Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson
Anybody new to the Flaxborough Chronicles by British writer Colin Watson might not be aware of the author's body of work. Born in 1920, dying in 1983, Watson wrote twelve Flaxborough novels in total, renowned for their dry comic styling, set in the small fictional town of Flaxborough, widely believed to be based on Boston in Lincolnshire. Watson worked as a journalist in the area and the characters in his books are rumoured to be caricatures of people he met during his journalistic time.
There are two main people in the novels - Inspector Walter Purbight, a solid, good old English chap type bloke who is a decent, if not slightly dull, fictional police detective. The other is Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, the sometimes ladylike, sometimes gloriously vulgar, conwoman with a liking for dominoes, whisky and the finer things in life.
These two are less of a pairing and more of a coincidence when it comes to Flaxborough daily life, but each, in their own way, add a glorious sense of very British-ness to what's a quintessentially British, slightly batty, ever so mildly sexist (remembering the timing of the writing) series of novels that I return to time and time again to kickstart my brain into a love of reading when I've lost the plot.
COFFIN, SCARCELY USED is the opening salvo of the series, written in 1958, introducing in a perfect, low key manner, Inspector Walter Purbright, who finds himself investigating a most unexpected crime spree in the quiet, respectable little town of Flaxborough, particularly as the spree is amongst it's leading citizens. Starting out with the supposed natural death of esteemed councillor Harold Carobleat, followed by the distinctly odd electrocution of newspaper owner Marcus Gwill, a very unlikely scenario of illegal goings on starts to reveal itself.
Remember, when you're reading these novels, that this was written in 1958, so there are some mildly sexist stereotypes with most of the women either devious or hysterical, but it is fortunately, on the mild side, played mostly for humour rather than as a blatant put down. Having said that, the stuffed shirt men don't always come off much better and the digs at the "commercial classes" are there if you look closely as well.
The humour, and the sense of caricature is the vital part of these novels, although the plots themselves are well developed, with plenty of red herrings, and more than enough intrigue to keep the reader interested and guessing.
As mentioned though, I have used this series for years now, after first discovering it in the mid 1970's, as a way of kickstarting a jaded reading brain. They are fun, they are more than a bit daft, but they are well crafted, endlessly entertaining and just the thing, particularly if you're a fan of the very best of British, slightly dotty, entertainment.
The full series, in order is:
Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958)
Bump in the Night (1960)
Hopjoy Was Here (1962)
Lonelyheart 4122 (1967) (in which Miss Lucilla Teatime makes her first appearance)
Charity Ends at Home (1968)
The Flaxborough Crab (1969) - U.S: Just What the Doctor Ordered
Broomsticks over Flaxborough (1972) - U.S: Kissing Covens
The Naked Nuns (1975) - U.S: Six Nuns and a Shotgun
One Man's Meat (1977) - U.S: It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog
Blue Murder (1979) (Miss Teatime does not make an appearance in this one)
Plaster Sinners (1980)
Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby? (1982)
It's also worth reading his study of interwar thrillers (if you can find a copy) Snobbery with Violence which Watson wrote in 1971.
In the respectable seaside town of Flaxborough, the equally respectable councillor Harold Carobleat is laid to rest. Cause of death: pneumonia.
But he is scarcely cold in his coffin before Detective Inspector Purbright, affable and annoyingly polite, must turn out again to examine the death of Carobleat’s neighbour, Marcus Gwill, former prop. of the local rag, the Citizen. This time it looks like foul play, unless a surfeit of marshmallows had led the late and rather unlamented Mr Gwill to commit suicide by electrocution. (‘Power without responsibility’, murmurs Purbright.)
How were the dead men connected, both to each other and to a small but select band of other town worthies? Purbright becomes intrigued by a stream of advertisements Gwill was putting in the Citizen, for some very oddly named antique items…