There are at least three reasons for recommending the crime novels of Colin Watson. As detective stories they provide a respectable puzzle; they are written in wonderfully elegant prose; and they are funny. If that isn’t enough for you, you’re in the wrong blog.
Biographical details about Watson are sparse; the books themselves seldom tell us much about the author. But he seems to have been born in 1920, and he worked as a journalist. He produced the first of twelve crime novels (plus one other) in 1958; the last book appeared in 1982. And he died far too young in 1983. Along the way (1967) he picked up a Crime Writers Association silver-dagger award for the quality of his output.
Almost all of Watson’s novels are based in the fictional town of Flaxborough, the location of which is always left vague. If forced to guess its position, from the evidence in the books, I would have said Norfolk, but Watson apparently worked in Lincolnshire. In any event, he chose to be imprecise; the explanation, I feel sure, is that much of what he wrote about was based on his experiences as a small-town newspaperman.
Watson usually has the same cast of policemen: Inspector Purbright, Sergeant Love, and of course, the Chief Constable, Mr Chubb. Some of the villains appear more than once, too -- Miss Lucilla Teatime, for instance. But Miss Teatime almost counts as an honorary police person: she is utterly criminal in both intent and action, but she nevertheless sometimes sees it in her interests to provide the Inspector with a little assistance. (Mr Pratchett, you will recall, also has a character called Teatime -- a young man from the Assassins Guild. Though in his case the name is pronounced Tay-atty-may; he is from the Italian branch of the family no doubt.)
It has often been suggested that the names of Watson’s characters alone, like those of Wodehouse, suggest the generally humorous tone of things. Through these pages stalk such stalwart characters as Harold Carobleat, Stanley Biggadyke, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, and the Fleet Street journalist, Clive Grail. But do not be misled by the labelling; these are serious people, and the villains among them are capable of very nasty acts indeed.
As for the elegant prose – well, it would be invidious to give too many examples as they always look rather feeble when removed from context. But, taken from a book opened at random, I rather like this: ‘Anderton grinned and made a rapid chewing motion. Bradley, fearful of impending expectoration, drew back a little.’ All right, so I’m easily pleased.
The BBC wisely bought the television rights to Watson’s books, and they made an entertaining seven-part series in 1977; Anton Rodgers played Inspector Purbright and Brenda Bruce was Miss Teatime.
I read all of Watson’s Flaxborough series as and when they first came out, and I have recently re-read them in chronological order. They remain a rare treat, and are much recommended to anyone with an affection for the crime-fiction genre or for English eccentricity and humour.
Finally, let it not be forgotten that Watson wrote a scholarly and entertaining study of the crime-fiction genre itself, entitled Snobbery with Violence.
If you would like to see a bibliography of Watson’s work, you can find one here. And there is a longer essay on the man and his work written by Jeffrey Ewener.