I may well be the last person to the party, but Bruce Graeme is a completely new author to me. Graeme was one of the many pennames Graham Montague Jeffries had and during his lifetime he wrote over 100 crime and adventure stories. My copy of today’s read, one of his standalone novels, was reprinted earlier this month by the Moonstone Press.
“Crime writer Iain Carter has recently married and is struggling to make a decent living as an author. His brother-in-law is a likable but slightly indiscreet constable, and Iain decides to use this inside knowledge to write a satirical series featuring a pompous dictatorial police superintendent. To protect his identity, Iain creates an elaborately designed pseudonym, John Ky Lowell, that can’t be traced back to him. When the first book by Lowell, The Undetective, proves to be a huge success, Iain finds he must take increasingly convoluted steps to protect his secret from the press, the police and the taxman. But the real trouble begins when a local bookmaker is killed, and Iain finds his mysterious alter-ego is the prime suspect.”
According to the reprint’s introduction, Graeme frequently included mystery novelists, writers, and other characters situated in creative industries in his work. It definitely seems to be a milieu Graeme is comfortable writing about and he depicts the difficult realities of making a living by the pen very well and in an amusing way, including the necessity for some writers using multiple pennames. In 1956 Jeffries took up the role of CWA chairman and his experiences there are certainly put to good use in the book. The organisation and some of its many members are not only referenced, but several scenes in the book take place at their monthly meetings. This is an unusual metafictional aspect of the story, not least because at one point the police discover the victim had tried to apply to the organisation, and had been rejected, prior to his death. It is this which turns the police’s attention to Lowell.
Reflecting on the book upon completing it, my mind took me back to a sentence in the introduction which describes The Undetective as ‘one part police procedural, one part satire of the publishing industry, and one part traditional murder mystery.’ I guess I felt less satisfied with this label. I have no qualms about it satirising the publishing industry, as that is clearly evident. Yet it did seem to be stretching a point by suggesting it is a police procedural and I think this partially comes down to the choice of narrator. Iain, our troublesome crime writer, is the narrator and the filter through which we receive information. We are aware of what the police are doing because of Iain’s brother in law, amongst others, but we never actually follow the police around as main characters; something which I think is intrinsic in any police procedural. I am also unsure what parts of the book are being likened to a traditional murder mystery. Iain’s sole focus is to extricate himself from the mess he has landed himself in, creating false clues to save his bacon when necessary. Moreover, I would argue that the ending is somewhat ambiguous, as the reader is not left with any certainty that the truth has finally been revealed; it could well be another fictious yarn on Iain’s part. So what is this book’s subgenre? Well it’s not an inverted mystery, nor a psychological crime novel or from the suspense category. In the end I think I would conclude it is an unorthodox comic crime novel. But I can definitely see the difficulty of trying to categorise such a story.
Iain is an engaging narrator and is likeable enough, though some of his comments, may grate a little on the modern reader’s ear. For instance, he is vastly uncomfortable with having a wife who works, primarily because it means having to go to his mother’s for lunch, (he can’t seem to make his own…) and because he worries he might end up doing housework, (Shock! Horror!). We also get thoughts about his wife such as this: ‘Heigh-ho! I suppose even a lovely woman can’t always remain lovely without taking some care of her complexion and her figure. I’m glad I’m not a woman.’ Yet these occasions are infrequent and his at times cloying marriage to Susan is somewhat balanced out by the tough time he is about to go through; a situation the reader may be quite happily looking forward to!
I found it very entertaining reading about the extraordinary lengths Iain goes to, to keep his penname a secret. They’re over the top, but wonderful, and unfortunately for him a little too watertight! This creative flair for problem solving is then found in Iain’s approach to getting his penname off the police’s suspect list and I think his actions show an interesting focus on small details and the consequences they have hold many a surprise for the reader.
So overall, I would say this was a good read. The writing flows really well and I also liked how Graeme involves the word “undetective” in the book, making sure it comes back to bite Iain on the rear.