Liverpool, 1991. Lawyer Harry Devlin is surprised to come home one evening to find his long-estranged wife Liz on his sofa watching television – appropriately, Woody Allen’s Love and Death. She has fled the house she shares with local villain Mike Coghlan and is looking for a place to stay for a couple of days. But within twenty four hours, she is lying in an alley, stabbed to death. Harry is convinced that Coghlan is responsible and sets out to prove it. The only complications being, a) he cannot seem to find Coghlan and b) the police have another prime suspect – Harry himself.
I recently reviewed Harry Devlin’s latest case, Waterloo Sunset, due to the fact that I was going to a talk by Martin Edwards and Kate Ellis at Formby Books. You can read a write-up on that excellent event over on Martin’s blog. It was a wonderful evening, especially the talks given by the authors. So it is entirely possible that you may consider this review a little on the biased side – but it’s not. Despite my copy of the book being dedicated to Puzzle Doctor by Martin and the fact that he’s written nice things about my blog over on his site, this is an entirely unbiased review.
Do bear that in mind when I say that this is one of the best mystery novels that I’ve read in ages. That’s not bias, that’s a fact.
OK, to be fair, the last two books that I read were absolute duffers, but the primary thought that was going through my head was the disbelief that a book this well-constructed was Martin’s first book. At the talk, he spoke of a love of Agatha Christie from a young age and a desire to construct a novel that was a genuine mystery story, clues and everything. Well, this is exactly what he set out to write.
Plot-wise, it’s clever, throwing developments at you to ensure that you are looking the wrong way. While the central mystery is progressing, there are a multitude of red herrings to get past – some obvious and some not-so-obvious. I had one character tagged for the murderer from quite early on, and I’m fairly sure that the character was presented as a red herring for armchair sleuths, rather than a red herring for casual readers. Maybe I’m reading too much into that… maybe not, though. As the book reaches the denouement, I think the smart reader can probably spot the killer about a chapter ahead of Harry, which is the right sort of pace for me. Obviously I’d prefer for it to come completely out of the blue, but that’s a very hard trick to pull off convincingly.
As for the writing style, it sucks you in completely. In terms of plot, it may attempt to mirror Christie, with the clues and the red herrings, but in terms of the prose, this is miles ahead. Harry is a likeable protagonist and you feel his pain and frustration as he is determined to avenge his wife, despite the increasingly worrying things he finds out about her. But the title (taken as I’m sure you know from Eleanor Rigby) doesn’t just apply to him, but to a number of others in the story. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not a depressing book, far from it, but an air of loneliness hangs over it.
I’m not sure how much the book being set in Liverpool, the city that I’ve lived near for the past seven years helps to fan my affections for the book. Knowing of some of the places mentioned – although I’m not convinced there was lunchtime mud-wrestling available for bored city-types, even the 1990s – adds an extra resonance to the book for me that might conceivably be lacking for other readers.
This has just been reissued in the UK in the Arcturus Crime Classics range. Here’s hoping that it does well and we see more Harry Devlin being re-issued, either on paper or as an ebook. On the strength of this and Waterloo Sunset, I’ll be at the head of the queue. Very highly recommended.