So what did you do on September 19th 2022? Like many in the UK I am no royalist, yet I have no problem with many who are and have no issue with anyone who chose to spend the day on the streets of London or in front of television sets. For royalist or not, this has surely been a significant punctuation point in the history of the UK, for better or for worse, and everyone has their reasons. Me, I spent much of the day at the beach, skimming on a paddle-board over the barely concealed rocks of Branscombe Ebb at high tide and swimming in the sea at Littlecombe Shoot. Overhead the blue skies gave way to the growing threat of glowering grey clouds building above Coxe’s cliff. If one were given to looking for symbolism and metaphor in nature then there was much to take pleasure in. And then, in the afternoon, I read about The King.
Naturally there is only one King. Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. Hot dog. But did you know that he was also the King of private investigators? It is perhaps hard to fathom, but in the early part of the 21st Century, American author Daniel Klein made this astonishing discovery whilst engaged in some academic research into Presley’s life and career in the early 1960s*. How this escaped Peter Guralnick’s forensic two part biography of Elvis is anyone’s guess, but there you are. Yet rather than challenge Guralnick’s surely peerless work, Klein decided to position these new revelations into works of fiction, meticulously placing them next to clues and references to people, places, events and artefacts that one would find in the pages of ‘Last Train To Memphis’. Originally published in the early noughties, Klein’s four novels are about to be republished by the fine folks at Dean Street Press and are well worth seeking out.
The books in the short series all take their title from familiar Elvis numbers, hence ‘Kill Me Tender’, ‘Blue Suede Clues’, ‘Viva Las Vengeance’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Such Vicious Minds’. One might well cringe and suggest that the pun is the lowest form of wit, or bristle in anger at the mere thought of poking fun at anything related to The King, but there might be an argument there that one might have no sense of fun and what, after all, is Pop culture without a hefty dose of fun and frenzy? Both those elements are certainly gleefully threaded all the way through ‘Blue Suede Clues’, a book that I have, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed racing through in the past few days. To say that I was initially sceptical about the idea of Elvis as PI would be an understatement, yet the surreal qualities of the situation really are hugely entertaining. Relax into it and suddenly it feels like watching Nicholas Cage playing Philip Marlowe in a film scripted by Ross MacDonald and directed by The Marx Brothers. One rather wonders what Greil Marcus would make of it all.
Naturally there is a lot of Elvis mythology in ‘Blue Suede Clues’ and I suspect that the entire quartet of books provides a pretty fine whistle-stop tour of the crucial ingredients of The King’s story. In ‘Blue Suede Clues’ then we delve into themes of sexual repression and confusion (there’s a lot of reference to Freud, which MacDonald would have surely enjoyed playing with in that imaginary script I mentioned); the tension of Presley’s tug-of-love between Ann-Margret and Priscilla; the connectedness of twins and the attendant feelings of loss and betrayal (Jesse Garon gets a lot of mentions, though disappointingly there is no sneaky reference to any Desperadoes); the importance of junk food, and hamburgers in particular (White Tower gets some excellent product placement, although at the time of the book’s original 2002 publication the franchise was in near terminal decline, so I doubt they benefited much from any publicity); and the incipient dependence on prescription painkillers (Klein traces this to an incident involving a stunt harness whilst Presley was making ‘Kissin’ Cousins’, the filming of which provides the contextual roots for the entire book). If one were being overly critical it would be easy to suggest that many of these historical references feel forced, yet in truth they are no more so than other such details dropped hamfistedly into period fiction. Indeed, Klein seems to positively revel in weaving his surreal fictional Elvis amongst these ‘real’ situations and people. There is an implicit understanding that with Fame comes the surrendering of ownership of one’s personality. That, indeed, personality is by default splintered, with the self necessarily becoming multiple (hence the appropriateness of the whole ruptured twin symbolism in Presley’s life). Except not so clumsily pseudo-psychological. Instead, hammy winks are thrown. We are all in on the joke. Hot dog.
If there is one disappointment about Daniel Klein’s Elvis quartet it is that is just that: a quartet. Perhaps, given the series’ surreal premise, this is as well, but there is certainly something comforting in knowing that there are a good number of books in any particular series to keep one going through dark days ahead. In this, at least, Brian Flynn’s series of detective novels featuring Anthony Bathurst does not disappoint, with some 53 or so titles stretching from 1927 to 1958. Dean Street Press reissued a hefty number back in 2020, although I admit that I was disappointed with Flynn and Bathurst at that time. Different strokes, horses for courses and all that. Yet with DSP about to reissue a further batch of books from the series I could not resist dipping into 1947’s ‘The Sharp Quillet’ to see if things might have changed.
Now I have noted before, notably with the detective books of Josephine Tey, how there can be a remarkable difference between an author’s work pre and post-WW2. Indeed, as time goes on I find myself drawn more and more to this immediate post-war period and its (largely detective) fiction where a certain maturity and sense of social awareness appears to settle over much of the work. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Flynn and Bathurst, who, on this evidence at least, do not seem to have noticed the enormous cleft in history that has happened around them. Of course I accept that for many this would have been (and indeed will be) a positive, as ‘The Sharp Quillet’ appears to (re)create a social universe that is deeply invested in the class-structural mores of England in the 1920s and 30s. Deference to ‘betters’ is expected. True, there is a subtext where the pillars of a legal system suspected of cronyism and miscarriages of justice are systematically ‘popped off’, whilst God’s Will appears to be well and truly on the side of the mistreated (its no spoiler to point out that an entire jury responsible for bringing in a guilty charge are wiped out in a V2 flying bomb strike in the opening pages). Yet there remains the sense that whilst this is All Very Good, nevertheless Order Must Prevail. And so it does, as Bathurst and his by now regular ‘sidekick’ Inspector Andrew McMorran unpick a sizeable cast of suspects to arrive at a typically Flynn denouement. Typically, in that the ultimate solution feels vaguely unfulfilling and overly reliant on facts that Bathurst has discovered to which we, as readers, have not been privy. Or perhaps we have been and I’m just too dim (or disinterested) to have noticed. Either way, the book leaves me with the same feeling of a character/writer trying too hard to show how clever they are that I got from the earlier books. It reminds me too that Bathurst is simply, for me, a somewhat unpleasant character that I cannot for the life of me warm to. He reeks of privilege and entitled arrogance. A throwback, perhaps, but one that keeps returning like an unpleasant smell. Perhaps this is part of Flynn’s brilliance, for all of his characters feel like caricatures to some extent. Working folks are hale and hearty or bluff and taciturn. The ruling classes are aloof and pompous, treated always with exaggerated deference (it’s always “my lord” this and “my lord” that). There is not much in between.
Sadly, then, ‘The Sharp Quillet’ does nothing to shake my previous feelings of ambivalence towards the novels of Brian Flynn. For sure there will be lots of readers who will thoroughly enjoy his many, many adventures with Anthony Bathurst. As for me, when I find myself in need of some light, undemanding and fun entertainment in the coming weeks, I think I shall reach for The King.
*this assertion may not be entirely accurate.