Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Kentish Manor Murders – Julian Symons

Here’s a great example of not judging a book by its title. Turns out The Kentish Manor Murders (1988) is not at all a country house detective novel. It’s the title of a manuscript that is supposedly the work of Arthur Conan Doyle -- his last Sherlock Holmes novel, in fact, and written in the author's own hand. The manuscript has turned up in the hands of a private collector who is looking for authentication before offering the manuscript up for sale. Sheridan Haynes (who previously appeared in Symons’ novel A Three-Pipe Problem), renowned for his TV portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, is approached about helping to authenticate the manuscript. But complications ensue as Haynes makes his way to Copenhagen where he will be performing one of his famous readings from the Canon to The Silver Blazes, a Danish group of Holmes enthusiasts.

This has all the makings for an intriguing bibliomystery. But Symons adds a series of subplots early on in the book that unnecessarily complicate the story. We start in Castle Baskerville, the heavily secured isolated estate of millionaire eccentric, hypochrondiac, and celebrated Sherlockian Warren Waymark. He wants Haynes to perform one of his Conan Doyle reader's theater performance pieces for a private audience of one. Haynes is not up to the task as he is getting ready for his Copenhagen visit for a much larger audience in a real theater. Haynes is also immediately suspicious that Waymark might be an impostor. The millionaire is kept in a dimly lit room, he wears sunglasses indoors claiming to be sensitive to all light, and he speaks in a gravelly indistinct voice. His meeting with Waymark seems to be carefully orchestrated and Waymark does seem to know his Canon very well, but the interview feels completely wrong to Haynes.

We think Haynes is going to start checking into the possibility that Waymark was done away with and his invitation to the Castle is linked to the discovery of the manuscript. But no sooner are we invested in this plot hook thinking we are in the hands of a master concocting a devious Sherlockian pastiche, Symons pulls the rug out from under us and sends us in another direction -- literally and figuratively. Suddenly we are off to Denmark and then the Netherlands for a series of random incidents. Bombarded with plot twists and new characters that seem unrelated to the introductory story of Haynes and Waymark the reader is frustrated and confused and eager to return to the more interesting puzzles first presented at Castle Baskerville.

Like all thrillers of this era with an international flavor we also get subplots galore. And they of course include drug dealing, black market activities, and a variety of shifty underworld characters in a variety of seedy bars and nightclubs. There will be a signifying event (already hinted at in the very Edgar Wallace style “Prologue”) that ties the subplots to the main plot but these complications seemed burdensome and padded. Several extraneous incidents could have been dispensed with as they had nothing to do with the real story.

A superior distasteful tone pervades the book, too. Homophobic remarks, xenophobic comments bordering on bigotry, whiny intolerance for the “march of time” expressed in Haynes’ disdain for the proliferation of fast food restaurants and tourist traps that have ruined Amsterdam. I guess this passes for humor with some people. I found it snobbish and patronizing and not a little prejudicial. The book is set in 1988 and yet there is not one mention of the brown cafes where marijuana is legally sold but there is ample talk of sinister, underhanded drug dealing. For someone who is trying to paint a "seedy" portrait of Amsterdam I wonder why Symons skips over the Zeedijk and Warmoesstraat and all the sex trade those areas are known for. It didn’t ring true at all as 1980s Amsterdam.

Overall, this book has a schizoid identity: one third bibliomystery, one third international thriller, one third detective novel with a murder mystery crammed into the last 40 pages. It's not a bad book by any means, but for my tastes it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. The story becomes overcrowded with plot complexities that seemed arbitrary. I preferred the first book with Sheridan Haynes -- A Three-Pipe Problem (1975), more focused, livelier and wittier -- than this second jumbled affair.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space R2 - "Book with a place in the title"


  1. I remember liking THREE PIPE PROBLEM quite a bit and have been meaning to review it for ages so perhaps now I finally will (always glad to follow, meekly, in your footsteps John). This one sounds very problematic though and I suspect I would have the same issues with it that you do, though I suppose it's that usual problem of trying to discern the author's intention from distastefel elements - are they meant to be taken that way or is the author unable to see the wood for the trees? It all seems a bit weird given that Symons was nothing if not a liberal thinker - but of course Haynes is not ... Really interesting and a terrific review - I really do want to read more Symons as it has been ages and feel it is somehow my duty (he does get slagged off something rotten these days on the blogosphere but, it seems to me, never really for the right reasons, unlike you here)

    1. I know I should take the position that it is the *character* who is voicing all these objectionable statements, but it's hard not to ascribe the comments to the author himself when they pop up with such frequency. Maybe I was just in a crappy mood when I read this book. I wanted it to be a retro puzzle style detective novel and it turned into a globetrotting -- or rather Northern Europe trotting -- thriller with a lot of run-of-the-mill incidents.

      Also... Drug dealing villains so popular in late 70s and early 80s pop fiction bore the hell out of me these days. If I come across any mention of drug dealing in a book blurb I avoid the book altogether. No mention of it on the outside of the book so the inclusion of this thriller trope caught me off guard when it turned up in the story.

  2. John, I'm with you - 'If I come across any mention of drug dealing in a book blurb I avoid the book altogether.' Yup. Don't you hate it when you want a book to be one thing and it turns out to be another?

  3. I remember being very disappointed with this when I read it. Everything good about "A Three Pipe Problem" goes missing. I suspect that Symons started with something that would make sense for the character and then let the plot drift.

    Detective story writing seems to be one of those things which get harder as you get older. I always thought that was because even unrealistic puzzle stories need some idea of the society in which they're set, and when you get to the point where you just don't understand young people these days, it gets hard to write plausibly. But plotting is probably also something that comes easier to a young mind. I remember an obituary of Peter Dickinson mentioning that he concentrated on fantasy in his last years, because, he said, the "carpentry" (I think that was his expression) involved in writing a mystery had got too tiring.