Sunday 27 August 2023

Colin Watson's Lonelyheart 4122

I have just finished Lonelyheart 4122,  my first Colin Watson mystery featuring Miss Teatime (written in 1967). Watson's "Flaxborough Chronicles" span the 70s. "Four of the books were adapted for television in 1977, and starred Anton Rodgers as Detective Inspector Purbright and Christopher Timothy as his Detective Sergeant, Sydney Love," says Wikipedia. (Brenda Bruce, pictured, played Miss Teatime.)

The premise is interesting. Miss Lucilla Teatime (an elegant lady in her 50s) finds that London is getting too hot for her, reasons unspecified. She picks on Flaxborough, a fictional town in Lincolnshire, as a sphere of operations, and books a room in the best hotel. Meanwhile, two local ladies have gone missing after joining an introduction agency.

As the detectives investigate the agency, Miss Teatime signs up. It is clear as soon as she meets the overpoweringly naval "Commander Jack Trelawney" that the impression of riches she gave the agency was the attraction. 

The writing is good, and at times even poetic. Watson keeps a sharp lookout for class markers. The detectives peer into the house abandoned by one of the missing women, and see:

A stair-post, shiny brown lino, an oak hall stand – all neat, clean and rather depressing... cold, bulgy leather suite... a kitchen, that looked designed for the preparation of tinned salmon sandwiches and bedtime Horlicks and nothing else.

Sargeant Love is hauled away from his high tea:

A feast of buttered haddock, wholemeal scones, tinned oranges, Carnation milk and Eccles cakes. 

At the dénouement, Miss T is ushered into this interior:

They entered a long, low-beamed room, thickly carpeted in blue, with yellow cushioned light wood furniture, an enormous television set and, in the three deep window recesses, earthenware bowls of cactus and succulents. The walls were of pale grey rough cast plaster. On that facing the windows hung a Gauguin reproduction.

The owners could afford to do up their thatched cottage, but chose a rather downmarket, Sunday Supplement style.

On the final page, the publishers explain:

It’s easy to guess why Colin Watson’s novels have been overlooked in recent decades – they’re 20th century police procedurals of a gentler pace than is fashionable today. It is just as easy to pinpoint now what makes them timeless. They are each and every one a genuine mystery; beautifully written; and full of wry, satirical but ultimately kind-hearted humour.

By "gentler pace" they mean "slower pace". But, as my examples show, this book at least is hardly "timeless". It is set firmly in a time and a place. Published in 1967, it must have been written in 1966, just before weekend hippies in headbands and Oxford Street beads invaded even backwaters like Flaxborough.

Lonelyheart 4122 is an enjoyable read, and we get Miss Teatime's joke very quickly: despite her respectable and attractive exterior, she is a hard-drinking, cheroot-smoking babe with a line in scatological humour. And it wears thin.

By "wry and satirical" the publishers probably mean "Watson takes the mickey out of the romantic platitudes peddled by matrimonial agencies" – this is one of the best bits. Plus, of course the digs at the tastes of the classes who are not quite quite. But the publishers don't want to put readers off, so they insist that the satire is "ultimately kind-hearted". It didn't come across that way to me. I was "ultimately" put off by the occasional repulsive details, and Miss T's unfunny references to bodily functions. Censorship was abolished in the UK in 1968, and there was a general feeling of "Whoopee! We can be rude now!" "Pee, po, belly, bum, drawers," as the Flanders and Swann song put it.

More on mysteries here, and links to the rest. 

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