BOOKS can throw up surprises, as I found with the crime novels bagged during my forays into the own’s charity shops. I had expected to like Ellis Peters’ A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, because I love her Cadfael mysteries. But Inspector George Felse lacks the charm of her monkish detective, and her portrayal of Cornwall in the sixties seems somehow less realistic than her evocation of Medieval Shrewsbury.
A large part of Cadfael’s allure lies in his logical powers of deduction as, with the knowledge and tools available at that time, he uses forensic skills to establish the truth, while his own experience of life has given him a psychological insight into human nature – and he always retains his warmth and humanity. Not only is there a strong, credible central character, but the stories hold your interest from the outset.
Not so, I fear, with Inspector Felse. Chapter One begins on page 7 – and it’s page 64 before the first dead body is uncovered. By that time I’d forgotten a reference (on page 11) to a possible sighting of a man who could have been drowning, and there was defintely no gradual build-up of dramatic tension.
Most of the first three chapters are taken up with scene setting and the introduction of the characters, but it all goes on for far too long, and there is far too much talk – and when the action does start it seems to move along much too fast (yes, I know, there’s just no pleasing me).
The Inspector is on holiday with his family in a Cornish coastal resort, and the story opens with his son diving into the sea to rescue a boy he fears is in trouble in the water. Enter, the boy’s uncle, a charismatic, famous, roving, freelance reporter and broadcaster. Enter, the boy’s parents. Enter, the Inspector’s wife. Enter, the Inspector. Enter, an elderly autocratic aunt. Enter, the elderly autocratic aunt’s secretary… and so it goes on. The characters appear thick and fast, each with a ‘tag’ to identify them: the barman with his red face and moustache, the vicar, built like a wrestler, with the untidy hair. Despite the descriptions none of them springs to life and after all it all gets a bit tedious.
Throw into the mix a church being swallowed by the sands, smuggling tales, mysterious poetic epigrams on the graves of a long-dead smuggler and his wife, and you should have the the ingrediants for a rattling good yarn (even if some elements of it did remind me of J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet). The fact that the grave of the aforesaid long-dead smuggler is about to be opened should make the story even more thrilling, and the excitement does begin to mount as the lid is lifted – to reveal the body of a man who has been murdered just a few days earlier.
So the hunt is on to find the murderer, and it runs alongside a search for the truth about the 18th century smuggler and what happened to him. Inspector Felse, of course, is drafted in to help with the investigations, although he is (a) on holiday, and (b) not a member of the local police force… and no-one ever asks for any ID or checks him out. He could tell them he was King Kong or the Missing Link and they would all believe him. Naturally, however, he solves the modern crime (why are London detectives always cleverer and more successful than their country counterparts?).
Sadly, by the time the action got under way I had long since lost interest in the plot or the characters, and the ending annoyed me beyond measure: despite the evidence to the contrary, I continued to hope for something stronger and more complex, and the denouement was no great shock.
Verdict: This one goes right back to the charity shop I bought it from – I certainly won’t be reading it again!
However, The Scold’s Bridle, by Minette Walters, which I had not expected to like, is so far proving to be far more readable, which just goes to prove you should never judge a book by its cover. And, since I haven’t quite finished it, you will have to wait for my judgement!