Robin Williams, Paul Krassner, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, and many others have been credited with the saying, “If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there.” Fortunately for us, Peter Bartram can and was. His lifetime of working as a journalist has produced an alter ego, an enterprising young journalist called Colin Crampton who works for The Brighton Evening Chronicle. He has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, a pantomime landlady by the name of Mrs Gribble, a chain-smoking news editor called Frank Figgis, an amazing habit of getting involved in murder mysteries – and he drives an MGB.
In The Mother’s Day Mystery, Crampton discovers the body of a schoolboy who has evidently been knocked off his bike and fatally injured. What on earth was Spencer Hooke doing away from his dormitory in Steyning Grammar School at the dead of night, cycling along a lonely and windswept clifftop road? In pursuing this conundrum, Crampton whisks us into a world of stage vicars, seedy pub landlords, archetypal leather-elbowed schoolmasters and impecunious toffs. There are jokes a-plenty, and Bartram indulges himself – and those of us who are, similarly, in the autumn of our years – with many a knowing cultural reference that might puzzle younger readers. He takes us into a wonderful sweet shop, the kind which can nowadays only be found in museum recreations:
“I stepped into a small room with a wooden counter topped with a glass-fronted case. To the side of the case was a set of balance scales with its weight tokens. Behind the couter were shelves loaded with jars of sweets. There were chocolate drops and sherbert lemons and liquorice allsorts. There were humbugs and fruit gums. There was barley sugar which glowed yellow like it was radioactive.
The air was loaded with a sickly scent like it had been sprinkled with sugar dust. If you breathed in deeply, you felt you were dancing.”
There is an unashamed sense of the risqué seaside postcard about much of the humour:
‘She was pouring coffee into a mug.
I ambled over and said, “Mine’s white but strong.”
Susan said: “So I’d heard. But how about your coffee, honeybunch?”
She guffawed at her joke and made her chins wobble.’
The wisecracks are not all end-of-the-pier stuff, however. When Crampton meets the owner of the gorgeous sweet shop, he is almost Chandleresque:
“She had a figure that would get Brigitte Bardot demanding a recount …. little laugh lines crinkled around her mouth as her full lips parted in the kind of welcome smile I felt I could pay into the bank.”
Anyone who is a student of English humour will soon see that Bartram is part of a long and distinguished tradition of comic writers who find meat and drink in the absurdities of English life and social structures. In the world of crime fiction, however, comedy does not always sit well with murder and bloodshed. The great and sadly under-appreciated Colin Watson did the job beautifully in his Flaxborough novels, while modern writers such as MJ Trow and Christopher Fowler perform the balancing act with similar verve. I am happy to put Peter Bartram (right) up there on the podium with those past and present masters. Incidentally, and quite appropriately for a Sussex man, Bartram knows and loves his Kipling, and manages to quote the great man on a number of occasions
Such is the joyful nature of the writing that the plot is almost irrelevant, but Bartram remembers that Crampton has a murder to solve, and he gives us the classic Golden Age denouement scene in the library. Except it’s not in the library, but in the village church, under the shocked gaze of the pompous Rev. Purslowe. Before the riddle of Spencer Hooke’s death is solved (with an “I’m Spartacus” moment) we get the best joke in the book.
“Georgina had caused a stir when she’d walked into the church. She was wearing a low-cut blouse and a mini-skirt which ended a couple of inches below the Book of Revelations.”
The Mother’s Day Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is out now. Watch the Fully Booked Twitter feed for a chance to win this novel.
Follow the links to check out other features and novels by Peter Bartram.
Peter Bartram also has an excellent website where you can Meet The Characters