The notion of ‘cosy’ crime fiction produces derisory chuckles among many hard-core thriller fans who regard the genre as twee and inoffensive, redolent of an earlier era. Such books, the naysayers complain, are closer to Cluedo’s Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlett than to real life. And a similarly dismissive response is often prompted by the comic crime genre, generally regarded by aficionados as a poor relation of the more serious detective genre (despite the highly diverting efforts of such droll writers as Simon Brett and L.C. Tyler). Might these dual prejudices be overturned? Perhaps it takes a writer of Lynne Truss’s wit and intelligence (not to mention her personal popularity in linguistic fields as the sworn enemy of the sloppy use of English) to take on both the cosy and comic fields, shaking them up so that something fresh and beguiling is forged.
Truss is, of course, most celebrated for her tongue-in-cheek book on grammar, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but she has also made her mark as a novelist and as a radio dramatist (the new book, A Shot in the Dark, is an extension of her successful BBC Radio Four series featuring the obdurate Inspector Steine). Truss’s locale here is Brighton, and the year is 1957. After the discreetly handled scene of mass murder that opens the book (in which two rival criminal gangs destroy each other), Inspector Steine maintains that there is no longer any lawbreaking in Brighton, and he resists any suggestions to the contrary. His life is comfortable – no crime and no criminals (he claims), just a series of undemanding duties. Such local lowlifes as ‘Stanley-knife Stanley’ hardly register on his radar, and when an energetic and enthusiastic newcomer, Constable Twitten (a name designed to irritate the opponents of comic crime), begins to shake things up at the station, Steine is obliged to accept that things are slowly turning nasty in the city of Brighton, some time before it becomes London-by-the-Sea. And when Twitten attends a theatrical opening night, he finds himself sitting next to a poisonous theatrical critic who is murdered during the play. The town is plagued with a series of burglaries, and Inspector Steine’s saturnine colleague Sergeant Brunswick, a man whose days as a war hero are long behind him, is frustrated by his boss’s refusal to confront reality. Brunswick is bumped by Constable Twitten into accepting that the town is starting to look more like the crime-ridden book Steine despises, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.
A large cast of stronglydrawn characters — including an ‘angry young man’ dramatist — helps keep things bubbling along, and not only is the whole thing delightfully witty – more early Evelyn Waugh than Agatha Christie — it also functions very successfully as a novel in the vein of the very genre it is satirising, the police procedural. And, as in Brighton Rock, we are given a vivid picture of the town in its pre-chic heyday with the kiss-me-quick hats and candy floss era providing bags of local colour. Twitten, in particular, is a delightful creation; the name is misleading in that he’s not an idiot, but the classic copper in conflict with his complacent superior, the latter as much of an obstruction to the pursuit of justice as any of the various criminals involved. Sceptical readers will not only find their prejudices against comic and cosy crime being swept away, but will be eager for more such outings with Twitten and Co. Oh, and, needless to say, there is not a single misuse of the English language in the entire book – how could there be from Lynne Truss?
A SHOT IN THE DARK