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In his heyday Charlie Sparks had found fame and fortune as a game show host but alas, fame is a fickle fiend and now Charlie is fat, washed up and reduced to doing stand-up gigs at small time venues. Things go a bit awry for him when he unexpectedly dies of tetanus poisoning (think strychnine poisoning) whilst performing at a local pub concurrently being attended by a chap named Kempston Hardwick. Smelling a rat, Hardwick immediately concludes murder and decides to solve the case himself on account of not being able to stand injustice in the world. Tagging along for the ride is a man named Ellis Flint, an ex-Army officer, that Hardwick had just met that evening - will these two recently acquainted strangers manage to solve the case before the police cotton on to the fact it was murder, or will the culprit slip away?
"Exit Stage Left" by Adam Croft is a fun little novella (although the fact it is a novella is not made clear at all on the description page on Amazon which could ruffle a few feathers) which took me less than an hour to read that can be purchased on the Kindle for a measly 77p. This is the first in what clearly intends to be a series of books starring Kempston Hardwick after Croft had great success on the Kindle with two other crime thrillers involving police detectives Wendy Knight and Jack Culverhouse. Kempston Hardwick is an intriguing character as an amateur sleuth with a clearly brilliant and logical mind and amazing powers of deduction with the rather affable Ellis Flint as his (un)trusty sidekick and parallels to a certain Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are hard pushed to miss - in fact some might say the resemblance is shamelessly so.
The thing that is either make or break for this story is the fact an entire murder mystery is crammed into a very short space so the reader gets very little in the way of characterisation and background padding and is simply thrust headfirst into the maelstrom. So, fans of crime thrillers that like a slow burner with a chance to weave their way through all the red herrings and misdirection to put their own deductive skills to the test will have very little chance with this one as it's over faster than you can say "Elementary, my dear...Flint", but on the other hand the murder mystery is the only plot, with no subplots about the personal lives of undoubtedly troubled detectives and their tortured pasts, and so if you don't like those kind of deviations from the main plot then this could be the perfect story for you.
This is a fairly light-weight story despite the subject matter, the setting feels like quaint village life and the pace of the story is slow to match, and the character of Hardwick seems just a touch old-fashioned with his rather analytical view of people which keeps him a rather aloof figure, plus the manner in which he talks occasionally: "Observation is everything, my dear man. And it need not be done through one's eyes". Basically, it's just a straightforward murder mystery (although the mystery itself is anything but) that is all about collecting the facts and solving the crime, there is no element of danger or any thrills to be had and there wasn't an opportunity to really care about the demise of Charlie Sparks as he was an unknown entity, so fans of crime thrillers may find this a bit lacking, but I feel this story is more about developing the intriguing character of Hardwick and the fascinating way his mind works, as well as creating the dynamic between himself and Flint who in comparison is rather amusingly a bit of an idiot.
Hardwick has the undeniable Sherlock Holmes-esque quality of rather infuriatingly making obscene deductions from seemingly insignificant observations whilst making it seem like the most obvious thing in the world to make us mere mortals feel positively dim witted which does make for an impressive (if not entirely original) character. I did feel some of the deductions were a tiny bit far-fetched, for example guessing a password first time from a photo and an approximate age but it is a trivial point really as we are supposed to be blown away by the pure genius of the character. Flint if anything is more of a hindrance than a help and needs to be kept in line by Hardwick which is an amusing twist if you were going to go down the Holmes and Watson comparison route...which I'm not saying I am...so despite having miniscule amounts of background information on our two protagonists their characters are quickly fleshed out just through their actions and conversations which is really well done given the time constraints of the story.
So, despite the rather short nature of the story, the murder mystery itself is rather well thought out though not overly complex with an array of colourful potential murderers each with their own motives. So, we have the dissatisfied wife Marianne Spencer, the mistress Roxanne de la Rue, as the namesake suggests she is indeed a stripper, Don Preston the agent and finally Patrick Allen, the business partner to...dum dum dum...a pharmaceutical company where many a toxic substance could be found. Sneakily questioning these characters under the misapprehension of being members of the constabulary, which also very effectively brings their characters quickly to life with minimal effort, Hardwick and Flint uncover a lot of different motives and suspicious behaviour and all the evidence is there to correctly guess the murderer if you're fast enough, which I wasn't, but you do need to think outside the box which I particularly enjoyed about this story as it's boring when you've guessed the murderer by page 3.
It certainly isn't laugh out loud kind of story, although there is a slight tongue-in-cheek feel to the way the story is written, perhaps by the ludicrous way the investigation begins by two almost complete strangers and the often blasé attitude of Hardwick as certain unfortunate events occur that would certainly be cause for concern for other "normal" people. There is also a lot of subtle, dry humour dotted around which could quite easily missed if that's not your kind of humour but may well provoke a small chuckle or a tiny grin in places so I found this novella a very enjoyable, albeit slightly odd, read. All in all it is a very well written story, from a third person perspective, with some colourful descriptions and very believable dialogue capturing the different mannerisms of the characters with ease. I would say if you are in the mood for something short and sweet this would be an ideal story for you, with fun characters, a tricky little murder mystery and a general tongue-in-cheek quality that makes for a quick and intriguing read. If you prefer a much darker, more graphic, thrilling kind of murder mystery / crime thriller than this will probably be a bit too tame for you with the extreme lack of any danger, relatively slow pace and innocuous feel to the story.