Dark and menacing…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
When Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called out to the scene of a sudden death, it looks like a clear-cut case of suicide. After the death of the mother she had looked after through her youth, Amy Wright in her loneliness had made a bad marriage to a younger man who only married her for her money. Made miserable by him, she is found in her bedroom with the gas tap turned on. Although everyone holds Alf Wright morally responsible for her death, legally he seems to be in the clear. But Cluff can’t accept the coroner’s verdict, partly out of guilt because he, like everyone else, knew that Wright was cruel to Amy but had done nothing to stop it. Since there’s to be no official police investigation, Cluff takes some time off and begins to pursue Wright himself.
This book is being re-published to celebrate the author’s centenary. Written in 1960, the book feels more modern than the other British Library Crime Classics books I’ve read so far. It’s much darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. North has a distinctive writing style – short, sharp sentences that nevertheless allow him to deliver some excellent descriptive prose and create an ever-growing atmosphere of tension as the book progresses. It took me a few chapters to get tuned in to his style, but once I had, I found I was totally gripped and ended up reading the whole book in one session. (As an aside, how lovely to get a book that delivers everything necessary and yet still comes in at under 200 pages. The good old days!)
The characterisation is excellent, not just of Cluff and the other major players, but even of minor peripheral characters North introduces in passing to add depth to his portrayal of the town. North does have a rather unfortunate obsession with describing the breasts of every woman who appears. (I was going to comment that this was probably to do with the time of writing but then remembered how often I’ve sighed over the same obsession in some contemporary male authors!) However, it’s not enough of an issue to spoil the overall enjoyment, and otherwise I felt his female characters rang as true as the men.
He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath.
The first part of the story takes place in Gunnarshaw, a fictionalised version of Skipton in Yorkshire. It takes North very little time to give a real flavour of life in a small town at a period when neighbours still knew each others’ history and business. Cluff lives in Gunnarshaw, alone in a cottage with his dog and cat for company, and knows the people of the town in the way local police officers did in rural communities back then. North takes us behind one or two of the net curtains in the town to catch a glimpse of Cluff as seen through the eyes of the residents, and he’s revealed as someone who is trusted by the people he works amongst. However, his single-mindedness isn’t always appreciated by his bosses and colleagues in the police – he’s a man who tends to go his own way and it’s probably only his ability to get results that saves him from the wrath of his superiors. He sees himself as some kind of arbiter of the town’s morals, quite prepared to tell someone to leave town if he feels they’re a bad lot.
In this case, he pretty much stalks Wright, hoping that somehow he’ll give himself away. Cluff’s behaviour is threatening and intimidating, and he finally drives Wright to flee Gunnarshaw and go into hiding on a farm on the moors. And it’s when the scene shifts to the moors that the plot begins to both thicken and darken, taking an entirely unexpected turn. North uses the wildness and isolation of the setting to build up a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror, while gradually the action ratchets up to a truly thrilling climax.
The high wall of the croft rising above the level of the kitchen window screened off most of the late afternoon light. The room was dark, lit only by the leaping flames of the fire. They sat quietly, wearied of talking, in a silence intensified by the ticking of a clock, eerie in the stillness. The noises of the farm had died away as the day was dying. Time and place and life itself were unreal and shadowy.
The book has an enjoyable and informative spoiler-free introduction from Martin Edwards, who tells us a little about the author’s life and puts his books into the context of their place in the development of the detective story. In case you missed it, Martin was here on the blog yesterday, giving us his recommendations for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, and highlighted North’s Sergeant Cluff as having been influenced by Simenon’s Maigret.
A great start to the series – it’s hard to understand why books as good as this become ‘forgotten’, and I’m delighted the British Library have brought North back for a new audience. I know they’re bringing out at least one more in the series, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, in September, and hope they’ll go on to re-publish the rest of the series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library, via Midas PR.