‘Murder at the Wake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder at the Wake

‘Still, Guv – darkest hour before dawn, eh?’

‘What?’

Skelgill’s tone is irate, though DS Leyton seems not to notice.

‘It’s what they say, Guv – that it’s the darkest hour before dawn.’

‘No it’s not. It starts getting light in the hour before dawn. It’s called nautical twilight. The darkest hour’s in the middle of the night, Leyton.’

I have an idea that Bruce Beckham, author of the Inspector Skelgill mysteries, is having us on. Just as his main character likes to play tricks on his longsuffering subordinates, Jones and Leyton, Beckham has a lot of stuff going on in his books that’s not apparent on the surface. One obvious example is the language – his characters never employ any curse stronger than “darn” in the dialogue, but the narrator informs us matter-of-factly that the actual words were much saltier. And it’s fairly plain that Skelgill enjoys a rich and varied sex life, but we only learn about it from hints – as when he appears at work wearing the same clothes he wore the day before. The same goes for his attractive female subordinate DS Jones, and there are signs they may have something going between them. But it’s never stated, at least thus far.

Beckham also likes to play with names, in Dickensian style. An actor character, for instance, is named Brutus. That’s kind of nice, I have to admit (it helps me keep track of the characters, which is often a problem for me). But naming a Dublin legal firm “Mullarkey & Shenanigan, Solicitors,” may be a bridge over the Liffey too far.

The form of these novels is generally cozy, but unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Inspector Skelgill is no cold-blooded thinking machine. Skelgill barely thinks at all. He’s a purely physical man who solves his puzzles kinetically, as a kind of by-product of his physical exertions. In the early books it was mostly “fell running,” but more recently it’s been fishing on the lakes of England’s Lake District, where he is a policeman.

That gut-based method of operation is severely restricted in Murder at the Wake, which takes place after a freak blizzard and extended cold spell have rendered the lakes unfishable. When elderly Declan O’More is found clubbed to death in his study in his family’s stately home, one week after the death of his older brother, Skelgill is helping the mountain rescue team search for a lost hiker. He gets the helicopter pilot to drop him near the hall, and is confronted with something like a classic Agatha Christie problem – the residents of the hall, gathered for the funeral, have been isolated there. They are Declan’s five grand-nephews and nieces, plus a few servants and business connections. One of them must be the killer.

Skelgill goes to work in his usual fashion, being rude and insensitive to almost everyone and attracting strong attention from the females present. After the roads open up the investigation proceeds along more conventional lines, and the inquiries stretch as far as Dublin. The murderer is finally unmasked in a dramatic, but somewhat contrived, scene.

Skelgill annoys me, but I keep coming back to his stories. So I must be entertained. In that light I recommend Murder at the Wake, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

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