The second of Ian Sansom’s County Guides finds our intrepid trio – narrator, Stephen Sefton, assistant to the People’s Professor Swanton Morley, and Morley’s daughter, the erudite, troublesome whirlwind that is Miriam – upping sticks and heading, as the title goes no small way to suggest, towards Devon. As with the last outing (and we imagine many subsequent outings to come), their plans are somewhat derailed, even as, we imagine, Morley himself continues to gather what it is he needs to fashion his County Guides.
Morley is, you see, an autodidact with a prodigious output and his plan is to write a book detailing all there is to know – or at least everything pertinent – about the various counties of this great land of ours (alongside countless other books, articles, reports and what have you). Sefton is his amanuensis, of sorts, a bright young man (never let it be said otherwise), still caught in the shadow of the war (these books are set in the early 1930s), given to the odd cigarette and drinking bender and possibly not taking the entire project as seriously as his lord and master does (although there are times when the converse is true too). And Miriam. Miriam is a flighty sort. Her father’s daughter, to be sure, but with a winsome, naughty, easily distracted by a handsome man way about her. The developing interplay between these three is a big hook to keep on reading.
But we were talking about what derails proceedings (or at least powers the compulsive engine that will pull the reader through the pages of Death in Devon): the trio plan to lodge in a school, Morley’s old chum Dr Standish, Headmaster of All Souls, putting them up in return for Morley giving the Founder’s Day speech (which he does, to many parent’s apparent delight and/or puzzlement) and then, didn’t you know: there’s an apparent suicide. Sefton never being one to take things at face value digs a bit (the Spot to Morley’s Hong Kong Phooey) and before you know it he’s uncovered all manner of intrigue in the school. All. Manner. Of. Intrigue. Which it would, of course be churlish of me to divulge.
Sansom is a tremendous talent and his second County Guide is easily as good as the first. There is something fascinating about the way in which he walks the tightrope of fashioning a light, slightly comedic crime novel with threads of truly dark material hinted in the background (both in terms of Sefton’s past but also in terms of the decade in which they find themselves, anti-Semitism, for instance, still quite acceptable). These books are entertainments, page turners, but entertaining page turners that tread the intellectual highlands, aglow with warm erudition, celebrating learning and knowledge in a way that will be comforting to any obsessive reader (Sansom is very much a reader’s writer). If you’re a fan of PG Wodehouse, if you’re a fan of Alan Bennett, if you’re a fan of Graham Linehan, if you’re a fan of books that will grip you one moment and have you chortling the next, if you’re a fan of good books, quite simply, you will want to read this and indeed everything Sansom has ever written. And until you do that, consider yourself on the backfoot.
Any Cop?: Another triumph for Sansom that we hope sits atop the bestseller lists for a century or more, swelling Sansom’s coffers and ensuring that we get to see all of the County Guides that Sansom wants to write.