yes it’s the genre and yes it’s what readers want. I know all that. But.

Maybe it’s the heat that’s giving me a terrible sense of ennui. Maybe what I need is some sparkling wit and a Martini, rather than sitting on my own with a hot, grumpy cat and a glass of tepid Ribena. But suddenly I find I’m tired of reading all these crime novels and I want something different.

Fortunately help is at hand, in the shape of the latest crime novel by Ian Sansom. Sansom’s books are a bit light on crime, but they do have an original theme, a very jolly writing style (and a wit as dry as my non-existent Martini) and a cast of original and entertaining characters.

The concept is a series of murder mysteries set in the counties of England during the 1930s. The narrator, Stephen Sefton, is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War with all the traumas that involves, not to mention a penchant for some of the sleazier entertainments that London has to offer. His big break, if you can call it that, comes in the opening book where he becomes employed by the extraordinary Swanton Morley, an encyclopaedia of a man whose mission its to augment his phenomenal output of books and articles with a guide to each of the counties — each one researched and written in a week or so.

Essex Poison is the fourth of them, and the pattern is familiar. Sefton and Morley travel round in a Lagonda driven by Morley’s sassy and very modern daughter, Miriam, who’s way out of Sefton’s league and besieged by alternative suitors, while some of the more villainous characters from Sefton’s past are in pursuit for payment of his debts.

To date there have been murders in Norfolk, Devon and Westmorland, and now the caravan has alighted in Essex. At an oyster festival, a local dignitary dies. Was it poison?

In actual fact I didn’t really care what happened. (I did say it was light on the mystery.) It was fun, it was different, and there’s a serious underlying theme as Sefton struggles with his demons (to which, of course, his employer is totally oblivious).

I’ll go back to my ordinary mysteries. After all, they’re a well-tested genre and there are so many, so similar, because it works. But sometimes you want something different, and by the next time I’m in need of an alternative twist on crime, I hope the next book in the series will be out.

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