#SecondThoughts: Blotto, Twinks and the new kind of book review

I’ve been becoming more disillusioned with ‘star’ reviews as time passes, so I thought I would pilot a new series here on Fiction Can Be Fun, drawing together approaches from several different sources. We’ll see how it goes: please do let me know if there is anything that you particularly like or dislike about the approach with a comment at the end. For the time-being, we’ll stick this under #secondthoughts, but if it looks like it’s a go-er, we’ll think again.

First up, Simon Brett’s Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter.

Simon Brett has a whopping 57 mystery books in four different series, plus a few other books (the most famous probably being the thriller A Shock To The System, with Michael Caine starring in the film adaptation). The longest running series is The Charles Paris Mysteries; the first of these was written in the mid-1970s. Bill Nighy plays the louche, alcoholic, shambolic, struggling actor, for whom the series is named, in a series of radio adaptions that were updated for the run that began in 1999. (They also had to make some changes to deal with continuity as the stories ended up being adapted out of order).

As I come to write this review, I realise that my experience of Simon Brett’s writing has mostly come from the radio adaptations with Bill Nighy, and from Brett’s series Foul Play, a panel game played by mystery writers. My only experience of actually reading his work is the first book in his Fethering series, which was a book club read. (Fethering is a fictional village on the south coast of Britain, just down the road from the very real Tarring. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Brett’s sense of humour). Brett has been on my TBR list for some time: I spotted Blotto and Twinks in the library recently, and I thought ‘why not?’

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter feels a lot like P.G. Wodehouse having a go at a Ruritanian novel, with a splash of Biggles, or something very much like. Blotto is the ‘spare’ in a ducal family, his elder brother Loofah having taken the seat when their father died sometime prior to the start of the book. Whilst Blotto is more athletic than Bertie Wooster, and very much more heroic, they have about the same capacity between the ears. His younger sister, Twinks, is the brains of the family, and in danger of turning into a Mary Sue type character. To Blotto’s relief, she’s more than happy to let him drive the car, even though she’s hopelessly modern and can change a tyre, something Blotto believes should be left to the working classes.

I read a comment recently about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories which suggested that the mystery was second to the interaction of the characters, particularly the badinage between Wolfe and his leg-man and general factotum Archie Goodwin. This just made me think I need to get back into reading Nero Wolfe stories, because it’s a while since I’ve done so. The reason for mentioning it is that this book is billed as a mystery too, but there’s very little of it, to my mind. Instead we have Blotto and Twinks, a miscellany of characters, including their dreadful mother (who is giving Loofah a hard time because he’s only given her granddaughters so far), and a rather heavy-handed Ruritanian king-in-exile setting.

You’re probably getting the impression that I didn’t like this book very much. There are indeed many things that I found it difficult to engage with, and if you’re selling a book on the one hand as a mystery and on the other on the basis of some loveable eccentric characters, then you want the mystery to be stimulating and the characters to be engaging. There are another nine books, so far, in the series, so maybe I’m being overly harsh in my assessment, or perhaps the books mellow with time, or perhaps you just need to be prepared that the book is not a full blooded (conscious choice of words there) mystery. I find it difficult to recommend this specific book to anyone, but if you enjoy your detective fiction then I would recommend the Fethering books, and I would definitely advise listening out for Bill Nighy as Charles Paris. If I manage to snag a book from that series I’ll keep you updated.

How about you? Have you read any of Simon Brett’s books before? What turns you off a book? What are your expectations for a mystery novel?