An Awfully Big Adventure

Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Norfolk has been a holiday destination since the 1930s. The picturesque village of Blankeney gets very busy in the summer months – well, what passes for a summer in Britain – and has many wonderful 17th and 18th century buildings visitors can explore. The North Norfolk Coastal Path runs along this part of the British coast, travelling along the Blakeney quayside and zigzagging a course through the local salt marshes.

Just to the west of the historic resort lies the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, where a lovely miniature and heritage railway lines rattles along the coast for some 11 km, offering spectacular views over this amazing and mostly flat landscape.

Why am I telling you all this in the middle of rain-soaked October, when you’re busy scooping out pumpkin flesh and thinking about hot toddies?

My favourite murder mysteries are nearly all set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, so when I came across Ian Sansom’s book The Norfolk Mystery in one of my local charity shops and read the blurb for it, I simply couldn’t resist, I had to read it. And what a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read it’s been!

Gently lampooning some of the most famous writers of murder mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Peter Wimsey’s creator Dorothy L. Sayers, Sansom’s manages to cook up a first rate cozy that makes you laugh out loud at times and sit still deep in thought at others.

From bearding a seemingly genteel and well-to-do Norfolk village society that is really nothing more than a hotbed for Hitler’s warped and racist ideologies, to commenting on every little thing he sees en route while solving the village’s mystery, Professor Swanton Morley is a fabulous creation and amateur sleuth.

With his newly acquired assistant and reluctant side-kick Stephen Sefton, a young man traumatised by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Professor Morley sets out to “discover” Norfolk in an effort to create the ultimate county guide for it. They get as far as the village of Blakeney in the north of Norfolk, before they stumble over a dead reverend, hanging inconveniently from the rafters of his own church, just when Morley wants to interview the man for his book.

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

Trapped in the village until Norfolk’s Constabulary allows them to travel onwards, Morley and Sefton set out to solve the mystery surrounding the clergyman’s death. This becomes even more pressing, when the reverend’s servant is also found dead within 24 hours of his apparent suicide.

I particularly liked the use Ian Sansom makes of the locality, the special landscape that is the Norfolk Fens – contrasted nicely by Sefton’s visit to Foyles in London, where he soon gets lost in the aisles that hold the bewildering number of books The People’s Professor has spewed out over the years.

To me, it read like a literary representation of Norfolk’s Fens, where rivulets, canals, streams and wetlands go off into every direction, leading the unwary traveller by the nose and easily to their doom, if they don’t follow the local guide’s instructions (at Foyle’s this would be the young woman behind the counter, who helpfully offers to write down instructions for young Sefton).

Morley is as eccentric as it gets and so is his daughter Miriam, a young woman with very strong views on most things, including how to chat up young men while driving her prototype Lagonda at break-neck speed. And while Sefton ends up in the arms – and bed – of pretty much every young woman he meets during the Norfolk trip, he seems to have a peculiar antipathy for Miriam.

Fortunately for us readers, Ian Sansom has already completed a new adventure, Death in Devon, so I can enjoy another highly entertaining and thought-provoking read soon and find out, if Miriam succeeds in turning Sefton’s badger-coloured head.

Since Professor Morley wants to complete guides for all 39 counties…Samson has his work cut out and eager readers have plenty of awfully big adventures to look forward to.