Source: Review Copy (4th Estate – Harper Collins Imprint)
This is the third in the County Guide Series written by Ian Sansom. This series is set in the 1930s and features an unusual trio which includes a prolific writer of nonfiction (to parodic proportions), called Swanton Morley, who is currently undertaking a project where he is writing a guide to each county in England. Morley is undoubtedly a delight to read, but would definitely be a pain to live with due to his quirky nature. As a writer his interests know no bounds (another example of how he is an exaggerated character):
‘Morley was probably working on some mad side project – a history of war, perhaps, or of the Machine Age, or of Russian literature, or indeed of Russia, or of fish, of friendship, of God, of the gold standard, goodness knows only what’.
He even has a desk fitted in the back of his car so he can write whilst on the move. He is supported in this endeavour by his independent, self-centred, unconventional and party loving daughter, Miriam, who has a touch of the femme fatale about her and also by his secretary and assistant, Sefton who prior to this job had returned to England disillusioned after fighting in the Spanish Civil War and was in need of money. On each of the research trips they take (The Norfolk Mystery (2013) and Death in Devon (2015)), the intrepid three end up involved in a murder investigation. This has been a series which on the whole I have enjoyed so far, though I preferred the first novel to the second. Prior to reading Westmorland Alone (2016), I would have said this series was primarily a comic one, as this trio end up in a lot of awkward situations, especially when Morley is trying to be helpful. However, this third novel becomes much darker in places, something I enjoyed even though I wasn’t expecting it.
In this novel Morley and his cohorts are going to Westmorland (more commonly known as the Lake District), to complete research for the third county guide. The setting of this novel particularly appealed to me as it is mostly set in and around a town called Appleby, where my grandparents lived for a time. The stories are all narrated by Sefton, who until this novel seemed the more grounded character. The start of this tale begins in Soho, London, with Sefton ending up in a dubious nightclub, drinking far too much and losing more than he can pay at cards. Such a night cannot end well with Sefton defaulting on paying the money he owes, stealing some of the club owner’s drug supply and even worse he ends up badly injuring a drunken varsity student who tries to attack him. This is a more irresponsible and darker side to Sefton, yet it is crucial in setting up a key event in the plot. Although Sefton is meant to be driving to Appleby with Morley and Miriam from St Pancreas station, the fear of bumping into a friend from the night before entails Sefton taking the train instead. But this is a train ride which ends in disaster as the train collides with another just outside Appleby. Sefton acts heroically saying several people, yet a child sitting on his knee is flung from the train and dies – leaving Sefton psychologically distraught, feeling guilt ridden and responsible. Alcohol, smoking and drug taking are his methods of choice for coping. Although this aspect is not a big feature in the novel, it did show me a greater depth to Sefton’s characters which I was not expecting. The signalman says children playing on the track caused him to divert the train, which unfortunately led to the train collision, but is he telling the truth?
At this early stage in the book, due to his interference in the police investigation of the crash, Morley’s eccentricities and lack of sensitivity in such a dark context, does make him appear as an unappealing character. However, throughout the rest of the book I found that Morley does have a much kinder and compassionate side to him and in fact his obsession with working actually helps Sefton emotionally, as it gives him a new focus, which in this case is visiting a nearby local archaeological dig. Yet this is not entirely a successful mission, with the leading archaeologist Professor Jenkins behaving abominably towards Morley due to the latter’s lack of higher education and even worse whilst Morley and Sefton have a go at digging, Sefton ends up falling into an iron-age structure which contains the body of a recently killed woman, later identified as Maisie, the wife of the local pharmacist.
