While I was hesitant to pick up this novel – Truss is best known for her grammar book Eats, Shoots and Leaves – I was smitten by her introduction where she confessed her goal of becoming a member of the Detection Club. After reading that, I was all in, and the book took me the rest of the way on its own. This is the kind of funny, dry, intelligent humor the Brits do so well, and the set up is delicious.
The novel is set in Brighton in 1957, and makes frequent reference to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, a classic novel about gangs. Truss’s Brighton, while also beset by gangs, is a slightly less ominous place. The story opens as Inspector Steine is greeted by a new and enthusiastic recruit, Constable Twitten. Steine is pretty oblivious and only interested in resting on his past laurels – where two rival gangs took themselves out under his watch – he now insists, Stalin-like, that there is no more crime in Brighton.
Twitten and his faithful Sergeant Brunswick beg to disagree. Twitten, however, is so smart and so enthusiastic he tends to annoy, and he immediately annoys Steine by questioning him and telling him of his recent investigative breakthroughs. Brunswick, however, is somewhat hopeful with the arrival of a new, intelligent and capable colleague.
This book is a quick mover though, and Truss aims to give a more complete picture of Brighton. Part of the story also concerns a theater critic heading to Brighton to see the kind of virtuous working class themed play he actually despises. His review is already written; he just has to see the play to confirm his opinion. Unfortunately, he’s killed on opening night, which really lights a fire under the narrative.
The playwright is almost as offensive as the critic, and his girlfriend, Penny, who stars in the play, can be viewed as a prisoner of the more successful older man. Meanwhile there’s another spate of crimes going on – a swath being investigated by Twitten and Brunswick – where the Opinion Poll lady (Steine had merely thought how lovely it would be to have his opinion taken notice of) seems to turn up in houses that are robbed shortly after her visit, which includes questions about unlatched windows and rear entrances.
These plot threads all become intertwined – and Truss is so respectful of the genre she includes a scene at the end where all the suspects are called together in one place – but she’s also slyly tweaking a form she obviously loves. It’s the love and the humor that sold me on this novel, which could have been a twee take on gangs and Brighton characters with a capital “C”, but is instead a cleverly plotted story populated with extremely memorable characters. What a fresh start to what I hope will be a long lived series.