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The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom

The Norfolk Mystery (2013)

by Ian Sansom

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Stephen Sefton is assisting Professor Swanton Morley, a prolific author who plans to write guidebooks to every county in England (40+ of them) within two years, by 1939. He needs Sefton’s help. Their first county is Norfolk – and just as they begin their research a local vicar is found hung in his church, an apparent suicide. But IS it a suicide?

I was prepared to really love this book, the first in a new series by an author whose bookmobile series I really enjoyed. No such luck. The author has created in Morley an insufferable and pompous character given to spouting Latin phrases and making obscure references I had no clue about. A self-educated genius, Morley manages to make his new assistant feel like a dolt. Unfortunately, he also made this reader feel like a dolt. Two other genius detectives – Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes – had no such need and their stories are vastly superior to this dog.

I won’t be reading another in this series. ( )
  NewsieQ | Mar 26, 2017 |
A very slow start redeemed by Swanton Morley's eccentricities and Stephen Sefton's ineptitude as they resolve questions about the deaths of a well-liked rector and, a short time later, his housemaid. Mr Morely ferrets out the secrets and connections among Blakeney's disparate residents. ( )
  amac121212 | Aug 20, 2016 |
Stephen Sefton, a disillusioned poet, former schoolmaster, Communist and Spanish Civil War veteran, down to his last two pounds, replies to a 'situations vacant' advertisement in The Times where intelligence is essential, and against all expectations gets the job. Hired as Swanton Morley's assistant, he is required to accompany the well-known writer to all of England's counties to write a series of travel accounts: The County Guides – first stop: Norfolk. While exploring the coast, they come across the body of the reverend of Blakeney, hanging from a beam in the vestry. Detained by the police, Morley, with the help of Sefton, begins to ask questions: did the reverend indeed commit suicide, or was he in fact murdered?

This was a fun and very erudite homage to the great detective stories of the thirties that, while not taking itself too seriously, might be a little bit too clever for its own good, peppered as it is with Latin, biblical and literary quotes and random fact(oid)s, uttered by 'The People's Professor', Swanton Morley, himself. The front cover informs the reader that the novel has a 'touch of Sherlock Holmes and a dash of Lord Peter Wimsey'; while I can understand the comparison with the great detective from 221B Baker Street, it's harder to see the similarities with the charming aristocratic amateur detective, apart from his hailing from the same county as Morley: Norfolk. An autodidact and walking encyclopaedia, blessed with a keen intelligence, a never-ending, almost childlike, curiosity and a boundless supply of energy, Morley shares a single-minded determination and anti-social character traits with Holmes, though where I thought I detected parallels was with another great detective of the era: Hercule Poirot. Both are eccentric and slightly pompous, and almost always underestimated/not taken seriously by those around them, possessing the knack of coaxing important information from those involved in the case, without them being aware that they've done so.

I agree with those reviewers who found Morley very irritating, but I feel this is indeed the author's intention, as the reader sides and agrees with Sefton and Morley's daughter Miriam, Sefton's wry commentary and observations providing the anchoring point for the plot. As the novel is set in 1937, class snobbery is still alive and well, and Morley is constantly looked on contemptuously by those of the middle classes who consider themselves his betters, while the reader is also treated to a discussion of the increasingly volatile situation on the continent. With all this social commentary, it is no surprise that the actual mystery rather dissolves into the background at times, with Morley able to draw astonishingly accurate conclusions from what little evidence there is; but with all this amusing banter and verbal sparring, Morley (and the author) is forgiven. Yet for all its light-heartedness and a sense that the book isn't taking itself too seriously, there is a dark heart at the core of the book, in terms of both Sefton's still being haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and the human relationship at the centre of the mystery in Norfolk.

I would have liked to see a little more of Miriam Morley, who seems a thoroughly modern woman with her own opinions, able to stand up to her father, and who I thought was quite under-used in the plot. I suppose that the first volume in the series needed to establish the central relationship between Morley and Sefton, but I hope that she plays a larger role in subsequent Guides. Full marks to her, though, for arranging in advance a lot of the locations that would provide her father with crucial information in his investigation – evidence of psychic abilities, per chance? (Only joking of course; I did find those coincidences hard to swallow, but again this is in the best detective fiction tradition.)

Opinions are split over this book, and it's easy to see why. It's possible that eventually Morley's know-it-all attitude will get tiresome, but at the moment I'm looking forward to the next volume in the series. ( )
  passion4reading | Feb 1, 2016 |
This had its moments, but I'm not sure that it lived up to the blurb on the cover. That described this as being a sort of mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey. Whatever that might mean, it didn't match up in my imagination to what the book actually contained.
The book is narrated by Stephen Sefton, a veteran of the Spanish civil war and at the end of his tether applies for a job as assistant to Swanton Morley. This character is a working class man who has made his way in the world and has earnt the tag "the people's professor". He's written an awful lot of books and is setting out to write a set of books, the County guides, one per county, capturing the history, character and culture of each county. The plan is to spend about 6 weeks in each county, so churning out the books in double quick time. On the tour of Norfolk, he arrives in Blakeney to use this as a base to visit churches and the towns and villages of the North Norfolk coast. Only in the first church they visit, the come across the vicar, hanging dead in the belfry.
It all gets a bit convoluted, is this murder, who had a motive, why did the maid commit suicide as well? He manages to attract a significant amount of hostility to himself, by his manner, his questions and his massively annoying traits (the Latin tags was enough to put my back up).
It manages to be convincingly set in the lats 30s. The Holmes I can see, Morley is full of information, but there's none of the charm of Wimsey. Sefton has some life and interest and his narration is light hearted, he feels exasperation and admiration for Morley in almost equal. But as a whole, it felt a little like poking fun at all of the locals, it didn't feel very kind. ( )
  Helenliz | Nov 7, 2015 |
Just finished this and not sure yet what I think. I'd definitely read another Sansom before I tossed him aside. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
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Reminiscences, of course, make for sad, depressing literature.
'A three-sniff problem, Sefton,' he said to me. (p. 95)
It was as though they were ashamed of admitting that they shared something with the merely aspirational, as though Morley, in his great quest to spread knowledge among all classes, was a kind of contaminant. (p. 177).
'Terrible, terrible loss to the Church,' said Swain, who had that curious habit that clergymen sometimes have of leaning the head to one side when speaking, which one presumes is intended to imply empathy and understanding, but which also does rather unfortunately give the appearance of mental incapacity. (p. 213)
I have always thought the ideal ratio of happiness to sadness is about 3:1. (p. 247)
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Morley and Sefton
solve mystery of rev'rend
found hanging in church.

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It is 1937 and disillusioned Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton is stony broke. So when he sees a mysterious advertisement for a job where 'intelligence is essential', he applies. Thus begins Sefton's association with Professor Swanton Morley, an omnivorous intellect. Morley's latest project is a history of traditional England, with a guide to every county. They start in Norfolk, but when the vicar of Blakeney is found hanging from his church's bellrope, Morley and Sefton find themselves drawn into a rather more fiendish plot. Did the Reverend really take his own life, or was it - murder?… (more)

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