There is a lot to be said for not letting your heroes grow up. From Jonathan Creek’s middle-aged ennui to the doddery old bastard many authors have tried to tell us Sherlock Holmes became, the majority of attempts to drag these fictional wonders into ‘reality’ typically turn in a strong argument in favour of youthful literary immortality. I already know scores of middle-aged men who regret their life choices; I do not know any impossible crime-solving magician’s assistants who live in windmills — that’s why I seek escape in fiction. If want to watch a man slowly disintegrate under his own self-loathing, there are plenty of mirrors in my house.
It was with no particular delight, then, that upon starting Max Afford’s final novel The Sheep and the Wolves (1947) I discovered immediately that genius amateur mathematician Jeffery Blackburn is now a self-pitying drunk following his marriage to Elizabeth Blaire (er, spoilers…?) subsequent to events in Owl of Darkness (1942), the last time we saw him. Given his wife’s tremendous inherited wealth he no longer needs to work and so doesn’t know who he is, etc, etc. She gallivants around opening garden parties and getting swept up into schemes to help the poor, and he sits at home, broods, drinks, and resents the mention of any other man.
Suffice to say, things were off to an unexpected start. This is very much not the style Afford worked in before, and perhaps — his final novel, remember — he’s airing some author-frustration at the falsity of the archetypal GAD non-evolution, and so he was showing his disdain with one last, savage, twist of the knife before abandoning the form for good (Afford wrote much more for radio than he did printed media). A rich collector seeks Blackburn’s help in resolving a difficulty that incorporates both astral projection and miraculous disappearances, Blackburn is such a lush he can barely make it through the meeting for how terrified and full of self-reproach he has become, and a quick visit to his old mucker Chief Inspector William Jamieson Read only seeks to highlight how far he’s fallen. Jeez, verisimilitude, you just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?
And then something weird happened. Because, see, in spite of his friendship with Read, and his wealthy to-do wife, and his supposed skills with difficult investigations…I suddenly realised that this is not the Jeffery Blackburn of the four previous novels. And I don’t just mean he’s been rendered unrecognisable by a change in characteristics — I mean that the character called ‘Jeffery Blackburn’ in this novel has an entirely different past to the one with the same name in the novels previously written by this author. Previously he was an Oxford-educated borderline-dilettante of Philo Vance shape, where now he’s a U.S. Army man with his own war story, a hardbitten series of investigations for a big P.I. firm behind him, and a personal tragedy to come to terms with. Plus, he’s younger now than he was before — and nope, this isn’t a prequel: we’re squarely post-WW2. It’s…odd, a bit like picking up Red Son having really enjoyed the first Christopher Reeve Superman film: without any context, you sort of wonder just what the hell is going on.
Viewed as an Elseworld, parallel universe Jeffery Blackburn, this suddenly makes a lot more sense. Afford’s books increasingly eschewed detection in favour of Noirish thrills as they went, and this is simply the realisation of that progression — indeed, given the amount of time people spend searching for a couple of items, and the threat that lingers just out sight behind said searching, this starts to feel rather more akin to The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett than any strict novel of detection. In fairness, there’s actually some pretty good ratiocination in here, but then you veer into James Bond villain territory with Bianca Milland and her choice of jewellery, then find yourself at a St. Mary Meadish fundraiser, then have an Eric Ambleresque conspiracy to deal with before a London-based showdown where Albert Campion wouldn’t feel out of place…it’s a bit of a genre manticore, to be perfectly frank, but unscrew your scruples and it’s possibly the most fun Afford’s ever had.
It’s a trifle hoary — a lot of people die just as they’re about the spill the beans, and most of the speech comes from the “For two pins I’d spray your bloody guts all over the wall!” [editor’s note: actual dialogue] school — but this gets raised above simple dismissal by the quality of Afford’s writing:
For this was a new kind of silence, the muteness of concentration and perplexity. What she had come to dread was that other mood, seemingly ever present until yesterday, a state of black and shuttered taciturnity, when this man she had married would withdraw inside himself and, snail-like, carry on a strange and secret existence of his own, shut away from herself, from his friends, almost from the entire world about him.
This is very much not where I imagined we’d end up at the closing of Max Afford’s novelist career, but it’s quite a ride, and I’m happy to have taken this one last spin together. It’s too much of a hybrid to appeal to hardcore fans of either end of the spectrum, but for my tastes it works nicely — dames, thrills, a spill or five, the odd intuitive leap, some damn fine reasoning, some decent surprises, and a redemption arc thrown in for good measure. A novel to kick back and let happen, and a great way to round out one’s career in this field. Malcolm, I will miss you.
The novels of Max Afford, published by Ramble House:
Finally, consider this your four-minute warning that Aidan and I have finished discussing Invisible Weapons (1938) by John Rhode and our spoiler-filled discussion of said title (and all the text in the book, too) will be going up here on Saturday. As is usual for these posts, things are discussed in very explicit depth, so don’t go into it assuming we’ll only hint heavily and you’re safe if you’ve not read the book. We name killer(s), critique plans and methods, talk about clues and red herrings — be prepared, no complaints.