The County Guides series is a one that I have mostly loved. The Norfolk Mystery (2013) is a strong opener, being a delightful addition to the canon of comedy crime fiction and the third title, Westmorland Alone (2016), is wonderfully intriguing novel mixing light and dark. I have to be honest though that I wasn’t so keen on Essex Poison (2017), the fourth novel, as some of the comedy definitely hit the wrong note for me. So, I was a little unsure about what the next instalment would be like. Despite now being five books into the series, the time period is only jumping ahead a month at a time, so we’re still in 1937 England.
To bring new readers up to speed on what this series is about, it is focused on a trio of characters. Firstly, there is Stephen Sefton, series narrator and assistant to the eccentric Swanton Morley, the People’s Professor and a prolific writer of non-fiction to boot. His latest writing project is to write a guide to each of the counties in England, hence the geographical shift in each novel. Morley’s daughter, Miriam, adds a fiery note to the party, drawing all men in sight, whilst trying to restrain some of her father’s eccentricities.
The story opens in Lewes, Sussex, on Bonfire night. A teacher called Lizzie Walters is last seen waving her charges off one school day afternoon. She is never seen alive again, being found dead at Pells Pool the following morning. After this initial chapter, the book spends the next 120+ pages, charting the prior 48 hours to the discovery of the body, in particular the setting off and arrival of the trio of protagonists in the area. Though it seems they have brought more than one new passenger… Eventually around page 150 Sefton lands the unfortunate role of corpse discoverer and the remainder of the novel records his and his employer’s efforts to unravel the mystery.
From my synopsis of the story, I think you can get a fair idea of the structure the novel takes. Readers who need an investigation to promptly follow a dead body may consequently find the route this book takes irksome. Thankfully for me I very much enjoy Sansom’s writing style. The comedy didn’t jar this time and there is a wonderful moment of bathetic humour early on in the piece. In the main Morley’s character and personality is the source and focus of the humour, as is summed up below:
‘For someone capable of the most extraordinary focus and insights, he was also a man capable of ignoring and overlooking both the most obvious and most peculiar circumstances all around him. This of course is what made him great – and absolutely insufferable.’
There are also some great one-off sentences, such as this description of Miriam: ‘To see Miriam at work among men was to witness something like a Miss Havisham, who just happened to look like Hedy Lamarr.’
I would say this is a book to read for the journey it takes you on, as opposed to the mystery provided. Clues are thin on the ground and I can’t see anyone being able to piece the solution together, as Morley very much keeps his thoughts to himself on this matter. To be honest I am not sure much effort was put into the solution and its inclusion seems to be one of expediency, in that it doesn’t take up very much space, which is handy given the sparse investigation offered. This is not a mystery to be read for its mystery aspect, which is a pity given the promising introduction. For instance, there is this early bold paragraph:
‘Of all our trips and tours during those years, our trip to Sussex was one of the darkest and most difficult: it was a turning point. We arrived, as always, intent on doing good and reporting on the good: we were, as so often, on a quest. We departed less than heroes. None of us could hold our heads up high.’
In some ways I can see how it is trying to follow in the footsteps of Westmorland Alone, yet I’m afraid it is not as successful. The ending fell a little flat for me and I think from a plotting standpoint, the series is waning or perhaps to be fairer, it is moving in a different direction.
After all there is much to be enjoyed in the central trio. Sefton is a particularly interesting narrator, with his love-hate relationship for his job. He often considers parting ways with his employer, yet time after time we are shown how he disintegrates when away from him, getting into questionable situations and doing questionable things. You could even say he has a bit of a self-destructive personality. Sansom furthermore also uses the county guide theme as a vehicle for weaving in themes such as national identity and views on immigration; perhaps drawing parallels between the late 30s and modern times, in the sense of the discussions cropping up.
So, a bit of a mixed read and I think it might be a case of reading future books for the sake of the protagonists, as opposed to the mysteries contained within. Personally, I think the strongest reads in the series are books 1 and 3, with 2 not too far behind, so would recommend giving them a go.
Calendar of Crime: July (8) Month Related Item on the Cover (Fireworks)