1957, book review, Brighton, British humor, England, historical fiction, inept police, Lynne Truss, madcap comedy, milk, mobsters, murder, mystery fiction
Review: Murder by Milk bottle, by Lynne Truss
Bloomsbury, 2020. 320 pp. $27
The summer of 1957 has witnessed plenty of deadly violence in Brighton, England, and Constable Twitten longs for a respite. But he’s not going to get one. Three more victims soon bite the dust in rapid fashion, sending this seaside resort town into a tizzy over the August Bank Holiday weekend. What’s more, all three met their end courtesy of milk-bottle shards. This is a rather unfortunate coincidence, since the Milk Girl, a lovely young woman hired by the dairy industry, will be making a publicity appearance, opening a milk bar. Or is it a coincidence?
Consider to the influence of an ice cream competition, judged by the local police inspector, Steine. Don’t forget the beauty contest, widely believed to be rigged, or the barber competition, which has a similar reputation. For good measure, we have a stampede of docile milk cows, a girls’ school with a troubled past, and Mrs. Groynes, char lady at the police station, whose real profession is running organized crime in Brighton.
Incidentally, she’s the only organized person in the station, for the police are utterly incompetent. Constable Twitten, though he sees much, as his first name, Peregrine, would suggest, makes a hash of interpreting it, as his last name implies. He’s perennially blind to the attractive young women who keep falling in love with him, the anti-James Bond. He also has a gift for saying the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment, so these women may be better off without him. More educated than either Sergeant Brunswick or Inspector Steine, he correctly assumes he’s got more on the ball. But he can seldom convince them of anything, and his manners don’t help. Mrs. Groynes mentors him, when it suits her purposes, fully aware that no matter what Twitten says, he’ll remain the only copper in Brighton who knows she’s a criminal.
As I hope you’ve gathered by now, Murder by Milk Bottle is a riot. I’ve never laughed so often at a mystery, one that recalls British film comedies from the 1960s about blundering police, criminals, or both. (See, for example, The Wrong Arm of the Law, released in 1963, in which Peter Sellers plays a mobster named Pearly Gates.) But Truss has her own style, often witty, very often madcap, never taking itself too seriously. The plot churns merrily, with wry twists and clever turnabouts. You know that the bunglers will bungle, yet will somehow triumph in the end; you just don’t know how. The mystery narration itself is so clever that you’ll keep guessing (wrongly) until the end. And will the characters learn anything? I doubt it.
Truss’s prose is a treat, full of commentary, as with this passage about a dispatcher for roadside assistance:
Mr. Hollibon was an ardent smoker with all the hallmarks of a man who has inhaled warmed-up toxins continuously for more than thirty years. The puckered skin, deep-stained fingers, disgusting cough: he flaunted them all with pride. An army doctor had once asked if his cough was ‘productive,’ and he had replied, truthfully, ‘Yes, very.’ Leaning forward now, he alternately coughed and struggled for breath until (yes!) A veritable torrent of expectoration was produced. And then, pleased with himself, he lit a fresh fag to celebrate.
But there’s also plenty of wordplay. My favorite is the Cockney rhyming slang, in which the phrase “best whistle” refers to whistle and flute, meaning suit; or “boat,” short for boat race, meaning face. But there’s also Twitten’s predilection for psych talk, which is ridiculously funny, and the name of the girls’ school, Lady Laura Laridae (Laridae is the class of sea birds that includes gulls). And finally I’ll cite the author’s play on the famous advertising phrase of the dairy industry, Drinka Pinta Milka Day, which a waggish Brighton newspaper publisher, considering all the mayhem, turns into Drinka Pinta Deatha Day.
None of this surprises me, given Truss’s fame for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, her plea against the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue, as Professor Higgins put it in My Fair Lady. But I tell you, if she wishes to write a mystery revolving around death by comma (Oxford or inverted), I’m down for that.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review.