Colin Crampton and his beautiful – if rather vulgar – Australian girlfriend are eating out at a Brighton restaurant. Shirley likes her steak rare, and she subscribes to the old adage about cooking a huge slice of beef, “Knock its horns off, wipe its bum, and lead it quickly through a warm kitchen,” Unfortunately, the blood on her Porterhouse has an additional source – a growing stain in the ceiling above their table.
In this sanguinary manner we get straight into the action in Peter Bartram’s third tale of Colin Crampton, the intrepid 1960s reporter for the Evening Chronicle. Colin races upstairs to the flat above the restaurant and finds an extremely leaky corpse, later to be identified as the mortal remains of one Derek Clapham.
Colin’s day has already been bad enough. He has been summoned to the office of Frank Figgis, the News Editor, and given a daunting task. The newspaper’s Editor, Pope by name (dubbed “His Holiness”, naturally) has a brother called Gervaise. Gervaise is in trouble. He has been mixing with some rather unsavoury characters, namely the adherents of Sir Oscar Maundsley, the aristocratic former fascist leader. Interned by Churchill during the war, he now dreams of Making Britain Great Again.
Due to internal feuds among the fascist folk – which has also resulted in the stabbing of Derek Clapham, and the spoling of Shirley’s steak – Gervaise Pope has threatened to shoot Maundsley. Figgis has been told by His Holiness to find the errant brother and stop him from committing murder. One problem. Gervaise has disappeared and so, Figgis, with all his fabled capacity for delegation, has handed the task to Colin Crampton.
What follows is a fascinating and completely beguiling journey through a 1960s England that seems now, at least to those of us old enough to have been there, as far away and foreign as medieval Cambodia, including a visit to the bizarre school for dancing mentioned in the title. Maundsley is a thinly disguised …. ? Well, since neither Peter nor I can afford expensive libel lawyers, you must do your own homework. Along the way we are reminded that the Prime Minister of the day was the curiously archaic Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home (pronounced ‘Hume’), and Bartram also has great fun as he remembers – more or less with affection – the way we were and the things we ate and wore.
Peter Bartram doesn’t mind at all if this book is popped onto the ‘cosy’ shelf of your library, but he serves up just enough violence and and downright malice to blow away the gentle mists of human kindness which can soften the outlines of dark deeds. Like the old trick where you were persuaded to put your tongue on the terminals of a 9 volt battery – and then regretted it – the dialogue tingles and sparks. The gags, puns and one-liners come thick and fast, and – as befits the experienced newspaperman that he is – Bartram never wastes a word.
In terms of plot content, Bartram audaciously brings A Very Important Person into the narrative at the end of the book and, my goodness, how well it works. In the hands of a lesser writer, this episode could have fallen flat on its face, but such is Bartram’s skill, it works beautifully and with added poignancy, given what was to happen just a few months later.
I reached the final page with that mix of sadness and satisfaction which will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a good book. The Tango School Mystery is a delight from start to finish and, sentimental old sod that I am, I want to find a tree and carve ‘Colin 4 Shirley’ on it, inside a big heart. Yes, well spotted – amidst the murder, mayhem and subterfuge, there is an enchanting love story, too! The Tango School Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership.