Murders for the end of the month

From laugh-out-louds to gripping plots, Jeremy Black recommends murder mysteries for the end of the month

Artillery Row Books

We all need a tonic and for laugh out loud I would go for Lynne Truss’s The Man That Got Away (Bloomsbury, 2019; £8.99), the sequel to her A Shot in the Dark (2018). I am not sure whether it is culturally insensitive to refer to a work as a black comedy, and, to be candid I do not care (have a Valium if that shocks you), but this is a warm as well as witty black comedy. There are murders, including a throat-slitting near the start, and a spate later on, but Truss keeps the Keystone Cops dynamic (and content) rushing forward and that, not the head in the case, fixes the attention. Think Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001), but wittier and warmer. So we have the cast back, Mrs Groynes, the charlady Moriarty of Brighton, Constable Twitten who cannot be her nemesis, the ‘great Inspector Steine, famous as a star of the Brighton Constabulary’ and a 1957 romp with tributes to Brighton Rock, House of Wax, and Nancy Mitford on U and Non-U. Brilliant writing and a great way to forget the moment.

A differently foolish senior officer, Inspector Mole, in a setting and tone a long way from Truss’s Brighton, is provided in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm (1960). Reprinted in 2016 by British Crime Classics, it can be found alongside The Methods of Sergeant Cluff (1961), reprinted the same year, and both available for £7.99, which, like the other books in the series, is a real bargain. I have to put my hand up and say I did not know the work of ‘Gil North,’ the pseudonym of Geoffrey Horne (1916-88), a Yorkshire-born Cambridge graduate who was in the Colonial Service from 1938 to 1955 before returning to Yorkshire, producing a series of novels from 1957 to 1978, both under his own name and, most prominently, the eleven Cluff novels under the ‘Gil North’ name. The latter, in turn, became a highly successful television series in 1964-5 attracting twelve million viewers. Set in bleak moorland landscape, and even more in the hard and poor mill town of Gunnarshaw, with poor housing and poverty-stricken lives, this is a writer who does not offer illusions, as his account of a wet funeral in Stands Firm brings out: there is much rain in these stories. The descriptions can be harsh – ‘Her eyes were red with lack of sleep, black, sunken half-circles under them. Her clothes kept her flesh together and Cluff guessed that, undressed, she would be shapeless.’ He is the indomitable protagonist, a man of craggy integrity, a watchful figure in the fashion not so much of J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Calls but of Simenon. These books really deserve attention.

Bude had a fine grasp of place, and also produced fair Golden Age murders with interesting characters and a good puzzle

A very different ambience in another book from that series, John Bude’s The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937, 2016; £8.99). The series also includes his The Cornish Coast Murder, The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder, and Death on the Riviera, all of which deserve reading. Bude had a fine grasp of place, and also produced fair Golden Age murders with interesting characters and a good puzzle. The Cheltenham square offers a closed world, but not completely so, and the different households and their several circumstances and tones make for an arresting read as well as a gripping plot. The interplay between the policemen is not fully convincing but helps the plot along. There are references to Edgar Wallace, but the similarity in sensational murders does not match the contrast in the tone. I got part of the reveal, but only part of what is a fascinating accumulation of who, how and why.

Bude’s The Sussex Downs Murder (1936) features in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Crimes Classic, 2017; £14.99). Handsomely produced, this is an account of (largely) British detective novels from 1902 to 1950 that is at once accessible, well-written, authoritative and witty. The books are organised thematically, with sections for example on country house, London, holiday, comic, scientific, and many other types of murder story, varied in particular by setting and tone. The breadth of erudition is really impressive. A must for those interested in the genre, a rejoinder to fools who see the books of the period as limited, and a delight to read.

I was far less taken by James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon (Titan Books, 2020; £8.99). I read to the end thinking at some point that this would work for me, but it just did not. The style lacks Doyle’s mastery of language and his generally sparse plotting. It is clear from the outset that the demonic Black Thurrick is a fraud. The villain is not obvious, but there is a somewhat ‘who cares?’ by that stage.

A somewhat different Holmes tribute is The Daily Sherlock Holmes. A Year of Quotes, edited by Levi Stahl and Stacey Shintami (University of Chicago Press, 2019; £10). An attractive collection that offered me an opportunity to see how very many quotes I did not spot.

Very differently from Chicago comes a monograph that is instructive for interwar American crime stories, Jeffrey Adler’s Murder in New Orleans. The Creation of Jim Crow Policing (2019). Adler links a shift in punishment in New Orleans toward a more brutal, indeed sometimes murderous, treatment of black subjects in the 1930s, to a more racial policing. He also seeks to explain this in terms of a markedly falling murder rate but developing trends, including the erosion of conventional boundaries by means of motor cars. As he shows, while white violence changed, becoming more domestic and elderly, the African American home homicide rate dropped dramatically, whereas those of African Americans in streets and bars rose greatly. All these and more is accompanied by many interesting examples which are ably analysed.

I am uneasy at the simple juxtaposing of white and black for a city that had long had a far more complex mélange of categories, and also worry about the downplaying of class. Nevertheless, this most interesting book is a brilliant companion to an understanding of many elements of crime and the response to crime, not simply in interwar New Orleans but also more generally in America in this period, and thus also for example in 1948 Atlanta, the subject of Thomas Mullen’s novel Dartown (1948), which I have already reviewed.

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