An Air That Kills

Every so often I think I ought to pick up some kind of more, ah, contemporary crime fiction. After all, one must make some kind of effort to exist in the timescale one physically occupies, even if only tangentially. One cannot exist solely in that space between 1930 and 1950, after all. Whenever this urge is surrendered to, however, it inevitably seems to lead to disappointment. Anything that is contemporary both in writing and setting leaves me cold. Too much ‘gritty’ realism that is anyway never as good as Derek Raymond. I’m not even sure I would want to (re)read Raymond these days though, and whilst David Peace’s books would surely still read as strangely beautiful depictions of deranged psychedelic monstrosities I’m not at all sure I ever want to go there again either. So the idea of anyone ‘new’ doing anything ‘new’ just strikes me as something I don’t much need to consider. Fair play to everyone who does, mind. Different strokes.

It’s much the same with contemporary writers who play around with historical crime/detective fiction styles. Much as I want to enjoy them, the majority seem to succumb either to an unbearable tinge of ‘cozy’ nostalgia for a mediated and misunderstood illusion or to pepper the text with insufferably detailed points of historical reference to show off their skills in period research. I’m quite certain that in my turn I come across as unbearably pretentious and snobbish about such things, but there it is. Unpopular by name…

The fact that I not only finished Andrew Taylor’s ‘An Air That Kills’ but also rather enjoyed it, then, took me by surprise somewhat. Of course 1994 is hardly ’contemporary’, and my enjoyment of the book likely suggests that there is a turning point early in the 21st Century that might mark my (new) notional cut-off point of interest, but there we are. At least I’ve moved that point on from the 1980s, so I’m travelling forward, albeit slowly.

First in the ‘Lydmouth’ series of novels, I admit I was seduced into giving it a go not only by the fact that it was a 99p speculative punt on Kindle, but also because ‘Lydmouth’ sounds West Countryish. I thought perhaps Lynmouth and Lynton on the North Devon coast might be the inspiration, and sure enough the book opens with a train journey out of London Paddington, heading west. The book is set in the post-war period and part of me wondered too if we might be about to visit some crime committed under the tragic shadow of the 1952 flooding disaster, but no, the train instead heads away from Bristol towards Wales, where ‘Lynmouth’ becomes Lydney (or vice versa) and the story begins in earnest.

It is all quite earnest too, as it quickly becomes evident that we are in for a narrative that revolves mostly around the themes of secrets and wanted/unwanted babies. Viewed through the lens of 2023 it might feel somewhat uncomfortable that this theme of women and pregnancy should be written by a male voice and I admit that the thorny issues of gender identity and voice leave me confused about how I ought to be reading this. Suddenly thirty years seems like an age, which of course it is. It’s as long a period as between when ‘An Air That Kills’ is set to when it was written. This too fuddles my brain and convinces me that time is something that is hardly stable and linear but instead is at best elliptical and irrational. That’s a discussion best carried out under the influence of whisky and wine though.

So ‘An Air That Kills’ revolves around dead babies and secrets. There is nothing particularly surprising in any of it, except in that, perhaps, we visit such sordid events in a fictional historical landscape that we are more often encouraged to think of as Above All That. A nonsense of course, for as the book shows us, such vile unpleasantness has existed for centuries as an explicit element in the complexities of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun, it’s just that perhaps at different times one didn’t talk about it. Or write about it, except possibly in hints hidden beneath ermine cloaks in books that took ten pages to describe someone posting a letter. Or in detective books that concerned themselves more with the altogether more socially acceptable motives for murder such as money and, occasionally, passion (as opposed to Lust, which would be A Very Different Thing).

Andrew Taylor doesn’t take ten pages to describe posting a letter. In truth his writing is nicely paced and there is little time wasted on anyone expostulating at length about possible explanations for the bones of a baby found in an old cesspit beneath a crumbling hotel from the wrong side of the tracks. In truth too there is no great mystery about any of it, and I suspect that most people will see the truth rearing quite unpleasantly into view long before it is officially uncovered for us by Inspector Thornhill. Newly arrived in Lydmouth, Thornhill too helps supply an undertow of lust into proceedings, although it’s all a bit uncomfortable because the poor chap is struggling to control sexual urges that cannot/will not be sated by his wife, who is too busy looking after their children. This kind of idea that only men have sexual needs might well be a case of Taylor reflecting the period notions of expectation, but it nevertheless feels a little clumsy and awkward. Thirty years, as noted, is an awfully long time, and perhaps this thread is picked up and picked apart in future instalments as the hinted at ‘relationship’ between Thornhill and returning journalist Jill Francis is explored. One rather hopes so, and I admit that ‘An Air That Kills’ is an enjoyable enough start to a series to tempt me into finding out. Not sure I’ll want to take much more than another 99p punt though.

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