Simon Brett – English Crime

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This week I have taken a break from literary reading and dived into the world of crime via the writing of Simon Brett. In case you’ve never heard of him you will be reassured to know he has first class degree in English from Oxford and has worked as a TV producer and writer for the BBC. He wrote sitcoms like After Henry and Smelling of Roses. He has written plays for stage and radio and has even written a four-part radio series about a middle-aged Nigel Molesworth. (I’d love to hear this one.)

These days, however, he is well-known for  five series of detective novels. Twenty books starring Charles Paris a hard drinking actor, eight books in the Mrs Pargeter series where a gangster’s widow solves crimes with the help of some of his former associates, twenty Fethering Mysteries, set, you guessed it, in the village of Fethering with two next door neighbours and ill-assorted friends as protagonists, Carole an uptight retiree from the Home Office and Jude, kind and relaxed and a self-styled healer, ten Blotto and Twinx  post First World War murders which star a rather dumb brother and his smarter sister (guess which is which ) and his latest  Decluttering series  with two books entitled The Clutter Corpse and An Untidy Death. Emily Curtis is the declutterer in question. She runs a service called Spacewoman.

If cosy crime is defined by its lack of overt violence, its location, usually a small community, and amateur sleuthing, then Simon Brett’s books fill the bill. But we don’t have infallible detectives like Poirot or Miss Marple. True, the police are rude and bungling, but the amateur detectives are often suspected of the crime and their need to solve it is often linked to their own personal situation. I have read five books by Simon Brett in the last few days. they are quick read, usually only 200 to 250 pages. I started out with a book from his first series with Charles Paris. (Played on radio by Bill Nighy which I think is perfect casting.)

Sicken and So Die, the sixteenth of the twenty in this series was published in 1997. Charles Paris is not a bad actor and an intelligent man, but he has a couple of fatal flaws; a great love of the booze and a roving eye. He is inordinately susceptible to attractive women and, although he does not believe he is an alcoholic, all those swigs out of the bottle of Bells he has in his pocket do tend to interfere with his life. He is just on the verge of reuniting with his estranged wife Frances and for once has a decent role as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. The title is part of a quote from Twelfth Night which gives a clue as to what occurs in the course of rehearsals.

The appetite may sicken and so die. That strain again, it had a dying fall. That breathes upon a bank of violets. Stealing and giving odour.

Charles is all set for a long run with this play. He finds the director dull and conventional, but then the worst happens. The director collapses, seemingly after eating a mushroom tart, and is replaced by Alexandru Radelescu, a wilfully unconventional director who says ‘Shakespeare only writes about sex.’

There is murder, there is an excellent start which reveals Brett really knows his Shakespeare, but then the plot somehow fizzles. Charles can’t control his drinking, the play is acclaimed for its new approach and Charles is on the outer with his fellow actors. A promising start that didn’t deliver.

My next book was Murder in the Museum, fourth in the series of twenty Fethering Mysteries. This has a great set-up. A house turned into a museum dedicated to a Catholic writer  Esmond Chadleigh, a contemporary of Belloc and Chesterton. He is famous for a post World War  One poem, Threnody for the Lost and Brett does a rather good take on this.

No grave, no lichened tombstone, graven plaque,

No yew-treed cross beneath its cloak of  moss,

No sense but absence, unforgiving dark,

The stretching void that is eternal loss.

 Carole finds herself on the board of Trustees and when a controlling and unpopular former trustee is murdered she and her friend (or the closest she has to a friend) Jude investigate. This series appealed to me. Carole is tight, and quick to take offence, whereas Jude is relaxed and warm. There was a subplot concerning one of Jude’s protegees from an open prison. The dynamics of the meetings and the tussles between trustees are also very accurate as anyone who has ever had to put up with committee meetings can tell. True the solution to the crime was a bit casual, but so much else about this book was enjoyable.  

The next series I read was the Decluttering. Brett certainly has his finger on the pulse here. And again, a warm kind character in Emily the declutterer, who can’t help visiting her old clients even after she has disposed of their piles of rubbish. Here she finds the body of a young woman in a pile of rubbish in a flat she is clearing. This young woman turns out to have been known to her in the past. I thought this was a plausible story, perhaps the most well done out of the three I’m discussing here. And like all Brett’s books, this has an involving subplot. Emily’s son Ben is subject to extreme ups and downs, and we find out about her husband and her narcissistic mother. Great characters here. I foresee quite a few more in this series.  

You’ll have to excuse me now. It’s pouring with rain here and I haven’t read a Blotto and Twinx book yet.

Recommended if you feel you need something well written, light, and good-hearted.

13 thoughts on “Simon Brett – English Crime

  1. I loved the Simon Brett stories when I read them, maybe about 25-30 years ago? The theater connections (I was deep in theater worlds with our kids at the time), the Britishness of it all, the humor, and decent plots all resonated. Comedic mysteries were my thing, and Simon Brett more than fit the bill. Glad to hear of the more recent series, and looking forward to hearing more about Blotto and Twinx —

    1. Yes he is most entertaining. Sometimes it is refreshing to read something that is amusing and has a predictable structure. I got sidetracked on to Thomas Bernhard so Blotto and Twinx will have to wait for a bit.

        1. This is The Loser, two musicians who are students with Horowitz in the company of Glenn Gould. In their eyes he is so incomparably better than they are, they give up altogether. Get rid of their Bosendorfers. He is raving against many things in this Favourite word so far is ‘Abhorrent.’

          1. Almost every time you write something, there’s a word or two that I have to research — Bosendorfer, in this case. It’s a make of piano that I hadn’t heard of. He doesn’t sound like cheery company.

  2. I’ve definitely heard of Brett in relation to his work for the BBC, but I’ve never read any of his books. Someone for me to keep in mind…if the British Library Crime Classics series ever runs out of stream!

  3. Nothing like a good murder story Gert and the Brits seem to have that down pat.

    What’s this I hear about some Prime Minister in Australia resigning for being complicit with the pharmaceutical companies to push their agenda? I think that’s what’s going on here.This will make a good story someday. What really happened?
    Leslie

    1. Oh Leslie, the perils of ill-informed media! The Premier of New South Wales has resigned because she was in a relationship with a very dodgy politician who feathered his own nest, and the question is, did the relationship influence some funding decisions?
      Nothing to do with pharmaceutical companies.

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