Earlier this year, when I spoke with Steve about modern authors writing in the Golden Age tradition, he reminded me that I’d not read any of Martin Edwards’ series of Liverpool-set novels featuring solicitor Harry Devlin. Back when modern crime fiction commanded more of my attention, Robert Crais had led me to Michael Connelly, who led me to Ian Rankin, who led me to John Harvey, who then led me to Edwards’ Lake District novels The Coffin Trail (2004) and The Arsenic Labyrinth (2007), but his earlier series eluded me. So, at long last, here we are at All the Lonely People (1991) — the debut for author and character both, which turns 30 this year.
A novel of approximate thirds, is this. The first does a remarkably compact job of setting up Harry and his world before sending it tottering when his ex-wife Liz shows up after two years and is then promptly murdered. The pull to lean heavily into mawkishness or cloying cycnicism must be strong for the debut author, but the retrospective examination of the Devlins’ crumbling marriage is oddly beautiful (“He recalled the slow torture of those last few days before she finally left him one winter’s evening. The skirting round of conversational no-go areas. Meaningless small talk at the dinner table. Silence in bed. And the awareness of a marriage rotting like so much dead grass.”) and the exhausted disdain directed at the flawed legal system is never more than honest (“He had defended her on a soliciting charge eighteen months ago. Result: a fine, paid off no doubt by her going straight back on the streets again.”). Harry’s principles shine through, as does the wounding nature of Liz’s departure that informs the remainder of the book.
The second third sees Harry come under suspicion for the murder while batting like a moth against the window of the easy solution he is unable to see past. For all his familiarity with the finer points of police procedure, it is naturally quite a different thing to find himself the object of suspicion, and his insistence that the solution lies elsewhere is, of course, classic Guilty Man behaviour. And DCI Skinner and DS Macbeth were hardly keen on Harry from the off…
“I gather that you’re a local solicitor,” said Skinner. He spoke as if diagnosing an illness.
Increasingly, too, it becomes apparent that there is much about Liz that Harry, for all his infatuation, failed to appreciate, and that the people around him — his sister-in-law Maggie, the “cheefully down-market as a fish and chip supper” mud-wrestler (no, you read that correctly) Dame, Liz’s sometime-employer Matt — are reluctant to break to him until he’s already too deeply involved. It’s refreshing, too, especially given the era in which this was written, that Liz’s faults aren’t dragged out and treated as heinously irredeemable (it sounds like a back-handed compliment, but it’s actually the flawed, stumbling Liz — dead for the majority of the book, remember — who emerges as one of the most clearly-defined and sympathetic characters in the whole shebang).
There is naturally more character-work herein than I would normally expect from the sort of thing I read now — it was the Inevitable Personal Life Distractions of a lot of 1990s crime fiction that resulted in me digging further back to the plot-heavy Golden Age to begin with — and, having taken a break from this sort of this for a decade or more, I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. Harry’s growing involvement with his neighbour Brenda, in particular, is filled with delightful quotidien touches as she goes from importunate nuisance to conciliatory ally to…who knows what. That this was written during a time in my life that I remeber increasingly vaguely also results in some lovely narrative moments that tweaked some sense of nostalgia in me — only four TV channels, and all of them rubbish, being perhaps the one that hit me hardest.
The final third, then, sees the clouds begin to clear as Harry realises the misapprehension he had been working with and the implications this has for the answer he seeks. For an educated man, he’s remarkably dense at times — the interpretation of that photo, for one — but, then, who among us hasn’t missed the obvious at times? Some lovely, subtle clues are woven throughout and, while I don’t think you’d call the eventual solution startling on account of an abundance of subtlety on a few key points, it’s great to see the light touch displayed throughout drawn together so neatly. Sure, the car chase feels a little bit ‘intended for TV’ but, well, it was his first book — allow the man some space to grow into.
As someone who these days goes for rather more sturm und drang in his detective fiction, All the Lonely People marked a lovely reminder of what got me reading this genre in the first place: stakes that feel real, people facing up to difficult circumstances, and a pattern that you’re somehow kept blind to emerging in the closing stages. Gideon Fell would harrumph and move on without a backward glance, but it serves to be reminded from time to time that the intrusion of crime — especially murder — on the lives of normal, lonely people can be a devastating experience that will hurt for a long time to come. In that regard, this debut is pretty remarkable.