THE CORPSE IN THE GARDEN OF PERFECT BRIGHTNESS / AUTHOR: MALCOLM PRYCE / PUBLISHER: BLOOMSBURY / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 19TH
As surreal and whimsical as it full of worldly common sense, this second stop on Pryce’s GWR noir franchise moves with exquisite lightness, and a music and authenticity all its own. The prose has all the charm of a slow train ride, but the quiet, creeping fear of the sense that one’s era is over makes this cosy historical crime very much more than the sum of its parts.
Like any good mystery, it’s the search for truth within the likeable but limited protagonist that wins our hearts as much as the quest he’s officially on. Set in the winter of 1948 after the nationalisation of the four great railway companies, Jack Wenlock is the last of the GWR’s railway detectives, newly married and newly unemployed. Having enjoyed a moral compass of absolute clarity, catching fare evaders and proud of the Great Western Railway that’s been his life since orphanhood, Jack is now pursued by a murderous organisation and heading for Singapore on the tip-off his mother is alive. But it’s Jack’s growing understanding and frequent bafflement at the new horizons his wife Jenny introduces that are the great adventure. His love is not in question, but his ability to get his brain and heart around the more complex moralities of the society in which they need to ensure their survival, including greater sexual equality and personal freedom, is a new world for which he’s not sure he’s brave enough.
The wisdom of Pryce’s observational humour and appreciation of everyday surreality counterpoint Wenlock’s well-meant naivety and give the character gentle space to grow; what the story needs us to learn about the Great Western Railway is expressed articulately by a convincingly passionate hero. There’s a good sense of the era, framing and supporting the story without ever overshadowing it, and a sense of grudging progress towards a better world. Wisdom and truths far beyond the subject reach of the story speak to this period and ours, making this historical fiction that speaks to us of who we are, can and should be; and encouraging us to be good-humoured on the journey.