Nothing Unnecessary

It is rare for me to leave books incomplete once I have started them but twice in the past fortnight I have found myself disinclined to continue. In both cases the novels were what I would call contemporary: One first published in 2015, the other in 2013. The first I stuck with for perhaps a quarter of its length, at which point I realised I cared not one jot for the characters, plot or substance (which sought to connect with contemporary fears around terrorist attacks and the manner in which the ‘intelligence’ services might be meeting that threat) whilst the other I’m afraid I put down after an opening prologue filled with a graphic and heartily sickening description of an individual’s torture. Perhaps it is the time of year, when End of Term tensions run high and emotions are raw (three times this week I have found myself reduced to a sobbing fountain of tears on reading the most innocuous and disparate texts about faith, meditation, song-writing and collecting promotional items from sporting events) or perhaps it is the fact that I may have reached A Certain Age when all these kinds of things just feel rather unnecessary and vulgar. A younger version of myself would certainly have had no problem with the description of torture and violence (step forward the person who adored David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet, Gordon Burn’s books on Sutcliffe and the West’s and frankly anything by Derek Raymond) although I can’t quite think of a time when I particularly enjoyed reading novels that hooked into a thread of contemporary news narrative so maybe putting that one into the charity shop pile has nothing to do with me Getting Old at all. Let’s say that anyway.

So what did I pick up and read instead? Well, I admit that I fell back on the comfortable pleasures of a George Bellairs novel featuring his fine Scotland Yard detective Chief Inspector Littlejohn. Although first published in 1964, ‘Surfeit Of Suspects’ (recently re-published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series) is very comfortably of that old English school of detective story writing where upper lips are stiff and folks still drink sherry before dining (a thoroughly civilised approach to living, it must be said). The narrative revolves around the multiple murder of a struggling small company’s directors in an explosion, with (in this case Superintendent) Littlejohn tracing the lines of enquiry throughout the surrounding community. The web of interconnected small town dalliances, betrayals and desperate clinging to old class distinctions wouldn’t be out of place in one of Shena Mackay’s novels of (bitter)sweet suburbia and Bellairs navigates them all with a deftness of touch that is to be applauded. The climax of the investigation may be one we see coming from a ways off, but (assuming one enjoys corrupt officials getting their just desserts) is nonetheless immensely gratifying. The British Library Crime series has published several of Bellair’s titles whilst many more of the 57 Littlejohn novels are available in paperback and eBook format from the Bellairs website (you can get a free eBook each month by signing up to the mailing list). I understand many of his later Littlejohn novels are set in Provence and the Alpes-Maritime areas and I very much look forward to reading those.

Now if Bellairs very much mined the vein of Golden Age detective stories it should be remembered that much of what coloured that particular era/genre/style is not necessarily what more modern, 21st Century, imitators have taken from it. So where some have plundered a (largely imagined) sense of cutesy whimsy, full of rose-covered cottages in sleepy villages inhabited by sweet old spinsters, what actually shines out strongly from many writers and stories from that era/genre/style is instead a pleasurable lack of the extraneous. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing unnecessary in their pages. Often it is dialogues that drives these books (Bellair’s ‘The Case Of The Fanished Parson’ is almost entirely exchanges of dialogue) and it would not be outside the realms of reason to suggest a strong connection here to the likes of George Pelecanos, a writer who, on the face of it, may have nothing in common with 1930s English detective fiction. And yet… and yet…

Valerio Varesi may, on the face of it, have little in common with 1930s English detective fiction, but on the evidence of his terrific ‘River Of Shadows’ novel, there are certainly connections to be made. For Varesi is similarly spare in his writing. Nothing superfluous imposes itself into the pages of this slim novel, whilst the pieces of the puzzle drop into place with a satisfying click. ‘River Of Shadows’ is also strongly suggestive of Simenon, with Varesi’s depictions of the Po river valley being as rich in texture and atmosphere as those of the French and Dutch canals into which Maigret’s investigations occasionally lead. And lo! There are even glorious map illustrations in the frontispiece! Varesi’s novels featuring Commissario Soneri may not be quite so slim as Simenon’s Maigret’s (you could probably fit at least two Maigret novels into each Soneri) but from the taste of River Of Shadows they are set to be every bit as delicious and I have the next four instalments lined up on the shelf to enjoy alongside my now-traditional gorging of six Maigrets at the start of the school holidays. One week to go…

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