I don’t think I’d ever heard of George Gently until the modern television series starring Martin Shaw in the title role started airing here and though I have warmed to the shows a little they didn’t make me want to rush for the source material. However I had some trouble finding a book first published in 1955 for this month’s classics challenge hosted by Past Offences so when I saw this title, which everyone agreed was definitely published in the right year, available cheaply as an eBook from an Australian store I grabbed it.
GENTLY DOES IT is the first of 48 novels to feature Inspector George Gently: a murder specialist from Central Office CID on holiday in Norchester for this novel. When he reads in the paper of the murder of a prominent local citizen he offers to help with the investigation. Initially his assistance is welcomed by the local constabulary but when it appears the case will be easily solved the locals are keen to remove Gently from proceedings. But Gently, believing in the innocence of the man local police suspect, refuses to be budged.
Perhaps low expectations are a good way to begin any reading experience because I did enjoy the book more than I thought I might, mostly due to the writing. Hunter, an antiquarian bookseller by trade, clearly loves language. Even his use of an adverb, and one not immediately associated with policing, for his protagonist’s surname indicates his love of wordplay. There’s a mild wit pervading the entire novel and the dialogue in particular is often delightful.
As far as introductions to a central character go however there’s something of a scarcity of information. We glean that he’s at least middle-aged, possibly older (in fact I would have thought much older if I hadn’t known there are so many books to come so perhaps he is one of those lucky fictional characters who don’t age at the same pace as the rest of us). He’s experienced and good at his job though quite modest, often attributing his deductive powers and sound reasoning to luck rather than the intelligence it so obviously is. But there is not a word about his personal life, other than a professed liking for fishing and an addiction to peppermint creams, or any details of the years that led to his present circumstances. With respect to looks Hunter gives us precious little to go on bar a throwaway remark that he’s not tall enough to enjoy the terraces at a football match so, inevitability, to me Inspector Gently looks a lot like Martin Shaw.
Via a Gentle Reminder To the Reader – which appears at the beginning of the novel – Alan Hunter tells us exactly what kind of story he thinks this is
This is a detective story, but not a ‘whodunnit’. Its aim is to give a picture of a police investigator slowly building up his knowledge of a crime to a point, not where he knows who did it – both you and he know that at a fairly early stage – but to a point where he can bring a charge which will convince a jury.
I thought it worth mentioning this. I hate being criticized for not doing what I had no intention of doing.
I might argue with him on whether or not it is a whodunnit (as the culprit is not revealed until about 3/4 of the way to the end) but even if it isn’t strictly a whodunnit you’d be hard-pressed to find a more traditional sort of mystery story. It closely follows the style of the Golden Age writers though I suppose it’s a bit too new to officially be classified as such. But other than the absence of a sidekick most of the conventions of the classic mystery are in evidence and well executed.
I don’t mind dabbling at the lighter/cosier end of the crime fiction spectrum (it was welcome in this instance as I’d read three or four particularly harrowing books in a row) but when I do I generally prefer there to be something in addition to the puzzling element of the stories. I follow one of Julie Hyzy’s series because of its setting amidst the goings-on of the White House kitchens for example. Alternatively I like re-visiting great characters who feel like old friends (M. Poirot springs to mind). But while Gently is likeable enough he’s not among the more memorable crime-fighting protagonists I’ve met and nor am I lured by yet another series set in Midsomer-like England.
I fear it’s damning with faint praise but I do think that if you like the classic British whodunnit-cum-procedural style of book then you could do a lot worse than GENTLY DOES IT. The writing is terrific and if it doesn’t leave you rolling on the floor with laughter you’ll at least have a smile on your face for a good portion of your reading time. A word of warning to fans of the TV series though: as far as I can see there is nothing other than the name of the main character that indicates one is the source material for the other though perhaps the later books have more in common with the series (which is set at least a decade or so later than this first novel).