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MJ Trow

THE RING . . . Between the covers

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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 RingThe 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.”

MJMJ 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.

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THE ISLAND . . . Between the covers

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5179+K0SrKLThe Island is the latest episode in the eventful partnership between two gentleman detectives in Victorian London. James Batchelor is a former journalist, a ‘gentleman’ in manners and intelligence, if not by upbringing, while his colleague Matthew Grand is an American former soldier, and scion of a very wealthy patrician New Hampshire family. We first met them in The Blue and the Grey (2014), when Grand – who has recently served with the victorious Army of The Potomac – comes to London in pursuit of one of those who conspired in the murder of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865.

It is now the spring of 1873, and Grand is treating his colleague to a holiday in American, in the shape of an invitation to his sister’s wedding. Poor Batchelor, however is, at best, an indifferent sea voyager but, after eleven emetic days on board the Frisia, the pair eventually arrive safely in New York, having left their London house in the somewhat clumsy hands of their housekeeper, Mrs Rackstraw, who is somewhat less discreet and high minded than another lady fulfilling a similar function to another pair of gentlemen a mile or so across town in the busy thoroughfare of Baker Street.

On their journey north to New Hampshire, Grand and Batchelor pick up Edward Latham, a New York Times hack, who has blagged a wedding invitation in order to track down a participant in the recent financial corruption scandal known as the Tammany Hall affair – and Grand’s Uncle Josiah, who is disturbingly rich, but often – and equally disturbingly – drunk. The wedding guests duly reach the settlement of Rye and the palatial house causes Batchelor to gasp in admiration, despite being assured by Grand that it is little more than a weekend retreat compared to their main establishment.

cruise culture 012A few words in praise of the author. Meiron Trow (right) is one of the most erudite and entertaining writers in the land. Over thirty years ago he began his tongue in cheek series rehabilitating the much-put-upon Inspector Lestrade, and I loved every word. I then became hooked on his Maxwell series, featuring a very astute crime-solving history teacher who, while eschewing most things modern, manages to be hugely respected by the sixth-formers (Year 12 and 13 students in new money) in his charge, while managing to terrify and alarm the younger ‘teaching professionals’ who run his school. I was well into the Maxwell series before I realised that MJ Trow and I had two things (at least) in common. Firstly, he went to the same school as I did, although I have to confess he was a couple of years ‘below’ me and would have been dismissed at the time as a pesky ‘newbug’. Secondly, and much more relevant to my love of his Maxwell books, I discovered that we were both senior teachers in state secondary schools, and shared a disgust and contempt for the tick-box mentality characterising the so-called ‘leadership’ of high schools.

Mark TwainI digress, so back to New Hampshire in the early spring of 1873. The guests begin to arrive, and the ‘downstairs’ staff under the stern eye of the enigmatic butler, Waldo Hart, are emulating the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Trow, at this point, gleefully takes the template of the traditional country house mystery, and has his evil way with it. Despite the title of the book, we are not quite in Soldier Island (And Then There Were None) territory, but Rye is far enough from Boston to make sure that when the first murder happens, the real policemen are too far away and too engrossed with their city crime to pay much attention, even when when of the possible suspects is a certain Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (left)

With Martha, Grand’s sister, well and truly hitched to a young man who may well be an utter bounder, and two hatchet-bludgeoned corpses lying in state in the stables, the Boston police eventually arrive in the shape of Chief Savage and Sergeant Roscoe. The amateurs and the professionals regard each other with ill-disguised suspicion, while Trow scatters a healthy basket of Rubrum Clupidae to keep us all guessing. Don’t be misled by Trow’s endless enthusiasm for verbal gags into thinking that this is a ‘cosy’ novel. Far from it. The finale is dark and bloody, and shadows real-life 1873 events on the remote and windswept Smuttynose Island. The Island is published by Severn House and is available now.

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