Tuesday, March 31, 2015

IN BRIEF: Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958) is the first of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough comic crime novels and sets the tone for all that followed in the series. It may not be the most successful of his books but I wager it was pretty daring for its time. Watson shakes up the cozy English village by populating his town with an assortment of venal businessmen, randy husbands, duplicitous housewives and bemused policemen. Sex and greed serve as the primary motivators in a mixture of scandalous criminal activity, base revenge, all oddly livened with Watson's usual absurd antics.

While the denizens of Flaxborough are trying to make sense of the outrageous death of the editor of the town’s newspaper who is found electrocuted at the foot of a power pylon Inspector Purbright is confronted with some incongruous evidence. Why would Mr. Gwill make a impulsive midnight climb up the pylon with slippers on his feet? What of that odd daffodil shaped burn embedded in Gwill’s right palm? Nothing on the pylon comes anywhere close to looking like a flower. And then there are the marshmallows found in Gwill’s pocket and in his stomach. That’s some kind of strange last meal for anyone. To Purbright and Sgt. Sid Love it looks like a murder cover-up. They need to find out where Gwill was really killed and why he was moved and why someone would think anyone be fooled by the implication that he fell from a power pylon.

Investigation of Gwill’s death leads Purbright to the newspaper offices of the Flaxborough Citizen and some strange personal ads setup by Gwill himself. They all seem to indicate an unusual interest in buying and selling curios and antiques and the numerous replies, all sent to Gwill’s personal box, all too coincidentally make mention of evening appointments and all include deposits of eight pounds. Purbright begins to imagine that some kind of underground conspiracy is at work. He is sure the ads have nothing to do with buying old furniture. Eventually he uncovers a surreal secret code that seems modeled on bad spy novels and an eye opening surprise in the examination rooms at a physician’s offices.

The sexual content in Coffin, Scarcely Used may have prevented it from being published in the US until ten years after its original appearance in England. Watson seemed decades ahead of his fellow crime writers (at least those who confined their plots to charming British villages) in terms of dealing with sex in the crime novel and doing so it such a bawdy and preposterous way.

* * *

Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space E1 - "Book with a detective team"

1 comment:

  1. Just got my copy of the second of the Flaxborough novels, BUMP IN THE NIGHT, and can't wait to get started - as always, in your debt chum.

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.