19 October 2009

Review: GENTLY DOES IT, Alan Hunter

Chivers Press Large Print, 1996, originally published 1955, ISBN 0-7838-1879-3, 287 pages.

When Nicholas Huysmann, Dutch immigrant, and timber merchant in the city of Norchester, is murdered, the immediate suspect is his son Peter. Father and son have been estranged for some time, but currently Peter is in town with the circus for the Easter Fair, and is known to have visited with, and argued with, his father.

Chief Inspector George Gently is in town too, on holiday, and by coincidence has just seen Peter Huysmann perform his Wall of Death act at the circus.

Just as Superintendent Walker of the Norchester City Police is thinking of asking Scotland Yard to send George Gently to assist him, Gently providentially walks into police station. Inspector Hansom, in charge of the investigation, resents Gently's intrusion, and the fact that he has to regard Gently as his superior officer.

There are times when Superintendent Walker regrets involving Gently in the investigation, because Gently believes in thorough investigation, with the case proved without doubt, and many times in this investigation, when both Walker and Hansom believe they are "done", Gently proves they aren't.

I decided to track GENTLY DOES IT down, because of the recent screening of some Gently programmes on Australian television. I wrote about the George Gently novels about 5 weeks ago. There's a YouTube video embedded in that post showing Martin Shaw as Gently.
There's also a list of the 47 Gently titles that Fantastic Fiction know about. They were published over a period of 45 years.

I'm happy to report that I really enjoyed GENTLY DOES IT, gave it a rating of 4.6, and will be looking for another.

A foreword titled A GENTLE REMINDER TO THE READER says
    This is a detective story, but NOT a 'whodunit'. Its aim is to give a picture of a police investigator slowly building up his knowledge of a crime to a point, not where he knows who did it - both you and he know that at a fairly early stage - but to a point where he can bring a charge which will convince the jury.
    I thought it worth while mentioning this. I hate being criticized for not doing what I had no intention of doing.
There's a lot to enjoy about GENTLY DOES IT.
First of all meeting a new detective. In the long run, I thought those who cast Martin Shaw got it pretty right. A man in his senior years, mandarin-like, solid build, quiet observer, with a passion for munching on peppermint creams. The latter does not appear in the television series. In GENTLY DOES IT he smokes a pipe almost incessantly, on the television, cigarettes.

I liked the tension between Hansom and Gently:
    The ash dropped off Hansom's cigar and fell neatly on to the blotter in front of him. He grabbed it away savagely. 'See here,' he snapped, 'I know you're dead against us. I know you'd go to any lengths to get young Huysmann off, even if you're as sure as we are that he did it. Because why? Because you're the Yard, and you think you've got to show us we're a lot of flat-footed yokels. That's why! That's why you're going to upset this - if you can. But you can't, Chief Inspector Gently, it's getting much too one-sided, even for you. By the time we've lined this case up there won't be a jury in the country who'll give it more than ten minutes - if they give it that!'
I loved Gently's response:
    'There is between us, Inspector Hansom, a slight but operative difference in rank... And now, if you will start sending these people in, we'll try to question them as though we were part of one of the acknowledged civilizations.'
I loved Hunter's writing in GENTLY DOES IT.
    Gently smiled into the window. 'There's so much we don't know', he said, 'it's like a picture out of focus...
    It's taking shape a little bit, but it's full of blind spots and blurred outlines.'
When Hansom challenges what Gently is trying to do, Gently responds
    '... I am trying to find out things. I'm trying to find out what happened here yesterday and what led up to it, and how these people fit into it, and why they answered what they did answer this morning.'
    Hansom said: 'We're not so ambitious. We're just knocking up a case of murder so it keeps the daylight out.'
    'So am I....' Gently said, 'only I like walls around mine as well as a roof.'
And one more insight into Gently's mind. Here he is teasing the man he knows is the murderer.
    'There's a time in every case that I've had anything to do with when you suddenly find yourself over the top of the hill... usually, there's no good reason for it. You just keep pushing and pushing, never seeming to get anywhere, and then some time you find you don't have to push any longer... the thing you've been pushing starts to carry you along with it. It's odd, isn't it?'
So off you go, do yourself a favour, look for an Alan Hunter novel!
GENTLY DOES IT is the first in the series, so why not start there?


Philip Amos said...

I read my first Gently back in the early 70s and all I could get hold of thereafter. They are fine stuff, and I much hope that the television series will lead people to read the novels. I must say, though, that while I have so far enjoyed that tv series quite a lot in and of itself (and I think most of these 'adaptation' series appalling on any terms), and while I'm happy that Hunter's heirs may reap financial benefit, and even happier that Hunter may find the greater fame he so much deserved, what the hell that series has to do with the novels is utterly beyond me, and I think AH would have been a touch bemused.

I was, incidentally, much bemused myself a short time ago when I watched a DVD of P.D. James' The Murder Room and found myself looking at George Gently impersonating Adam Dalgliesh investigating the murder of someone who looked to me an awful lot like Superintendent Wycliffe. I had a pretty hard time choosing among the possible villains, furthermore, given that three of them alone had been otherwise investigated -- some more than once -- by Barnaby, Marple, Poirot, The Bill, Lynley, Tony Hill, Lewis, Dalziel and Pascoe, and the teams on Waking the Dead, Silent Witness, and New Tricks. 'The usual suspects' has a meaning of its own in television productions. The production companies responsible for these various series do, indeed, share a pool of actors they use and reuse like some supersize repertory company. Want a seemingly comforting but somewhat dodgy solicitor/doctor? Send for Oliver Ford Davies. Much put-upon but still dignified wife/mistress? Bring on Johanna David (who's been practising for that role through 35 years of putting up with Edward Fox). But all this safe and stunningly unimaginative casting usefully reminds us of a truth: for imagination, one might do best turning to those books, not to television.

Bernadette said...

it's a funny old world - those recent TV shows did the very opposite for me - I decided I wouldn't bother reading one of the books as I didn't enjoy the show at all - I've always adored Martin Shaw (I even went to see him play a dying Elvis on stage back in the 80's) but I thought this was perhaps one outing in a crime-related role too many (I know for sure he's played three variations on the theme - as Ray Doyle in The Professionals, Dalgliesh and John Deed)

Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for the review. I, too, really like well-used language in a book, and Alan Hunter's descriptions in the Gently series really are top-notch.

I also agree that it can add to the series when there's tension between the sleuth and other investigators, like the police. That happens in Christie's The Murder on the Links where Hercule Poirot and the Surete Inspector Giraud dislike each other so much that they can barely be civil. At one point, they have a bet of 500 francs riding on which one of them solves the case first. It makes for an interesting undercurrent...

Deb said...

I love the Gently books and wish our local library had more of them. One thing I like about them is that Gently's life changes gradually over the course of the books. He eventually gets married, which breaks his landlady's heart.

Philip's comment is right on the money. Several times I've "guessed" the culprit on a TV show because the actor playing the character is well-known for playing villains.

Kerrie said...

Philip I did wonder when the secondary character comes into the books. I don't think any of the ones I saw were GENTLY DOES IT

Kerrie said...

I would have thought it too cozy, and too procedural to suit you Bernadette :-)

Kerrie said...

Hunter strikes a chord with me Margot. As oyu can see I marked a few passages to remember for my review

Kerrie said...

My library only has a few titles too Deb. I can see I'll have to visit a USB to get some, but there is one in the country town where my parents live that might have them. Not that I need any more books!


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