This is a welcome return for my favourite crime solving partnership in current fiction – 1960s Brighton reporter Colin Crampton and his delightful Australian girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith. Shirley discovers via an enigmatic letter – promising unidentified riches – that a long lost relative, Hobart Birtwhistle, has fetched up in the delightfully named Sussex village of Muddles Green, just a short spin away from Brighton in Colin’s rakish MGB. Unfortunately, when the couple arrive at half-uncle Hobart’s cottage, any avuncular reunion is prevented by the fact that the old chap is dead in his study chair, with a nasty head wound and throttle marks around his throat.
Colin and Shirley conduct their own investigation into Hobart’s murder and, as ever, it takes them far and wide, involving – amongst others – a tetchy history don with expertise in Australia’s gold rush, an eccentric Scottish lord and a team of women cricketers, not forgetting a most improbable but highly entertaining encounter with Ronnie Kray. Peter Bartram (perhaps an older real life version of Colin Crampton) never strays far away from the bedrock of these mysteries – the smoky offices and noisy print rooms of the Evening Chronicle. Crampton’s boss – the editor, Frank Figgis, perpetually wreathed in a haze of Woodbines smoke, also has a job for his chief crime reporter. Figgis, foe reasons of his own, has written a memoir, almost certainly full of dirty secrets featuring colleagues and bosses. But it has gone missing. Has the befuddled Figgis mislaid it, or has it been stolen? Figgis makes it clear that the recovery of the missing ‘blockbuster’ is to be Crampton’s chief focus.
Unfortunately, the killing of Hobart Birtwhistle is not the last in a fatal sequence that seems connected with the complex genealogy of Shirley’s obscure relatives – and a huge gold nugget discovered back in the day in Australia. Thanks to the research of the Scottish aristocrat (the real life Arthur ‘Boofy’ Gore), Shirley learns something that may well prove to be ‘to her advantage’, but may also put her name to the top of the killer’s list.
Former journalists do not always have the required skills to write good novels. Penning a 1000 word front page exclusive is not the same as writing a 300 page book. Novel readers need to be engaged long term – they don’t have the option of switching to the sports news on the back pages. Peter Bartram makes the transition with no apparent effort – he retains his journalist’s skill of boiling a narrative down to its essentials, while fleshing out the story with delightful characterisation and period detail.
Bartram’s genius lies partly in not taking himself too seriously as he tugs at our nostalgic heartstrings by recreating an impeccably convincing mid-1960s milieu, but – more potently – in having created two utterly adorable main characters who, if we couldn’t actually be them, we would at least love to have known them. At my age, current events beyond my control make me daily more choleric, and wishing for the days of common sense and decency, long since gone. But then I can retreat into a beautiful book like this, and be taken back to a kinder time, a time I understood and felt part of.
The Family Tree Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is available now. For more information on the Crampton of The Chronicle novels, click the image below.