At the end of the true short story in The First Person Ali Smith quotes a dozen or so writers on the subject of short stories. Among these is Walter Benjamin who said short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment after the real lived moment is dead. In her Artful, Ali sends up the predictability of academics quoting him: “Ten points to the first person who hears someone say the words Walter Benjamin”.
The local library had a big book sale this weekend, mostly but not all of them withdrawn stock. On a table there was a paperback of The Storyteller, a collection of Waller Benjamin’s short stories and more, published only a few months earlier. The asking price was 20p, and it had probably already been there for a few hours. Oddly it was not an ex-library copy. How did it get there?
Flicking through it back at home one thing that caught the eye was a short piece on the pleasures of reading detective novels on trains: “Between the freshly separated pages of the detective novels he searches for the idle, indeed, virginal trepidations that could help him overcome the age-old anxieties of travel.”
In an August 2013 article for New Statesman about ‘The Consolations of Crime Fiction: Past and Present’, the writer Ian Sansom quoted W. H. Auden on the addictive delights of the genre, and its immediate pleasures: “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.”
The article coincided neatly with the publication of Ian Sansom’s own book, The Norfolk Mystery, which turned out to be wonderfully rum, diverting, engaging, arch nonsense, a little in the spirit of Boris Akunin. It is set in 1937 and is clearly written in homage to Golden Age crime writing, with echoes of Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, G.K. Chesterton springing to mind. With the inclusion of photos, almost at random, a little Sebaldry was seemingly added to the ribaldry.
This was the first in Ian’s County Guides, and featured Stephen Sefton, the unreliable narrator, a young man, a drifter, a damaged Spanish Civil War veteran, a former Communist Party member, who in the third book in the series, Westmorland Alone, receives a gypsy’s warning: “You’re one of those condemned to wander the world without ceasing, running and running, never finding peace.”
Ian’s series is loosely inspired by the intrepid Arthur Mee, whose The King’s England series of county guides took in 40 volumes in and around the 1930s. Ian’s hero is the remarkable Swanton Morley, a force of nature, an autodidact who became an indefatigable scribe, encyclopaedist, whose works are popular with the working classes, and sneered at by academics, leading to him being called “the people’s professor”. He is described as “a man with Victorian energies, Edwardian tastes, and eccentric tendencies”.
Setting off on his travels around England, in a Lagonda (itself a tribute to Albert Campion’s car, perhaps), with his daughter Miriam, a headstrong, mischievous, picturesque, contrary character, and his assistant, secretary, photographer, and companion Sefton (the anti-Captain Hastings), Swanton’s travels are punctuated by murders which occur with regularity, and which in queer ways he solves, seemingly almost by accident.