In the ’70s

A quick search in my reading list archive tells me that I have read forty two George Bellairs novels in the past three years, and whilst most of them have been at the very least highly enjoyable, the latest on that list (‘Murder Adrift’ and ‘Devious Murder’, originally published in 1972 and 1973 respectively) have sadly been amongst the weakest. Written towards the end of a highly productive career, neither of these titles seem to go much of anywhere other than to idle around somewhat sedate plot lines. It’s a great shame, because when Bellairs is at his best he is a tremendously engaging writer. For what it’s worth, my favourites amongst those forty plus books featuring series detective Inspector Littlejohn are without doubt those set on the Isle of Man. Bellairs settled there after life as a bank manager, and his island novels really are thinly disguised love letters to the landscape. The crimes and the detection are almost secondary to the sense of place and local character, his fondness for the island and the people coming through with warmth and astutely observed detail. By the time of these 1970s novels, though, the places the tales are set in seem nondescript and the characters bland. If we were being kind perhaps we could say that’s just a reflection of the times, but they are certainly not books that I would recommend as starting points for exploring Bellairs’ work.

Also from the 1970s come a series of books by Anne Morice, newly republished by those fine folks at Dean Street Press, featuring serial character of jobbing actor Tessa Crichton and with cover imagery seemingly beamed direct from ‘sophisticated’ TV dramas of the period. Now our previous visit to the reissue action of the DSP had us enjoying four detective stories by Cecil Waye and rather wishing that the most interesting character (the terrific Vivienne) had not been married off and written out after the first. I’m delighted to say that Morice trips on only one of these hazards, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the charming young man that Crichton spots in the pub early in ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ has by the time of the next novel become her husband. Indeed, the title of that second instalment in the series, ‘Murder In Married Life’ rather gives the game away. As a Scotland Yard Inspector (I have not read further in the series, but I imagine that he Rises Through The Ranks and becomes at least a Chief Inspector) he is perfectly positioned to supply Tessa with juicy problems to which she may lend her charms.

Now let me say straight away that I am not a fan of the fashion for describing certain detective novels from any age as ‘cosy’. I understand the marketing strategies behind such a move, but it feels lazy, and reflects a thoroughly inaccurate reading (or wilful reframing) of older texts. With this in mind then, let me stress that Anne Morice’s novels are not ‘cosy’, but they are certainly hugely entertaining and witty. A contemporary review by Edmund Crispin describes the first Tessa Crichton book ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ as a “charming whodunit….full of unforced buoyancy”, going on to suggest it as a “remedy for existentialist gloom.” Let us not forget that Crispin himself was certainly prone to bouts of existential gloom, but that he also penned some marvellously entertaining detective stories featuring the tremendous character of Gervaise Fen. One wonders too if his frankly bonkers (in a good way) swansong ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ (published in 1977) was not at least in part inspired by the kinds of words Morice was penning for Tessa Crichton. Frances Iles is typically more restrained, suggesting that ‘Death…’ is “a most attractive lightweight”. If that feels somewhat close to being damned by faint praise, then it likely says more about Iles than it does about Morice.

Of course one is unlikely to be reading detective fiction from the 1970s for much more than entertainment value, and that is fine. Indeed it is one of its primary attractions. But Morice has a charming manner of cloaking quite barbed quips in comfortable attire. On marriage she has Tessa note that “One of the few snags I had encountered in married life was the obligation to account to one other person for one’s behaviour; and this was never more acute than in cases where the behaviour was unlikely to obtain the other person’s blessing and approval”, whilst at another point Crichton refers to a piece of sci-fi theatre with a description that feels uncomfortably prescient: “It was set in the year two thousand and something and the author’s comforting idea was that by then the computers would have taken charge of just about everything, from foreign policy down to bingo, with the result that Man had lost the power of self expression and was reduced to conversing in grunts and loosely connected monosyllables.” A more accurate description of Social Media interactions I have yet to read.

Then there is this uncomfortably amusing blast that reminds us how the BREXIT spirit of the 21st Century England ‘Daily Mail’ reader is nothing new: “there was nothing of the Dresden china about this particular little old lady. She was more of a retired Boadicea waging an implacable armchair-war against, predictably enough, immigrants, civil servants, motorists, pedestrians, abstract art, pop music and central heating.” Perhaps Morice had just seen Thatcher on the television.

Elsewhere she drops some delicious little meta droplets of knowing reference, with one character telling Tessa “for God’s sake don’t get the idea that you’re Miss Marple, and start asking all and sundry what they were doing between four and six o’clock, on Saturday, 3rd August.” before dropping the marvellous “‘I’ve lost the thread again,’ Toby said, appealing to Robin. ‘Have you any idea what this is all about?’ ‘Not a glimmer.’”

Losing the thread or not (and sometimes that is part of the pleasure), I admit that I have enjoyed these first two Anne Morice novels more than enough to explore further. And with eight more titles available in this current reissue flourish and a further ten due in July, there is certainly plenty in which to indulge.

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