Book Review: The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom

The Norfolk MysteryThe Norfolk Mystery
A County Guides Mystery
Ian Sansom
Witness Impulse, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-232080-3
Ebook

From the publisher—

Love Miss Marple? Adore Holmes and Watson? Professor Morley’s guide to Norfolk is a story of bygone England: quaint villages, eccentric locals—and murder …

It is 1937, and disillusioned Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton is broke. So when he sees a mysterious advertisement for a job where “intelligence is essential,” he eagerly applies.

Thus begins Sefton’s association with Professor Swanton Morley, an omnivorous intellect. Morley’s latest project is a history of traditional England, with a guide to every county.

They start in Norfolk, but when the vicar of Blakeney is found hanging from his church’s bell rope, Morley and Sefton find themselves drawn into a rather more fiendish plot. Did the reverend really take his own life, or is there something darker afoot?

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A war-weary young man returns to England after learning that following the Communist dream is perhaps not so idyllic as he’d been led to believe, especially considering the particularly brutal nature of the Spanish Civil War. At loose ends, Stephen Sefton seeks employment, having little interest in his earlier position as schoolmaster, and falls into what appears to be an innocuous occupation as assistant to Professor Swanton Morley who intends to write thirty-nine books in the next two years. Each of these books will focus on a single English county with the goal of memorializing the good things about those counties for future generations.

Seems harmless enough, right? Stephen thinks so until, in the very first county, a woman with the delightful name of Mrs. Snatchfold rushes out of a church having found the reverend’s body hanging from a bell-rope and the professor believes that what appears to be suicide is, in fact, something else entirely.  When the police arrive, in the person of a very young constable named Ridley, it becomes painfully apparent that his idea of police work does not include bodies that are, er, dead. Thus, an engaging detective story of the whodunit sort and the fun (for the reader) begins despite the disruption to the professor’s tight schedule. The reader can only sympathize with young Ridley as he’s overrun by the fussy and somewhat pompous Morley.

Morley’s daughter, Miriam, has accompanied the two men to act as official driver and photographer and among the real pleasures of The Norfolk Mystery are the pictures scattered throughout the text. One of my favorites is “Mrs. Snatchfold, thoroughly recomposed”. What a very clever idea!

I’ve been a big fan of Ian Sansom ever since the first Mobile Library Mystery but The Norfolk Mystery  appeals to me a shade less. In the final analysis, I think the problem—for me, probably not for others—is that I found it a bit ponderous in the early chapters. That’s largely because of the dated language, which seems to me to be more suited to a Victorian or Edwardian setting, but also because  the pacing is slow, with perhaps too much exposition. That gets better as the trio sets out for the first county. Sansom’s trademark gentle humor is in full force here and it does have the cachet of a traditional English mystery, something I love. Despite the reservations I’ve mentioned, I’ll definitely be trying the next one in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2013.

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An Excerpt

Reminiscences, of course, make for sad, depressing literature. Nonetheless. Some stories must be told.

In the year 1932 I came down from Cambridge with my poor degree in English, a Third – what my supervisor disapprovingly referred to as ‘the poet’s degree’. I had spent my time at college in jaunty self-indulgence, rising late, cutting lectures, wandering round wisteria-clad college quadrangles drinking and carousing, occasionally playing sport, and attempting – and failing – to write poetry in imitation of my great heroes, Eliot, Pound and Yeats. I had grand ambitions and high ideals, and absolutely no notion of exactly how I might achieve them.

I certainly had no intention of becoming involved in the exploits and adventures that I am about to relate. By late August of 1932, recovering at last from the long hang over of my childhood and adolescence, and quite unable, as it turned out, to find employment suited to my ambitions and dreams, I put down my name on the books of Messrs Gabbitas and Thring, the famous scholastic agency, and so began my brief and undistinguished career as a schoolmaster.

I shall spare the uninitiated reader the intimate details of the life of the English public school: it is, suffice it to say, a world of absurd and deeply ingrained pomposities, and attracts more than its fair share of eccentrics, hysterics, malcontents and ne’er-do-wells. At Cambridge I had been disappointed not to meet more geniuses and intellectuals: I had foolishly assumed the place would be full to the brim with the brightest and the best. As a lowly schoolmaster in some of the more minor of the minor public schools, I now found myself among those I considered to be little better than semi-imbeciles and fools. After grim stints at Arnold House, Llandullas and at the Oratory in Sunning – institutions distinguished, it seemed to me, only by their ability to render both their poor pupils and their odious staff ever more insensitive and insensible – I eventually found myself, by the autumn of 1935, in a safe berth at the Hawthorns School in Hayes. This position, though carrying with it all the usual and tiresome responsibilities, was, by virtue of the school’s location on the outskirts of London, much more congenial to me and afforded me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with old friends from my Cambridge days. Some had drifted into teaching or tutoring; some had found work with the BBC, or with newspapers; a lucky few had begun to make their mark in the literary and artistic realms. Those around me, it seemed, were flourishing: they rose, and rose. I was sinking.

