Existential angst in a post-Wodehousian Age: The Herring-Seller's Apprentice
Ethelred, protagonist of L.C. Tyler's novel, is a mystery writer, several of whose discarded chapters Tyler interpolates in the final quarter or so of The Herring-Seller's Apprentice.
One of the chapters mocks the brooding nouveau roman of Alain Robbe‐Grillet and his followers, with its intense meditation on random objects. Another pokes fun at the brooding Italian fictional detective, with the loyal assistant, who likes to drink during working hours. A third is a fantasy on P.G. Wodehouse, with that comic genius' characters appearing in the guise of police.
Ethelred's protagonist, Fairfax, is a detective nearing retirement age without the rank his abilities should have earned him. He is without a wife, and he drinks often, without tumbling over into alcoholism. Ethelred has even, for reasons he does not quite understand, given Fairfax an interest in Norman architecture – you know, the strong, solid kind that prevailed before the slender fripperies and gaudy light of Gothic. Others will be more familiar with the details than I, but that moves in Morse/Wexford/Peter Diamond territory, I'd say.
Given that Fairfax begins with a typical English detective from a certain age (say, about 1970 onward) and has him try on then discard a number of other fictional-detective disguises – and given that The Herring-Seller's Apprentice was Tyler's first novel – it's reasonable to guess that Tyler thought about his own direction as a crime writer (and perhaps about the state of British crime writing as well) and decided to have some fun and let his protagonist do the same. One might even say he was exorcising some fictional ghosts.
Oh, yes. This is a mystery story. I don't know if it quite meets all the requirements of a fair-play mystery, but it does have a surprise ending along with a summation that offers a reasonable explanation for red herrings and wrong guesses throughout the story. A reader looking to do so just might be able to figure out the mystery. I did not, and it would be fun to know how many readers did.
(My emphasis on a serious side of Tyler stems from my first meeting with him, at CrimeFest in Bristol. In response to a question about crime writers who inject humor at grim, violent moments, Tyler said he liked Alan Guthrie – unexpected for a self-described author of comic cozy mysteries.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2009