Saturday, 18 November 2017

Ask a Policeman - Book Review

I’ve been reading Ask a Policeman – which I thought I’d read before but am now convinced that I just thought I had. Possibly I conflated it with Six Against the Yard.

Either way, it’s a republished 1930s book by five or six members of the ‘Detection Club’, a crime writers club founded in the 30s and still going strong today (if anyone is curious about the club – which included A A Milne, Dorothy Sayers, Christie and Chesterton as well as a number of fascinating characters I’d never heard of – I can highly recommend The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards).

In Ask a Policemen, as with Scoop and The Floating Admiral - which I do remember reading and reviewing - each writer takes a chapter of a murder mystery. Unlike Admiral though, and just to make it harder, each one also takes on the portrayal of another author’s detective, and produces an alternative solution to the crime.   

Since the crime is the shooting of a newspaper magnate no-one, but no-one, is sorry to see dead - the kind whose papers print nothing but negativity and scandal and bile, whose attitude to women is morally dubious, and who bullies and throws tantrums at his staff – this is a purely intellectual puzzle, and in fact, a bit of a romp.

The story begins with letters, or supposed letters, between John Rhode and Milward Kennedy, deliberately breaking the fourth wall, there are footnotes purportedly by Peter Wimsey, and others by Sayers commenting on her fellow author Berkeley. Within the story itself a bishop, a cabinet minister and an assistant commissioner of police all just happen to visit the house on the morning in question without appointment, are admitted, and have motives. Then the Home Secretary orders the police not to investigate, and gives the amateurs 48 hours to solve the crime. 

It’s clearly meant to be a romp, a colossal in-joke deliberately written for the amusement of their known audience, sending each other up and flexing their literary muscles, deliberately breaking some of their own rules, and as that it works extremely well and was great fun.

I did wonder how well it would work as a straight crime novel for a non-aficionado though. I think, actually, it might be quite confusing and off-putting to have this ridiculous set-up, and a change of detective in each chapter, and every solution knocked down and superseded by the next.

On the whole then great fun if you're familiar with the genre, but not a good place to start.  

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