Book review: Murder at Holly House, by Denzil Meyrick

With its absurd plot and unlikely hero, Murder at Holly House is a successful foray into the tricky world of comic crime, writes Allan Massie

Comic crime or criminal comedy is fairly rare. There is not much laughter in real-life crime and the more true to life crime novels are, the less one is inclined to laugh or even smile. So it’s rare for authors to bring off the comic crime novel. A few of course have done it successfully: Edmund Crispin, a long time ago, with books like The Moving Toyshop and Swansong, the great Robert Barnard in some of his novels, The Missing Bronte and Death in Purple Prose, and Ruth Dudley Edwards. So it’s a surprise to find Denzel Meyrick entering these lists.

Of course there is some comedy in his DCI Daley novels and there are characters bizarre enough to be ludicrously comic, even if also sinister, in novels such as Jeremiah’s Bell, but Murder at Holly House is a new departure, an entertainment that is full of agreeable absurdity.

Hide Ad

The narrator – surely an unreliable one – is a Yorkshire policeman, Inspector Frank Grasby, who joined the Police soon after the Hitler War having failed – only just failed, he says – to have made the grade as a professional cricketer. He is not the brightest or most competent of chaps, at least in the eyes of his crabbit old clergyman father and his superior officer, Superintendent Juggers, but, though aware of this, he has a complacent trust in his own abilities.

Denzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty AndersonDenzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty Anderson
Denzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty Anderson

He is dispatched by Juggers to take charge of the police station in a moorland village where there seems to have been a crime wave. It’s winter and snowing, but he gets there with difficulty. His sergeant suffers from a medical condition which has him falling suddenly and soundly asleep. There is, surprisingly, an American girl intern – this a word scarcely known in England in the post-war years. It’s not clear why she is there, but she is very attractive which gives him hope. They are both billeted with an eccentric old woman who has a pet raven that sits on her shoulder. To Grasby’s surprise there is a photograph there of his landlady, when younger, beside his father. Very rum, he thinks. Meaanwhile, the only pub in the village is depressing and the food terrible. (The old landlady, however, turns out to be a splendid cook).

Then he calls on the local big house, Holly Hall, recently built by a nouveau riche peer after knocking down the old mansion. A corpse is found in the chimney, a corpse which nobody can, or will, identify. This is disturbing and baffling, but things soon get worse. An American married to the local doctor is found dead outside the church. Grasby is baffled but keen to solve the mysterious deaths. Juggers appears with a smooth Whitehall type who gives Grasby puzzling instructions. From now on the plot thickens, and though your credulity will be more than strained, you are likely to push eagerly on even if you are as lost in the darkness for long periods as the unfortunate, resilient and agreeably comic Grasby.

It seems that there are to be further reminiscences from Inspector Grasby, and on the evidence of this novel they will be welcome. Meyrick is a remarkably prolific writer and one with a large readership. Some may be puzzled by this new departure but I doubt if they will be disappointed. Grasby may be a clot but he is a likeable one who contrives to be both consciously and unconsciously amusing. The denouement here is absurd, but so what? What, as Sir Walter asked, is the plot for but to bring in fine things? There are fine things a-plenty here, and there is the comfort of a crime novel which has a plot so far-fetched as to be not at all disturbing.

Murder at Holly House, by Denzil Meyrick, Bantam, 360pp, £16.99