An additional disclaimer to my normal books disclaimer for this: Paul Magrs is someone I know from the world of Doctor Who writing. He did some of the most interesting and engaging novels of the Long Hiatus (as I call 1989-2005, even though I do count the TV movie). If you like Doctor Who books, I suggest you track down The Blue Angel. Oh, and he’s edited my stuff in the past…
(Headline Review, 2009)
Whitby is a place on the edge: the edge of Yorkshire, the edge of reason and the edge of Hell. In one of its side-streets is a B&B run by Brenda and an antiques shop run by Effie, both ladies of a certain age. In previous books in the series, they’ve investigated satanic beauty parlours and prehistoric zombies. In Conjugal Rites Frank, the man Brenda was literally made for, has come to claim his bride.
This is the third Brenda and Effie novel and it reminds me of Jasper Fforde‘s Tuesday Next series. Not in the specifics, but in the general feel that this is a series that has settled in. It’s no longer selling you a mise-en-scene, it presumes you already know it. It’s got its slippers on.
That’s no bad thing, of course, and if you’re reading a series of novels you do expect the set-up to stay consistant (even in Doctor Who where the settings vary, the set-up stays constant – apart from in The Blue Angel). The trouble with this kind of serial shorthand, for me at least, is that it makes later novels seem rather less meaty than the early ones in a series. I like the hard sell. In crime novel terms, I like Ian Rankin not Agatha Christie. I like a description of Rebus in all his haggard slovenliness, not a single line about a fussy Belgian moustache. And I’m the same with fantastical novels. I want meat on those bones.
Conjugal Rites has very short, very breathless chapters, which contribute to this sense of lightness. There’s scarce time for a scene to get going than the chapter is over. There’s chapter breaks within scenes as well. And I’m not sure why they exist where they do.
There’s no doubting Magrs’ ear for voices, especially blowsy and/or mimsy Northern ladies of a Certain Age. There are great touches, such as Brenda and Eddie’s weekly rituals of afternoon teas and fish suppers, or Effie’s distrust of Brenda’s friend. It makes them seem plausible despite the fantastical set-up. There’s also the obviously inadequate retired British Superheroes having a convention, which will raise a snicker, and the continued creepiness of the Christmas Hotel.
And there’s a simply brilliant idea of hell, taking Sartre and adding a dash of salt and vinegar. It also echoes the idea of the Lords of Misrule presiding over the Feast of Fools.
Is Conjugal Rites a fun, fast read? Undoubtedly. But it felt like it was paddling at the edge when it could have been wading.