Amy Snowden married in her mid-forties to a much younger man who had been working in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw. Their marriage however turned out to be far from a happy one and a short time later she was found dead in her home with the gas valve opened. There is a general presumption that she has committed suicide but Sergeant Cluff believes it was murder.
As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction to the novel, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is not a mystery novel. Cluff almost instantly identifies the culprit, even if he is unable to prove their guilt. Nor is there much question about how or why Amy was killed so we can’t really call this an inverted story either (although several sections of it are told from the perspective of the chased person).
Instead the focus of the story is really more about the way a crime affects Cluff and causes him to undertake an obsessive cat and mouse chase across Yorkshire. PuzzleDoctor calls Cluff ‘Terminator-like’ which is a brilliant way to put it and sums up his approach pretty nicely (I wish I’d thought of describing it that way). He is essentially haunting the guilty party, refusing to allow them the comfort of thinking they are not suspected. It gets pretty dramatic too, reaching a high point with an act on page 74 that stands out as one of the most striking moments in the book.
Cluff is an intriguing character, a little reminiscent of more recent characters like Frost and Morse. He is an isolated figure, a lifelong bachelor and relic of an earlier age of policing who has failed to get promoted as you might expect but has some value because of his knowledge of the community. He would feature in eleven novels and a television series and I am at least interested to see how North developed the character in his later books.
The novel does present a strong sense of place, with the author effectively conveying something of the character and landscape of Yorkshire in this period. It is a work that speaks to some of the isolation and difficulties that arise in isolated, rural communities and reminded me of Bellairs’ work, albeit from a much bleaker perspective.
The obligatory comment reviewers have to make is to compare the book to Simenon’s Maigret works but given I have only read Pietr the Latvian I can hardly claim any authority in saying so. Certainly I think there is a certain similarity in outlook and characterization between the two authors but I can’t speak to much beyond that. I will say that I think North writes in a relatively compelling style and the book’s brevity is largely a positive, reinforcing its protagonist’s obsessive approach to getting the person he believes is guilty to confess.
The reason it is only relatively compelling is that there are aspects of North’s style that flat-out irritated me. The presentation of the female characters, almost always introduced with some reference to the shape, cuppage and pertness of breast, feels seedy rather than characterful – particularly when a seventeen year old character is introduced that way as the comments are made in the third-person narration rather than from the perspective of a lecherous character. There is even an uncomfortable moment early in the book where Cluff just stares intensely at the naked victim when with the Police Surgeon that the latter makes comment on.
I also think that North writes himself into something of a corner at the end, creating the potential for a tense showdown. Unfortunately I think this falls a little flat in its execution, resolving far too quickly and neatly given the tone of the novel up until that point.
The result is a book that I think is more of interest than it is interesting. I admire aspects of the writing and the way North conveys Cluff’s obsession but I never really enjoyed reading it. Knowing I have access to some others in the series, I may opt to give North another shot at impressing me but I can’t imagine rushing to seek out others in this series.