The Killings at Badger’s Drift
First published in the UK 1987 by Century Hutchinson
This edition 1997, Headline
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
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 Draper: Perhaps 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.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.