Dreary Mr Dodsley

John Ferguson’s ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ is entry number 111 in the on-going British Library Crime Classics series and might sadly be seen as further evidence of the project running out of steam. As suggested previously, this may be a case of my own attentions being (finally!) diverted into other avenues but there are certainly other treasures being unearthed elsewhere that I have enjoyed immeasurably more than anything the BLCC series has thrown up for a while, so this is not entirely the case.

‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ follows an infatuation for positioning the books as being a particular ‘kind’ of mystery. In recent years we have had a stream of books touted as being place specific (a Staffordshire Mystery, A Paris Mystery, an Alpine Mystery, an Oxfordshire Mystery, and so on…) and others that have been ‘event’ specific (a Fireworks Night Mystery, a Second World War Mystery, a Christmas Crime Story). In this case ‘Mr Dodsley’ is the latest in the trend of the ‘bibliomystery’. Now I’m sure that pursuing thematic threads within the archives of the British Library is a diverting occupation, but I admit I grow rather weary of the fashion, and certainly of having the ‘kind’ of mystery laid out in subtitles. At least John Bude (or Ernest Elmore if you prefer) just came right out and proclaimed the particular geographical location in his titles and I must say that his ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’, ‘The Lake District Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’ remain some of my favourites in the BLCC series. Still, perhaps this kind of playing down to the audience by including banal subtitles is as much A Sign of The Times as the dreary reminders and disclaimers about language and portrayals of gender, race, sexuality or whatever that now appear at the front of each book. These feel like insults to intelligence, but I’m a curmudgeonly old white man, so what do I know? To be positive for a moment though (don’t expect this to last), it is certainly to Martin Edwards’ credit that his research furnishes us with some background on John Ferguson and a body of work which is now largely forgotten some seventy years after his death in 1952. Amongst this biographical information Edwards tells us that Ferguson could count Dorothy Sayers as a contemporary fan, but then there is no accounting for taste.

Now I should hate to suggest that either the estimable Edwards or Sayers might be wrong, and it is an inescapable fact that both are much more highly qualified to make judgement than me. Yet, quite simply, I just don’t think ‘The Death of Mr. Dodsley’ is very good. There is inevitably something about following formulas when writing detective or any genre of fiction, and I have no truck with that. The trick to success, however, is to make that formula invisible, or at the very least to make it dance in a delicious manner. Ferguson does not manage this. Instead the formula is all too visible; a stodgy mass that treads on our toes every time it takes a step. Ouch.

It starts off entertainingly enough with an opening scene in the Houses of Parliament and one wonders if perhaps we are in for something as good as ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson’s terrific ‘The Division Bell Mystery’. No such luck, as the action quickly shifts to a second hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road and the discovery of the body of, yes, you guessed it, bookshop owner Mr Dodsley. From here we flit hither and thither, being introduced to a variety of characters, none of whom one feels particularly strongly about and all of whom one would be quite content to see unmasked as the murderer at the book’s denouement. It’s the kind of thing where one sees the obvious emerging from the clouds of mystery even before they have occurred to the writer, never mind the minds of the Scotland Yard chaps (and one private investigator) that Ferguson has summoned to solve the case. What are their names? I finished the book a couple of days ago and I can no longer remember. Sadly too I feel disinclined to open the pages to remind myself. Names are an irrelevance anyway, as the detectives are as unremarkable and forgettable as the cast of suspects who amble through the book telling fibs and hiding secrets, none of which are particularly shocking or interesting.

Whilst not as infuriatingly self-congratulatory as John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr at his insufferable ‘best’, Ferguson does nevertheless summon the spirit of that writer’s convolutions and so-called cleverness. Less smug and obtuse it may be, but ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ tries to be too clever by half and ends up being as dim and ditzy as the character who likes to pretend they are in the latest Hollywood film showing at the Gaumont. Perhaps when he wrote ‘Mr Dodsley’ Ferguson thought himself to be artfully playing with the form by weaving a kind of metafictional confection where the illusions of fiction rub shoulders with reference to’ real’ literary characters, but this is folly. Sadly the book just doesn’t have the wit to carry that off. The feet in those large policeman’s boots tread on our toes again as they attempt a feeble waltz. Ouch again.

With my past passing interest in Pop music, I cannot help but draw parallels between the archaeology of records and that of books. Yes, there are many, many great artefacts that have fallen between the cracks over the years and that glisten like marvellous treasure when brought back into the light. Similarly there are innumerable things that perhaps are best left where they are. Just as there is not necessarily anything remarkable about something that has become embedded in a cultural canon, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about something just because it is rare, or because it has been forgotten for a lengthy period of time. ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ then is like one of those peculiar oddities that act as fillers on extensive CD boxsets of ‘lost’ Indiepop singles. A curious aside, at best, but hardly a Classic. Time for the British Library publishing arm to move on?

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