Sunday, 16 March 2014

Penguin no. 1384: Docken Dead
by John Trench

Cover design by Alan Aldridge
Sooner than expected they saw through the trees the amorphous tangle of the back parts of Aske Place. Moonlight, coldly analytical in its delineation of planes and angles and sharp shadows, heightened the incoherence of the house's forms. It looked like a house where almost anything might happen. Almost anything - but nothing very evil. In spite of everything, it had a sort of innocence, like a tiny town in the background of a monkish painting. And its very extravagance made it somehow vulnerable, like a child's fantasy exposed to criticism.

The back cover of this Penguin quotes Margery Allingham describing Docken Dead as 'a discovery for the civilized reader', which seems to imply, perhaps unintentionally, that if someone fails to find merit in the story the fault lies with them for lacking the necessary attributes, whatever they may be. But I think the fault would lie with the author: John Trench may have been able to develop an interesting and complex (if far-fetched) story, but I don't think he was particularly effective in telling one. Those aspects which may have been interesting have been concealed by a poor structure and some fairly impenetrable prose.

It is an unusual experience to read paragraph after paragraph of a text written in English and yet to have only the vaguest sense of what the author intended to convey. It is not an unknown one - journal articles, at least those about statistics, often have this quality - but I have never before encountered it in what is best described as an adventure story. There were times here when I realised that I had read through the entire description of some event involving action - a search or an attack - yet remained completely unaware of what had actually happened until surprised by some illuminating reference later in the story.

I could identify three attributes of the writing which contributed to this problem. To begin with, there is no option but to read the first forty pages in confusion: the reader is introduced to a series of characters and settings, but with no guide, other than the single name referenced in the title, as to how these people relate to each other and why we need to know about them. The narrative jumps from a marriage proposal to a reference to a long-dead local poet, to an archaeologist lunching with a vicar, and then to a series of military manoeuvres. None of this means anything as you read it, but in retrospect all of it matters - every conversation, every reference to any person, and even down to the detail of where people were standing at the time. It must be read in confusion and then retained if the story is later to make any sense.

John Trench also uses too much jargon and dialogue delivered in dialect, describing events with words that perhaps have a meaning in rural Britain but which are completely unfamiliar to someone living in the suburbs of Perth. It felt like reading reduced to decoding. And the task of deciphering his story is made even more difficult by long, verbose sentences, so that you could lose your way long before reaching the end.

John Little inadvertently finds himself involved in two distressing events in a single day. In the afternoon he is summoned to somewhere called the butts by Major Docken, but when he arrives he finds Major Docken dead, shot through the head by what appears to be a stray bullet while supervising target practice. Later that evening he is knocked unconscious while guarding the army's new secret anti-tank weapon, the Bantu, and awakes to find that it has been stolen.

It doesn't occur to him that the two events could be related, and that the police may assume that he his guilty of the first because of his involvement in the second, but just such a thought occurs to his friend Martin Cotterell, the archaeologist whose luncheon with the vicar had been described as part of the incomprehensible narrative of the early pages. Despite a complete lack of experience in amateur sleuthing, Cotterell decides he will investigate, and over the course of the novel he justifies this decision in many ways - a desire to save Little from his naïveté, a desire to protect the person he knows to have committed the murder, and sometimes as a diversion for his own tendency to boredom. And Cotterell has a theory that archaeology is just the profession to equip an amateur with the skills required for solving crimes.

In this particular case he is not mistaken, as this is a mystery which seems to have been fashioned for him to solve. A successful sleuth in this case will need a thorough knowledge of military weapons and their purposes, a deep understanding of map ordinance, at least a vague familiarity with the battles of King Arthur, and access to the box of artefacts locked up in a neighbouring attic. It means that an archaeologist is just the man for the job.

But then Martin Cotterell is the best thing about this story, and he does make an interesting sleuth. As the story descends into farce, it is this one sensible though ramshackle man with his missing hand and ill-matched socks which keeps the story interesting. But irrespective of how interesting the motivating crime or the amateur sleuth, I would have to consider this book a failure because it seemed so poorly written; the prose may have been evocative, but it failed the fairly basic test of conveying information clearly. This was a story which simply required too much of its reader.

First published by MacDonald 1953. Published in Penguin Books 1960. This edition 1961.


  1. Your description sounded interesting enough for me to go buy a copy.
    There were at least two other mystery novels featuring Martin Cotterell: Dishonoured Bones (1955) (which I already had), and What Rough Beast (1957).

  2. I have the same thought as Anonymous -- despite the problems of the book you make the Cotterell character so interesting I want to read more. Looking up Mr. Trench, the Cotterell books are called a trilogy. Also seems that's his real name although it screams nom de mystery writer. I enjoy your posts.

  3. According to the book Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, John Trench was his real name. He wrote a few other books besides the three Cotterell books.

  4. I'm so sorry you found so many problems to disentangle the meaning of the whole story, but I agree with Anonymous, you make such captivating descriptions that even you consider it a failure, it sounds interesting. Thank you, anyway.



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