Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a Sunday newspaper tantalises its readers with promises of a juicy story about a blue movie ostensibly made in a quiet, respectable English town, the residents of Flaxborough are horrified to see that the accompanying photograph is of their town’s main street. So when top muck-raking journalist Clive Grail and his team arrive in the town, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. In fact, the mayor decides this would be a golden opportunity to use the antique duelling pistols he has just purchased, and issues a challenge to Grail. This may have been intended as a publicity stunt, but things take a more sinister turn when one of the characters dies…

I loved the Flaxborough Chronicles in my youth and have been enjoying reading some of them again as they’ve been published for Kindle by Farrago. However, the series wasn’t of the same standard across its whole length of twelve books – in the first couple, Watson was finding his feet, then there’s a glorious section of six or seven in the middle when he was on top form, before they fell away a little in the last few. Being book 10, this isn’t one of the best. My tendency is always to compare these lesser ones to the best of the series (Broomsticks over Flaxborough, for instance) but this is unfair. Compared to many other books of the same period, even Watson’s less good ones shine.

Part of the problem is that the humour of the earlier books comes from Watson allowing us to peek behind the net curtains of respectability of the middle-classes of the 1950s. By the end of the series, we’re in the ‘70s, and society had changed so much in the intervening years that that kind of show of respectability and class deference had pretty much disappeared, and I never felt Watson really got to grips with how to lampoon the late ‘60s and ‘70s in quite the same way. The delicious, wickedly salacious wit with which he mocks the shenanigans of the ultra-respectable burghers of the town in the ‘50s takes on an edge of crudity in the more liberal ‘70s, and the slang used by his younger characters in particular doesn’t ring wholly true.

Having said that, he still provides an entertaining story, full of characters who are deliberately caricatured and overdrawn. As the newspaper team begin to realise that the story they expected to get isn’t turning out quite the way they anticipated, they have to scramble to save their reputations and jobs, since the paper won’t be pleased if they don’t come up with the goods. Meantime, the townsfolk are split between those outraged at the idea of their town being linked with porn, and those who find it all quite titillating. Inspector Purbright must try to keep the peace by stopping the mayor from carrying through on his threat of a duel, and then must investigate the sudden death which takes everyone by surprise.

Colin Watson

The investigation element of this one is pretty poor. We see the story mainly from the perspective of the newspaper team, with Purbright and his team becoming heavily involved only at the end. Purbright seems to get at the truth too easily and the reader isn’t really shown the connecting links – we’re merely presented with the conclusion. It holds together and makes sense, and in retrospect there are some clues, but on the whole the solution comes out of the blue. Also, while Chubb and Love and the other police regulars show up, we spend very little time with them, and Miss Teatime fans will be sad to know she doesn’t appear in this one at all.

Overall, then, not one of the best but still entertaining enough to be well worth reading. Each of these books stands alone, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Existing fans will be more willing to make allowances for its comparative weaknesses than newcomers, I think. But the series as a whole is not to be missed! New readers might be better to start at the beginning with Coffin Scarcely Used.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Farrago.

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21 thoughts on “Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

    • I think it really shows in this one because the early ones were so much about lampooning ’50s society. He’d probably have been better to keep setting the books in that time period rather than trying to keep up to date…

  1. I’ve not caught up to this one, FictionFan, but I know what you mean about a series waning a bit over time. I think it’s very hard to avoid that. Still, as you say, lots to like about the series even if it’s not at its best. And Watson’s ‘good not great’ is better than plenty of others’ best.

    • Yes, even the best series have a tendency to go downhill eventually – I haven’t even read the latest Rebus yet, sadly. But I’ve enjoyed revisiting these a lot – still plenty to enjoy even in the less good ones!

    • I’m a huge fan of Dalziel and Pascoe so was always still thrilled whenever a new one came along, but objectively I agree – in the last ones he got a bit too obsessed with playing literary games at the expense of the story sometimes. The middle ones were sublime, though…

  2. There are so many series I’ve missed out on over the years. (even some classic ones which I won’t name for fear of shocking you!) There’s no way I’ll ever catch up with them all, but I’ll certainly take note if I ever run across one by this author.

    • The good thing about this series is that they really do all stand alone – there’s no story arc, and Purbright is the same at the end as he was at the beginning. So they’re like Christie novels – no need to read them in order, and no need to read them all… 😀

  3. Gee, another one I seem to have missed. I’m not a fan of having a solution come out of the blue, and I suppose it’s always a challenge for a writer to know when his series has peaked. I’ll keep an eye out for one of the earlier ones, okay?

    • Yes, I don’t like that kind of solution either so it was a bit of a let down. But it is a fun series, and they can be read totally as standalones. If you come across one at some point, I hope you enjoy it!

    • Definitely an entertaining series, and the ones when he’s at his peak are great fun. They always give a great excuse to use my favourite word – skulduggery! 😉

  4. What a challenge it must have been to write about such different time periods culturally as the 1950’s to the 1970’s… it’s too bad he didn’t quite get a handle on it. But these do sound like fun reads that I’d enjoy.

    • Yes, I can’t think of any other time when things changed so much over such a short period, and this series really shows that. He must have been quite old by the ’70s, and just didn’t quite get the feel of them right somehow. Still a great series, though!

    • The good thing about this series is that all the books stand alone perfectly, so there’s no need to read them all. If you ever come across one, hope you enjoy it!

  5. How have I never heard of this series before? Would you call it a cozy mystery FF?

    I’m always a bit disappointed when the solution comes out of the blue, it seems unfair to the reader…

    • You know, it has a lot of the feel of a cozy – humour and entertainment – but the humour’s really too wicked to fit that genre and sometimes the crimes are darker than they first appear as if they’re going to be. Yes, it was a pity about the solution in this one – the earlier books in the series are much better plotted.

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