Despite recommendations from friends, I put off awhile reading Inspector George Gently mysteries because I had trouble imagining a cop—even a British cop—named "Gently." Two things persuaded me otherwise: I realized I knew a real cop named "Nicely," and I enjoyed some videos of the BBC-TV series based on Alan Hunter's fictional character. Then I read Gently Does It, the first of Hunter's forty-six George Gently novels.
My first impression of the book was that some legalistic folderol must have intruded during adaptation of Alan Hunter's characters to the TV series. More likely the show's producers couldn't reach some sort of sponsorship agreement with the peppermint cream industry to enable Martin Shaw, playing Chief Inspector Gently, to pop one of the candies into his mouth every several seconds no matter what (I'm not entirely sure what a peppermint cream is, but the book's Gently carries a bag of them with him everywhere, helping him think and using them as bribes). Shaw's Gently was a believable cop and had a couple of believable detectives as his assistants. The only trouble I had was understanding a good deal of the north English dialect, which sounded to me like Gaelic. Dialogue was nowhere near as difficult for me in the novel, sparing me from having to struggle through extended incoherent jabbering when it takes only an occasional expression or two in each appearance of a speaker for me to imagine the character as Irish or French or Cajun or whatever he or she is supposed to be, ah gay-rawn-tee!
|Martin "George Gently" Shaw|
As a literary comparison, I found myself thinking of Simenon's Chief Inspector Maigret. Both are highly intuitive and prefer to work alone, their independent outlook dedicated to nothing else but solving the crime. Gently comes across as lighter hearted, more gregarious, and with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
"I oughtn’t to tell you this–I oughtn’t even to tell myself," he says to a constable. "But I’m a very bad detective, and I’m always doing what they tell you not to in police college." Gently's been called in from Scotland Yard to assist local police in solving the murder of an unlikeable lumber tycoon. Suspects abound, obviously, and Gently takes his time getting to know them all, asking seemingly innocuous questions to encourage them to reveal themselves. This tactic also helps him get along with subordinates. He tells the same constable, "I’ve been a policeman too long..it’s high time they retired me. Some day, I might do something quite unforgivable."
He takes a sterner approach with rivals, such as Inspector Hansom, the local ranking cop working the murder.
" ‘...you’re the Yard and you think you’ve got to show us we’re a lot of flat-footed yokels,’ Hansom says in an early confrontation.
"Gently leaned back in his chair and blew the smallest and roundest of smoke-rings at the distant ceiling. ‘Inspector Hansom,’ he said, ‘I’d like to make a point.’
" ‘What’s that?’ snarled Hansom.
" ‘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.’ "
Gentle as his name, outwardly, he gives us a glimpse of what he's really thinking. A tad harder than he would seem:
In his mind’s eye the figure of the deceased timber-merchant began to take form and substance. He saw the foxy, snarling little face, the sharp, suspicious eyes, the spare figure, the raging, implacable temper of a small man with power...the man whose son had kicked free at any price, whose daughter was in league with the maid to deceive him: who declared the cinema improper while he ruffled Susan in his study...An alien little man, who had spent most of his life in a new country without making friends, shrewd, sudden, tyrannical and hypocritical...
Gently smokes a pipe in addition to his addiction to peppermint creams, and it's the pipe that first alerted me to the comparison with Maigret, his French counterpart. There are his moods. I recall that Maigret, when feeling stumped by a case, prefers to take a nap, curling up in bed and letting his subconscious ponder the seemingly imponderables until, refreshed, an idea presents itself from within. Gently hits a couple of downturns that neither pipe nor peppermint seems to help.
"Yesterday, the thing had begun to move, it was on its way. It had only needed one more stroke...and every nerve in his body had told him that he would find it that afternoon at Railway Road. But he’d been wrong, and he hadn’t found it...the instinct that had carried him through so many cases had failed him."
In despair he wends his way through the crowd leaving a soccer match where he'd expected to find that last "stroke" of luck. "He couldn’t quite believe it had happened to him. Always before the luck that smiles on good detectives had smiled on him at the crucial moment...he felt suddenly that he must be getting old and past it. He was falling down on a case."
Poor Gently seems to be on the verge of believing his silly lie to the young constable about being a "bad detective." One might think Gently Does It is the last in the series. Knowing it's the first, however, either we find him rallying his confidence, recovering his pluck and moving his prime suspect brilliantly to the hangman's noose, or bumbling his way through the remaining forty-five episodes, munching peppermint creams, puffing his pipe, growing more forlorn with each outing, and along the way picking up a nickname, oh, say...might there be an English word for "Clouseau?"
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]