If there's one thing more difficult than writing a successful humorous crime novel, it's writing a successful series of humorous crime novels. Not too many people over the years have managed to achieve this. In Britain one thinks of Colin Watson, possibly George Bellairs, and more recently Simon Brett. Over the last decade, Len Tyler has joined the list (and, more than that, become a leading exponent of the form) with his series about the hapless crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his ravenous agent Elsie Thirkettle.
The latest entry in the series is The Maltese Herring, recently published by Allison & Busby. As you might guess from the title, Len has this time decided to doff his cap not to Agatha Christie but to Dashiell Hammett. Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and company give way here to an assortment of Oxford dons who descend on Sussex in a hunt for a fabled golden statue.
As with Hammett (and Chandler, who is referenced several times), the discursive plot isn't the thing; it's the characters and the set-piece scenes that we remember. There is, for instance, a splendid opening at an Oxford college dinner (I hadn't actually realised, or else I'd forgotten, that Ethelred is, like his creator, an Oxford man), swiftly followed by a very funny encounter between Elsie and a fellow train passenger. And there are some great lines, several of which draw, as usual with this author, on experience of the crime writing life.
Thus we learn that Ethelred has recently joined the committee of the CWA (which Len himself chaired not long ago) and among the crime writing jokes and references there's mention of Ann Cleeves and a self-deprecating passage that alludes cleverly to one of Len Tyler's recent novels and captures his wry sense of humour perfectly:
"Well, that was a bit of an anticlimax. Not a Chandler or Christie plot, then. Who was good at anticlimax?
'L.C. Tyler,' I said to Ethelred, with a sudden flash of insight.
'Who?' he said.
'Don't worry, he's not that well known.'"
But of course he is well known, and deservedly so.
I would definitely add the names Edmund Crispin and Craig Rice as successful writers of humorous mystery series.
The chapter with Elsie on the train is without question the funniest thing that I read last year. And the rest of the book is great too, obviously...
Sadly, I have to say that I've found the two "Herring" books that I've read so far lack that vital something which would lead me to try any more of them. At least Tyler has some self-knowledge, as "anti-climax" just sums up his work as far as I'm concerned.
Christian, I've read much more Crispin than Rice, but I do agree.
Thanks, Puzzle Doctor
Well, Jonathan, it's true of humorous crime fiction even more than most types of fiction that one's response to it is bound to be very subjective. I guess that's one of the reasons why publishers tend to be wary of them.
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