LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Half Hunter by John Sherwood
[Jim’s clothes are being dried after an unfortunate incident. He ventures out to look for them, in the middle of a Beatnik party]
Cars had been arriving. There were voices in the hall, and interesting sounds from a record player. Presently he decided to explore… Sounds of revelry came from the open door of the lounge.
The only person in sight was Dagmar [German au pair].
‘I’m just going to look for my clothes,’ he announced briskly, and tried to dodge past.
‘it does not matter…’ she pulled thoughtfully on a corner of his towel. ‘For Brechtian anti-hero clothes are not necessary.
Downstairs his appearance in nothing but a towel caused quite a sensation.
‘Rather a good idea, let’s face it.’
‘Whee! Let’s all take off our clothes.’
‘What a coarse idea,’ said Elaine Reynolds firmly. ‘Besides, the central heating isn’t on yet.’
The record player embarked on a raucous tune. Roger Boyd leaped on to an armchair and began to recite a long poem which Jim found incomprehensible even when its gramophone accompaniment did not drown it.
commentary: ‘I wish I’d lived in a time where I could’ve been a Beatnik’, said no-one, ever.
I strongly recommend that you Google Image or Pinterest search on ‘beatnik party’: the pictures are stupendous. Or on ‘Beatnik book covers’. Honestly. I implore you. It was obviously tremendous fun, with terrific clothes.
The beatnik party is one of a few excellent setpieces in this book: there is an extraordinary scene set in an icerink - half normal weeknight, half a strange dance/fight between two warring groups, threats of danger, mayhem and violence. It starts out with this indelible image:
Four gloomy couples were now on the ice, waltzing with confidence and verve. But the faces above the rhythmically swinging bodies suggested very unhealthy drug addicts at a funeral. As they wove in and out among the flared-skirt-and-swansdown contingent the effect was of a danse macabre.Later it all comes to a halt while the national anthem plays at the end of the evening, the confrontations to be resumed immediately afterwards.
And there is a church sale of work combined with children’s show which is unalloyed joy. When the children’s ballet display starts:
‘Well really’ said a woman ‘Fancy putting the poor little mite on her points at that age.
‘It does not matter,’ said Dagmar. ‘Already ankles are so thick, nothing can make them worse.’[Dagmar is a particularly splendid character, her every appearance marked with unexpected and funny remarks.]
I am very cautious about overt humour and slapstick in crime books (John Dickson Carr at his low points – The Blind Barber – is Exhibit 1, along with the awful Pamplemousse books and Kyril Bonfiglioli: all of them close to unreadable), so John Sherwood deserves some kind of medal for The Half Hunter, which as far as I can tell is completely unknown and forgotten. Apparently he wrote more than 20 crime stories, including a series with a lady botanist as sleuth, but I can find out next to nothing about him, and can’t find any reviews of his books. This one was a green Penguin that I bought secondhand, and worth every penny. One of the review quotes on the back is from Margery Allingham, who says ‘I found it absolutely fresh and its youth and gaiety delightful. What an enormous difference a little wit makes to a light-hearted tale.’
The protagonist is a 17-year-old boy, spending the summer at a great-aunt’s house on the South Coast, waiting to go to University. Out walking one afternoon he sees a young woman, Anne, in tight capri trousers breaking into a deserted and lonely cottage.
He follows her, and she tells him what she is up to. Then someone else arrives in the cottage. From here on in Jim is tied up in a most complex plot, which is going to go in all kinds of unexpected directions. Anne is concerned about her evil stepmother keeping her away from her father.
Jim says ‘How can she stop you? She isn’t a witch.’
‘I know, but she rhymes with witch’ Anne says.The plot is completely unguessable, Jim and the reader are both constantly wrong-footed and having to change their views about what is going on. The storyline is exceptionally well-worked-out: the whole book is very clever and combines great characters, a truly British picture of life in a seaside town, and very funny moments in its believable tale of crime. And it is nice and short.
I only have two complaints – one is that Jim is forever imagining the conversations that others are having as he watches: these are (fair play) always put into italics, but the trouble is that some of them turn out to be true, and others turn out to be completely wrong, (without any further comment on his imaginings) and it is very discomposing to the reader. There used to be a convention that flashbacks in films should not be lies aimed at fooling the viewer, and I think the same should apply here.
The other thing is that the ending is extraordinarily abrupt: everything plays out, the plot ends, you might say, but then it just stops. We never find out what happens to most of the characters, although there are considerable question marks over their futures. It is quite ridiculously foreshortened.
But still: an excellent short sharp read, and I will be trying to find more books by John Sherwood. Love to know if anyone else has come across him.
I did manage to find and read one of his Celia Grant botanical mysteries, from 1992 ie 30 years later, and it was a sad disappointment: a perfectly competent cozy crime book, with a series heroine, and a plot that jumped around into all kinds of odd genres. It was very much written by the numbers, as if he had picked out different cozy features from a list. No incentive to read any more of them, none of the originality that marked out this one. A shame.
Top picture is Hugh Jackman in a towel.
The first picture of a Beatnik party is from the University of Maryland collection. The next one is a book cover.