Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Book review: "The Torso in the Town", by Simon Brett

At the end of last year Hampshire libraries held a series of writing-related talks and courses. One of these was a talk by Simon Brett at Petersfield Library.

Simon Brett is well known as a writer of murder-mysteries (he is currently president of the Detection Club), but I better knew him as the producer of the first radio episode of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. As he said during his talk, he was perhaps the only person ever to get a script from Douglas Adams on time. This connection with one of my literary heroes was more than enough reason for me to make the long drive to Petersfield.

My recent detective-story reading has been dominated by Ian Rankin and Colin Dexter. It was therefore interesting to read 'The Torso in the Town'. It is a story that, although covering a murder, is much lighter in terms of writing and humour. In particular, Simon Brett captures perfectly the atmosphere of a small English town, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that dominate the social circle. This book is worth reading for these descriptions alone.

It starts with the discovery of a partly-mummified body, sans limbs, in a cellar, during the middle of a thoroughly middle-class dinner party. Jude, a guest at the party, decides to investigate the case, and this leads to an examination of the relationship between the victim and virtually everyone who sat around that dinner table.

The characters are very well drawn; the relationship between Jude and her neighbour and friend, the staid Carole, is excellent. These two women set out to solve the case without the help (or as they see it the interference) of the police.

The other characters are also superb; particularly Debbie, the artist, and the series of drunkards that the couple meet. The imagery is rich, yet at no time does it become ponderous. The town of Fedborough is described in such charming detail that it could itself be described as a character.

Jude and carole have a pleasant way of worming information out of all the important characters, which leads them to reach the solution of the crime. The way they do this is subtle and pleasant, as the locals feel able to talk to these two middle-aged women in ways they would never do to the police. It allows the reader to see beneath the respectable veneer of the characters that they encounter.

As can be expected from the President of the Detection Club, all the clues to solve the case are held within the book, and the final unveiling of the truth is logical; all the characters behaved in all-too-believable ways. Naturally enough, my two guesses about the identity of the criminal were both wrong, but that is half the fun of such books.

It does stretch credulity in places; particularly in the way that the body ends up where it is found is overly (and perhaps unnecesarily) complex. If you were asked to move a box and keep things tidy, wuld you wall it up with a piece of plyboard?

There is a pleasant twist near the end of the book, but this is where, for me, the most disappointing aspect of the book occurs.

I would give this book 3.5 out of 5. It would have been 4.5 out of 5, except for the ending (see spoiler below).

*** Spoiler alert ***
Do not read below here if you do not want the ending of the book spoilt.

When reading crime stories, it is always nice to have closure. Ideally, the perpetrators of the crimes will be seen to have got their just deserts. The exception to this is when the criminals are detected, but escape justice (usually so they can be mentioned in further books of a series). Even then, they are usually shown to have been thwarted or suffered in some way.

The 'just deserts' is not necessarily imprisonment, it could be loss of money, influence, social standing, death, anything; but the criminals have to suffer in some way. In this book, the two main protagonists solve the crime, then let the criminal(s) get away with what they have done. It is unlikely that they will play a part in any future books by Mr Brett.

To make matters worse, the locals are all left believing that the criminal is an innocent man who dies. Jude and Carole assume that the man's death was suicide (taking only another suspect's word for it), and then, when they uncover who the real murderer is, they do not even try to correct that impression around the town. Instead, they leave it to the police to sort out. Fair enough, the man was dead, but that doesn't make it right - or honourable - to let such a slur lie on his name.

This left a really bad taste in my mouth. True, it might be an example of how gossip in small towns can lead to injustices, but the fact is the main characters let it be an injustice. I really, really, did not like this aspect of the book.

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