Catching (up with) The Herrings

“‘I used to think that my life was an Agatha Christie novel,’ I said. ‘A little convoluted, but essentially well-ordered and civilised. I’m beginning to think it may be more Raymond Chandler.’”

Last time out I was talking about comic crime/detective stories and made reference to some that I was hoping to catch up on. Top of that list were the two most recent books in the Elsie and Ethelred series by L.C. Tyler, which I am rather ashamed to say almost passed me by.  I have said this before and I will say it again, but I do find it difficult to keep track of contemporary releases by artists, be that music or books. Mostly this is, it must to said, My Own Fault, for I have long since struggled to find the time to read journals (physical or virtual) that might alert me to such things. In the virtual world I recall there was a period where it was so easy to set up RSS feeds from blogs I enjoyed, but that all seemed to go the way of the Dodo when Whoever Decides These Things proclaimed that RSS was Old Tech (that was someone at Google no doubt, who canned Google Reader) and that everyone was Doing Social Media instead. There was probably some significant degree of truth in that decision, and Time Waits For No Geek after all, so blah. Or Blah. Or even BLAH.

So it took a reference to the form of the comic novel in a comment by the author Stuart David, a delve into a back issue of CADS, a subsequent spark of ‘oh YES, L.C. Tyler’ and a tangential waddle across to Goodreads to see what I might have missed for me to Get With It. At which point I realised I had missed not only the cosmic coincidence of a just published ‘Farewell My Herring’ being beautifully lined up for me, but also the previous entry in the Elsie and Ethelred series ‘The Maltese Herring’. And yes, since you ask, it is only now that I realise I could just have ‘followed’ Mr Tyler on Goodreads, or indeed on The Social Media to find out what he might have been up to. But really. The Social Media. It’s such a cesspit of gloom and bile (interrupted occasionally by videos of cute animals doing amusing things) generally, isn’t it? The temptation to permanently disengage is so strong these days.

By some strange coincidence that of course is no coincidence at all, there is something of this thread in ‘Farewell My Herring’, as Elsie and Ethelred find themselves snowed in at a Crime Writing Workshop high in the Yorkshire Dales, without phone signal or (gasp) Access To The Internet. Now if you are some (ahem) snowflake Millennial undergoing an endless identity crisis (I jest – some of my best friends are Millennials with identity crises) you will doubtless have to imagine such horror. Those of us who are old and more than grumpy enough will be able to remember such a thing with gooey-eyed fondness and will doubtless nod in appreciation of the observation, expressed by the marvellously prickly and chocolate addicted Elsie that “It’s only the twenty-first century that thinks it has to be online twenty-four seven in order not to miss out.”

So this thread of disconnection from the online world is one that permeates the book, yet it also goes hand in hand with another thread, which is about the propagation of conspiracy theory within ‘pre-Internet’ networks of local gossip and story-telling (the bonkers idea of one character being a CIA agent). Thus Tyler adeptly juggles themes and makes points by writing in character, making observations about The World without sounding insufferably dull and worthy. Inevitably too there is something of the very contemporary notion of Living Through Lockdown in the sense of the characters being locked into the same space and unable to leave without the very real danger of death or serious injury. Of course this might be a case of one of those cosmic coincidences dropping into the thread of the (my) world, and I do wonder if anyone reading the book at some point in the future will make this connection? Perhaps not.

A rather more likely reading of the book from the future, given the setting of a snowed-in Victorian house, is an expectation that this might, at any point, turn into a ‘Christmas Murder Mystery’. Well it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that the book resolutely refuses to follow that expectation whilst simultaneously teasingly leading us on. As one of the characters points out: “as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route.” and anyone familiar with the genre will immediately start thinking of all those snowed-in murder mysteries (re)published in November/December in recent years with their cover illustrations of Country Houses cloaked in the blue/purple hues of moonlit snowscapes. Step forward the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Mystery In White’ (okay, this one has an illustration of a train stuck in a snowdrift, but didn’t the runaway success of the 2014 reissue of this 1937 novel kick this all off?), Francis Duncan’s ‘Murder for Christmas’ (1949) and Jill McGowan’s marvellous ‘Murder At The Old Vicarage’ (a relatively unusual late 1980s pleasure for me). Elsie would most certainly approve.

My own favourite amongst this sub-genre of Snowbound Crime/Detective Novels Set In Or Around The Festive Season however would be Lorna Nicholl Morgan’s wonderful ‘Another Little Murder’. Originally published in 1947, this is the book which I most instinctively thought of whilst enjoying ‘Farewell My Herring’, not least because the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title of the reissues is at best a shrewd marketing ploy, for the story really has almost nothing to do with the festive season at all. Now although Tyler makes no specific reference to any of these books in his text, there is an offhand reference to Gladys Mitchell, whose ‘Murder In The Snow’ from 1950 would certainly be a delightful addition to any pile of seasonal reads. There are also numerous mentions aside to John Dickson Carr, but since I still find his books to be, on the whole, insufferably smug, I will pass swiftly on.

From the outset of the nine book series Tyler has used the technique of two different narrators, with Elsie and Ethelred each moving the story forwards from their own perspectives. As a technique it works well in allowing each character to develop and to firmly establish their relationships with other characters and inevitably with each other. It means that one of the many pleasures of the books are the exchanges of dialogue between the two. My favourite of these exchanges in ‘Farewell My Herring’ is almost certainly one where Ethelred leads with “He’d have been thrown out of the Crime Writers’ Association, if they ever do throw anyone out. If he’d stayed a comic crime writer he would at least have had some respect.” To which comes Elsie’s swift rejoinder of “Not much”. Ouch. In ‘The Maltese Herring’ meanwhile, there is a marvellous exchange under Ethelred’s narration:
“‘How many scheming dames with mouths like a scarlet gash have tried to seduce you for their own crooked purposes?’ ‘Just the one,’ I said. ‘I turned her down.’ ‘How many times have you been beaten up by a corrupt cop in a grimy alleyway?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Just scammed by academics.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like Chandler,’ said Elsie. ‘Maybe Edmund Crispin on a quiet day.’”

The Crispin reference, as I have said many times in the past and will repeat ad nauseam in the future, is entirely apt, for it is Crispin’s effortless, featherweight lightness of comic touch that these novels of Tyler’s most resemble to my eyes. The similarities extend too into how both authors explore post-modern notions of metafiction within their stories. Crispin, writing from the 1940s to the 1970s, is deliciously knowing and relatively sparing in breaking the third wall. Tyler, meanwhile, as a 21st Century author is almost gleeful in abusing the form. In many respects I suppose it is meta-meta: Tyler knowingly poking fun at the very knowingness he has his characters display as the books unfold (from their titles inwards and onwards). Indeed, in a supreme moment of inverted self-mockery he has Ethelred proclaim (in ‘Farewell My Herring’) “I hate metafiction”. LOL.

It is inevitably true that most of us likely also hate metafiction when we are excluded (for whatever reason) from the in-jokes. As such it is impossible for me to judge how others might react to the comic knowingness of Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred books, yet I suspect that there is more than enough to enjoy without any knowledge whatsoever of crime/detective fiction’s rich tapestry. These books are, like the early Flavia De Luce stories by Alan Bradley, deceptively light and breezy reads. Both ‘The Maltese Herring’ and ‘Farewell My Herring’ are, like all the preceding books in the series, hugely enjoyable contemporary comic romps that are shot through with more than enough marvellously rewarding jibes and referential homages for those who want to see them. Now I just need to figure out how best to be kept in the loop for future instalments.

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