Some historical crime fiction takes us back to times way, way before our own memories could have any validity. Then there are stories set in periods that many of us could reasonably have experienced at first hand. With the former, it is simply the author’s research versus the depth – or lack of – our own historical knowledge. The latter is a much more tricky enterprise, as someone who sets their book in the 1960s, for example, can be exposed to a more searching light – that of readers who actually lived through the years in question.
Peter Bartram’s mileu of choice is the early 1960s. We are in Brighton, the celebrated seaside town on England’s south coast. Its days of fame as the Gay capital of Western Europe, and infamy as the first large local authority to be mismanaged by the Green Party were yet to come, but the seeds of eccentricity have already been sown. Our guide through the Sussex town is Colin Crampton, the scoop-hungry reporter for The Evening Chronicle – a Brighton newspaper. He is a thoroughly engaging character with a quick wit, and it isn’t too fanciful to imagine that he might resemble the author in his younger days. If you read Bartram’s biography, you will be forgiven for thinking that if Crampton is not Bartram, then he is someone who the author knew very well in his early days as a journalist.
The basic plot is that we have a long-retired star of What The Butler Saw machines – Marie Richmond – who dies in a mysterious road accident. Then, a machine featuring her in her prime is broken into, and the revealing footage is stolen. The man who should have been guarding the pier is found bludgeoned to death – with a coconut. Crampton/Bartram introduces us to some memorable characters, including a camp, overdressed theatre critic and a toupéed old thespian, both of whom are crying out for the much-missed talents of John Inman and Charles Hawtry to bring them to life.
As Crampton attempts to unravel the mystery of why the ample charms of a silent movie star should have given someone cause for murder, there are some delightful period references and jokes which made me laugh out loud, although younger readers might not get the gags unless they are students of British popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.
There may well be readers who, by this point, have been receiving ‘cosy’ messages on their genre radar. All well and good, as there are elements of cosy crime here. We have an unambiguously likeable central character, a familiar and lovingly-painted background, and a cast which includes several amiably odd characters. We reviewers love our genres, and some readers may even share this obsession, so I’ll pop Stop Press Murder into the Cosy pigeonhole, with one or two caveats. Although the tone is generally as gentle and as light as a Brighton breeze, Bartram finds enough dark corners in the seaside town to keep the interest of those who like their crime fiction with a harder edge. The style of the book reminds me very much of the sharply humorous writing of Colin Watson and his Flaxborough novels, which also delight in the dafter aspects of English life, as well as boasting a collection of folk with similarly improbable surnames
Crampton is convinced that there is a link between the odd events on the pier, and discovers that Richmond – or to use her real name, Sybil Clackett – has a twin sister who is no lesser personage than the Dowager Marchioness of Piddinghoe. The local police and the Chronicle’s rival newspapers are seeing the case differently, however, and Mr Figgis, Crampton’s boss, is becoming increasingly twitchy as he fears for his sales figures.
Peter Bartram explores all possibilities inherent in the twin sisters storyline, and delivers an excellent novel, full of twists and turns, plenty of action scenes, crackling dialogue – and a great sense of fun. I’m looking forward to yet more encounters with the Evening Chronicle’s star turn. You can find a copy of Stop Press Murder by following the link.