Where else, Major, might one find a London bobby, a solicitor’s clerk, a baronet, an ex-Army chap, a greengrocer’s daughter and a – a bohemian eccentric, not to mention a chemistry student – all gathered in one room to discuss one subject?
An anxious wait this month for my Crimes of the Century book to arrive from America ended on Friday morning, when my copy of John Sladek’s Invisible Green got here just in time for me to read it before the end of April. I’d heard it was a good book – JJ from The Invisible Event recently called it ‘last possible hurrah for the classically-styled detective novel’ – so I was glad to tackle it.
And so I cheekily ignored recommendations to tackle Proust. Maybe next time.
The book opens in 1939 at a meeting of the Seven Unravellers, a mismatched bunch of crime fiction enthusiasts with little in common and actually little affection for each other. It’s clear that even without the impending war the group will not last long.
Fast forward thirty years and the club is long disbanded. The ‘ex-Army chap’ Major Stokes is living in grim poverty, living out his paranoid fantasies of Russian spies and secret messages hidden in the names of racehorses. But when the major is found dead, another club member Miss Pharaoh begins to wonder if his stories of persecution by the faceless Mr Green hid a grain of truth.
Miss Pharaoh calls in her friend Thackeray Phin, a real-life amateur sleuth, to investigate. And not a moment too soon, for it seems the other Unravellers may be on Green’s hit list.
Phin works in the true Golden Age spirit of friendly rivalry with Inspector Gaylord of the Yard, unlocking the locked room mystery of the Major’s death with some inspirational thinking.
As a book of 1979, this stands up very well. The motive is one which has hopefully been legislated out of existence. The fashions are described satirically but with some truth (Phin is an exaggerated dandy – his police colleague Inspector Gaylord describes him as being like the best man at a pimp’s wedding). And this paragraph, describing the end of a stake-out, is full of a world I just about remember.
Dawn was marked by a chorus of sparrows, the slow, whining of a milk float, and the first signs of life in the houses. The occupant of No. 44 had not yet come out for his milk when, from other houses, coughing factory workers emerged to drive of in their coughing cars. At eight o’ clock, the postman passed. By eight forty-five, women were beginning to wheel push-chairs and prams out off their narrow front doors, and off towards the shopping district.
Electric milk floats? Extinct. Morning postal deliveries? Gone. Push-chairs replaced by buggies. Coughing factory workers? Rapidly being vaped out of existence. Coughing cars? Rare. Shopping district buried under a Tesco. And so I begin to turn into John Betjeman…
Sladek wrote two novels starring dandy-detective Thackeray Phin (this is the second) and two short stories in amongst a long career as a science fiction writer. I’ve never read any of his sci-fi, but his Wikipedia entry summarises some fascinating titles.
Sladek outlines murders without means, motive or opportunity, and tackles his closed circle of suspects with verve. Enjoyable stuff.
I caught a flavour of Christopher Fowler’s books, as well as more Golden Age writers, so this may be one for fans of Bryant and May.
First published in the US by Walker Publishing Company Inc., 1979
This edition, Walker, 1983
Final destination: A keeper
The Invisible Event: This might even be the last possible hurrah for the classically-style detective novel, as we’re not too far from the rise of the police procedural and the advent of ‘serious’ crime writing (my basis for this being that there’s rarely if ever anything from as late as 1977 that I have any interest in reading). Sladek marries the two perspectives perfectly, however, though inevitably the detection fans amongst you will win out over those hoping for hard-bitten realism.
Tipping My Fedora: The explanations are both complex and ingenious without straining credulity too far – and most importantly thoroughly entertaining, the author’s delight in the genre never in a doubt for a second. I urge any fans of the Carr, Rawson, Queen, Hoch and the impossible crime genre in general to find and read Phin’s few cases for they are sure to treasure them when they do.