Written by Peter Bartram — In this cosy mystery, Peter Bartram introduces us to a delightfully old fashioned journalist. Colin Crampton is the chief crime reporter for the Brighton Evening Chronicle. Old fashioned? Well yes, because it is 1962, and Crampton’s method of securing a scoop comes via a spiral bound notebook, barely decipherable Pitman shorthand, and a battered Remington typewriter. In this sense, we might also class Headline Murder as historical crime fiction, as Crampton’s world seems light years away from ours.
Brighton is the Gay Capital of Britain and has become a setting for some heavy duty crime fiction of late – try the Roy Grace or Danny Lancaster novels, for instance. But on a sweltering August Saturday, Crampton finds the city’s criminal types must be on holiday and he desperately needs a headline. Then comes a gift from the gods. Crampton’s tame informant at the Sussex Constabulary informs him that Arnold Trumper, proprietor of Brighton’s foremost crazy golf attraction, has gone missing.
Crampton checks out The Krazy Kat golf course where he meets Trumper’s sole employee, Robert Barnet, who is now wondering how he’ll get paid. After some concerted digging in the Chronicle’s archive, Crampton manages to link Trumper to both a wartime murder and, more currently, an unholy alliance between a bent councillor and a doubly dishonest property developer and club-owner.
As Crampton asks more and more questions, he finds himself trying to keep several balls in the air at once. There is his beautiful but impatient Australian girlfriend, his equally impatient but far less attractive editor, and the small matter of the phone call from The Daily Mirror offering him a job in London. The investigation has becomes a notch or two more serious with Barnet being found dead in his flat, and as Crampton learns exactly what is buried under the 18th hole of The Krazy Kat, the story plays out on a very storm-tossed cross channel ferry.
Bartram certainly knows the ins and outs of provincial journalism, both in today’s world of digital production and the long-dead days of ink and hot metal. The book provides a pleasant saunter through a bygone age of yellowed newspaper clippings, public telephone boxes and a Britain still coming to terms with its post-war legacy.
I couldn’t fault the early 60s background and, given the date, it is no surprise that Crampton’s relationship with girlfriend Shirley, seems fairly chaste. Some of the jokes are good, but at other times Bartram seems to be trying a bit too hard. Even when Crampton is crossing swords with potentially dangerous crooks, he never seems to be under much threat, and the tone of the book is light and gentle throughout, without ever setting the pulses racing. This is where Headline Murder lost its way for me. Crampton is a likeable enough fellow, but there was a lack of real pace and urgency about the writing which prevented me from caring very much, one way or the other, about what happened to him.
This mystery offers an enjoyable but mild mixture of English eccentricity, wry humour, social commentary and misdeeds.
For something similar, try the Flaxborough novels of Colin Watson, which are set in Lincolnshire.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars