The less you know about Pamela Branch’s debut novel the more you’ll get out of it, and obviously this poses a problem for my nascent blog. A few cultural touchstones, then: it falls somewhere within kicking distance of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1954), 1980s comedy classic (one of those words should be in ironic quotation marks, surely?) Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), and the output of Kelley Roos. There is a dead body. It must be hidden. Difficulties ensue. And this undertaking (if you will) is very, very funny.
The funny is a difficult one, because I’m honestly not sure at which point it becomes funny. It starts off strange and becomes only stranger as it goes, all the while introducing a gentle absurdity that, at least for me, tips over into outright hilarity at times. It’s not consistent rolling-in-the-aisles comical, but I’d be surprised if you could read too much of this – especially in the set-pieces like the ‘picnic’ and, later, its glorious counterpoint in chapter 18 – without at least a wry smile on your face. There are a few quite lovely suprises, hence my recommendation that you know as little as possible going in, and it all stays far enough this side of zany, bawdy nonsense to remain just about believable.
The characters are somewhat in the shape of grotesques, but then tiny moments of irritation or triumph or human jealousy shine through and they become rather more; much of the comedy springs from the characters, after all, and if they weren’t interesting then the jokes would fall flat. I had so much fun that I tended to forget there was a plot underneath all of this, too, though while everything ties up very well I wouldn’t claim a superabundance of clues or red herrings. It’s very spry and demonstrates a keen eye for construction in its comedy, however, and can be enjoyed simply as a blast to clean out some lingering cobwebs after too much serious reading.
Another triumph from The Murder Room, Orion’s digital arm devoted to long-out-of-print crime classics. They’ve already re-published much Anthony Boucher, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Helen McCloy and many others, and all are produced to the high standards you’d expect. The pan-Atlantic English sometimes gets a little fuddled (‘gray’, ‘color’, ‘labor’ etc. by an author raised in England and writing about English characters in England, from a publisher based in England) but at least after years of ‘ejaculate’ being the choice verb of speech attribution I got to learn the expression ‘pull a terrible boner’ (no, me neither). My, how language has changed…