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…

The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett

The Liar in the Library
Simon Brett
Originally Published 2017
Fethering Mystery #18
Preceded by The Killing in the Cafe
Followed by The Killer in the Choir

I have mentioned before about my bad habit of buying sets of books for a rainy day. Often I seize on sales or secondhand book store finds but sometimes I just decide to go all-in on an author. Simon Brett is one such writer.

I credit Brett’s Charles Paris mysteries as being one of the series that inspired me to become a fan of crime fiction. Recognizing that I find his work engaging, I invested in copies of most of his other books though I had never quite got around to reading them until recently.

Now here I am diverging from my usual approach to trying a new series as I normally like to read a series in order. It’s not that I have any problem with people dipping into a series – it’s just what works for me as I like to see how a series concept, its characters and themes develop over time. What prompted me to break sequence for this book however was the news that is was about to be reissued by Black Thorn Books. It seemed to me that it might be a good idea to try and time a review around the time that edition came out…

The book opens at Fethering Library where Burton St. Clair, the author of the bestseller Stray Leaves in Autumn, is giving a somewhat pretentious talk about his work to a small gathering of avid readers and writers. Among them is Jude though she does not think much of his masterpiece, nor of the man himself having known him some years previously when he had been married to one of her friends and gone by the name Al Sinclair.

After a couple of awkward moments in the question and answer portion of the evening, the attendees enjoy a glass of wine and the chance to socialize. Burton comes to talk with her and offers her a lift home which she initially accepts but she flees the car when he makes a pass at her. She walks home instead, sends a brief email to his ex-wife mentioning the meeting, takes a quick shower (in the hopes of washing away any traces of his wandering hands) and heads to bed.

She is surprised when the Police turn up at her door the next day. They tell her that St. Clair was found dead in his car, still parked outside the library, and they came to speak with her as the last person to see him alive. She soon realizes that they consider her a suspect, particularly when they hear about how they had known each other in the past, and she decides to do a bit of snooping around herself in the hope that she can prove herself innocent…

Having your sleuth investigate to prove their innocence is a pretty familiar starting point for a mystery but I think Brett uses it pretty effectively here. The circumstances of the murder are certainly suspicious and while we may never suspect Jude based on experienced her viewpoint of events, we can certainly see why it looks bad for her. The victim died in the place she left him. When further details of how he died come out things look even worse. Yet Brett does not go overboard with the sleuth under suspicion trope – the Police certainly don’t press her as hard as we might suppose. Instead she is being proactive, trying to get ahead of their questions.

Jude serves as the novels’ primary investigator, at least for its first half, but the other series regular Carole also gets in on the act later in the story. Being my first taste of the series I didn’t know much about either character prior to coming to this but Brett describes them well enough that I found it easy to get a grip on who they were and the differences between them. For the similarly uninitiated: Jude works as a healer and has had multiple relationships while Carole used to work in the civil service and likes to dote on her grandchildren. It is a sort of chalk and cheese relationship, yet they seem to get on pretty well, even though we don’t see much of them working together here.

The focus of their investigations is on finding someone else who knew St. Clair and, quite crucially, that he possessed a dangerous allergy to walnuts. This latter point is a substantial part of the reason Jude comes under suspicion and for much of the book she appears to be the only person who might have known that piece of information (though she claims she was unaware of it). This leads Jude and Carole to meet with several characters who might be suspects including a few members of the writing community – an aspiring but resentful writer, an airy, pretentious literary retreat organizer and a rather self-involved academic type – each of whom feel well-observed, no doubt drawing on Brett’s considerable experience of writer-types.

We also get several scenes set in the Fethering library and discussions of the challenges and changes taking place in British libraries. While there is often a comic edge to how Brett presents this information, I think he paints a pretty accurate picture of the funding challenges currently being felt by British libraries and the way the sector has responded to them with an emphasis on more services and activities being led by volunteers.

Another theme Brett discusses is that of eastern European immigration and the xenophobia that has arisen in some communities. Here I think the approach feels a little more awkwardly handled, in part because of the way Zosia, a barmaid, is used. She is used to describe the problem but the choice to present all of the information from a single perspective makes it feel a little static and awkward. It may have been better to have multiple voices discussing the issue or at least have some of the reflections about perceptions of the Polish community be made by Carole.

While the investigation presents some interesting perspectives on these issues, it is perhaps less clue-driven than some readers might hope. In fact clues are rather thin on the ground for most of the book with the solution basically emerging from questioning in the investigation. I don’t mind this approach but it does seem a little at odds with the golden age style Brett directly evokes throughout the story, feeling more procedural in nature.

That being said, I did appreciate that there is a cleverly placed clue that I totally failed to notice the significance of but which would point to the murderer’s identity for those who do pick up on it. It is directly addressed during the confrontation with the murderer so armchair detectives do at least have a chance of solving it, even if I wish there were a few more clues!

