MRS V L HALL Reply to on 4 August 2018
|Although I read the odd cosy crime novel and enjoy the comical capers of Charles Paris on BBC Radio 4, I had never heard of Lynne Truss’s Inspector Steine and Constable Twitten series set in 1950’s Brighton. This book came recommended to me by a fond listener and was described as “witty” and “storytelling genius” and whilst A Shot In The Dark had its moments, hitting the spot with its sharp observation on occasions, a painfully slow pace and jaunty narrative proved a little too gentle for my taste. Laden with memorable turns of phrase and a vividly drawn cast, albeit of stereotypes, I was expecting a less farcical tale with a more substantial plot content. Whilst I quite enjoyed the first-half and the humorous course to uncovering one of the two mysteries involved, my appetite was for a more succinct novel and sadly A Shot in the Dark outstayed its welcome by well over one hundred pages!
The novel opens with recounting the events of the legendary Middle Street Massacre that took place in the seaside town of Brighton in June 1951 and established the impressive reputation of the newly posted Inspector Geoffrey Steine (pronounced Steen). Under the misnomer that this unprecedented gang warfare that left forty-five dead and no witnesses eradicated crime in the town, Steine has rested on his laurels doing precious little detective work, dining out on his status and simply presuming that the town is a crime free zone. In fact his well-timed arrival at the Middle Street Massacre owed more to a fortuitous trip to an ice cream parlour and is just one example of his lack of policing acumen and foresight. Now 1957, Steine already has enough on his plate what with dulling the enthusiasm of Sergeant Brunswick who longs to go undercover before the arrival of the far too eager twenty-two-year-old Constable Peregrine Twitten. Managing to rub all of his superiors up the wrong way with his rather irritating smart aleck persona, Twittern has been moved from station to station and so jumps at the chance to work for the esteemed Inspector Steine. Content with his weekly radio broadcasts and a decidedly hands-off approach to policing, Steine however is more at home with the cakes, biscuits and wittering charlady, Mrs Groynes, than front-line policing!
With Constable Twitten’s arrival coinciding with a spate of domestic burglaries in the town all with marked similarities the new recruit is quick to cease the initiative and reinvigorate Brunswick. The simultaneous descent of a vicious newspaper theatre critic, A.S. Crystal, for the opening night of a new play at the Theatre Royal famously unsatisfied with Steine’s lack of investigation into the Aldersgate Stick-up robbery that led to his nervous breakdown nearly a decade earlier threatens to spoil Steine’s easy life in Brighton. Keen to revisit the events and offer his insights, a complimentary ticket to accompany the odious and malodorous Crystal to the main event seems the ideal way to offload a pestering nuisance (Crystal) and occupy a pesky Twitten. With Crystal forthright on his opinions of enfant terrible and decidedly angry Northern playwright, Jack Braithwaite, his panning of ‘A Shilling in the Meter’ is a foregone conclusion. When Crystal is shot midway through the play prior to the publication of his theatre review with Constable Twittern a witness there appears no shortage of suspects from the current playwright to those whose stage careers he has ended with his savaging. But when an interrupted break-in leaves the prime suspect dead the deductive powers and tenacity of young Twittern spring into action and are given a run for their money..
The first half focuses on the identity of the burglar and their modus operandi and a well-conceived plot is presented as a entertaining series of consecutive bungling discoveries. Although the culprit and circumstances are apparent from the off, I was pleasantly entertained by this early part, but sadly I did find the humour wearing thin. As the second half gives way to the more elaborate origins of Crystal’s murder, the disappointingly pedestrian pace and further poking fun at the overdone led to my interest waning. The always witty narrative emphasises the comedy caper element but the longer it went on I quickly realised that it was all too absurd for my palate.
Future readers would be well-advised to have some idea of the pre-existing radio drama series and larger than life characters before reading because as much as I admired some particularly witty writing and Truss’s joke that ‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene has a lot to answer for, I would have appreciated a little more mental stimulation.