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harm's way

18 october 2018

The next stop on my public library's mystery shelf after Harold Adams is Catherine Aird, a pseudonym for Kinn Hamilton McIntosh. Aird has been writing detective-inspector novels set in the fictional English county of Calleshire for fifty years now, and the first of them that my library holds is Harm's Way, about twenty years in.

We're in the dull, unchanging English countryside, watching some right-of-way bores muck around in farmers' fields, when one of them sees a crow drop a human finger to the ground. The finger proves a challenge for Inspector C.D. Sloan, who sets about under the decidedly hand's-off direction of his insufferable supervisor Leeyes, and engages the help of a set of rural constables, some of whom are much quicker on the uptake than others. Who knows what evil lurks in the placid fields that have been farmed since well before the Conquest.

The crow might have picked up its bounty on any of four surrounding farms, each of which offers its cast of suspects. The mystery is engaging enough, though ultimately resolved rather quickly and mechanically. The distinctive features of Harm's Way are the texture of the dialogue, and the internal monologue with which Sloan accompanies that dialogue. Sloan and his colleagues keep up a heavily-allusive banter in which virtually every sentence anyone utters sets off associations to folk ballads, bits of Shakespeare, this or that old schoolbook poem, old etymologies, and what-not other verbal detritus. It's fairly dazzling, but also fairly distracting.

I guess there are two ways to read a book like this. You can either skim the plot points, because after all, the killer was either Farmer Bailey with a turnip hoe or Farmer Mellot with a forklift or whatever, and the interest is in the verbal gymnastics. Or you can skim the verbal gymnastics, because you're getting a headache and you just want to know whodunit. But it's really hard to keep both methods of reading in focus at the same time.

I finished Harm's Way without much skimming of either, but without much entertainment value to spare. It may be atypical of Aird's books, but it may be a while before I return to them to find out.

Aird, Catherine. Harm's Way. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. PR 6051 .I65H3

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