First, announcements: I've got a new gig reviewing books for The Bookbag. Isn't that nice! My first review (if you know me at all, you should not be surprised that I chose this one out of many) is of The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper. Go, read!
And now for something completely the same: I read another crime novel. After really liking The Anatomy of Ghosts a few weeks ago I've been trying to have an Andrew Taylor binge. Sadly for me (I blame the government), my local library has exactly... one more novel by him. So it wasn't much of a binge. But at least I tried.
Call the Dying is (of course it would be) not even the first, but the seventh in a series Taylor has written about the fictional Anglo-Welsh town of Lydmouth. This means that by reading it I have probably spectacularly spoilt myself for all the plot twists in the previous six books.
Luckily, though, Taylor has done a fairly nifty job of making this book operate under its own logic. Call the Dying is quite obviously part of a series, but at the same time it stands alone. It's actually a pretty good lesson in how to reintroduce longstanding characters and situations in a way that clicks with repeat readers but makes sense to the random punter who's just wandered in off the (metaphorical) street. Call the Dying would quite obviously have meant more to me had I read the previous six Lydmouth novels, but at the same time I felt like I was allowed to get to know Lydmouth's inhabitants while being shown enough of their baggage to stop me spending the whole novel wondering Who are YOU? And who is HE? And what is SHE and WHERE ARE WE AND WHAT IS THIS OH MY GOD.
The Lydmouth novels are set in the 1950s, which inevitably makes reviewers (or at least the ones quoted on Call the Dying's cover) compare them to later Agatha Christie. Well, technically, yes, but this is a very different kind of thing. Christie never quite disengaged mentally from large houses in the 1930s, so her '50s' novels are really set in the 30s but with different hair. She also believed very firmly that anyone who was not a member of the professional or landed classes was fundamentally not worth bothering about. The lower classes are sometimes in evidence, but always as bit-parts, usually called Gladys and often with more than a hint of mental deficiency and/or adenoids. No matter what her apparent theme, there's always something a bit big about Agatha Christie novels. They aspire.
Call the Dying, on the other hand, is all about littleness. It depicts a mean and menial post-war world where everyone is tired and weak and struggling to get by. Fog, both metaphoric and actual, smothers the whole novel, enclosing Lydmouth in an atmosphere of claustrophobic small-time nastiness. Taylor is very good at creating emotion in his reader - to me, the whole book felt grey - but it doesn't give off that tiresome smugger-than-thou world-weariness of a P. D. James novel. Taylor's characters don't pretentiously bewail their fate, they just get on with living their lives in a vaguely dissatisfied way.
The plot is as follows: journalist Jill Francis returns to Lydmouth to help out a sick friend and re-encounters unhappily married DCI Richard Thornhill, with whom she obviously has a lot of hot illegal history. Then a TV salesman disappears and the local doctor is found dead, nibbled by rats, and - well, you know. They solve crime.
No, I wasn't kidding about the rats. Taylor's got a creatively nasty streak to his imagination. I noticed it in The Anatomy of Ghosts, but he really lets it out here. Apart from Doctor Bayswater, who likes to feed his garden rats bread and milk and watch them as they play, there's a mysterious man who keeps weeing in letterboxes at the dead of night and someone else who desecrates graves. It's all very nearly horror, creepy in a way that most murder mysteries aren't.
Actually, the murder part of it isn't Call the Dying's strongest point. I'm not sure the final reveal is particularly well-executed. So much attention is given to B-plots about the life of Lydmouth town that the central mystery doesn't have quite time to play out. I was confused rather than enlightened by most of the explanation, and there wasn't enough trailing of the solution for most readers to be able to follow along, let alone guess the twist. But, just like The Anatomy of Ghosts, I think Taylor's charm lies in his set-up rather than his plotting. In terms both of their humanity and their time period Lydmouth's inhabitants feel believable (if slightly distorted, like lifelike caricatures), and Lydmouth itself is eerily fascinating.
I'm coming to the conclusion that I really like Andrew Taylor's novels. They're not quite like any other crime I've read - or not quite like crime novels, full stop - but they're engrossing, weird and imaginative. When I read one, I want more, and that's surely a good sign. As of today, I am haunting my local second-hand bookshops on the look-out for my next fix.