Harriet Waugh

Seven of the best

Text settings

Call the Dying

Andrew Taylor

Hodder, pp. 436, £

Call the Dying is the seventh novel in Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth series. He started it in 1994 and by setting it in the 1950s he recreates the English detective novel in what is perhaps its heyday but with subtle additions. In the first couple of novels the reader is aware of 1950s dress, behaviour and drab, postwar atmosphere far more than in contemporary novels of that time. There is the added realism of frustrated lives and hidden sexuality played out against the background of the moral mores of the era. Now, though, some of the picturesque aspects of the novels have diminished.

In Taylor’s last and best Lydmouth novel, Death’s Own Door, the love affair between Detective Chief Inspector Richard Thornhill and the journalist Jill Francis came to an end with Jill returning to London. Call the Dying starts a few years later with the return of Jill to Lydmouth as temporary editor of the Gazette to help out when her friend and ex-employer has a heart attack. She has hardly settled into her chill, bleak modern flat before discovering the body of Dr Bayswater, the retired local doctor, murdered in his sitting-room. The most obvious suspect is Jill’s neighbour, good-looking Dr Leddon who has taken over the practice, but other odd things are happening around the town. A commercial traveller goes missing and one of his gloves is found under Dr Bayswater, somebody is pissing through the letter- boxes of respectable citizens, and employees of the Gazette are being intimidated. Then there are the diary notes written by someone who is becoming more and more desperate, distrait and possibly dangerous. Altogether this is a nice mix.

Andrew Taylor is one of the most versatile of crime writers. In his first novel, Caroline Minuscule (1982), he introduced us to William Dougal, a clever, amoral history postgraduate student who fails to call the police when he stumbles on the garrotted body of his detested tutor. Soon he is up to his neck in corpses, and as novel succeeds novel some of them owe their condition to Dougal’s own hand. Dougal does, however, muddle his way through with an occasional twinge of conscience and, to his relief and our amusement, produces enlightenment and solutions along the way. The last William Dougal crime novel, Odd Man Out, appeared in 1993, by which time he had a small daughter and a career-minded, morally upright girlfriend called Celia. This does not stop him from semi-accidentally killing a man he suspects is Celia’s lover. Dougal is likeable; the minor weakness of the novels is that his sometime friend and employer Hanbury, a psychopath, is less grounded in reality and the resulting antics that he makes William engage in seem at times fantastical. The novels are full of black humour and I sorely miss them. The Lydmouth series does not, for me, quite fill the gap.

Also in 1993 Taylor produced what I think is his best novel to date, The Barred Window. It is a very black psychological thriller written with mordant wit. Thomas Penmarsh is a 48-year-old man who has never left home, still sleeps in the nursery with its barred window and has always relied heavily on his dubious cousin Esmond who came to live with them as a child after he was orphaned. Deaths seem to surround them, mostly taking place in the ‘Death Room’, which Thomas’s mother keeps sacred to the memory of Thomas’s unmissed father. The story, recounted by Thomas and triggered by the imminent arrival of his daughter Alice whom he has not seen since she was a baby, ranges forward and back in time. There is not an unnecessary scene in the book and it delivers a surprising punch at the end.

What finally put Andrew Taylor into orbit is the Roth trilogy, The Four Last Things, 1997, The Judgement of Strangers, 1998, and The Office of the Dead, 1999. The Four Last Things concerns the kidnapping of a little girl by Eddie Grace, a perverted man and a far more dangerous woman called Angel. Lucy, the child, is the daughter of a female clergyman and a police officer, Michael Appleyard. The atmosphere is gothic with claustrophobic religious overtones. Layers of guilt seeping from a tangled, ungraspable past are gradually exposed as a race ensues to find Lucy before she joins the fate of other children who have fallen into Angel’s hands. The second novel is set earlier, in 1970, in an outer suburb of London called Roth. Michael Appleyard is a boy of 11 and goes to stay with his godfather, David Byfield, who relates the tale. He is a clergyman recently married for the second time and has a pretty, 16-year-old daughter, Rosemary. The consequence of what happens there that summer holiday (a slaughtered cat, rape and murder) has a direct bearing on what happened in the first book. The third novel takes the action back another decade and is set in the cathedral town of Rosington in the Fens. It is recounted in the embittered voice of Wendy Appleyard, best friend of David Byfield’s first wife, Janet. On the break-up of her marriage Wendy goes to stay with them. Aware of her barren state, she covers over her resentment of the perfect marriage with the perfect little girl (five-year-old Rosie) with a good many gins and tonics. But it turns out that all is not well in the Byfields’ lives. Janet is at the end of her tether. She hates domestic life and her geriatric father is living with them, and then there are Rosie’s small-child steely demands. The novel culminates in murder and suicide. And that, you could say, is the beginning of the story. Each of the novels can be read individually but ideally they should be read as a backward odyssey into how a terrible outcome gradually emerges from the mire of very human behaviour.

Andrew Taylor is as prolific as any crime writer in the market but his is not a household name. This is probably due to the diversity of his writing. For instance, last year he wrote The American Boy. Set in 1819, it follows the fortunes of a school- master who becomes involved in the lives of his betters, lusting after two women, one of whom has a husband who is murdered. Money, corruption, and the powerlessness of women combine to make a Wilkie Collins-style story. Grafted not entirely easily into the mixture is Edgar Allan Poe as a schoolboy. Look for it in a bookshop and it drifts around, not quite a crime story, not quite historical fiction and not quite a straight literary novel. It would be a pity if because of this pleasing diversity Andrew Taylor remained known only to a minority of crime readers.