A Shot in the Dark: Bumbling policemen

If you’re looking for a slow-paced Agatha Christie genre of mystery thriller in A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss (the famed author of the groundbreaking Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation), you’re close. But add a dollop of Keystone Cops and there you have it!

We have bumbling delusional policemen, corpses, shootouts...basically, all the ingredients to hold the reader’s interest in this whodunit set in Brighton made famous by Graham Greene in Brighton Rock. Greene’s novel was made into a film twice, thus making Brighton carve a place in the annals of popular history as the place for crime, gangs, shootouts, and bloody torsos. That is, till our Inspector Steine (pronounced Steen) comes along. The tall, slender, dignified blue-eyed (literally, not metaphorically) policeman with a thoughtful faraway look wants to clean up the town of its dubious reputation. A start is made when the penny arcades on the beach are cleared of the plastic ‘laughing policeman’ marionettes that made a laughing stock of the police force in general. But then came the corpse of Frankie G, a young gangster with a bright future in gangdom given that he is a scion of one of the renowned gangs of Brighton.

Frankie was shot twice from behind. This changed the air in the town and led to a gang war in Middle Street, when both gangs operating in Brighton decimated each other with help from the police. While the gang-war was underway, the good inspector Steine was buying his men ice cream at Luigi’s on the waterfront, much to the chagrin of his assistant Sergeant Brunswick. This brilliant tactical move whereby the gangs killed each other while the cops were eating ice cream was seen as a masterstroke by the inspector (who apparently is not as clever as he thinks himself to be) and brought him much fame. So much so that even a film was made on the famous massacre and made him a famous personality of sorts.

Six years later, Steine is still basking in glory and living in delusional celebrityhood when a spate of burglaries hits his town. And at such a moment enters Constable Twitten who has been posted to Brighton after being thrown out of his earlier postings for being too clever. All of 22 years of age, he is bushy-tailed and eager-eyed to get going and solve the burglaries. On the same day, the famed ill-tempered theatre critic A S Crystal is visiting Brighton to review a play by avant-garde director Jack Braithwaite. A meeting with Steine is also on his agenda in connection with the old Aldersgate bank stick-up case where he was a witness, and Steine the investigating officer. Crystal is peeved that the case has not been solved still, thus causing him major trauma.

The task of meeting the smelly odious Crystal while watching the play by Braithwaite is delegated by Steine to young Twitten. During the play, just as Crystal is about to pass on some relevant information about the bank stick-up case to Twitten, he is shot dead. Suspicion falls on many characters including Braithwaite but, one by one, we have blown-off heads and sheared off necks and gore. So much for Steine’s Illusion of a crime-free Brighton.

What follows is a wry and droll farcical thriller that may not have the reader rolling down the aisles with laughter but the wit will definitely bring smiles to their faces at every other sentence. Truss has created a mystery that is a welcome change in these days of fast-paced made-for-television books; it has the beauty of the leisurely pace of books written a few decades ago. A tawdry Brighton inhabited by purveyors of pseudoscience (“come and have your bumps felt by the Great Professor Mesmer”, the phrenologist), Punch and Judy shows on the waterfront, policemen full of self-importance and living a fantasy of their own, shrieking holidaymakers, and maternal char ladies comes to life under the skilful pen of Lynne Truss.

Plenty of topical references (the movies The Blue Lamp, The Long Arm, radio broadcaster Edgar Lustgarten et al.) establish the time frame of the novel in the 50s and the language and style adopted accentuate the feel of those times. There is no James Bond-ish drama with fast cars and high excitement; instead, we have civilised genteel conversations even between the lawmakers and law-breakers: very British tea-and-biscuits kind of exchanges, if you will. That’s not to say that there is no fear lurking or adrenaline rush. There is, but in a calm easy manner, and takes the reader by surprise.

Combine the gentility with almost slapstick goings-on and you have a book that you will not regret reading, one that will take you back to the other era of refined writing.

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A Shot in the Dark: Bumbling policemen

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