A high-concept comic crime thriller aims to update the grand English tradition but hits wide of the mark.
The protean English broadcaster, columnist and sportswriter Lynne Truss is best known internationally for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, her 2003 lament for the decline in standards of punctuation. It was a delight to pedants everywhere, including this one, not least because they enjoyed spotting its several dozen errors and internal contradictions: the first appears in the subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation, a phrase that, as she makes clear at some length in the text, requires a hyphen between “zero” and “tolerance”, because it is a noun phrase being used as an attributive adjective (as in “stainless-steel saucepan”).
A reviewer of this playful, not to say arch, comic crime thriller, billed as “the first … in a charming and witty new … series” will struggle to find punctuation errors (though Truss often muffs the sequence of tenses), but their absence is amply compensated for by the profusion of clumsy and infelicitous writing: an actor who retires is described as “hanging up his tights”; a positive pregnancy test is called a “whisper of ovary”.
Truss also has a jarring habit of stepping outside her own narrative frame – the book is set in 1957 – to offer a presentday perspective. At one point, she notes that modern academic accounts of the 1950s overlook the fact that variety-show audiences drank a lot: the writer’s duty to show rather than tell is too often ignored. Simultaneously pillaging and sneering at the fancifulness of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Truss’ crime caper concerns the murder, mid-performance in the stalls, of a noted critic who, word has it, is bent on a poisonous review. When the supposed killer – the playwright/director – is himself bloodily slaughtered, the plot thickens enough to excite an ambitious new constable, who is a thorn in the side of his complacent local colleagues.
Truss’ high concept belongs to a grand English tradition that goes back to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and GK Chesterton, but her forced style is closer to Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books. Her Brighton is a world in which even hardened criminals use curse words such as “ruddy” and “flaming heck” and the shaggy-dog plot becomes so contorted, the reader would benefit from a flow chart. It is all much harder work than it ought to be, and far from being a distinctive addition to a genre that now seems rather passé.