12 Mar 2015

England Expects by Sara Sheridan

England Expects by Sara Sheridan
England Expects Entertainment!
Having completed Sara Sheridan’s England Expects it suddenly feels like there may be romance in detective fiction once again.

Now that’s not romance after the lovey-dovey boy-meets-girl fashion much sought after by readers of the reclusive Betty Trask — but that’s romance as opposed to realism.   

Realism is very much the fashion in crime and detective fiction, with the current tendency being towards what they call ‘noir’ —  although what that descriptor ultimately points to is in fact merely either psychological or over-bloody, and is certainly never realistic. 

Let us however not get into the god-awful subject of tartan noir, and its many desperate advocates! Let's save that for another day, and in the meantime linger on England Expects, which is gentle, escapist and compelling despite its rather loose structure, and its sometimes tortoise-like progress.

You see, there is still a place for detective fiction that is romantic in that it seeks to remove you from reality rather than plunge you ferociously into its midst.  In this England Expects excels.  Sara Sheridan writes the sort of immersive fiction which may not bear deep scrutiny but which places the highest premium on reader satisfaction, offering mystery, escapism and a female character who can be admired.  Sara Sheridan's creation Mirabelle Bevan is demanding, inquisitive and is one of these sleuths who grabs a cold trail and always notices the one crucial fact that others have missed.

Detective fiction isn’t quite the same thing as crime fiction, which tends to feature a police investigation and these days usually lingers long on lurid detail.  Sara Sheridan’s detective fiction looks back further than the era which it portrays, perhaps to the times of Agatha Christie, which it partially resembles.   

Violence may be present but it is never described, and you get the feeling that lurid scenes and excess violence may be somewhat distasteful to the writer.  On top of that, the plot of England Expects unravels to reveal bad people at work, with little in the way of accident or mitigation affecting the outcome. In Agatha Christie, the real coup is that the reader is given the same clues as the detective and that doesn't quite happen here, and in fairness it is a most difficult stunt to pull.  Instead, England Expects like other Sara Sheridan novels more closely resembles a game of pass the parcel.  Now and then, the music stops and we all unwrap the denoument a little more, and the reader and the characters experience the reveal together.

In fact, Mirabelle Bevan really seems to ‘nosey’ her way to the solution of the mystery in England Expects, although in this case it appears that the police themselves may have been a little lax in their investigations.  Mirabelle is there to pick up the pieces, ask the annoying questions which others have overlooked, to stick her foot in the door and snoop around in the dark, puzzling over scraps of paper, and other curious clues.

The great detective books of the 1950s had already superseded these elements — I’m thinking of David Goodis' Down There (1956), Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) or the nihilistic Pick-Up (1955) by Charles Willeford.  These books had left the past behind and looked to a much more uncertain, violent and less clear future.  However there isn't anything post-modern about England Expects, as it doesn't pick up on the history of detective fiction, but merely adds its own voice, playing it safe rather than extending any boundaries.

Sara Sheridan’s England Expects is therefore offering something of a retro experience.  Time is taken looking into the more captivating post-war elements of the era, and in fact one of the most interesting characters is a spiv, who provides Mirabelle with a couple of clues, and at one stage, a firearm with which to protect herself.  As in the novels of John Buchan, the crimes investigated in England Expects lead to the revelation of a larger conspiracy, and a showdown with a criminal mastermind who has all but left social norms in the trash, in order to effect a reign of evil.

The detection is in itself quite evocative of a past era, and few people seem to write like this these days.  As a protagonist, Mirabelle Bevan doesn’t have a fatal flaw, and she never fully immerses herself into the criminal underworld, preferring to listen at the door or peek through the glass. There is no examination of motives, just a ripping yarn as the stakes raise, and the plot thickens.  There may be a tip of the hat to feminism in Mirabelle Bevan, as she is naturally superior to the men around her, but I wouldn’t press this, as Sara Sheridan doesn’t press it either.

You’re wise in detective fiction to look for clues in the names of the sleuth — in this case it is Mirabelle Bevan.  Mirabelle — suggestive of something pretty — maybe even hinting, for the intended readership, at a skiing holiday?  And Bevan, something evocative of the mid-century and of trust — certainly one of the big names of the 1950s.  I'd add to that that one of the baddies, a Scotsman, is called Laidlaw, which draws up an interesting comparison.   

England Expects does not dig deep — it is not that sort of novel.  Speaking of detetcive fiction, Laidlaw by William McIlvanney might be an example of writing which pains itself in offering descriptions of why people are driven to murder, what it feels like to carry out these acts, and which presents the psychologies of everyone it describes and the social effects of crime.  England Expects tends to linger on what women are wearing, whether they are pretty or not, how they fix their hair, and touches such as that. It is in fact a safe book on every count, and maybe that is a good thing.  Publishers and readers tend to like safety, which is a key attractor on the book stands in our airport departure lounges.

Everyone in England Expects seems indeed concerned with fashion.  Even the misogynist Cambridge don that Mirabelle Bevan quizzes at one point, confesses through brandy fumes and pipe smoke the most unlikely assertion that a certain green scarf does not suit his daughter — but of course this turns out to be a clue.

Sara Sheridan may be well researched, but the execution isn’t always exact, and even though England Expects and the other Mirabelle Bevan books are set in the 1950s, the feel should be for historical fiction and not contemporary.  Research is wasted however when vocabulary from other places and times creeps in — a fine example being the odd choice of the word ‘pussywhipped’ — frankly an insane inclusion which is not British, never genteel, and certainly not attested in English usage in 1953.  I have a feeling that readers these days expect too much in the way of accuracy, but the feeling of England Expects is almost contemporary, although it is very hard to put a finger on it. The contemporary feel however might come from a less than holistic approach to the language, which does not at the end of the day sound like that of the 1950s.

These are items of craft however, to be learned by an author, and usually asserted by an editor.  I don’t believe it’s fair to take a historically based novel and pick your way through it word by word, so long as the overall reading experience is as good as it is here.  I do however doubt one aspect of England Expects, which is that not only does Mirabelle move through English society with impunity, she does so often with a black companion.  Given that there were pubs even in the 1970s and 1980s which would not welcome women, it seems odd that Mirabelle can go to boxing matches and low bars with no comment whatsoever.  It seems even odder that her black companion Vera seems to draw very little attention, when even in the 1950s she would have stood out and drawn comment from the racism inherent in the British mindset.

But it is all by the by. 

The structure of the mystery doesn’t get in the way of the warm bath of prose. In fact there is one point after a dearth of clues when the reader is hiked up to speed and the plot is revealed by Mirabelle listening at a door to two consecutive conversations — it is little like how the Famous Five used to solve their mysteries. The finale is very exciting and the way the plot builds from one single murder into a far wider conspiracy is pretty well done.

England Expects is not a boring book, but nor it is a shining example of either genre or historic fiction. Its author is certainly adept at self-promotion (her website is titled 'bestselling Scottish writer' - ahem!) and that is something that publishers are indeed keen on. 

If there is to be any key criticism, it is that England Expects doesn't aim high enough.  Mirabelle Bevan and Sara Sheridan may never compete with any of the real bestselling crime writers out there, but England Expects is more than capable of satisfying Sara Sheridan's existing audience and may very well attract a few new readers to the fold.