A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

Book Details

Originally published 1984

The Blurb

Graham Marshall is a respectable husband and father and dedicated London businessman. He’s always played by the rules, believing that’s the surest way to climb the corporate ladder. But when he’s passed over for promotion by a ruthless colleague, something snaps. On a drunken walk home late that night, Graham unleashes his fury on a hapless panhandler and dumps his body into the Thames. As days pass for the anxious exec, he realizes to his astonishment that he’s gotten away with murder. And it appears to be much easier than anyone’s been led to believe.

Feeling more powerful than he has in years, Graham now has his eyes on the future—and on everyone who stands in his way, professionally and personally. It might have all begun with a terrible accident. But for Graham, his new objectives are entirely by design.

The Verdict

A superb inverted crime story in the best Ilesian tradition.


My Thoughts

The subject of today’s review was one of the books I was inspired to pick up after reading Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. It was not one of the featured titles – the focus there is on works from the first half of the twentieth century – but it does get a very positive mention in the Inverted Mysteries essay where Edwards selects it as one of the best inverted stories from the second half of the century.

He is not wrong.

Graham Marshall is a man who has become accustomed to success. Growing up in postwar Britain, his parents went without to give him the best chances of success and he exceeded their expectations, finding career success working for an oil company where he has quickly climbed the corporate ladder to become the assistant manager of the personnel department.

Graham believes that he can soon expect another promotion as his boss, many of whose duties he already performs, is due to retire soon. Believing that he will soon be the head of the department he takes on additional expenses, moving to a house he can barely afford. As expected the job is advertised and he goes in for the interview but he is shocked when he is passed over in favor of a younger man.

After an evening drinking his sorrows away, Graham drunkenly walks home and on the way he is pestered by a panhandler. Angry when the man refers to his good fortune, Graham lashes out and accidentally kills him. He dumps the body and for the next few days he anxiously awaits the police but when they do not show up he finds himself feeling confident and in control.

And then it occurs to him that murders may solve some of his other problems…

Graham naturally inspires some comparison to Dr Bickleigh, the protagonist in Malice Aforethought. Both are men who feel a sense of inadequacy and view murder as an act of liberation.

The earliest chapters of this book are focused on building our understanding of Graham’s background and the social pressures that formed him. These are, understandably, narration-heavy but Brett keeps up a brisk pace, using the various incidents and relationships to develop broader themes.

In the process of learning about Graham’s rise at Crasoco, we also get to see how business culture was shifting between the sixties and the mid-eighties. This is an important theme of the work and also an essential part of our understanding of Graham’s character – he is a man who resents having played by the rules of the game only to discover that those rules are changing as he is poised for success. This, coupled with his realization that domesticity was something he accepted out of an adherence to those rules rather than any desire to be a husband or father, really sits at the heart of the character and is central to the character’s transformation.

The impetus for that transformation is the first murder. While this is a really significant moment, Brett chooses not to linger on describing the physical action of the killing. Instead he frames our focus on Graham’s mentality in the moments leading up to and following the murder and seeing how that comes to change him. This struck me as effective and helped me accept the subsequent transformation in his personality.

While it is clear where several threads of the story are headed based on the elements Brett sets in place, the satisfaction comes from seeing how each of those threads overlap and influence each other and the occasional subversions of our expectations.

While the first kill may have been unplanned and instinctive, the subsequent murders are quite different. Brett gives us several more and manages to make each distinctive and mechanically interesting while still ensuring that our focus is on what Graham is thinking and what he is planning to do next.

As I read it occurred to me that Graham’s journey is relatively unusual in terms of inverted stories in that our killer begins the novel concerned that they will be caught but their control of the situation increases as the story goes on. Usually in these stories the later murders occur out of desperation or panic. This story is not without those sorts of moments but Graham enters the final few chapters confident that he will achieve his goals.

While the subject matter and style of the piece is much more serious than Brett’s more famous Charles Paris or Fethering series there are still some touches of dark humor. Much of this is rooted in its observations about the corporate business environment of that period and the characters that inhabit it.

Those secondary characters – the victims, the witnesses and those affected by Graham’s actions, most are well drawn and convincing. I enjoyed discovering how each would interpret and respond to what they were experiencing and seeing which would come to suspect him.

The ending will likely not surprise many – Brett sets his elements up too neatly for that – but the journey to that point takes a few unpredictable turns. More important though that ending seemed a fitting cap to what had gone before and left me feeling satisfied.

Now, I should say that while I enthusiastically recommend this book, I do so with a few caveats. The first is that this is a crime story from the perspective of the killer rather than an inverted detective story. While there is a detective character involved they end up being incidental to the story. As such there is nothing really for the reader to solve – it is more a case of predicting story structure. I love that but I know others find that unsatisfying.

The other reservation I offer is that I know some readers simply will not like Graham. In fact he’s pretty loathsome. That is not to say that we do not come to understand him and sometimes empathize with him – I actually think of that as one of the greatest strengths of the novel and reflects the quality of the characterization – but if it is important for you to like a character this is probably not for you.

With those reservations in mind, if you do enjoy an Ileasian-style inverted crime story then I think this is a tremendous read. I enjoyed the exploration of the corporate environment and the reflections on the social and work changes taking place in Britain during the seventies and eighties. It is a superbly crafted story that shows a side of Brett as a writer that you may well find surprising if, like me, you know him from his long standing series.

I certainly plan on exploring more of his standalone works in the future…

6 thoughts on “A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

  1. I’m very glad you enjoyed this one, Adrian. I’ve liked the Charles Paris stories I’ve read, but I’m far less familiar with Brett’s standalones. It sounds as though they’re certainly worth exploring.

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    1. I haven’t seen the film yet but I have plans to do so! Hopefully I’ll enjoy it. I do know though that the ending is different so I’ll be curious to see exactly what is changed.

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  2. I saw the movie decades ago, and quite liked it. Your post prompted me to grab it from the library, ebook, and read it. I quite liked it too. The humour is very good. I would say 4/5.

    Liked by 1 person

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