The other day a friend almost sheepishly admitted to reading (and enjoying) Richard Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Now I’m sure it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, but aside from admitting a degree of Unpopulist Elitism, the principle reality of my not adding Osman’s book to the already over-crowded and ever expanding ‘to-be-read’ shelves is that there are there simply too many already there, and that there are too many other things I’d put ahead of it on my list. One day, perhaps… one day.
It did make me think however about a couple of things. One: That we ought not to be sniffy when someone who may have gained ‘celebrity’ in one area of life explores other avenues. Unless the work in that new avenue is Not Up To Scratch, in which case, sniff away.
Two: That it is too easy to fall into the trap of being critical of Books As Entertainments and thinking that writing in a lighthearted and comedic manner is lightweight and easy.
Three: That all writing that may vaguely fall into the ‘crime and detective’ genre is All The Same.
And Four: Life is too short.
Point two got me thinking further about my own predilection for the more light-hearted and gently comedic end of crime/detective fiction. It has been said before, but it bears saying again that densely convoluted ‘technical’ or, that dreaded word, ‘scientific’ crime puzzles leave me cold and quickly bored. The Holmes books and stories just about get away with it for me because although Holmes is such an insufferably smug know-it-all character, the tales are saved by the foil of Watson, through whose narratives quite rightly Conan Doyle presents the cases. Sayers is adept at this also, as is Christie. It is a skill that ought not to be underestimated.
Following through on the train of thought about writing in the comedic manner has also had me delving back into issues of the tremendous CADS magazine for an excellent piece by Kate Jackson on ‘comical criminality’. There are so many suggestions of authors and books in Jackson’s piece that it can be quite a challenge knowing where to start, but as the case with these things, one of the first things I did is check to see if my own favourites are in there. And yes, there, present and correct, is Leo Bruce, whose Sergeant Beef stories are always a delight when included in those terrific themed collections in the British Library series. Ditto Richard Hull and Alan Melville, both of whom have benefitted from British Library reissue action with the tremendous ‘Murder Of My Aunt’ and ‘Death of Anton’ both being highly recommended reads. Some of Jackson’s other suggestions are more troublesome to track down without investing significant time and potentially funds in seeking out old printed copies, but then that can be part of the thrill. I managed to find reasonably priced copies of Joan Coggin’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’ and Delano Ames’ ‘She Shall Have Murder’ for example, and am very much looking forward to delving into those.
On a personal note it was also great to see Jackson giving a big thumbs up to Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s excellent series of books featuring the hugely entertaining Gervaise Fen were amongst the first English crime/detective stories that I read as I transitioned from years of consuming hard boiled American Noir, and as a result will always retain a special place in my heart. Really though Crispin’s books are, at their best, marvellously readable and remarkably post-modern period pieces with a timeless charm. As Jackson points out, it is the deliciously light and self-aware use of metafictional humour that Crispin does so well, and it is this quality that helps the books along at a terrific pace. It’s been said before and will be said again, but really if you are in any way interested in detective fiction, then Edmund Crispin is a Must Read.
Also amongst my personal list of Must Read’s are the two contemporary authors that Jackson also makes mention of in her article. L.C. Tyler’s wonderful ‘Elsie and Ethelred’ series has been one of my most enjoyed series in the past decade or so and I’m delighted to see that the latest instalment has just been published in the form of ‘Farewell My Herring’. One rather hopes that the title is only the latest in the series’ witty appropriation of classic crime story titles and not some signifier of An Ending, but regardless, the book has certainly leapfrogged many others to land on the top of the ‘to-be-read’ shelves.
As for Ian Sansom, well, I continue to await with great anticipation a new entry in the marvellous ‘County Guides’ series. I have written about Sansom in the past of course (in one of those strange circumstances of cosmic coincidences I realise this would have been around the time Jackson’s piece was published in CADS) so there is not much to add here except to say that if you have not yet delved into the County Guides, or the earlier series of ‘Mobile Library’ stories, then you are missing out on some real treats.
Other contemporary writers that Jackson suggests are Suzette A. Hill and Anthony Horowitz. From what I can ascertain, Hill’s stories sound quite whimsical and may, I fear, fall into traps of contemporary ‘cosy’. This may, however, be an entirely unfair assumption, and with her ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ available for less than the price of a coffee, is certainly worth an inquisitive punt. Horowitz, meanwhile, I admit I have avoided for much the same reasons of Unpopular Elitism as suggested for ignoring ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Also, probably envy, but those are my own problems and I will deal with then in my own way and in my own time. By which I mean I shall Carry On Regardless.
One contemporary author that Jackson does not mention but who may fall onto a tangential ellipse of the comedic crime fiction arc would be Stuart David. Some Unpopular readers may be more familiar with David as a musician with his terrific Looper act and membership of the early (classic?) Belle And Sebastian lineup, but he’s also the author of the rather excellent series of ‘Peacock’ stories. In a rather glorious coup of metafictional theft, the Peacock character has been lifted from the pages of an Ian Rankin novel and given a new universe to inhabit. Now I will admit to being unfamiliar with the Rankin books, but this hardly matters I am sure, for David’s opening salvo of ‘The Peacock Manifesto’ is tremendous fun in its own right and needs not a shred of ‘context’ setting. Indeed, I did not even know of the Rankin connection until after I had devoured it in a couple of sittings. Its subtitle of ‘A beer-fuelled pursuit of the American Dream. Glasgow style.’ pretty much describes what you get and is worth celebrating for that fact. A recent survey noted Glasgow as the ‘sweariest’ city in the UK, and David’s book certainly lives up to this reputation in gleeful style. Its sequel ‘With Love From Evil Bob’ is an even quicker read but no less enjoyable for that. Written in the form of letters to Peacock from the titular Evil Bob (Peacock’s main Partner In Crime in the ‘Manifesto’), the book is by turns a hilarious caper and a witty metafictional romp in the post-modern rubble. Bob himself describes his letters as “junkyard jack-ass prose. Totally self-absorbed.” and that’s as good a description as any. Elsewhere, Stuart David has expressed a desire for the Peacock books to establish the genre of the Scottish comic novel. I’m already lining up the other titles in the series for consumption, but on the evidence of these two I’d say that Peacock and David are well on the way to achieving that goal.