Caroline Graham: The Killings at Badger’s Drift

BadgersDriftThe Killings at Badger’s Drift
Caroline Graham
First published in the UK 1987 by Century Hutchinson
This edition 1997, Headline
ISBN: 0747232334
264 pages
Source: Blickling Hall Bookshop

This review represents a return to my plan to reading the CWA’s top 100 crime novels, a plan which has taken something of a back seat over the past few months. Badger’s Drift is the 65th of the top 100 I have reviewed.

I’m always amazed by how rarely I see a second-hand Caroline Graham book (I got this copy at the bookshop at the lovely Blickling Hall in Norfolk). Either everybody hangs on to them, or her publishers were a lot less adept at capitalising on successful television series than Colin Dexter’s. A shame, because for my money she is far better.

If you are new to Graham, or (much less likely) unaware of the TV series based on her work, Midsomer Murders, we are squarely in what author and critic Colin Watson dubbed ‘Mayhem Parva’. Chief Inspector Barnaby of Causton CID investigates murders in the small rural communities of the rural county of Midsomer, and it is all very traditional (as even Graham admits in this passage).

The interior of the cottage was so precisely what the exterior led one to expect that Barnaby had the disturbing feeling that he had stepped on to a perfect period stage set. Surely any minute now a maid would enter, pick up the heavy black Bakelite telephone and say, ‘I’m afraid her ladyship is not at home.’ Or a cream-flannelled juvenile would ask if there was anyone for tennis. Alternatively there was the crusty old colonel: ‘The body was lying just there, Inspector.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Just there.’ Miss Bellringer was standing in front of the empty fireplace.

Barnaby is the epitome of stolidity and mature, enlightened policing: loves his job and his garden, an amateur painter, happily married for many years to an intelligent and creative woman, and father to an intelligent and creative daughter. There are two flies in his ointment: his wife’s cooking:

There was between her and any fresh, frozen or tinned ingredient a sort of malign chemistry.

and his sidekick, Sergeant Gavin Troy. Troy is notoriously far more abrasive in the books than he was on the TV show, and I remember him being pretty unpleasant in Written in Blood, the fourth in the series. Here, however, he is merely a bit of a twerp. Here he is, waiting for Barnaby outside Beehive Cottage.

Two children and a woman with a shopping trolley stopped opposite the car and stared at him. He leaned back, relaxed yet keen eyed, holding the steering wheel with a negligent hand. riding shotgun.

He and his boss have dramatically different world views, making Troy the classic one-step-behind sidekick. He has trouble seeing beyond his own world view.

‘Seems a bit incredible, sir’ Troy again. ‘I mean that she could have been killed because she saw someone having it -‘ He cleared his throat. ‘A bit old-fashioned. We’re in 1987 after all. Who expects fidelity these days?’
Barnaby, who had never been unfaithful in his life, said, ‘You’d be surprised. People can still be divorced for adultery. Disinherited. Relationships can be ruined. Trust destroyed.’

The set-up: A retired schoolteacher, Miss Simpson, on her annual pilgrimage to locate an example of the rare coral-root orchid in the woods near Badger’s Drift, comes across a couple in flagrante. A few hours later she is dead. Only her life-long friend Miss Bellringer considers the death suspicious (Miss Simpson was in her eighties). However, Miss Bellringer is a determined woman and succeeds in persuading Barnaby to look into the death.

Badger’s Drift was in the shape of a letter T. The cross bar, called simply the Street, had a crescent of breeze-block council houses, a few private dwellings, the Black Boy pub, a phone box and very large and beautiful Georgian house.

And it turns out to be a right can of worms…

Before you’re tempted to label these stories cozy, or even cosy, consider this: Graham has a very nasty imagination. There is something deeply disturbing about her prose at times and she captures the banality of evil perfectly. Beneath the surface, Badger’s Drift is as twisted and dark as a James M. Cain. The residents include:

  • Sex-starved Dr Lessiter, his second wife (and former prostitute) Barbara, and his daughter Judy.
  • Village undertaker Dennis Rainbird, a ‘horrible little wart’, and his tasteless and domineering mother.
  • Wheelchair-bound Henry Trace, his beautiful 19-year-old fiancee Katherine, and her aspiring artist brother Michael.

