REVIEW: Crime thriller that sadly loses track – Westmorland Alone by Ian Sansom

-By Alan Cleaver

JUST when you thought we had enough historical detective stories featuring amateur sleuths who easily outwit plodding policeman, along comes 1930’s hero Prof Swanton Morley.

He is writing a series of county guides and – by fortunate happenstance – each time he visits a county he stumbles across a murder.

The county theme allows the author to have his hero visit local beauty spots, taste local delicacies and indulge in each county’s customs.

In this case it includes Egremont Crab Fair – which is of course in Cumberland.

To be fair the history seems accurate enough with only one lapse where he calls the county Cumbria.

Murder mysteries are more about the characters than the murders and Prof Morley is an eccentric antiquarian cum detective who some readers might fall in love with – but he’s a man I just wanted to slap.

He quotes Latin ad infinitum and there are countless references to his past books and pamphlets on all aspects of social life (a quaint idea when Conan Doyle references Sherlock Holmes’ papers on 234 Types of Tobacco Ash but dreadfully overused by Sansom).

The narrator is Morley’s assistant Stephen Sefton – a much more likeable and ‘real’ character.

And a romantic frisson is added by Morley’s daughter Miriam joining them on their trip.

Sefton takes the train to Appleby which crashes while approaching the station, killing a young girl. And this is the point when the novel comes off the rails too.

The next morning Sefton brushes off whiplash and his other injuries to join Morley and Miriam on a drive to Kirkby Stephen (stopping off at a chemist for Sefton’s ‘bangs and bruises’), then on to Shap for an archaeological dig and lunch. After lunch our gang of sleuths join the dig and find a body.

The police are called and investigate. It’s at this point Morley & Co decide to head off to Egremont Crab Fair arriving there ‘late afternoon’!

After adventures at the fair, they return to Appleby in time for dinner – and in time for Miriam to go for a dance.

All this a day after Sefton was involved in a major train crash – and with the A66 not yet built!

Sansom’s writing style is pleasant enough but no amount of character or local colour can save this book which is structurally flawed from the outset.

  • Published by 4th Estate. Price £12.99