RogerBW's Blog

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective, Leslie Thomas 06 May 2017

1976 comedic detective fiction; first of Thomas's novels of "Dangerous" Davies, barely-competent and perenially unlucky detective constable in Willesden. Set to look for a local criminal who might have returned to the area, Davies turns this into an investigation of a twenty-five-year-old disappearance.

He's known as "dangerous" because he isn't, and as "the last detective" because he's never sent on a job unless there's nobody else or they all think it's too risky. He knows all the local crooks and has been beaten up by most of them. This could be an intriguing underdog's story, but unfortunately Thomas chose to play it for laughs. So Davies is also the funny sort of alcoholic; he lives in a rented room with a horrible landlady; he entirely lacks suspicion or caution; he has an ancient car in which his ancient dog Kitty is permanently asleep. All this is presented as so intrinsically funny that there's no need to do anything with it; you can practically hear the laugh track.

It's a shame, because the actual mysteries are potentially interesting. The disappearance of Celia Norris in 1951 is a quarter-century cold case, but there was a reasonable amount of investigation done at the time, and Davies begins by talking to the suspects, then branches out from small pieces of new information to develop further leads. He doesn't put much together himself, instead mostly being friendly enough that people spill what they hadn't thought to say before; though he gets blind drunk with one information source, and casually beats up another, as well as compromising evidence all over the place. (Yes, I know, forensic DNA analysis wasn't developed until 1984, but there were still fingerprints.) Both mysteries are solved in the end when Davies is persistent enough in following unlikely leads to get him to people who will volunteer the information he wants – which is a bit like Simon Brett's Fethering Mysteries series, and while it's an unconventional approach it's not unworkable.

But everything here is old and tired and tawdry, most definitely including the characters. There is nobody here who isn't in some way broken. The humour is of the "this person is horrid" and "that person is strange" flavour. I started to hallucinate the smell of unwashed old bodies, which seems to permeate every scene even when it isn't explicitly mentioned.

Followed by Dangerous in Love and two further books, but I don't intend to read them.

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