My interest in John Bingham and his work has led me to cover quite a few of his books in this blog over the past year or so. I admire the originality of his approach to crime fiction, while his ironic storylines made him, along with Julian Symons, the most important successor to Francis Iles of his generation. It's no surprise to me that Iles the critic also admired Bingham. As novelists, they were both risk-takers. And as my regular readers will know, I do like a crime writer who is prepared to avoid formula and take a few risks. Nobody could sensibly accuse John Bingham of being formulaic. Although certain elements recur, each book he wrote strikes me as pleasingly different from its predecessor.
Taking risks doesn't, alas, necessarily pay off. Bingham could write in a very readable style, but his unorthodox plots often depend on coincidences outlandish even by the standards of our coincidence-rich genre. His literary style involves a good deal of authorial intervention: too much for my taste. And occasionally his attitudes strike me not merely as dated but also as a bit odd.
The Marriage Bureau Murders was published in 1977, when his crime writing career was more than a quarter of a century old. He should have been at his peak, but I'm afraid this is a novel of a writer whose powers are in serious decline. It's a pity, because there's a very dark and unusual idea (about a voyeur of murder) at the heart of the story which, although exceptionally tricky to handle, might drive a powerful work of crime fiction.
This book, however, is a misfire. Sidney Shaw sets up a "friendship bureau" as a means of getting his kicks, but what happens after he chances upon a sociopath who signs up with his bureau is so odd and unlikely that I found the whole bizarre business hopelessly unconvincing. Of course it's reasonable to ask readers of a crime novel to suspend their disbelief - I do so myself in books like Gallows Court, and so do many of my colleagues - but there must be a limit. There are plenty of stabs at black humour, and I suspect that Bingham was trying for the mood of Symons' first two "Man Who..." books, but although I'm a fan of black comedy, it doesn't really work here.
So I was disappointed with this novel, and can't recommend it. Even at the time of its appearance, the critics weren't impressed. Edmund Crispin, who liked Bingham and his work, described it as a "nadir", and I'm not surprised. Despite Bingham's past achievements, it sold few copies and I don't think it's ever been reprinted. Many of his books definitely deserve a second look. This one certainly has curiosity value, but not much else.