Friday 5 March 2021

Forgotten Book - A Man Without Friends

Miles Tripp (1923-2000) is an author who has interested me for a very long time. I met him once at a dinner, very briefly, but didn't have much of a conversation with him. I see him as a crime writer of considerable talent whose work displays genuine originality more often than that of most of his contemporaries. He was a solicitor by profession, and he had a very long career as a novelist - not far short of fifty years - and he achieved success, especially in the early years. But...well, you knew there was a but coming, didn't you?

The 'but' concerns his inconsistency and the tendency of some of his ideas to misfire. These are pardonable faults in a writer of ambition. For me, at least, an author who tried to do something different and doesn't always gets it right tends to be more appealing than a reliable purveyor of work written to a predictable pattern. But there are times when I do find Tripp rather frustrating. 

A Man Without Friends (1970) is one of his earlier novels of psychological suspense, and it's a very good illustration of both his strengths and his weaknesses. It seems to have enjoyed success, and apparently there was an Anglia TV production in 1972, with a good cast including Tom Bell, Peter Vaughan, Johnny Briggs, and Gabrielle Drake. Apparently a couple of his other books were televised in the early 70s. Yet the book faded from view quite rapidly and I've never seen any discussion of the story.

It's a story told in the first person by Marcus Wayne. Intriguingly, the rear jacket of my copy (the original hardback) includes 'Notes inserted at the request of Mr Marcus Wayne' which suggest that this is some kind of metafictional narrative. The significance of these notes only becomes clear right at the end of the story. Wayne is a wealthy man with a sideline in handwriting analysis. His problems begin when a client of his is murdered. The police suspect Wayne, which seems ridiculous, because he's told us that he never met the woman. But in fact she is his ex-wife, and she divorced him for cruelty.

Wayne is in some respects an unreliable narrator, so should we believe him when he insists to us that he did not kill his ex? The intensity of the police inspector's pursuit of him calls to mind the early books of John Bingham and Julian Symons, but eventually it becomes clear that Tripp is trying to do something rather more than merely emulate those fine writers. Justice is his theme. 

The idea behind this story is a very crafty and pleasing one. There are, however, two problems. First, Wayne is such an unlikeable character (as the title suggests) that one isn't really tempted to root for him. Second, I'm not convinced that the clever central idea is quite strong enough to sustain a full-length novel. This is a short book, but even so, it seems a bit protracted. On balance, I think this is a very good short story, expanded beyond its natural length. So am I glad I read it? Absolutely.


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