Classic literary detectives are often dreadful know-it-alls. Hercule Poirot? Know-it-all. Sherlock Holmes? Definitely a know-it-all. It’s no surprise really, as their extreme levels of intelligence, which endow them with the required powers of observation to fulfil their roles, result in a propensity to be insufferable windbags. It’s hard to imagine sometimes how difficult it must be for their long-suffering assistants to put up with them. Ian Sansom has channelled this very problem in his novel The Norfolk Mystery, as Stephen Sefton, traumatised and shaken from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, struggles to cope with the eccentricities of his new employer, Professor Swanton Morley.
It’s a great setup, the premise being that Sefton accompanies Morley on his travels as he embarks on an ambitious project to write a county-by-county history of late-30’s England. As it happens, they only get as far as Blakeney in Norfolk before a death under murky circumstances stops them in their tracks. Unlike the aforementioned greats, Morley isn’t really a detective, but when forced to stay put instead of carrying on his trip he turns his considerable intellect towards the case at hand. Cue an interesting journey round Blakeney as the increasingly put-upon Sefton tries to follow Morley’s erratic processes, both internal and external.
Beautifully written and speedily paced, this is light and easy reading that will appeal to fans of the great mystery writers and cosy crime alike. It’s nicely plotted, with an interesting setting and well-realised characters not only in the leads but also the supporting cast. Where it’s let down however is, ironically, in its accuracy and attention to detail regarding Morley himself. Ferociously intelligent and utterly uncaring of other people’s opinions, he’s written specifically to be the ultimate know-it-all, an overflowing font of useful yet seemingly unnecessary information without any filters or social awareness. The problem is that he’s simply too accurate, too often becoming infuriatingly verbose not only for poor Sefton but also for the poor reader. Obscure historical references are flung out with abandon, and unintelligible Latin references spewed endlessly. The novelty soon wears off, any attempt at deciphering by the reader soon abandoned in favour of just moving on and keeping the pages turning. It’s a real shame, as it just takes the shine off an otherwise enjoyable and entertaining read.
Overall then, an engaging story full of great characters, and the start of a promising series, just slightly hampered by a touch too much realism with Morley. Move past the baffling pomposity however, and focus on a well-plotted mystery that’s an otherwise endearing homage to the classic era of detective stories.