Friday, 13 September 2013

Forgotten Book - The Body in the Beck

I decided to read today's Forgotten Book, The Body in the Beck, for two good reasons. First, the author, Joanna Cannan, was a good writer, as her excellent early novel No Walls of Jasper shows. Second, as the title of the book suggests, this is an early Lake District mystery story The book was first published in 1952, more than half a century before Hannah Scarlett was a gleam in my eye.

The story begins with a well-known Oxford don and mountaineer, Francis Worthington, discovering the eponymous corpse. However, he carries on fell-climbing, and only alerts the police when he returns from his ascent. This is rather typical of Francis, who is just surfacing from an unsatisfactory affair with a married woman. He really doesn't behave as well or as sensibly as he should do.

The body turns out to belong to a nasty piece of work called Hawkins, and Inspector Price from Scotland Yard is summoned to investigate. Price is a memorable character, verbose, puritanical and left-wing. It's plan that Cannan's sympathies were very different from his. Yet Francis really isn't much more likeable and it's small wonder that he becomes the wreteched Price's main suspect. This is rather tedious, since we know he is innocent.

I found Price entertaining and rather different. I also felt Cannan captured the Lakeland atmosphere well. But there is a snag. The detective puzzle itself is hopeless. There are no interesting suspects, the victim is a cipher, and the solution is unpleasant and unsatisfactory. I find it odd that a genuinely gifted writer should have produced a book that is quite so flawed. You guessed it - I was deeply disappointed. I remain an admirer of No Walls of Jasper and I don't rule out reading more of Cannan. But one good character and a great setting are not enough to make a good novel.

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