While The File on Lester is the first novel by Andrew Garve you will find reviewed on this blog it is not the first novel by this author I have read. Garve was one of three pseudonyms used by journalist Paul Winterton for his fiction and I have previously read several inverted crime stories he wrote as Roger Bax.
The File on Lester is a different type of mystery fiction that I have not encountered on this blog before – dossier crime fiction (credit to Martin Edwards’ post about this book for acquainting me with the term). The book is structured as a series of (fictional) memos, diary entries and documents that have been assembled from different sources tracking developments in a political scandal. Some of those sources have biases either for or against the accused politician and the reader has to use that information to work out exactly what is going on.
A charismatic and young politician has quickly risen to prominence to become the leader of the Progressive Party on the eve of a General Election. His party is widely expected to win in a landslide but his campaign is rocked when a woman turns up at one of his events and asks a press photographer to pass a message to Lester to let him know that she is back in the country and hinting that they had shared a previous sexual encounter. The photographer speaks with Lester who he denies knowing the woman leading the press to return to the woman who tells a lurid and detailed story of nude sunbathing and subsequent night of passion aboard Lester’s boat.
A newspaper owner sends several of his top political journalists and his daughter to investigate the case and most of the documents in the second half of the book document the outcomes of their interviews and research, culminating with an entry that explains what had happened and why. The problem the reader has to wrestle with is to determine who is lying. As Lester’s supporters note, it is hard to understand why he would lie about not knowing the woman given that both he and she were single, consenting adults in her account but the evidence against him seems detailed and accurate.
While I was reading this I assumed that the novel must have been written in the late 70s as some elements of its premise mirror that of a famous British political scandal from later in that decade. Lester, like Thorpe, is a young widower whose wife died in a car accident and who is widely expected to find electoral success in an election in 1974. Lester, like Thorpe, is not depicted as a radical but as a centrist figure and both are considered dandies, dressing fashionably.
In fact it was written several years before the story became widely reported, being published in 1974, so while it may have drawn on some elements of that situation (Scott had shopped his story around newspapers at the start of that decade), it would not have drawn those comparisons with contemporary readers. Whether it was inspired by Thorpe or not, the work is a complete work in its own right with strong characters and an interesting plot that contains several intriguing developments.
One such development is the discovery of a piece of evidence that either was genuinely dropped in a space that was subsequently locked and under observation or placed into it after the fact to support one of the parties’ accounts. Yes, in the middle of this narrative we get the possibility of an impossibility! While this question only hangs over the narrative for a couple of pages (and I wouldn’t suggest that you read it purely for this element), it is very cleverly handled and I appreciated the manner in which it is resolved.
There are also elements of the procedural at play as the various journalists attempt to track down sources to corroborate their stories. “Garve” gives each of these journalists distinctive personalities and approaches to getting their stories. A nameless editor provides very brief commentaries on their personalities and backgrounds in the chapter headings when they first appear, further giving the sense that we are reading a real document rather than a novel. While I know I have read other crime stories that present fiction as fact, I cannot think of any that have done so as effectively.
The puzzle “Garve” constructs is balanced beautifully and the reader may find their beliefs about what happened shift at times in the narrative. If you are interested in reading this story I do caution you to avoid its Goodreads page as the solution to the case is spoiled in the plot description at the top.
That solution is rather clever and I found it to be a pretty convincing explanation for what had taken place. While a contemporary review suggested that it was far too short, I feel that it is about the perfect length for the story it is trying to tell and cannot imagine how it could have been stretched out without weakening the narrative.
I was a little less keen on a romantic subplot. This is not a late addition or an afterthought but rather the author weaves hints at an attraction as a motivation for a character looking into the case throughout the whole novel. This struck me as quite well done but later in the novel it is more directly addressed in a scene that I felt was quite rushed. I did appreciate the way that both characters had been written up until that point however and it is really only a small element of the novel.
On the whole I found The File on Lester to be a quick and satisfying read and it is easily my best experience with Paul Winterton’s work so far. The situation struck me as interesting and credible portrait of a political scandal, building to a very tidy conclusion. If you haven’t read anything by the author this would be a great one to start with, particularly thanks to a recent Bello reprint it is not too expensive an acquisition.
This book was published in the United States as The Lester Affair.