BOOK REVIEW BY NANCY KAY CLARK, CL editor & publisher
I’M SUCKED right into Michael Joll’s new who-done-it short story collection Persons of Interest: Inspector Masters Investigates [Middle Road Publishers 2019] right away for two reasons.
The first story, “Death by his own Hands” is an fascinating conclusion to another of Joll’s stories, “In Singapore” (found in the short story anthology Our Plan to Save the World) which ended with a break up, the theft of a gun and the possibility that a young aimless piano player would end up being shot. “Death by his own Hands” reveals what really happened. I suspect Joll’s creative muse wouldn’t let him rest until he figured out the fate of that young man, and so Inspector Masters was born.
Masters’ world also drew me in. This collection of connected short stories is set in rough chronological order between 1924 and 1943. The stories follow the cases and career of British middle-class Masters, veteran of the Great War, during his stint as a colonial police officer in Malaya (present day Malaysia and Singapore). British colonial life in this far-flung backwater of the Empire is laid out before us in all its racial and class divides. It’s very messy — from a boss who insists that only natives (i.e., non-whites) commit crimes to upper class Brits looking down their noses at Masters to feckless young men psychologically scarred from the Great War. And, always, there’s a beautiful — but unattainable — woman who catches Masters’ eye.
This murkiness allows for not-so-clear-cut villains and solutions to crime cases that do not always result in an arrest and conviction, but somehow come to a satisfying conclusion. Masters does not always follow the letter of the law, but his basic decency shines through regardless.
Though I enjoyed these stories, I had two wishes when reading them.
Firstly, I wished that Masters wasn’t so stiff-upper-lip (even when falling in love). Hell, we aren’t even told Masters’ first name — a conceit perhaps borrowed from Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series? I don’t know what I’m supposed to get out of such a straightforward mostly non-personal narrator. Even when he’s describing his admiration for a good-looking woman, he’s so matter-of-fact that I was kept at a distance and so I felt I never got to know the man’s inner workings.
Secondly, I thought that some of the cases were two quickly and easily solved.
But these are small wishes for a book that was otherwise a great read.
Totally agree with your review, well almost. I too was totally drawn into the stories, the intrigue and the style of writing. However, I’m fine with him being a bit stiff and “upper crust.” Also, like that the reader doesn’t learn his first name. Mmn, another story coming.
Thank you for your thoughtful review, Nancy.
I agree, Basil Humphrey Masters, to give him his complete name, which goes some way towards explaining his reluctance ever to use either first name, is a bit straight-laced. So were so many of his generation (notwithstanding the morals clause in his service contract) and I wanted to push sex into the background as far as possible with little explicit or graphic. I kept the narrative in a more mid-twentieth century style to give the stories more linguistic atmosphere than if I had written in today’s snappy, almost breathless prose. This, I think, also adds to Masters’ reluctance to express himself and his feelings for other women as he might have done had he lived in today’s literary world. It doesn’t work for everyone.
Basil Humphrey. So now the secret is out. And Inspector Morse’s first name is Endeavour.
I think Endeavour is far worse than Basil!