The solution manages to surprise (it surprised me, anyway, I had run out of suspects) but once all is revealed, all the pieces fall into place in the approved manner. An impressive start to the series.

Final destination: A keeper

See also:

Dwell in Possibility: Caroline Graham has been compared to P.D. James, and I can see the similarities. James’s books tend to be a bit richer, stronger in the psychological side of murder, and featuring a somewhat more complex character in the form of Adam Dalgliesh. Tom Barnaby isn’t much like Dalgliesh, and there’s something decidedly more “normal” and more of what you’d expect in the police officer about him; but that makes him, in some ways, the constant center of good sense and strong reason that is necessary in the often nefarious and occasionally bizarre world of the Midsomer villages. What Graham does that reminds me of James, though, is bring out the peripheral characters and discuss them rather extensively.

Clarissa DraperPerhaps because this is her first book, she doesn’t fill it with massive amounts of description. She keeps the book to the point and only adds the exciting bits. I loved all the off-the-wall characters. I actually like to read first books from authors, before the publishing world really sinks their claws into the writers and demands word count and formula. I felt the way about Elizabeth George’s first book as well. Since then, both authors have produced longer books with more filler. I think once you read this book, you will not forget the premise. I give a warning however… some of the themes in his cozy mystery are not suitable for younger adults.

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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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20 Responses to Caroline Graham: The Killings at Badger’s Drift

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I agree with you completely, Rich. This isn’t a ‘cosy’ series at all. And I respect the way Graham uses psychology both to build suspense and to create motive. Fine review of the first of a good series.


  2. realthog says:

    To my shame, I’ve never read any of CG’s work. Must amend this . . .

    Thanks for an excellent review!


  3. Bev Hankins says:

    I read this one back when it was first published, really enjoyed it, and always meant to go on with them as they came out…but, as often happens, I got distracted by other books and never did. I should probably go back to the beginning and try again….


  4. FictionFan says:

    Loving the TV series so much, I always find the books difficult, because I can’t reconcile the book Troy to the TV one. I wish I’d read the books before I saw the programmes…but the episode based on this book is one of the best…


  5. eatierney says:

    This is one of my favorite mysteries, but unlike other favorites from such authors as Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie, one that I can’t re read due to the unforgettable ending!!


  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Not that I’ve read or watched either – but from what you say it sounds as if the TV series has been softened and sanitised for mainstream viewing. Which is a shame as it may well have put people off the books!


  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have not read the book but I have seen the TV adaptation 1997 (first episode of Midsomer Murders, screenplay by Anthony Horowitz).
    I do not know how faithful the TV episode is to the book, but it does not seem to have been softened for mainstream viewing. Hence though it is a very good mystery, some of the themes (including two acts of deviant sex) may be offensive to some viewers. Certainly not a cosy !


  8. John says:

    Brilliant book! Minette Walters would build on what Graham did in these books. I’m always recommending …BADGER’S DRIFT for people who think that everything’s already been done in a mystery novel. I was stunned by the ending. The TV adaptation telegraphs too much. The book is much better in preserving the shock ending. But I guess for those who know their John Ford plays very well the finale may be less startling.


  9. tracybham says:

    Great review, Rich. This is one book in the series I am not going to reread anytime soon, because I know how it ended. I did reread books 2 and 3 in the series in 2014 and found them even better than I remembered. I love the TV series (the ones with John Nettles), but at least in the episodes of the later seasons which are not based on books, the stories are not as edgy as the books. In the books, I do like the way that the author focuses on and develops the secondary characters, as you noted.


  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    I did not notice any “telegraphing” in the TV episode.The ending is shocking here also.


  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    Coming to think of it, it is really unbelievable that they would take the risk of doing it in the middle of a public wood !


  12. I love this series and my copies, dog earned and often second hand, are all still on my shelves. We watch the TV series, too, and John Nettles as Barnaby is one of my husband’s faves~


  13. realthog says:

    You inspired me to read the book myself, Rich. Here are my hasty Goodreads notes.

    Liked by 1 person

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