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May 07, 2008

Ruth Dudley Edwards is an excellent writer - but she is just not a detective writer, argues Helen Szamuely: Murdering Americans - Ruth Dudley Edwards

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Murdering Americans
by Ruth Dudley Edwards
Scottsdale, Arizona: Poisoned Pen Press, 2007
Paperback, 9.95

Ten years ago or more I read Ruth Dudley Edwards's early detective stories and enjoyed them enormously. They were clever, well-plotted, with attractive characters, witty dialogue and free of the tiresome left-wing attitude that so many detective fiction writers seem to consider to be de rigueur these days. Then, for one reason or another, I did not read any of the later novels (she, too, had a gap in writing them, returning to the genre after a number of hefty historical volumes) until I started on the latest one, Murdering Americans.

Many things seem to have changed. In the first place, Dr Dudley Edwards's detective novels do not seem to be published or even reprinted in Britain. Even the excellent Murder One bookshop in Charing Cross Road, seems to stock very few of her books and all of them in American - and, therefore, considerably more expensive - editions.

There have also been changes in the books themselves, though I have been vaguely aware of the introduction of a new character, the formidable Baroness Troutback known to one and all as Jack. Still, the changes have been extensive and not, in my opinion, particularly beneficial.

The early novels centred on Robert Amiss, at first a civil servant, then an ex-ditto, his friends Inspector Jim Milton with wife Ann, a management consultant, and Old Etonian detective story addict Sergeant Ellis Pooley.

There was also Robert's girlfriend, the FCO high-flyer Rachel Simon and after the third novel, a cat called Plutarch with lots of personality. What do we have in the latest novel? All these people have been shunted to the sidelines with Ann Milton disappearing completely, an event that I might have to investigate by delving into the novels in-between.

Jim Milton is now a Commander and Ellis Pooley an Inspector, getting married to the gorgeous, highly intelligent and very right-wing Mary-Lou who is black and from a Baptist family from the American South. She seems to be a budding media personality. Rachel Simon has lost her job and is relying on Robert's future career as a detective story writer. The two young couples get married at the beginning of the novel and much hilarity ensues from the mismatches of the various families.

At the centre of the novel is "Jack" Troutback and she is a Character with a capital "C". One of my failures in the classic detective fiction department is that I dislike Characters with a capital "C". I have no difficulty in smiling at eccentricity, whether it is Sherlock Holmes's anti-social activity or Hercule Poirot's pernicketiness. But I have never taken to Sir Henry Merrivale (HM) or Dr Gideon Fell, indistinguishable from each other, in my opinion, as are the two authors, John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson, being really the same person.

Baroness Troutback is rude, self-obsessed with lots of idiosyncrasies like smoking cigars or pipes and singing big-band songs very badly as well as voraciously bi-sexual and unable to give a coherent account of anything, being rather anxious to make elliptical statement. Thankfully, the social revolution since the days of HM has allowed lowly followers to tell the Character to get a move on as they haven't got all day. Her take on being anti-PC is to be unpleasantly offensive to anyone who comes her way. "Jack" Troutback is clearly not based on any real member of the House of Lords. Those ladies are formidable but never rude, especially not to waiters who cannot answer back.

The plot revolves round an incredibly PC college in New Paddington, Indiana, called Freeman University, where a totalitarian regime has been imposed under the guise of diversity by the criminal President, the tyrannical Provost and her thug of a henchman. Through a number of interesting developments, Baroness Troutback, the head of a college in Cambridge, is invited to be a Distinguished Visiting Professor (DVP).

Understandably, she does not like what she finds. She does not like the food, the people, the habits, the fact that it is no longer the forties or fifties in middle America, the diversity police, the control freakery or the destruction of anything resembling academic standards. Lady Troutback seems sublimely unaware how much of what she dislikes exists in England, which, in a head of a Cambridge college and active member of the House of Lords is surprising, to put it mildly.

Still her rudeness becomes an asset when she tackles the poisonous PC and diversity brigade. She senses that there is some criminal activity in the background and hires a couple of young private eyes who die in a mysterious car accident. There is also the unexplained death of the previous Dean who maintained high academic standards, so we know who is responsible for his demise.

There is also the mysterious and completely ineffectual guerrilla organization that wants to fight back but does not know how and clearly needs a Boudicca, to wit, "Jack" Troutback. The organization goes under the initials VRC, which stands for Vast Rightwing Conspiracy and takes much inspiration from Ayn Rand and the science fiction, I mean fantasy, writer Terry Goodkind.

So the lady decides to fetch Robert Amiss, who, at least knows what goes on in Britain, though his knowledge of America, libertarian writers and philosophy is so poor that several chapters are happily spent on him being enlightened in the rather odd certainty that the reader is on his level of ignorance.

Among other things Amiss, who was a bright and witty young man in the early books (he is still witty but has turned into a nitwit), does not know is the role the blogosphere has played in America. Apparently, Freeman U is so isolated that they know nothing about right-wing websites, writers or bloggers.

This novel came out last year when the blogosphere led the campaign against the bipartisan immigration amnesty and defeated it. Nobody in this novel knows anything about such matters and blogs are seen as itsy-bitsy little online diaries. Now that is so last century.

While "Jack" is doing the fetching somebody murders the tyrannical Dean and her thuggish sidekick. Needless to say, the police are moronic.

Once Robert has understood what the situation is he starts organizing a revolution, something the poor benighted Yanks cannot manage for themselves. It seems that they need a former junior British civil servant to explain to them how to set up anonymous e-mail addresses.

For all of that, the revolution is quite fun and the reclaiming of Freeman U to academic rigour and American pride is very satisfying. Ruth Dudley Edwards is a superb writer. There can be no question about that.

In the meantime "Jack" Troutback solves the murders by intuition. To be fair, who was responsible for the first three is clear from the very beginning. It is the murderer of the Dean and the thuggish sidekick that is solved by alchemy on the last page of the penultimate chapter.

Did I really dislike this novel? No, actually, it is an excellent read, witty, well-written, clever characterizations and excellent dialogue. But it is not a detective story. It is not even a particularly accurate description of American academia though some of the hits are palpable, indeed.

Maybe Ruth Dudley Edwards will now return her characters to England, reinstate Robert Amiss and his cohorts to the centre of the next novel and sideline the insufferable Baroness Troutback, bringing her out whenever an attack dog is needed on some pompous diversity guru.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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Dr Helen Szamuely seems to be auditioning for a slot as the humorless academic apparatchik in Ruth Dudley Edwards' next satirical detective mystery. Szamuely's lame brained pronouncement about RDE's status a mystery writer was gratuitous and incorrect. Also, as someone who since the 1960's has paid the premium for fiction published in the UK but not in the USA, I can only look on Dr. Szamuely's complaints about the dearth of local availability of RDE's fiction with grim amusement. RDE is a Dubliner by the way; so, I am not certain she regards England as local. I would suggest that Dr. Szamuely make better use of the Internet. Times have changed. Wise folk take advantage of the improvements instead of bemoaning the deteriorations, Personally, I suspect RDE's apparently exclusive deal with Poisoned Pen Press has more to do pricking prigs in the ever shrinking world of UK publishing than anything else. In any case RDE's audio-books are published by BBC Audio.

Murdering Americans, while hardly RDE's best offering, is amusing enough. I would recommend that she go back to anchoring her stories around Robert Amiss, or a similarly solid comic foil. Comic creations like Lady Jack dazzle more brightly when they blaze and vanish only to reappear again in a different quarter.

Posted by: bubbuh at October 24, 2009 09:40 AM
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