The Norfolk Mystery is set in the 1930s, though written in 2013. It tells the story of Stephen Sefton, a Cambridge graduate with a poor third in English who goes to fight in the Spanish Civil war. He returns to find employment with Professor Swanton Morley, a self taught writer planning to publish a series of guides to the English counties, beginning with Norfolk, his home county.
Sefton is employed as amanuensis and general factotum, driving or accompanying Morley on his travels, making notes and writing rough drafts of the guides. Morley’s daughter, Miriam, a fashionable young thing, is the third significant character in this set up. She pops in and out of the novel, adding an element of glamour which contrasts with her father’s narrow views of life, as well as offering the possibility of romance.
Sansom spends a long time setting up these characters and their situations before we arrive at the scene of the first death – the apparent suicide of a vicar in a Norfolk parish. The rest of the novel tells the story of how this mystery is resolved. It involves a series of characters of some interest, including a passionate and mysterious female outsider. It is a reasonably satisfying mystery in itself. However there is the sense that most of this book is about setting up these characters ready for a further series of instalments based on the travels related to the writing of Professor Swanton’s book.
Swanton himself is an interesting character – a bit of a Gradgrind, a man with limitless factual knowledge filled with Victorian moral values. He’s a sort of Sherlock Holmes, though quite unsympathetic, a little cold. His character gives Sansom lots of opportunities to offload all kinds of arcane knowledge often related to classical learning or Shakespeare. Sefton provides a contrast – morally questionable, and academically lazy. Miriam is less prominent at this stage. There are lots of opportunities here for character development over a series of books. At the moment I don’t really feel sympathy for any of the three characters; it will be interesting to see how Sansom’s judgments progress. The neutral stance he takes does make the novel less compelling for me, but it offers the opportunity for a more subtle approach.
The blurb calls this a “sending up” of 30s crime fiction. I’m not well placed to judge that, as it’s not a genre I like or read, but there are strong elements of humour, and there is a promise that this could develop well over a series of novels.
I like Sansom as a writer and really loved his series of novels about the travelling library in Northern Ireland. The characters were warm, flawed and sympathetic, and the situations constantly amusing. There are links to my reviews below. This novel showed again the writer is clever and skilful, but for me the characters and situations are just not as interesting as in the mobile library series.