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There should always be a distinct line drawn between True Crime and Crime Fiction. One is based on the truth, whilst the other comes from the imagination of the author. Personally I find the idea of true crime novels to be slightly depressing, I dont want to read an account of how Harold Shipman killed over 100 old woman, or how Rose and Fred West lured young women to their deaths. Fiction is a means of escape and although some books may be graphic in nature you at least know that these things are not real. This can not be said of books on real killers if you read too many of them you many never leave your house. So what about a fiction book that tries to set itself in the world of true crime writers, could it possibly work?
Dave Cunane is a Manchester PI down on his luck who pretty much has to take whatever job is on offer. Its lucky then that a huge offer comes in from a book publishing company that wants him to escort eccentric true crime author Cedric Liptrot around Manchester. Liptrot is writing a book about Billy Fox, a man who was found with 14 womens heads under his bed. Things do not go as smoothly as Cunane would hope as he realises that disturbing a slam dunk case like Billy Foxs annoys a lot of people. The witnesses want to forget, the police dont want him to uncover the wrong sort of evidence, and the numerous other people with book publishing details are out to get him. With all this and an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that perhaps Fox is not the killer people say he is means that Cunane is deep in trouble.
The Reluctant Investigator has two major issues that makes it a bad book; the overly eccentric characters and the boring nature of the plot. As a fan of authors such as Colin Bateman and Carl Hiaasen, I have no issue with combining murder with amusement. In fact this is probably my favourite genre as an anti-hero often gets into far better scrapes. Successful authors are able to achieve the correct balance of humour and mystery and often act as a comedy more than anything Frank Lean does not. Instead he chooses to try and write a straight crime noir novel that happens to be full of over the top characters that sit poorly in the feel of the book.
Many of the characters on offer are reminiscent of something you would read in Agatha Christie. Liptrots mother is a prime example. She is portrayed as an overly protective Yorkshire woman who has a tendency to lie. In a light hearted book this character could have been a great source of amusement. However, in The Reluctant Investigator her presence seems out of step with an investigation into the bloody and violent death of 14 young women. Lean fails to create a juxtaposition between the dark elements of the book and the humour. It almost reads like two separate novels a grim crime noir set in the dark parts of Manchester, and a farce.
If the tone was the only issue things would be bad enough, but the book is overly long and gets increasingly boring as the narrative moves slowly on. As a fan of fiction I do not want to read a book that reads like non-fiction. Lean has tried to integrate Billy Foxs murders in with real life cases; especially the Yorkshire Ripper. He will often refer to the fake fictional murders in the same breath as atrocities by the likes of the Wests. This would have sat a lot better if the book did not keep trying to be a comedy real life murder is rarely a laughing matter. One by-product of the real life feel to parts of the book is that we get chunks of fake real information that feels completely unnecessary.
On a last negative note I should also point out that anyone who has read a decent amount of crime fiction will probably realise what happens about 1/3 of the way through. Anyone with any observational skills will pick up on the glaring subtle hint that gives the game away far too early. I spent the final 300 pages awaiting the inevitable conclusion. This is a real shame as there is actually a half decent story trying to get out. The central character of Cunane is engaging and the elements that actually forward the investigation are good, its just that too much time is spent on over description or amusing asides.
Lean has created a book that does not know whether to be straight crime or comedy. Because he continually insists in talking about real deaths in detail and then jumping to yet another amusing drunken police officer; you feel uneasy. I thought that reading a fake real crime novel was as dull as reading the real thing, if I wanted to do that I would have bought the other book in the first place. Lean needs to decide whether to create a character driven crime farce or a straight mystery unfortunately for him I wont be reading anymore of his substandard work to discover is he ever decided his style.
Author: Frank Lean
Price: amazon uk - £3.74
Billy Fox has disposed of 14 women and gruesome evidence provides an open-and-shut case. However, when David Cunane is employed to research Billy's true life story, he discovers that nothing is what it seems. Somebody is trying to beat Billy's total - so have the police got the wrong man?