Friday 1 September 2023

Forgotten Book - Message from Sirius

Message from Sirius by Cecil Jenkins was the joint winner (with R.J. White's The Smartest Grave) of a competition organised by Collins Crime Club in 1961 for the best crime novel to be written by a university don. In fact, the original choice was the debut novel of Dominic Devine, only for it to turn out that, although Devine worked in a university, he wasn't a don and was thus ineligible. Ironically, he proceeded to enjoy a more significant crime writing career than either White or Jenkins. Indeed, Jenkins never published another detective novel.

The competition had three big name judges, although I suspect the hard work of sifting through the manuscript was handled within Collins. But the trio are all quoted on the back of the book and their praise is unstinting. So Agatha Christie: 'both exciting and original'. Cecil Day Lewis: 'A really intelligent and thrilling thriller.' And Julian Symons: 'A truly original crime novel.'

Wow! These are extremely impressive endorsements. And the paperback edition notes that the book has already been published 'in seven countries around the world'. So the question is - does the book live up to its advance billing? I'm afraid it's time for a spoiler alert. The answer, in my opinion, is a definite no.

It's certainly true that Jenkins was trying to do something ambitious here, and that's praiseworthy, but there's a definite whiff of the pretentious about his writing. A celebrity is murdered in public and the police receive a letter signed Sirius, claiming that the crime was committed for some kind of (pretty incoherent) moral purpose. The opening paragraph, complaining about the state of the world, could actually be written today ('In an age which should be one of great hope, civilisation on our planet is threatened with physical destruction and, if only for this reason, with moral collapse'). There's quite a lot of Cold War angst in the story, and that's one of the book's interesting features, but I'm afraid I struggled to work up much interest in what was going on or whodunit.   


Anonymous said...

How times change, Martin. Can't imagine anyone holding a crime writing competition for University "dons" now! Martyn

Martin Edwards said...

Very true - even though there are probably many more academics around now than there were then!