Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hopjoy was Here - Colin Watson

First published 1962.
Paperback pictured is by Penguin Books (UK), 1966.

First sentence: Never before had the inhabitants of Beatrice Avenue seen a bath carefully manoeuvred through one of their front doors, carried down the path by four policemen, and hoisted into a black van.

Colin Watson (1920 - 1983) was a British detective fiction writer, and Hopjoy was Here was one of a series set in Flaxborough, a fictional town in England. I had been looking forward to reading it after hearing Watson's writing described as "wildly funny" and "skilled wordplay combined with deadly, dry wit". As a fan of Pamela Branch, who also wrote crime fiction laced with perverse humour, I'm always on the lookout for authors with similar writing styles.

Hopjoy was Here begins with the liquefied remains of a person (believed to be Mr Hopjoy) being discovered after an anonymous letter is received by the local police. Detective Inspector Purbright leads the case, and I liked him from the start. His common sense and general normalcy makes the two counter-espionage officers also sent to investigate appear laughably ridiculous, as they follow the slightest leads and generally believe the entire town of Flaxborough is filled with spies and criminals.

Hopjoy, it appears, was some kind of secret agent, living and womanizing in Flaxborough as he ran up debts and scrawled notes in his spare time about possible foreign spies in the neighbourhood. He lived with a man called Periam, who at the start of the story is also missing. He is found soon after, staying at a local hotel complex with his new wife, who just happens to have been Hopjoy's fianceƩ...

Towards the end Purbright seems to have discovered the truth behind the body in the acid bath, but two completely different last minute (and unexpected!) twists make the ending interesting and satisfying. I also enjoyed the small yet wickedly funny details Watson slipped in here and there, twice making me laugh out loud.

My only real gripe was the fact that so many of the main characters had names starting with P: Purbright, Periam and Pumphrey. I was halfway through the novel before I could stop flicking back to the start to see who was who.

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