London. 1873. It would be another fourteen years before a gentleman calling himself a Consulting Detective would make his first appearance in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, but Matthew Grand and James Batchelor are just that – people consult them, and they try to detect things. That is pretty much where any resemblance to the residents of 221B Baker Street ends. Neither Grand nor Batchelor is nice but dim, nor is either given to bashing out a melancholy bit of Mendelssohn on a Stradivarius. Matthew Grand, though, has seen military service; rather than battling the followers of Sher Ali Khan in Afghanistan, he has had the chastening experience of fighting his fellow Americans during the War Between The States a decade earlier. While James Batchelor is an impecunious former member of The Fourth Estate, his colleague comes from wealthy New Hampshire stock.
The River Thames plays a central part in The Ring. Although Joseph Bazalgette’s efforts to clean it up with his sewerage works were almost complete, the river was still a bubbling and noxious body of dirty brown effluent, not helped by the frequent appearance of human bodies bobbing along on its tides. In this case, however, we must say that the bodies come in instalments, as someone has been chopping them to bits. PC Crossland makes the first grisly discovery:
“… he knew exactly what the white thing was. It was the left side of what had once been a human being, sliced neatly at the hip and below the breast. There was no arm. No head. No legs.”
Trow gives us a Gilbertian cast of comedy coppers, in this case the River Police, led by the elephantine Inspector Bliss. While Bliss and his minions are trying to put together a case – and also the various limbs and organs of an unfortunate woman – Grand and Batchelor are visited by Selwyn Byng, an unseemly and ramshackle character, who believes his wife has been abducted, and has the ransom note to prove it. Byng may look cartoonish, and lack moral fibre; “Where’s your stiff upper lip?” “Underneath this loose flabby chin!” (quoted with due reverence to Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams) but he has a bob or two, and so our detectives take on the search for the missing Emilia Byng.
It occurs to me that in dismissing any resemblance between H&W and G&B I am missing out one very important personage, and that is the housekeeper. The much revered Mrs Hudson is felt, rather than seen or heard, but Mrs Rackstraw is another matter entirely. The formidable woman dominates the apartment supposedly ruled over by the two young gentlemen:
“Mrs Rackstraw had been brought up in a God-fearing household and didn’t really hold with young gentlemen of their calibre not going to church. Had they been asked, both Grand and Batchelor would have preferred the constant nagging; her frozen silence and the way the boiled eggs bounced in their cups as she slammed them down on the table was infinitely worse.”
MJ Trow (right) has been entertaining us for over thirty years with such series at the Inspector Lestrade novels and the adventures of the semi-autobiographical school master detective Peter Maxwell. Long-time readers will know that jokes are never far away, even when the pages are littered with sudden death, violence and a profusion of body parts. Grand and Batchelor eventually solve the mystery of what happened to Emilia Byng, both helped and hindered by the ponderous ‘Daddy’ Bliss and a random lunatic, recently escaped from Broadmoor. Trow writes with panache and a love of language equalled by few other British writers. His grasp of history is unrivalled, but he wears his learning lightly. The Ring is a bona fide crime mystery, but the gags are what lifts the narrative from the ordinary to the sublime:
“They adjusted their chairs and faced the wall. Mr and Mrs Gladstone stared back at them from their sepia photographs, jaws of granite and eyes of steel. Since he was the famous politician and she was merely loaded and fond of ice-cold baths, he sat in the chair and she stood at his shoulder, restraining him, if the rumours were true, from hurtling out of Number Ten in search of fallen women.”
The Fully Booked review of The Island, the previous Grand and Batchelor mystery, is here. The Ring is published by Severn House, and will be out on 28th September.