Source: Review Copy (Allison & Busby Limited)
I was very excited to get to read the upcoming novel in the Elsie Thirkettle and Ethelred Tressider series written by L. C. Tyler, which is to be released later this month. For those new to the series, Ethelred and Elsie are an amateur sleuthing duo, whose day jobs are respectively being a prolific but not hugely successful author (Ethelred) and being a savvy and sarcastic, yet chocolate obsessed literary agent (Elsie). Although set in contemporary settings, this series from the very start has been an excellent pastiche and parody of Golden Age crime fiction, which is advertised in the titles, with most of them parodying Agatha Christie titles:
- The Herring Seller’s Apprentice
- Ten Little Herrings
- The Herring in the Library
- Herring on the Nile
- Crooked Herring
Having read all the books in the series I can honestly say that it is a series which gets stronger and stronger as it continues.
Cat Among the Herrings (2016) opens with Ethelred getting soaked at the funeral of Robin Pagham, which immediately shows even to the new reader how out of kilter Ethelred feels during social situations and the effect is one of quickly sympathising with and possibly identifying with him. This is helped by the fact that the story alternates between his and Elsie’s perspective. Robin was an ambiguous figure who was said to be great fun and likeable but also managed to annoy a lot of people, as well as have a habit of beating up his girlfriends and taking drugs. With his lifestyle it was assumed that he was drunk or on drugs when he had the sailing accident which killed him. The humour of the book begins from the start with these seamier aspects of Robin’s character being alternated with the less than accurate or at the very least distorted words of the rector doing the funeral. Moreover, in the chapters from Ethelred’s perspective the brilliant humour of the novel is often conveyed through massive understatement such as when Ethelred, announces in a matter of fact way, that the funeral ended with Robin’s fiancée’s threatening to murder the person who killed Robin.
As expected Catarina soon turns to Ethelred and asks him to investigate Robin’s death, revealing information which sheds different light on Robin’s accident such as a reference to an ‘old man’ whose death would lead to Robin inheriting. Ethelred, aware of his limitations, past detective experiences and of the flimsiness of the evidence declines and instead his attention is given to a murder from the 1840s which connects two of the local families. It seems that an ancestor of Pagham’s was hanged for stabbing John Gitting in Herring Field. Yet, from the off this appears to be a case of injustice with the evidence being mainly prejudiced and circumstantial. Ethelred is keen to use this true crime story in his own work and in particular he is interested in uncovering the truth surrounding the case, a feature which links to other novels such as Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) and Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead (1989).
In the previous book a rift is created between Elsie and Ethelred, yet it doesn’t take long into this book for the two to come together again, with Elsie reading and hearing what she wants to see such as when Ethelred mentions he is not getting involved in the Pagham case, which Elsie of course interprets as Ethelred asking for her help. The relationship between Elsie and Ethelred is one of the series’ greatest strengths, with Elsie always seemingly gaining the upper hand and is full of banter and comic manipulation, as Elsie tries (and does) get her own way, which I think is encapsulated in this brief bit of dialogue between Elsie and her secretary Tuesday:
‘Are you planning wintry walks on the beach? I always think you need a dog for that.’
‘I’ve got a writer… that’s almost as good.’
However, this is made an enjoyable love-hate relationship to read, as the reader knows that Ethelred’s passivity is an active part of the relationship dynamic. Also worthy of mention is the relationship between Elsie and Tuesday, with the latter rapidly losing her naivety and innocence in regards to the publishing world, though she still tries to vainly get Elsie to write nicer rejection letter and to go on a diet.
With Elsie on board, whether Ethelred likes it or not, the narrative switches more of its’ focus on to the death of Robin, which leads to more information, secrets and suspicious circumstances being dug up, with a dread for Ethelred that the people he thought he knew are not all that they seem. What adds to this is the fact that Ethelred frequently gets taken in by what people say, unlike Elsie who is much more cynical. This is one aspect in which they are opposites and superficially readers could stop there, but having read through the series, I think some common ground can be found between them such as them both being unsuccessful when it comes to love and also the fact that both of them are culpable of making hilarious mistakes when it comes to amateur detection work. Ethelred’s name always makes me think of Ethelred the Unready and the connection would be an apt one, but I think a case could made for the same being said of Elsie whose maverick, chaotic and unorganised ideas also make her come across as unprepared. I have often wondered if Elsie and Ethelred having the same initials was deliberate and a subtle hint at the ways they both mirror or double each other. With many possible avenues to explore in this case it is going to take a lot of sifting through the clues to pick out the red herrings.
The final pieces of the puzzle, in true homage to Golden Age detective work, are found during a dinner party at Ethelred’s, which has been engineered by Elsie who casually mentions to him that the party is also a murder mystery party 5 hours before it is due to start. In reality Elsie’s plan is one of getting everyone drunk and then combining Cluedo with the actual death of Pagham, which results in some people turning on each other: ‘Oh, chill out, Little Miss Scarlet.’ If it didn’t involve so much typing I’d quote the whole scene, as it is in my opinion the best scene in the book and is a piece of comic genius, which left me laughing the whole way through it. I really enjoyed the solution especially with the neat ironic twists it provides.
Humour is an essential element of this novel and Tyler has it down to a fine art such as with his pastiche and parodying of Golden Age detective fiction. At times this is achieved consciously through metafictional comments such as when Ethelred says ‘It’s only in books that there is a decently convoluted motive, disputed wills, missing relatives and proper red herrings’ or when he tries to convince Elsie he won’t take on the Pagham case, ‘I do realise that one of the many clichés of crime fiction is the amateur detective who says they won’t investigate a case and then does just that. But that isn’t going to happen here. I am not Lord Peter or Miss Marple or Albert Campion.’ As you can see there is the odd allusion to a Golden Age character, but this is not the main technique used, as the novel centres more on doing a pastiche/parody of the components of the genre within a non-derivative mystery and solution. This is what makes it such a strong pastiche/parody though, as it also means it is a strong novel in its own right. Tyler also parodies aspects of writing and publishing well within this series, which I have always enjoyed. In the last book it was Amazon reviews which got spoofed, but this time it is publisher’s rejection letters, as written by Elsie:
‘Thank you for your recent letter enclosing a copy of your manuscript Out Out Brief Candle. I am grateful to you for telling me that you were writing in the style of Hilary Mantel, because I would never have guessed that from the book itself.’
Overall this was a brilliant book which I read in one sitting, laughing out a loud for a lot of it and I think its’ success is due to an effective yet alternating humorous first person narrative, along with a well-developed and thought out mystery, which is solved by an engaging detective duo. What’s there not to love about that?