As we rapidly approach the half way point of the year I am reminded that I started January by enjoying Geoffrey Household’s ‘Rogue Male‘. Mark Brend’s newly published novel ‘Undercliff‘ is the vehicle for this nudge of memory and I dare say that even if I had not known Brend to be a Household fan I would still have felt an undertow of ‘Rogue Male’ reference in the pages. Certainly ‘Undercliff’ is set in much the same landscape as that in which Household’s novel reaches its conclusion, although Brend settles just on the Devon side of the Jurassic coast, with Household’s ghost hiding out in the holloways of Dorset a pebble’s throw to the east. There is a structural similarity to the two novels also, with both using the first halves of their narratives to paint scenes, set connections and introduce characters before embarking on what is essentially a ‘chase’ in the second half. In ‘Undercliff’ this chase may be more muted than it is for the ‘Rogue Male’, but it nevertheless allows for much enjoyment in exploring a landscape of crumbling cliffs and densely woven undergrowth. In ‘Undercliff’ too the ‘chase’ is less animalistic and more informed by loosely bundled threads of investigation. These threads draw from notions of religion, belief, mysticism and the cult of the personality. They draw from notions of the simultaneous appeal of and repulsion from connectivity and community, of belonging and isolation. Where Household makes quite clear distinctions between good/bad whilst suggesting too that we all of us are rooted in the earth to which we all return, Brend instead leaves question marks hovering over everything. So whilst there are certainly mysteries in ‘Undercliff’, anyone looking for a puzzle to solve will perhaps be frustrated to find nothing quite so orthodox; whilst there are hints and suggestions of Magik at work these are never more than that, so anyone looking for something akin to a landscape hewn from conflict between Christian faith and a more ancient belief system such as Merrily Watkins inhabits may also find themselves faintly bewildered. ‘Undercliff’ instead treads more subtle ground and in this it feels very much a novel of contemporary flavours, even though it is set largely in 1973. So whilst there are some sensitive touches of historical contextualising (Brend’s descriptions of folk band The Flock are particularly fine) the novel as a whole seems invested with a sense of vague uncertainty. Characters seem caught between reality and fantasy, unable to judge truth from falsehood. Darkness seems always just round the corner, light just out of reach whilst we inhabit the realm of unknowing. As a first novel it is certainly one that suggests Brend has further treats to be unearthed and I heartily recommend it.
Less easy to recommend from my recent reading are three novels by E. and M. A. Radford that have been republished by Dean Street Press. My interest was piqued by an article in issue 80 of CADS, but whilst this estimable periodical is so often a source of enormously entertaining avenues of exploration, this one turned out rather frustrating. Perhaps those who favour the puzzle-based genre of detective fiction will find more in the Radford’s novels to enjoy but they left me rather cool. There are certainly few things that frustrate me more in mystery novels than the authors interjecting to tell me that in the chapter we have just finished I will surely have spotted all the necessary clues to solve the problem. Not that I mind writers breaking the fourth wall, as it were (Edmund Crispin does this with delicious dexterity), it’s more the insufferable smugness in a writer who seems determined to remind us that they have constructed a damnably clever puzzle. There is certainly a smugness about the Radford’s main character Doctor Manson which borders on insufferable and unbelievable. The influence of Holmes on the Manson character is clearly visible (I’m sure he says something is elementary several times) and I quite quickly found myself hearing him in my head as Basil Rathbone. In the CADS article Nigel Moss suggests that the three novels published by Dean Street have “strong plots, clever detection and evocative settings” and in this he is partially correct. Personally I would temper this by suggesting that the plots are confusingly complicated, the detection irritatingly clever and the settings less elegantly painted as they might be. ‘Murder Jigsaw’ is a good example of the latter. Set on the edge of Devon and Cornwall along the Tamar river, the Radfords sketch the landscape with a few daubs of colour, yet it feels always just a little clumsy and in many ways comes across as something of a pastiche of Cyril Hare’s marvellous ‘Death Is No Sportsman’ (written in 1938 – six years before ‘Murder Jigsaw’). Certainly Hare’s book is more adept at capturing the intricacies of fly-fishing without them ever feeling like insufferably detailed explanations of a favourite hobby, whilst his dry wit and more fully fleshed characters are immeasurably more convincing that the almost wreath-like presences conjured by the Radfords. Hare too is much more adept at painting convincing landscapes, and he does a grand job of showing off Exmoor in his final novel ‘He Should Have Died Hereafter’. With its traditional detective-novel mixture of real and imagined place names, the novel traverses the edges of Exmoor, up to what I read as being Dunkery beacon and down again to what is surely the hidden gem of Culbone church near Porlock. Sadly neither ‘He Should Have Died Hereafter’ nor E.C.R. Lorac’s ‘Murder In The Mill Race’ (just published in the British Library Crime Classics series and next up on my ‘to-be-read’ pile) subscribe to the less-well adhered to tradition of including hand drawn maps of the territory in their frontispieces. These little maps are always a delight and it please me enormously to say that there is one included in ‘Undercliff’; the more so because it unashamedly blends the real and the unreal together in just the way that Hare does in his Exmoor.