When crime writer Iain Carter decides to utilise the knowledge of his policeman brother-in-law to inform a new novel, little does he appreciate the difficulties it will cause. Establishing the necessaries to keep his identity secret, Carter cooks up the nom de plume John Ky. Lowell and begins turning out books about the atrocious Superintendentdent W.B. Smith which are an instant hit. With Carter in no rush to expose Edward Meredith to scrutiny for his unwitting role in the creation of this dense ‘undetective’, the future looks rosy until Meredith is called to investigate the murder of a bookmaker…and names John Ky. Lowell as his chief suspect.
The Undetective (1962) by Bruce Graeme comes late in the game for the puzzle plot shenanigans of the genre’s Golden Age, written instead in an era when a focus on rigour and plot mechanics would be viewed disfavourably. And so, the resulting book is an odd one: playful like the best detective novels but constructed too loosely, with too much circumlocution, and too little plot, to feel as if it really understands its own possibilities. And when it moves, in the closing stages, from whimsy to the more socially-relevant concerns of crime fiction of its era, it manages both to be ludicrously anachronistic and to leave a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Graeme — fittingly, itself a nom de plume for Graham Montague Jeffries — writes well (that line about the husband and wife in common law is both delightful and brilliant) and communicates the quotidian existence of Carter and his wife Susan neatly (this, again fittingly, being the main thrust of the novels published under Carter’s real name), but his plotting is too slow to reward the time the book takes to get going. We’re on page 76 of 196 before ‘Lowell’ is named as a suspect, with the reasons for this suspcion then being outlined as, more or less, ‘it takes a clever mind to think up a murder, and the victim had a newspaper cutting about Lowell’s new book’. This would be like me turning up murdered this weekend and Martin Edwards becoming a suspect for no reason other than that I recently bought a copy of All the Lonely People (1991).
And I’d chalk this up to parody — or, well, ill-focussed satire — but for the fact that Graeme peppers his text with asides that surely aren’t intended as comical considerations in a novel of Wodehousian wit (the first chapter alone gives us “a couple of women brutally murdered by a sex-maniac” — er, ha ha ha?). Sure, fun is had with the Crime Writers’ Accociation meetings Carter attends and their mentions of the likes of Christianna Brand and T.C.H. Jacobs, but I’d wager more than just a few cameos by real people are required to make something humorous, else Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris would qualify. And how many ‘funny’ books have their narrator reflecting on whether their spouse would commit suicide in the event of their own death? I’ll admit Graeme put my back up with the dismissive adjective he applies to this subject, but it’s still hardly the stuff of broad farce.
For someone who typically reads very little from this era, though, the book works well as a document of history — “In these days many wives go out to work. They have to, for economic reasons” Susan Meredith informs her husband-to-be when he balks at the idea, and Edward seems nonplussed at first when, assuring Carter that Lowell “knows too much about the police to be a woman”, it’s pointed out that they could be a policewoman — during a time of social change. The world of business is changing, too, increasingly dominated by “large corporations which are all too regrettably swallowing up smaller concerns”, and it’s perhaps fitting that the cannibalising of the artisanal and expert that has come before in the background of the novel stands as an apt metaphor for the broad-strokes shortcomings of its actual focus.
Carter must, then, clear his own name without appearing in the thing, as it were, and so a broad and conveniently-interpreted fix is applied which then has further implications which then develop in the book’s final third, and it’s here, in the sturm und drang of plot and counterplot that things come unstuck once again. A lot of information is withheld from the reader, in keeping with the era in which this was published, but the terminal surprise wants us to be astounded at the information we have overlooked. Never mind that the motive is straight out of, oh, maybe a Jane Austen novel and the implications of what we’re eventually told happened are just…horrible — really, the mind boggles. It’s a weird mish-mash of good ideas that Graeme, a long way into his career by this point, may well have bee kicking around for three decades before finally sitting down far too late to bring to fruition.
If the opening section of fiscal arrangements and prevarication doesn’t strike you as dull, you’ll doubtless get on better with this than I did. By the time the plot actually started, I was already suffering from itchy feet and so found its general air of lazy reasoning and false peril dissatisfying in the extreme. And I’m almost glad that I didn’t like the book overall because I genuinely — the word is not too strong — abhor the developments of the final chapter for how casually it jacknifes with an apparent assumption of impunity that, I cannot help but feel, very little else in the genre would have ever supported or endorsed. More Bruce Graeme is on the way, and I’m interested to read them and see how they compare; he could yet prove to be an unacknowledged luminary of the Golden Age based on his earlier work. Regardless of how many And Then There Were Nones (1939) he may have written in those early days, however, this is very much a Passenger to Frankfurt (1970).
Martin Edwards: An especially pleasing bonus of the story is that Graeme adds copious references to the Crime Writers’ Association – one scene even takes place at a CWA meeting. Various CWA members of the time,s such as Michael Gilbert, T.C. H. Jacobs and Margot Bennett, earn a mention. He even includes a dig at Julian Symons, who reviews unkindly one of the books Iain continues to publish under his own name. The plot is, admittedly, implausible, but there is a very neat solution, and it all makes for a very good read.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Iain’s sole focus is to extricate himself from the mess he has landed himself in, creating false clues to save his bacon when necessary. Moreover, I would argue that the ending is somewhat ambiguous, as the reader is not left with any certainty that the truth has finally been revealed; it could well be another fictious yarn on Iain’s part. So what is this book’s subgenre? Well it’s not an inverted mystery, nor a psychological crime novel or from the suspense category. In the end I think I would conclude it is an unorthodox comic crime novel. But I can definitely see the difficulty of trying to categorise such a story.