There are a variety of suspects for the police to investigate, though CI Banks is less than impressed with Sefton and Morley, particularly the former due to him being an ex-member of the Communist party and this dislike even leads Banks to directing Maisie’s husband’s anger towards Sefton. The local gypsies are also considered highly likely suspects especially when one of them, Noname, is found trying to sell Maisie’s bike. There is a distinct prejudice against gypsies from many of the characters, though our trio, especially Morley, are more open-minded and a key motivation for Morley’s involvement in solving the train crash and Maisie’s death is his promise to prove Noname as innocent. But are Morley’s good intentions misguided? The inclusion of gypsies in the novel is more than just an aspect of the setting, (Appleby Fair even today is a significant event in the year for many traveling gypsies,) as I think this character group and their difficulties is relevant to similar issues which are occurring in the UK today, with certain groups feelings isolated or ostracised. Two characters in the book say:
‘This town this place, this country. If you don’t fit in it’s like… you’re not there… you have to work hard to prove yourself,’
and I felt this comment is not just of its time, of 1930s England, and that many people today would be able to identify with it. Another theme which crops up in the novel is the idea of national identity. In Morley’s guides he wants to record English customs and traditions, value local skills and culture, point out the plethora of unique physical sites and also say something of the people who are living in these places. Woven within the narrative Morley does get to talk about some of these things and in doing so touches on national and local identities and the story as a whole hints at events brewing in late 1930s Europe. However, a line which caught my eye was when Sefton writes, ‘Sometimes I wondered if his [Morley’s] England was an entire invention, a dream kingdom, an intellectual curiosity rather than a real place.’ It reminded me of the various articles I have read of late which have examined how history is recorded and the impact of human nostalgia on this. Thinking about this made me see Morley’s county guide project in a different light, making me wonder whether Morley is accurately recording what he sees around and also about how many of the things he writes about which will have changed or ceased to be. From my modern standpoint, Morley’s England does feel a distant one at times.
But back to the plot itself, it soon becomes apparent that Maisie’s death occurred around the time of train crash. Is this a coincidence or is there a link? Morley, Miriam and Sefton’s unconventional investigation style leads to the police running them out of area, but will they knuckle under or will they return and find out the truth? The solution is a good one, having many features and aspects and Morley’s handling of it is remarkably humanitarian.
It was also at this point that I tried to decipher what type of detective Morley was, other than an amateur one. Sefton writes that:
‘I have often tried to reconstruct the ways in which Morley solved a crime or a puzzle. In a way it’s become my job. But it’s not always easy. It often feels like reaching the end of one of his beloved Ellery Queen thrillers, to find all the evidence set out before one, and yet, still being incapable of solving the mystery.’
I did initially wonder if Morley’s detective style could be likened to Ellery Queen’s as they both work along rational lines, which have that touch of imagination and creativity. I knew for sure that Morley was nothing like Inspector French, who is very dogged and methodical. Morley’s focusing on and understanding of technical information (kept brief in the book so don’t panic) such as on how the train signals work, reminded me of H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune. Moreover, like Reggie Fortune, Morley has a mind full of seemingly irrelevant and highly obscure facts. In addition, to an extent Morley can draw people into conversations, as much to Miriam and Sefton’s irritation at times Morley will talk to anyone and everyone, trying to see the good in them and in these conversations Morley can often find out useful information. This made me think of Miss Marple, though because of his obsession with work and due to his role as an “expert,” the subsequent insensitivity in Morley can hamper this ability, as he is not always successful at picking up emotional cues. Thisis another instance of where humour is interjected into the novel.
I really enjoyed this book and I valued how the characters surprised me. I was a bit dismissive of Miriam in the other novels, but this novel made me give her another look and I actually found her to be a much more complex character, and a little bit less larger than life. For instance, it is said that ‘Miriam often acted roles, even when behaving instinctively,’ which perhaps gives a vacuous impression of her. Yet on the other hand in her own words she says ‘I can turn my hand to most things… if I care to.’ Miriam is a modern woman in a lot of ways and she does not conform to traditional gender roles as she is very capable manually and intellectually. But it seems her laziness is what is holding her back. The trio as a whole are interesting to read as their relationships and group dynamics, although often comical are not straight forward. They are different in a number of ways, yet their emotional wounds also give them some similarities and it also helps to bind them together in a way. The narrative is entertaining, with Sansom showing strong story telling skills and I liked how as a reader who has followed the series, there were a number of surprises for me, character and atmosphere wise. It was also interesting that the novel does not end in triumph despite the case being solved. The threatening clouds at the opening novel seem to return, suggesting that these research trips can also be regarded as escapes for the characters, albeit temporary ones. So if you haven’t guessed already this is a novel and a series I would definitely recommend.
N. B. Just a brief note on my use of the word gypsies. This is a word which is used in the novel and although can be used as a racist slur, in other contexts such as in the phrase Romany Gypsies, it is a term describing an ethnic group and is used by those in the group. In the novel itself the gypsies included are of Romany origin.