Saturday, January 29, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Herring Seller's Apprentice – L.C. Tyler

Surprise! Every now and then I like to remind myself I'm living in the 21st century. I'll be posting reviews of notable contemporary writers whose work is largely influenced by the guys and gals I love and whose books I think you ought to check out as well. Here's the first in a new category aptly called NEW STUFF.

I remember coming across in the Rue Morgue Press catalog this new series featuring a sardonic writer of mysteries, thrillers and romance novels. When I learned that the second book Ten Little Herrings earned an Edgar nomination I thought it was time to acquaint myself with Ethelred Tressider, the hack writer, and Elsie Thirkettle, his literary agent. So, of course I started with this one - the first book.

The book begins with a "Postscript" and ends with a section titled "In The Beginning."  I thought I was in for a 21st century spin on the old inverted detective novel so masterfully handled by R. Austin Freeman and made popular on TV in "Columbo".  But I was wrong.  There is a hint that the reader knows that Tressider is up to something other than just tracking down a murderer, but the book does indeed follow the format of a traditional whodunit.

After an opening chapter introducing the jaded Tressider and his brash, vulgar agent Elsie (whose outbursts seem forced and not too funny) the book settles in for an intriguing blend of whodunit and con game thriller.  Tressider's ex-wife Geraldine has apparently committed suicide.  The police find a rental car in her name parked near the shoreline, inside the car an oddly written suicide note signed "Cordially yours, G Tressider (Mrs.)," and some clothes set out on the beach.  When a strangled woman's body is found nearby and Tressider is asked to confirm its identity, he has a compulsion to discover what really happened.  The plot takes a very strange turn with the introduction of a serial killer targetting blond women and the discovery of a secret Swiss bank account in Geraldine's name.

Tressider likes to talk about the construction of his books, how he misleads readers and his mixed feelings about "red herrings" to which the title alludes.  He tells of how he built his first novel All on a Summer's Day out of a very simple premise - the misinterpretation of how a date was written - and how his hero Sergeant Fairfax in a single day solved a case ready to be filed as unsolved.  That any novel could hinge on something as seemingly insignificant as whether 6/7 means July 6 or June 7 seems to poke fun at the minutiae that tend to flood traditional whodunits.

I'm not really sure if Tyler has an affection for the crime novel or if, like Tressider, he is plain fed up with all genre fiction. Because of his unmarketable multisyllabic name, Tressider writes all his books under appropriate pseudonyms: Amanda Collins for romance, J.K. Elliott for historical novels, Peter Fielding for mysteries. But as he tells us of each one he systematically condemns each genre. He belittles the detective novel and its obsession with plot gimmickry. He calls romance novels phony, insults the audience that devours them, and mentions how much he loathes writing sex scenes. He chose the end of the 14th century as the topic for his historical novels because "[it] is a well established fact that nobody had sex between 1377 and 1399." An embittered writer? Yes. The voice of the author L.C. Tyler himself? Unclear. But to be sure there are valid points made in all the digs. There are also playful and knowledgeable allusions to authors and fictional characters from the Golden Age plus a few mentions of contemporary writers so Tyler definitely knows his stuff. But does he really love the genre? I began to wonder if it was all play or if there was an undercurrent of ridicule rippling through his ideas.

Whether or not Tyler thinks well of the detective novel is probably a moot point. It certainly doesn't detract from the book as a whole. It is soundly written, cleverly plotted and very funny (often coarsely so). If the reader catches on to Tressider's game early (as I did – at the exact moment the game occurs to him, in fact) this should not deter from finishing the book. There are several surprises in store. Not the least of which, as Tressider says to Elsie, is this:

"…I have to point out that here was your other mistake. You thought this was a detective story. In fact, it was love story all along."

L.C. Tyler's Mysteries (all dates are from the UK editions)
The Herring Seller's Apprentice (2007) - Edgar nomination as "Best Paperback Original"
Ten Little Herrings (2009) - Edgar nomination as "Best Paperback Original"
The Herring in the Library (2010)


  1. I suspect you'll also enjoy the second book in the series, "Ten Little Herrings." Think of it as Ethelred's revenge. I'm looking forward to reading the third book. I met Tyler briefly at last year's Malice Domestic conference, where he seemed to be enjoying himself. I think his tongue is planted rather firmly in his cheek, but I also think he enjoys the genre.

  2. I loved the first book. I had no idea that there were more. Having just tried to find the second one through the library catalog (they don't have it!), I've now suggested that they order it. I hope they do.

  3. Les & Bev -

    I am eager to read Ten Little Herrings. I already ran into a snag. Apparently Felony & Mayhem (Tyler's US publisher) do not list their books with a main distributor. I tried to order it from my favorite independent bookstore here in Chicago and they couldn't do it. I know that Barnes & Noble stores carry Felony & Mayhem books. I may just have to order it from there.

    The third book is only available from the UK for now. You can try (free shipping always!) if you can't wait for the US edition.

  4. Many thanks for the review of my book, which I appreciate. In exchange, here are answers to a couple of your questions.

    First Les is quite right – I do indeed have a great affection for the Golden Age. At the same time I have to recognise that there are certain Golden Age clichés - a tendency for example towards elaborate plots and motives – that provide scope for some gentle parody. Of course that does not mean that modern hard-boiled crime novels don't have their own clichés. And it definitely doesn't mean that I don't enjoy reading Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Crispin, Carr and the rest of the gang.

    As to whether I resemble Ethelred, certainly not. He's much taller than I am and I've never written romantic fiction.

    Oh, and The Herring Seller's Apprentice was also nominated for an Edgar last year (just thought I'd slip that one in sneakily).

    I’m hoping that Herring in the Library will be published in the US shortly. Herring on the Nile (Ethelred and Elsie #4) will be available in the UK in July this year.

    Finally, I’m really sorry some people seem to be having problems getting the books in the US. I don’t know which bookshops stock them, but, as John says, you can get both US & UK editions at The Book Depository & on Amazon. I’ll talk to my publisher and post again if there is anything to add.

    Best wishes and see you perhaps at Malice Domestic in April.

  5. Mr Tyler -

    I'm honored to have the author reply to my post. Hope you understand that I very much enjoyed the book even if this reveiw had an odd angle to it. I hadn't read much P.R. material about this book so I wasn't sure if it really was intended as an homage or a parody. Thanks for setting me straight.

    The well deserved Edgar nomination for your first book that I somehow missed has been added to the list at the end of my post.


  6. Been wondering about these two books.