Individually, these are good titles
Beoordeeld in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op 17 april 2021
I am now totally overloaded with John Crow. As individual books, these are good titles, but to read all eight stories, as this omnibus edition invites you to do, is too much. The books were written or published from the late 60s to the very early 80s, a period of about 14 years.
However, like most good detective fiction, they are fairly timeless. One story does get heavily involved in the student protests of the 1960s and although many of the same issues exist today, the language and culture appear very dated now. The same story reflects a pre-Thatcherite education system and reading it now conveys an unintended sense of an axe about to fall. [I am old enough to remember the reality of the post-war welfare state and not the caricature that has often been presented to justify many negative changes.] A couple of stories engage with environmental issues and issues of class but, apart from some unconvincing slang, these stories could almost have happened at any time over the last 6 decades.
I know that many negative reviews come from those who stopped after the first story. I think they should give the author and the character another chance. Even so, I have to admit that the first story is my favourite. Not because it is necessarily the 'best' - whatever that might mean, but because I had no prior experience of this author and no expectations as to what might happen. The first story is also, perhaps, the most timeless, apart from some references to the War and a few dates, the events might have taken place almost anywhere and at almost any time in the early to mid 20th century.
The stories assume a policing model, similar to pre-war golden age crime fiction, where Scotland Yard is called in to solve cases too difficult for provincial police forces. This now feels very dated, esp. for readers or viewers of recent crime fiction. John Crow fits into this picture quite well, and would be a convincing character alongside John Gregson or Jack Hawkins in a 1950s or 60s tv show. He doesn't swear, indeed, there is almost zero bad language in any of the stories, although there is some negative, sexist language from some of the less savoury characters. Although I do not think the author is sexist, the stories tend to reflect a universe where women are seen as in power struggles or adversarial relationships with men. There is not a single female police officer, either.
The first couple of stories are set in almost entirely fictional locales, at least as far as I can tell. The later ones make use of fictional locations placed in or near real geography - the author seems to be very familiar with Tyneside and Newcastle, but also refers to Leeds, Bristol and the West Country. While this adds some depth and reality, it can also jar. The main railway in Bristol is Temple Meads, not Templemeads, and this would be obvious to anyone who had actually travelled there. In the same way, the local geography is sometimes misrepresented and this does not help with the suspension of disbelief. I am not familiar with some of the other locations and can only wonder whether the author has made similar mistakes concerning them.
The writer's style is interesting, since he does not follow the usual formulae for the genre. Thus, the first story spends a lot of time setting the scene before Inspector Crow appears at all, but this is not true of every tale. Similarly, the primary murder or central crime is not always handled in the same way. Thus, the reader may be caught out when something does occur. However, the main plot always seems to develop in a similar way; although the main characters and suspects may be very different, from book to book, the shape of the final narrative is basically the same. I do not want to spoil any of the books, but by the time you have read two, you have a very good idea of the kind of process that will occur and when the mystery will be solved. This does not mean that you will necessarily be able to predict the precise result, but whether you guess or not, the villain will make sense in terms of how the author works out his plots. This is why it is probably a mistake to read all eight books in close proximity. If these were read as published, you would have a chance to almost forget what happened in the last book and so be a little less prepared for the next.
Because these books were not originally published together, it makes sense that John Crow should be described again and again, since the reaction of people to his unusual appearance is a part of the dynamic of how they relate to him as both a policeman and as a person. He comes across as a likeable guy, although he is not really three-dimensional enough to be truly likeable. We never get to meet his wife, nor do we know much about his hobbies or passions outside of work. One problem I have with Crow is that he is almost fixed in time, we never know how old he is, except by hints at past events, such as the war - but even then, we do not know if he was a child, a teen or an adult at that time. Often, authors do fix their characters, so that James Bond never ages, but it doesn't work so well when the inter-story logic has Crow referring to past cases or conveys some sense of progress in his career. As I said, the publishing dates cover about 14 years, but a colleague is described as about 40 in the first novel and about 45 in the last. This is a bit jarring, but the author never actually gives us dates or chronology, although there are frequent references to the seasons and the weather. Logically, all of this should require somewhat longer than 5 years to happen.
Although Crow is a fairly fixed point, the author seems to have lost track of some aspects of his character. In the earlier books, Crow has to defend his feelings, his intuitions, whilst, later, he is described as almost totally lacking in intuition - in the latter instance, it is meant to draw a contrast with an impetuous younger officer, who tends to rush too far ahead of evidence. I understand that Crow wants to temper the pace of his younger colleague, but the contradiction between the two descriptions of Crow is too glaring. It should have been quite possible for John Crow to realise that 'intuition' is not something supernatural, nor something purely subjective or irrational - rather, when a person has experience and knowledge of a subject, their mind has learned how to process that knowledge to arrive at a conclusion and this process may be carried out deliberately and consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes, when we stop struggling with a problem, our mind may present us with a solution which looks like a blind leap, but which makes sense when we unpack it. Thus, there should be no clash between working carefully and methodically to find evidence and accepting that trained intuition can also bring results.
At one point, Crow gets into a discussion with a forensic pathologist - the scientist is concerned the police have ignored evidence in his report on a death, but when pressed by Crow, he refuses to draw any conclusions or present hypotheses. He simply wants to present facts, leaving it to others to draw conclusions. While it is true that the scientist is not a policeman, just as Crow is not a trained forensic scientist, this portrayal is actually unrealistic. Science does not work simply by categorising facts, since these may be endless. There has to be some process of selection and interpretation - often, in new areas of investigation, there has to be an initial hypothesis, an idea of what you think might be happening - this is not just a stab in the dark, but is an educated guess based on past experience and knowledge. In this case, a pathologist would interpret the evidence, the bare facts, in line with past experience to suggest a possible or probable cause or sequence of events; even if there are confounding factors. This is similar to Crow's 'intuition', but the author wants to present the scientist as merely a gatherer of data. This is not how scientists work, nor is it how pathologists work or have worked in the past.
The interactions of Crow with his subordinates and with his peers or superiors come across as quite realistic. His immediate superior comes across as a real character and not just a caricature - as is so often the case in tv crime fiction. He is clearly a capable policeman and not merely a political climber. Nevertheless, politics in both the small and large senses, does often disrupt his working relationship with John Crow. The final novel does show Crow as having progressed in some senses, both professionally and personally, but I am unsure whether I am happy to leave him where he is or whether some, more personally satisfying conclusion would have been better. Just seeing him return home to his long-suffering wife at the end of a case would have given some sense of closure.
I appreciated being able to buy 8 books so cheaply, but I was disappointed by some of the problems with this set. The author sometimes makes mistakes in language - for example, using 'disseminating', when he clearly meant 'dissembling' - that is, avoiding the truth. In addition, some words are misspelt, or the capitalisation varies, so that 'Owton House' sometimes becomes 'Owton house'. The formatting is sometimes odd, with split lines or with missing speech marks, usually at the beginning of something John Crow is about to say. Since these books have been published in the past and are now being issued in this edition by a publishing company, I was very surprised to see so many errors. At the back of the books is a glossary of English expressions and slang for American readers. This is almost entirely useless, since almost all of the words and expressions listed do not appear in the text of these novels. Perhaps they are relevant to other books by the same author or the same publisher, but they appear to be virtually pointless here. This reinforces a feeling that this set of books was rushed to publication with little care or attention.
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