After leaving Cambridge I had, frankly, lost all direction, purpose and motivation. At school I had been prepared for varsity: I had not been prepared for life. After Cambridge I had given up on my poetry and became lazier than ever in my mental habits, frequenting the cinema most often to enjoy only the most vulgar and the gaudiest of its productions: The Black Cat, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Tarzan and His Mate. Where once I had immortal longings my dreams now were mostly of Claudette Colbert. I had also become something of an addict of the more lurid work of the detective novelists – a compensation, no doubt, for the banalities of my everyday existence. The air in the pubs around Fitzrovia in the mid- 1930s, however, was thick with talk of Marx and Freud and so – if only to impress my friends and to try to keep up – I gradually found myself returning to more serious reading. I read Mr Huxley, for example – his Brave New World. And Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power. Malraux’s La Condition Humaine. These were books in ferment, as we were: these were the writers who were dreaming our wild and fantastic dreams. I began to attend meetings in the evenings. I distributed pamphlets. I frequented Hyde Park Corner. I read the Daily Worker. I came under the sway of, first, Aneurin Bevan and, then, Harry Pollitt.

I joined the Communist Party.

In the party I had found, I believed, an outlet and a home. I devoured Marx and Engels – slowly, and in English. I was particularly struck by a phrase from the Communist Manifesto, which I carefully copied out by hand and taped above my shaving mirror, the better to excite and affront myself each morning: ‘Finally, as the class struggle nears its decisive stage, disintegration of the ruling class and the older order of society becomes so active, so acute, that a small part of the ruling class breaks away to make common cause with the revolutionary class, the class which holds the future in its hands.’ After years as a pathetic Mr Chips, conducting games, leading prayers and encouraging the work of the OTC, I was desperate to hold the future, any future, in my hands.

And so, in October 1936 I left England and the Hawthorns for Barcelona and the war.

I arrived in Spain in what I now recognise as a kind of fever of idealism. I eventually returned to England almost twelve months later in turmoil, confusion and in shock. Although I had read of the great movement of masses and the coming revolution, in Spain I saw it for myself. I had long taught my pupils the stories of the great battles and the triumphs of the kings and queens of England, the tales of the Christian martyrs, and the epic poetry of Homer, the tragedies of Shakespeare. I now faced their frightful reality. Even now I find I am able to recall incidents from the war as if they happened yesterday, though they remain strangely disconnected in my mind, like cinematic images, or fragments of what Freud calls the dreamwork. From the first interview at the party offices on King Street – ‘So you want to be a hero?’ ‘No.’ ‘Good. Because we don’t need bloody heroes.’ ‘So are you a spy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you a pawn of Stalin?’ ‘No.’ ‘What are you then?’ ‘I am a communist’ – to arriving in Paris, en route, early in the morning, sick, hung over, shitting myself with excitement in the station toilets, shaking and laughing at the absurdity of it. And then the first winter in Spain, shell holes filled to the brink with a freezing crimson liquid, like a vast jelly – blood and water mixed together. And in summer, coming across a farm where there were wooden wine vats, and climbing in and bathing in the cool wine, while the grimy, fat, terrified farmer offered his teenage daughters to us in exchange for our not murdering them all. In a wood somewhere, in the bitter cold spring of 1937, staring at irises and crocuses poking through the dark mud, and thinking absurdly of Wordsworth, the echoing sound of gunfire all around, wounded men passing by, strapped to the back of mules. The taste of water drunk from old petrol tins. The smell of excreta and urine. Olive oil. Thyme. Candle grease. Cordite. Endless sleeplessness. Lice. The howling winds. The sizzling of the fat as we make an omelette in a large, black pan over an open fire, cutting it apart with our knives. Gorging on a field of ripe tomatoes. The Spanish rain. The hauling of the ancient Vickers machine guns over rocky ground.

And, of course, the dead. Everywhere the dead. Corpses laid out at the side of the road, the sight and smell of them like the mould on jam, maggots alive everywhere on their bodies. Corpses with their teeth knocked out – with the passing knock of a rifle butt. Corpses with their eyes pecked out. Corpses stripped. Corpses disembowelled. Corpses wounded, desecrated and disfigured.

In a year of fighting I was myself responsible for the murder of perhaps a dozen men, many of them killed during an attack using trench mortars on a retreating convoy along the Jaca road in March, May 1937? There was one survivor of this atrocity who lay in the long grass by the road, calling out for someone to finish him off. He had lost both his legs in the blast, and his face had been wiped away with shrapnel; he was nothing but flesh. A fellow volunteer hesitated, and then refused, but for some reason I felt no such compunction. I acted neither out of compassion nor in rage – it was simply what happened. I shot the poor soul at point-blank range with my revolver, my mousqueton, the short little Mauser that I had assembled and reassembled from the parts of other guns, my time with the OTC at the Hawthorns School having stood me in good stead. To my shame, I must admit not only that I found the killing easy, but that I enjoyed it: it sickened me, but I enjoyed it; it made me walk tall. I felt for the first time since leaving college that I had a purpose and a role. I felt strong and invincible. I had achieved, I believed, the ultimate importance. I was like a demi-god. A saviour. I had become an instrument of history. The Truly Strong Man.

I was, in fact, nothing but a cheap murderer.

I was vice triumphant.

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