Trouble with Product X – Joan Aiken


Jane Aiken the celebrated children’s author and daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken is possibly best known for the series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and grew into a series of eleven deeply loved books. But did she down tools there? Not at all. By my reckoning she wrote about another thirty-four children’s books, then moved on to six novels based on the work of Jane Austen with titles like Mansfield Revisited and Emma Watson. Then there came another assortment of twenty-nine books, some of which are ghost stories, but I hadn’t realised that among these titles were a few cosy murders.

I stumbled on Trouble with Product X, I’m not sure where, but when I read it was about an irresistible perfume, a heroine who works for an advertising agency dreaming up outrageous copy for perfumes and cans of Bom, as well as strange monks and kidnapped babies, I just had to read it.

Martha works for a small advertising agency. As she says

Salmon and Bucknell isn’t a large advertising agency, Salmon is the only living partner; Bucknell died of a surfeit of tranquillisers called Lullabuys, which were later withdrawn from the market; we didn’t handle them I am glad to say.

Martha, Mimi, Tom, Jimmy, and George are all quite close and seem to bond rather too much with their clients, among whom can be found the Government of Turkinistan, Midinettes Washing Machines (for a really tiny amount of washing) and Bom the Meat’n Milk Drink in a can. And, of course, the client whose products this story is about, Gay Gal Cosmetics.

These cosmetics are the brainchild of old Mr Dunskirk a Lancashire man.

Cheapness was Gay Gal’s main asset; the things soon became a familiar sight: greasy, lumpy lipsticks in striped black-and-pink containers which looked chipped and sordid even in display cases…

These products were sold in supermarkets and post offices, and were not the cream of the agency’s crop, but being the kind of agency they were, there was a loyalty and fondness for old Dunskirk. How great then their surprise when he tells them his (rather unpleasant) son and heir Gareth has come up with a winning product. A superb and elegant fragrance. Martha describes it thus

…a sharp woody tang, very pleasant and astonishingly potent.

And this is where I feel Joan Aiken wasted a great opportunity. This perfume is Product X, and the whole plot centres around finding a sample of it or a formula for it. I feel as a perfume loving reader I want a much more detailed description of its character.

I once bought a perfume online on the strength of its having the qualities of ‘a bell sounding in a musty deserted church’ (Messe de Minuit) and recently read of another with the qualities of transgression….

which conjure an endless realm of possibilities…Think beauty and bondage, sailors and starlets, face powder and flogging…

That’s the kind of language I expect in a story about a perfume so glorious men are prepared to kill for it.

But somehow the plot gets taken over by children that no-one can be bothered with, Martha’s failed relationship with a mad monk, a lot of driving and the one that really upset me, a fourth month old baby that she rescues from kidnappers, names Shrubsole for some reason, and feeds on milk and brandy and the odd bit of chocolate.

It’s  good fun and, never fear, all ends well. Martha finds a new love and the baby finds a home. The book is amusing and I did enjoy it to a degree, but it would have to be filed in our ‘silly books’ category.

What happens to the perfume, which they  decided to name Avalon? You’ll have to read the book to find out.


8 thoughts on “Trouble with Product X – Joan Aiken

  1. I’m going to have to somehow acquire this, Gert—I’ve seen mixed responses to it (you’re not alone here!) but, always immensely enjoying what Aiken does and intrigued by your final comments, I just know there’s more to this romp than meets the eye!

  2. I love the idea of a ‘silly books’ category. Angela Thirkell’s novels might well be candidates for that classification. I’m not sure if you’ve read any of them, but they’re lighter, sillier versions of Barbara Pym’s early books – social comedies with just a hint of bite. Very enjoyable now and again, if you’re in the mood for a fluffy comfort read. As for the Aiken, I really like the sound of the premise. Shame abut the execution, though – a missed opportunity as you suggest.

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