Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Penguin no. 1605: The Deadly Reaper
by Clark Smith

"I was standing in the outer room of Strype's office sharp at nine-fifteen the next morning. I had a packet of foolscap paper under my arm, and a row of nicely sharpened pencils in my pocket. I was clean, brisk and cheerful; and bound to impress."

I have to preface any comments I make here by first admitting that I loved reading this book. The whole idea was audacious; I marvelled that any writer of crime fiction would even attempt to tell such a story as this. And so this author held me spellbound on two fronts. I was interested in the story itself, and I was even more interested in analysing the technique with which he made such an unlikely idea plausible and entertaining.

The investigative accountant as amateur sleuth - that I can accept, just as I can accept and take to my heart English Professor Gervase Fen and little old lady Miss Marple. But the problem comes when the accountant is given the personality of someone very reminiscent of Philip Marlowe. Nicky Mahoun is a tough, wisecracking outsider, he puts people off by his brusque manner, he sees through everyone's front. He is morally upright, uninterested in money, motivated throughout by the desire to see right prevail. He is no idealist and he is thorough. He will use violence when necessary, even against women, and there is no criminal or tough man who can get the better of him in a fair fight. But he doesn't smoke, and prefers milk or tea to scotch. And when a crime needs to be solved he stands by with his foolscap paper and sharpened pencils and audits the accounts.

The whole book is reminiscent of  Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, except the private eye is cleanly excised out and replaced with the tough tea-drinking accountant. All the sentences are short, and there is an emphasis on describing the colours of things. And this descriptive technique is effective: I could easily visualise the things he described. But the location troubled me. The first reference to driving up to London came as a shock; I had never doubted that I was reading an American book. And so the references to moors and hedgerows simply seemed unreal.

"It was one of those evenings when the sun stays hot and golden, even when it's riding down the rooftops. There wasn't much traffic in the streets, but long, green, dusty coaches were coming into the town, full of men and women. They spilled on to the pavement with happy smiles at the sight of concrete after the boredom of the country. The warm sunshine lapped gently round them, heightening the glow on the skin of the young girls, and carving out the wrinkles on the old ones. The countrymen looked bronzed and hard, and wore thick clothes, despite the heat. The clerks and tourists had white faces, screwed up against the glare, and the air of men who badly need a drink."

I haven't spent enough time in England in summer to doubt the veracity of his description. But I've read enough books set there to know it isn't typically described that way.

I cannot wait to read another of these Nicky Mahoun books, but unfortunately this is the only one I own. But one of the nice things about a Penguin collection is that I inadvertently own a large number of vintage crime novels, all easily identifiable by their green spines, and there are probably others as surprisingly enjoyable as this one. And so I decided to sign up for the 2011 vintage mystery reading challenge hosted at  My Reader's Blog for the "Hot on the Trail" challenge level of 10-12 books, to see what I can discover.

3 comments:

  1. I've never even heard of this author let alone read anything by him. I love vintage crime so I shall definitely be on the look out. And I have spent enough time in England in summer to know that it is never like that. Had you not told me it was set in the UK I would have US immediately.

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  2. It's an interesting question as to why some books survive and some are forgotten. It seems there were 3 of these Nicky Mahoun books, all published a year apart during the 1950s. They must have been reasonably popular for two of them to be re-published by Penguin, and one was dramatised for TV. The only thing I could find out about the author was that he worked as a chartered accountant, so perhaps this was the only fiction he wrote.

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  3. I've just stumbled upon this blog - I do something similar with Virago Modern Classics, but there are only 555 of them at the moment! Good luck with your challenge.

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