Colin Watson: Coffin Scarcely Used

Coffin Scarcely Used
Colin Watson
First published in the UK 1958, Eyre
This edition 2012, Faber Finds
ISBN: 9780571252046
174 pages
Score 4/5

The Faber Finds imprint first came to my attention when my friend @pressfuturist pointed out that I should enter the prize draw to win the Colin Watson classic Coffin Scarcely Used. I duly did just that (entered, and won). Thanks Faber Finds!

I knew Colin Watson by repute. He’s one of those writers who is spoken of highly in surveys of the genre, but who has largely disappeared from bookshops and libraries. According to Faber Finds, H.R.F. Keating argued that Watson’s fictional town of Flaxborough merited comparison with ‘the creation of Arnold Bennett in his classic Five Towns novels, or even perhaps with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County’.

Coffin is the first of 12 novels set in Flaxborough, an outwardly respectable seaport with a seamy underbelly. It opens stiflingly, with a small funeral on a curtain-twitching street in a curtain-twitching English town.

‘Considering that Mr Harold Carobleat had been in his time a town councillor of Flaxborough, a justice of the peace, a committeeman of the Unionist Club, and, reputedly, the owner of the town’s first television aerial, his funeral was an uninspiring affair.’

It is the late 50s. The bourgeois atmosphere is conveyed in many ways, but most effectively by the consistent formality of Mr and Mrs used when referring to the characters.

Six months later, Mr Marcus Gwill (the proprietor of the Flaxborough newspaper the Citizen, and Carobleat’s next-door neighbour, is found dead 25 (‘No twenty-seven, that’ll sound as if we really know’) feet up the electricity pylon at the end of his garden. The circumstances look like suicide, but are peculiar enough to attract the attention of the police, and for them to open a murder investigation. How on earth did Gwill get up a pylon? Why was he keeping a book of clippings of small ads in his own newspaper? Was he sleeping with the widow Mrs Carobright? Why was he seen at nights in his garden with a bucket of water? Why did he die with a mouthful of marshmallows?

Inspector Purbright, assisted by Sergeant Sid Love, sets out to investigate. Purbright is a good lead. With the public he is apologetic and unassuming (‘I’m a terrible old nuisance, aren’t I?’) but this is just a façade hiding a fierce enjoyment of his job.

‘”I suppose,” said Chubb [chief constable] without preamble, “that you’ve come about Gwill.”
Purbright nodded. “I’m afraid I have, sir,” he said, as though breaking the news of running over one of Chubb’s Yorkshire terriers – in other words, with just enough pretence of regret to hide a real inward satisfaction.’

Meanwhile, the Inspector’s chief assistant, the ruddy-cheeked Sergeant Love, provides slapstick humour to match Purbright’s verbal wit. His hapless explorations of a doctor’s surgery are a comic highpoint.

Purbright and Love soon narrow their search down to Gwill’s tiny circle of friends, an ostensibly respectable but somehow obnoxious set. Gwill’s nephew, the Citizen‘s editor George Lintz, has most to gain from his death, but Purbright also looks at the local doctor Hillyard, Mr Bradlaw the undertaker, Mr Gloss the lawyer, and of course Mrs Carobleat, ‘a matron competently parcelled and attractive in a mature, leathery way’.

Watson is a funny writer, and there are some great one-liners.

‘The remark stuck in her mind. It’s a very narrow mind.’

‘Comprehension suddenly came upon the sergeant like the smell from a Sunday oven.’

‘Chubb put on his bowler with the air of an overdrawn patron of the arts.’

The solution to the murder is not terribly original, and I imagine that the elaborate conspiracy uncovered by the innocent Sergeant Love would be entirely unnecessary in a seaside town, even in the 50s (although Watson explains that away), but the mystery is entertainingly uncovered.

The joy of this book lies in the jokes, and in the merciless puncturing of stuffy English provincialism, which it continues until the pay-off in the last line. I’ll definitely be reading Watson again, and congratulations to Faber Finds for bringing him back to a front list.

There is an aged, but interesting, web profile of Colin Watson on Mystery Magazine Web.

Final destination: A keeper. It has to be, because the youngest Minor Offence chewed up the cover this morning.

Creative Commons License
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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6 Responses to Colin Watson: Coffin Scarcely Used

  1. Rich – A fine review, for which thanks. I do appreciate a novel that can use humour to hold up a mirror to a particular culture. And of course the seaside setting is appealing too. So is that bourgeois culture – so vulnerable to this kind of mystery. 🙂 – And I’ve heard of devouring books, but it sounds as though your Minor Offence gave that term a new meaning ;-); that’s happened before in my home too.

    Like

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