Irritating Beyond Measure: Ian Sansom’s The Norfolk Mystery

English: All Saints, Swanton Morley, Norfolk

English: All Saints, Swanton Morley, Norfolk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What the Publisher Says About It:

Love Miss Marple? Adore Holmes and Watson? Professor Morley’s guide to Norfolk is a story of bygone England; quaint villages, eccentric locals – and murder! It is 1937 and disillusioned Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton is stony broke. So when he sees a mysterious advertisement for a job where ‘intelligence is essential’, he applies. Thus begins Sefton’s association with Professor Swanton Morley, an omnivorous intellect. Morley’s latest project is a history of traditional England, with a guide to every county. They start in Norfolk, but when the vicar of Blakeney is found hanging from his church’s bellrope, Morley and Sefton find themselves drawn into a rather more fiendish plot. Did the Reverend really take his own life, or was it – murder? Beginning a thrilling new detective series, ‘The Norfolk Mystery’ is the first of The County Guides. A must-read for fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, every county is a crime scene, and with 39 counties in store there’ll be plenty of murder, mystery and mayhem to confound and entertain you for years to come.

I thought this would be a little light relief with local interest after several holocaust-related books. The autodidact “People’s Professor” is named after the village of Swanton Morley and the book includes old photos of the area. Then there’s the 1930s setting and the harking back to the “golden age” of crime writing – a genre for which I’ve always had a soft spot. All of this sounded promising, and the opening chapter in which Sefton recounted his experiences in Spain was engaging, if much more scatological than anything by Agatha Christie…

The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate, 2013)

Fourth Estate, 2013

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. As a character, Morley is (apparently intentionally) highly irritating, as is his daughter. I haven’t the least idea what effect the author was trying to provoke, but it just made me want to reach into the book and give them a slap. Either that or to throw the thing across the room. Combine the infuriating characters with the fact that it referred to the clergyman who prompted the mystery by hanging himself with the bell rope as “the reverend” throughout and I actually couldn’t finish it, just skipping to the last chapter to find out what happened, and I’ve never done that with a mystery book before.

If there really are 39 more of these books in store, it’ll be quite an undertaking! I was certainly confounded but sadly un-entertained. It’ll take a good deal to persuade me even to contemplate bothering with any of the others. Sad, but there we are.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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