The voice of doom

Some years ago I reviewed some short stories allegedly by M.E. Pargeter, actually by my author friend, Adrian Wright. Adrian had more recently sent me some further stories in the Boy Detectives series, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and now a complete set has been published as The Voice of Doom, which contains 7 stories including the original two - A problem at St. Mildred's (which I think may have been slightly revised) and The embers of truth.

Much to my delight, and complete surprise, Adrian dedicated the volume to me. This was an absolute delight, as though I have been honoured to have a non-fiction book dedicated to me before, my love throughout my life has been fiction, so it was a rare joy to have a work of fiction dedicated to me. So, you'll excuse me if I'm slightly biased, but....

I loved reading these stories in their earlier draft, and indeed there are a couple of stories in the current collection that I would be reading for the first time. I was looking forward to reading them again, but did wonder if they would be as good as I remembered. The tales of the Boy Detectives were unabashedly light-hearted, great fun, and a real tonic. Would I enjoy them as much the second time around? Or would they perhaps seem superficial?

Sometimes it's funny re-reading especially as it turns out (never having had this experience before) you're re-reading them surrounded by other stories, that perhaps were in a different order before, or just didn't exist previously. The book is structured really well so the reader moves effortlessly from the light frothy comedy of A problem at St. Mildred's (think Happiest Days of Your Life crossed with Bulldog Drummond) to comical literary conundrums such as the delightful Embers of Truth and The Bensonian Differentiator, to the poignant tale Best Boys which looks at the downside of film stardom.

Best Boys and The Pearl of Thalia (which I suspect owes a plot twist to one of my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers' novels) were two firm favourites with me, with Best Boys proving to be unexpectedly moving.

Throughout the anthology it's clear who are Adrian's literary inspirations. The foreword sets the scene with a fascinating snapshot of Anthony C. Wilson, the creator of Norman and Henry Bones, who were the boy detectives of the BBC's Children's Hour. Adrian's Francis and Gordon Jones are inheritors of the Bones boys' detective genes. There are affectionate nods to Sayers, E.F. Benson (though not altogether a positive one for Mr. Benson) and Conan Doyle. For any lover of literature the stories are a delight.

The final story owes a lot to Adrian's background as a biographer, which is how I met him in the first place, when he was working on the biography of a composer, whose archive I was looking after. As well as writing the biography of the composer, William Alwyn, Adrian also wrote an acclaimed biography of the novelist, L.P. Hartley. And the last story uses narrative elements from L.P. Hartley with odd details from the lives of other biographical subjects all transposed into an atmospheric tale of deception, ambition and rat poison. A classic example of a writer taking elements of the truth and spinning them into something completely unique and different.

The change in the character of the tales worked well too with the stories becoming more serious and grown up as the Boy Detectives themselves developed. I didn't perhaps laugh out loud quite as often as I did the first time round, though there were still many moments when I did guffaw; but I actually think I enjoyed the stories more. I loved the comedy moments set against the deeper elements, I loved the atmosphere of 1950's England - lashings of ginger beer, sunny days, and a post-war optimism, I loved Francis with his aspirations to be Sherlock Holmes, and his Watson - Gordon, who I suspect was actually the brighter boy, Mrs. Jones - corsetiere extraordinaire, and naughty vicar and sometime spy, Reverend Challis, with his liking for shows a la Windmill Theatre.

Second time round I wasn't disappointed at all. These are gloriously sunny tales. And, as is often the case with comic writing, the serious moments grab the reader all the more for the comedy that surrounds them. I loved these. Listen out for The Voice of Doom.


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