Book Review: The Latimer Mercy – ‘Rediscovering a crime classic’

This Christmas I was lucky enough to receive as a present, the source novel for the 1968 neo-noir classic Bullitt. Having been a favourite of mine as long as I can remember and having read the novel of Get Carter a week prior, it was excellent to have in my possession the inspiration for one of the most stylish and exciting thrillers put to celluloid.

Reading the forward, I was delighted to see it had been comprised by Robert Richardson, my next-door neighbour and creator of playwright-turned-detective Augustus Maltravers, who debuted in the novel, The Latimer Mercy.

Published in 1985, and winner of the Crime Writers’ Association best debut novel, the story takes place in the fictional cathedral community of Vercaster. Already a classic setting for any English crime story, and very relatable for me having grown up in Hereford, known for its magnificent cathedral.

Augustus Maltravers is both a throwback to the classic English detectives and a unique figure in an immeasurably vast genre. The name is unusual and distinctive, and like Holmes or Poirot, Maltravers comes with his own idiosyncrasies.

The plot involves the theft of a famous bible, The Latimer Mercy, named so due to a misprint in a section of the text. However, that’s not the only mystery that Maltravers must contend with. Soon afterwards, an actress and close friend performing in one of the amateur sleuth’s plays goes missing. As in any small community, not everyone is as respectable and upstanding as they appear, and Maltravers must navigate his way through a selection of dubious individuals who may be responsible for both crimes.

Richardson keeps the story moving at a quick pace whilst delivering a strong sense of place and identity. The supporting characters and Vercaster itself are given vivid, multi-layered personality.

What is nice to experience is a detective who is not a master at the game. Maltravers is well-read, extremely knowledgeable and perceptive, but by no means an infallible expert at detection. It takes him time and energy to work out the nature of events and Richardson shows the strain the investigation takes on both Maltravers and those close to him.

The well-executed and delightfully horrific finale/reveal is chilling and written very cinematically. One can imagine the types of shots that would be used during this section of the book and it’s a wonder the story has never been adapted for the big or small screen.

Favouring the works of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane when it comes to detective fiction, it was a surprise to read a story which is very much in keeping with the classic English detective brand, but with a dark, uncertain edge that makes it unpredictable, compelling you to keep the pages turning. The English detective story is normally something I find rather tiresome; I find reading an Agatha Christie novel for example quite tedious save for one or two stories, but Richardson takes the formula and adds something that is both intriguing and sinister with a multidimensional character for the reader to connect with.

A novel which I do hope will find its way back into print, and something that certainly deserves a well-budgeted screen translation.

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