Source: Review Copy (4th Estate)
This is the fourth in Sansom’s County Guides series and I was really excited when I heard it was being released this month. It is a series I have loved and the third book in the series, Westmorland Alone (2016), was especially exciting in that it revealed a darker side to Stephen Sefton, one of the series’ protagonists and assistant to Swanton Morley, the People’s Professor and non-fiction writing machine. This is still a series which could be classed as comic crime, but the previous book revealed an unexpected depth to the main characters, especially Sefton and Miriam – Morley’s daughter.
Essex Poison (2017) is in set in 1937 and begins in London, where dubious actions on Sefton’s part in the last book come back to haunt him. In a nutshell he is required to obtain £100 in two weeks to repay a debt to Delany, an unpleasant figure from London’s underworld. Alongside this problem, Sefton is thrown back into the bizarre and wonderful world of Morley who is now off with Miriam to write his next county guides book on Essex unsurprisingly. In particular Morley has been invited to the annual Oyster Festival in Colchester. Yet shortly after the Mayor partakes of the oysters he rushes out of the hall, only to collapse dead soon afterwards. Pandemonium ensues and this is my first read which has included mass hysteria induced vomiting, with guests panicking that the oysters must be bad. Morley is one of the few people unruffled though, calm in the knowledge that all the oysters have to be purified before being served. As Morley and his companions continue their research into the county, causing havoc along the way, Morley becomes more and more intrigued in the Mayor’s death. But with little time to investigate has he bitten off more than he can chew?
As with book three in the series, Sefton is shown to be struggling mentally and emotionally, with present problems only adding to haunted memories of the past, such as when he writes that:
‘I’d learned in Spain that dread and despair are constant companions to adventure and during my time with Morley, for all its good, it often felt as though I were somehow being buried alive in yet more bad memories and that there was no escape.’
Due to his troubled nature he makes for an interesting narrator. You may initially think he is your usual amateur sleuth sidekick, but this is a role he doesn’t entirely fit comfortably into. The setting the book opens with, a seedy picture of London, also may at first glance seem like an odd choice, in the way it juxtaposes with the more innocent world of Morley. But I think it works well in the book and it is amusing when the two worlds collide. For instance when Sefton is talking with Delany and events are turning decidedly nasty his own thoughts such as ‘Beware big men in fancy suits offering simple solution,’ run alongside memories of lines from Morley’s books, which although relatively on topic are inappropriate for the current situation. In this case the accompanying Morley quote is from Horace, advising to ‘stay away from the bull, he has hay on his horns.’ Yet I think it is Sefton’s time in the world of Morley which although eccentric and bizarre, probably saves from total self-destruction, which is not a wholly unlikely event given his reliance on stimulants to escape from “life.” As with Westmorland Alone, this book continues the sense of uneasiness which is beginning to pervade the world of the books. The ending of the case in this book creates tension within the trio and we see how all of them are struggling and coping in different ways. Morley pushes himself into his work, yet Sefton at the close of Essex Poison has a different perspective on Morley’s zeal: ‘The County Guides, I came to realise many years later, was not a quest: it was an illness.’
Something which I noticed in this read which I haven’t noticed as much in the previous books is the way the story naturally captures the disparity of wealth between people at the time and it does this in way which isn’t forced or overdone. Sansom could have so easily made Morley into an aristocratic type of sleuth who spends most of his time with those in the upper classes, but instead his books are by and large populated by ordinary people. As always with this series I loved the writing style which flowed well and kept me engaged and the central trio are great characters you want to keep on reading about. Although socially awkward and a bit demanding, it is hard to not like Morley, though I can imagine he would be a pain to actually live with.
There were some things though which I didn’t quite like about the book. Firstly there is a section in the book where the rather cheap humour relies on Morley’s innocence/naivety too much and the double entendre feel overdone and it felt like it was humour at Morley’s expense. As the first three books in the series show this sort of humour is not needed to make the adventures entertaining reads. Secondly I think Morley’s entrance into the investigation, although very natural and unforced, is left too late and in my opinion it should have started earlier. On the whole more narrative space should have been given to Morley’s enquiries, as what is there feels a bit small. Additionally there are a couple of narrative threads which instead of being interwoven throughout the story either break off mid story or are hurriedly tidied up at the end, which has not really been the case in the other books. So although this was an entertaining read and I was intrigued to find out what happened next I would recommend readers begin with the earlier books in the series first.
The next book in the series is going to be called The Sussex Murders, though I’m not sure when it is coming out.