On an endless-seeming train journey, as dusk falls and the amber lights of the passing stations recede into the gloom, there’s no better way to stave off night-time’s creeping chill than with a classic Christie or Conan Doyle. But while many readers take pleasure in attempting to solve their mysteries, I cannot claim to be one of them.
Oh I might offer a half-hearted guess or two, but I don’t think I’ve ever spotted the culprit in advance of the grand denouement. So I simply let the proceedings unfold while I look on in slack-jawed wonder. No matter how often the perpetrator turns out to be the most likely suspect – the wife with the manipulative lover, the dissolute son with a gambling problem – I’ll always be sidetracked by the spinsterish, disfigured governess, or the man with the big moustache who keeps peering in at the window (a moustache like that must be hiding something. Like a semi-automatic).
Actually, I’m not a fan of gore, so I appreciate the hygiene of the cosy crime murder. Victims are cleanly and efficiently dispatched by poison, suffocated or fatally wounded by a single gunshot. And more often than not they turn out to be rotters who got exactly what they deserved anyway. There’s a sense of a grander justice at play, not only that which is meted out by the local constabulary. And speaking of the boys in blue, while they show up at the end twirling their nightsticks, there’s something gleefully subversive in their usual depiction as a mob of incompetent boobs. They never fail to be twice out-witted: first time round, by the criminal, second, by the gifted amateur detective.
The gifted amateur is the keystone of the genre of course. In the creation of super sleuth Professor Swanton Morley and his sceptical assistant Stephen Sefton, author of The Norfolk Mystery Ian Sansom extends a fine literary tradition begun nearly 150 years ago with the characters of Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteridge in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Morley’s mind is razor-sharp, his breadth of (self-taught) knowledge unsurpassable. And yes, like Christie’s arch know-it-all Hercule Poirot, he manages to be both insufferable and utterly endearing all at once.
For those of us blessed with rather blunter wits, the antics of Morley and his ilk never fail to astound and entertain. And thanks to my dreadful memory and fuzzy powers of deduction, I’m certain I’ll return to The Norfolk Mystery time and again. It’s just the thing for when the evenings start to draw in, or when the 18.38 from Liverpool Street requires just a dash more excitement.
Words by Sharmila Woollam
The Norfolk Mystery is out now in paperback.