Transatlantic detection

A scene from the Paul Temple TV series
Last weekend I was at a music festival in deepest Suffolk, and managed to commit that cardinal sin guaranteed to annoy any dedicated reader - I managed to leave the book I was currently immersed in at home. So there I was in Aldeburgh unable to lay my hands on The Gulag Archipelago - most annoying.

Luckily I had a substitute book with me, Francis Durbridge's novelette Paul Temple and the Kelby Affair, and the cottage where I was staying had a bookcase stuffed with popular reads, so having disposed of Paul Temple I was able to read Patricia Cornwell's At risk. Actually they were two good ones to compare and contrast. Both detectives, both light reads, both short, both written by enormously popular authors.

I sort of grew up with Paul Temple, a staple of British radio for years, by the time I was aware of him he had transferred to TV played by the incredibly suave Francis Matthews. The Paul Temple character is an early version of Jessica Fletcher, a fantastically successful crime novelist, who just happens to investigate crime in his spare time. The Kelby Affair was written in the early seventies, and it feels like it. Temple's wife, Steve, is glamorous, feisty (but not too much - you can't scare the male readership by having a truly independent woman), and not quite as bright as her husband - so keeping chaps scared of Womens' Lib happy, and enabling women to feel that their intellects are on the way up - thanks guys for the thumbs up. There's also a gangland crook who has the statutory heart of gold, a female floozie who gets what she deserves, and the real criminal of the piece, who's the unlikeliest suspect so of course you know he dunnit straight away.

And it's all unbelievably nice - murder is such fun. As a rather twee bit of teatime drama, I'm sure this worked well, and the mild sex scenes between husband and wife would have been quite shocking at the time, but now it just all feels so passe and dated.

And oddly in some ways the Patricia Cornwell novelette has some of the same problems. At risk isn't a Scarpetta, it introduces a new character, Win Garano, and when you discover that he's known to his friends as Geronimo, and that his Gran's into reading tarot cards and putting juju on people - you just know this isn't going to be a fab read. Garano is ordered to investigate an unsolved murder dating from 20 years before using cutting edge DNA techniques. He, however, thinks that there is something rather odd going on, not least because the investigation is well outside his jurisdiction. But when the only person who knows why he's been assigned to the case is raped and nearly murdered, it all gets a lot nastier.

There's a lot (and I mean a lot) of telling us how gorgeously handsome this detective is, and also how sexy his boss is - and it's all a bit redundant as this sexual undercurrent just simmers away doing absolutely nothing throughout the novel. Meanwhile a female detective elsewhere (who naturally is deeply in love with the hunk) does all the grunt work, only to be "rewarded" at the end by Garano allowing her to make the arrest.

There's a bit of police corruption thrown in for fun, and a lot of stereotypes. It's not even a particularly good detective story. All of which I suspect will make At risk as dated in 40 years time as Paul Temple and the Kelby Affair is now. Now back to the Gulag....


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