Monday, May 28, 2007

Colin Watson

I normally don't keep track of naughty words in a novel, but it was hard to avoid doing so with Lonelyheart 4122, the fourth of Colin Watson's Flaxborough novels. Oh, the words are not all that naughty — arsehole, fornication, fetishists — and Watson uses them sparingly, but they were a surprise in a traditional English village mystery.

So was the novel's climax, in which Watson leads victims, police and perpetrators out of Flaxborough to a showdown in an isolated country house. If the occasional freedom with sexual and scatological language seems a product of the 1960s, the climax could well have happened in a hard-boiled American crime novel of the 1930s. That Watson makes this all work in a genial, well-constructed and at times very funny story published in 1967 is a source of wonder to this reader in 2007. There was plenty of life — and plenty of room for renewal — in a good, old mystery full of village eccentrics in Watson's day.

Flaxborough is an ideal setting for such a story, "a market town of some antiquity and a remarkable record of social and political intransigence ... the Vikings — welcomed as kindred spirits and encouraged to settle — had fathered a population whose sturdy bloody-mindedness had survived every attempt for eight centuries to subordinate and absorb it."

Two middle-aged women have gone missing, and the search for them leads police to an introduction, or dating, service. Flaxborough's police fear that a newcomer with a marvelous name, Lucilla Teatime, will become the third, and they place a shadow on her, several in fact. Miss Teatime eludes all with ease, leaving one stranded in the lingerie section of a department store:

He was soon looking so guilt-ridden that a supervisor went up to him and asked meaningfully if she could help him. Pook merely scowled at her.

As the supervisor passed closely by Miss Teatime, she raised her voice.

"They call them fetishists, you know," Miss Teatime said sweetly.

Could there be a better chronicle of the passing from an age when lingerie was unmentionable to one when it is unavoidable?

The novel is chock full of amused observations — "(Sgt.) Love departed after holding the door for the entry of a very plump woman in a short yellow coat and thinking that she looked like a pot of mustard."— about Flaxborovians and their ways. But not all is farce and delight. Sparing remarks about loneliness and about the changing face of once-prosperous streets indicate a gentle sympathy on Watson's part.

A big thanks to Michael Walters for suggesting Watson and to Karen Chisholm for raving about him. You should follow their suggestions and mine and read the Flaxborough novels, of which you will find a list here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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