Over the summer, I read certain sections of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by the blogosphere’s very own Passing Tramp, Curtis Evans. Certain sections because, to be perfectly honest, Curtis has done an amazing job in analysing so much of the work of J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Rhode/Miles Burton that it’s clear I need to do a lot more reading to get the most out of what he has written. Upon (in fact, while) reading A Smell of Smoke I went back to see what insight Curtis could offer to explore Street’s motivations or intentions, but there is no mention of it at all; no fault of his, as Street published over 130 novels under his two most famous pseudonyms, but I suspect I know why it doesn’t get a mention: it isn’t very good at all.
To help illustrate this, consider the aforementioned Freeman Wills Crofts: you pick up a Crofts book and you know that he has sat down and worked out the movements of every character and train and bus and car and bird and wendigo within a 16-mile radius of his crime, and that every single detail will be worked meticulously into the prose and then rechecked and redrafted until it’s as precise as possible. By way of contrast, this feels like a first draft where Street more often than not forgot what he was writing about and just veered off into a series of connected thoughts like a magpie flitting from shiny object to shiny object until it suddenly remembers that it was sent out to get a pint of milk and returns to that task.
At times, it’s like talking to the slightly dotty elderly neighbour who has lived down the road from your parents for over 30 years and whom you’re required to go and visit every time you go to see them. The beginning of chapter 2, for instance, would go something like this, and I promise not a single detail is added here for effect:
“Well, you know, Mrs Knapp got to Horry Ingrave’s house to cook his breakfast like she does, she finds the extra money ever so helpful, and he wasn’t there. So, you know how she is, she was going to ignore it, but she though he’d probably been in the Tankards the night before and — well, you know what a drinker he is — maybe he’d stayed there overnight. The Tankards was, as you’ll know, set up in Queen Victoria’s time by William Brean and left to his son John on his death who, when he died, left it to Bob who runs it now. Now, of course, Bob’s younger brother Philip already has a job that he travels to every day, but there’s their sister Hilda — she’s 33 now, don’t you know — and she needed to get a job of her own to support herself since the Tankards isn’t going to provide enough for the likes of her.
“Well, Matthew Calder who runs the mill, his friend George Heckley who lives alone with his wife Violet, but he’s back in town and the travelling all around regular, like, because he’s running such a successful estate agents, and he was worried about Violet being on her own on account of her lonely nature and arthritis. Well, Matthew Calder, see, he knows the Breans well on account of helping John transfer the licence for the pub into his name by putting in a good word with the brewery, and when George said he was looking for a lady companion for his wife, well, Matthew was able to recommend Hilda. And they got on wonderfully, those two, they’ve really become the best of friends.
“So when Mrs. Knapp knocked on the door of the Tankards look for Horry Ingrave, it was Hilda who answered.”
It’s…quite staggering. Four-and-a-half pages that could have been “Hilda, the younger sister of the pub’s landlord, opened the door”. And it goes on like this throughout, with brides abandoned at the altar, filial discord and — linking the two — one of those preposterously irritating situations where if two people had a five second conversation about something it would be perfectly natural to discuss (one character’s illegitimacy is far from the taboo that the society around him seems to think it should be, so it’s not like these two are too buttoned-up to talk about such things) all this could be easily avoided.
It’s worth considering that of those 130+ books Cecil John Charles Street published under these two pseudonyms this is about number 130 and so the barrel was probably all but empty by this stage. There are millions of us out there, myself included, to who the idea of completing and publishing even a single novel seems like some kind of hilarious pipe dream, but it’s entirely reasonable that long before you’ve cracked the century it becomes just another chore and so you take whatever idea you have and fill it out as best you can. Except, you’d imagine that even the most disinterested, disaffected, and downright fed up author of over 100 novels could write in his native tongue without so much of it sounding like a lumpy translation:
“Now let’s drop this most unpleasant subject and talk of something else. I have something to say to you which concerns us both much more closely.”
“What difference does that make to me or, for that matter, to anyone else? Is that the reason why he thinks that you would not be a suitable husband for me?”
It almost becomes a drinking game: Veers randomly off and then back on topic: 1 drink; Dialogue that sounds like five year-olds reenacting Jersey Shore: 1 drink; Someone wants to get home and have their tea: 3 fingers. Good luck getting more than about 40 pages in…
As for the plot…well. Boring Inspector Arnold turns up at the halfway stage, sees what is probably about the two hundredth dead body of his career and — without talking to a single witness, relative, or any other person who could be involved in the case — immediately decides he’s up against a brick wall and calls in Genius Amateur Desmond Merrion. Merrion does all the thinking (Merrion: “Hmmm, this stain on what is effectively a blunt instrument in a case where someone was hit over the head with a blunt instrument could be blood!” Arnold: “Genius! How do you think of these things, you awesomeness of awesome?!” [some paraphrasing involved]), and the main thrust of the plot rests on (as implied in the title) the odour of a particular tobacco which one character smokes. It never seems to occur to anyone that cigarettes can be given to and smoked by other people. Frankly, it’s crap.
Read Death Leaves No Card, a far superior book, but give this one a wide berth unless you’re in the mood for a parody or you want to turn it into some kind of parlour game. For that possibility and nothing else it gets a star; now go and find a good book and put this out of your mind.