Overall I would describe my first taste of Fethering to be successful. Certainly I liked the way Brett is able to evoke the feeling of life in a community and I was interested in the relationship between Jude and Carole, even if they didn’t interact quite as much as I would have hoped here. I am sure that I will make further trips to Fethering so if you are well-versed in the series and are able to make recommendations I would appreciate them!

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor reviews this at In Search of the Classic Mystery describing it as an ‘easy, fun read’.

Cast in Order of Disappearance by Simon Brett

Cast in Order of Disappearance
Simon Brett
Originally Published 1975
Charles Paris #1
Followed by So Much Blood

Today’s review is perhaps a little overdue. I suppose that in a very literal sense it is overdue because I had meant to post it on Monday. Another self-imposed deadline missed. Whoops. What I really mean to say however is that Brett and his actor sleuth, Charles Paris, were really significant figures in my own development as a crime fiction fan.

I do not intend to dwell too much on my own history but I first wrote about these books well over a decade ago. It was in the early days of Shelfari and those reviews were really the first time I had ever written about mystery novels. I suspect that those reviews were light on any sort of deep analysis but I remember them and the work I did to track down copies of each of the books very fondly.

The book introduces us to Charles Paris, an actor whose career has been met with only moderate success. Work is irregular and several of the actors he came up with have gone on to greater things while he plays bit parts in largely underwhelming productions. He drinks too heavily, has separated from his long-suffering (and far more practical) wife and lives in dreary theatrical digs.

In the later novels in the series Charles can come over as a rather melancholy or depressing figure and certainly this novel has its moments in which he reflects on his aging and some of the disappointments in his life (and, perhaps more poignantly, the ways he has disappointed others). Brett however uses those moments to enhance the comedic developments in the story and while Charles certainly has his faults, he compares pretty favorably with all the other showbiz characters he encounters.

Charles Paris is not, on the face of it, a natural sleuth. He is not particularly inquisitive, nor does he possess much specialist knowledge. What he is able to use however is his aptitude for disguises and his gossippy show business contacts to get access to the main figures and learn more about the case.

Back in 2011 when the other books in this series were much fresher in my mind I did describe this plot as one of the best of the then-17 Paris titles. I would stand by that statement today. The reason that I think it mostly works is that Brett designs a story that is predicated on a relatively small number of points of interest. The case is not overly complex and we are not asked to find it credible that Charles would be trying to manage a murder investigation on his own. In fact for much of the book he isn’t really investigating anything definite – he is just trying to reach out to someone.

The person Charles is seeking out is Marius Steen, a showbiz tycoon who was involved with one of his ex-girlfriends. She had approached Charles when he suddenly disappeared, asking him to make contact with Marius on her behalf. She worries that he may be avoiding her because of a scandal that is building about sex parties that they attended together and wants Charles to reassure him that she is not involved in any blackmail attempts.

Eventually a body turns up but even at that point Charles’ interest is less to do with finding the truth and more to do with protecting a friend. This not only gives him a credible motivation, it helps to limit the scope of the investigation to areas Charles could conceivably handle on his own. The case presents several intriguing developments and while I think there is a twist that is not wholly original, I do think it is executed very well.

One of the aspects of this book that I was far more conscious of when reading it this time around are the fairly frank references to the sexual excesses of show business in the seventies. While I think revelations in the past five years have raised awareness of some of the abuses that took place in the film and television industries, it is still a little shocking to read a character casually referencing losing their virginity at twelve to a man several decades older than her because of his status in the industry.

As distasteful as that world can be, I think Brett does an excellent job of portraying it here. It is not just the descriptions of the work itself but the little details of interacting with other actors and directors that help bring the setting to life. These figures feel well-observed and while some of the concerns they voice may be rooted in a particular time (the 80% tax bracket gets several mentions), I recognized the types easily enough.

The other aspect of the book that really struck me was that while the key elements are all in place, neither his agent Maurice or his estranged wife Frances play significant roles in the story. This is a shame as I think Charles is always entertaining when exasperated by his ineffectual agent and humanized by Frances but it is clear that the general idea behind both characters was in place already at this point. Later novels in the series would capitalize on this a little more successfully.

I will say however that as much as I enjoy this book, I found the radio adaptation to be even more satisfying. That partly reflects the softening of Charles’ character, the general affability of Bill Nighy and a greater role for several recurring supporting characters. It does a good job of updating the cultural references too while retaining the core of the plot. It does perhaps lack some of the tension of the novel, particularly in the final quarter of the book, but I think that some of those dramatic moments aids with the piece’s credibility while I think more of the jokes land.

While it is not perfect and several elements feel of their time, Cast, in Order of Disappearance is an entertaining and clever read. Paris is an interesting if not always likeable protagonist and I think Brett does a really skillful job of presenting him as a credible sleuth. Revisiting this, it is easy to see why the character has enjoyed this longevity and why forty-five years later he continues to solve mysteries (though I will leave the issue of his age and continuity discrepancies for another day).