THE PRISONER OF BRENDA (Headline), features for its protagonist an unnamed man who is the proprietor of No Alibis bookshop in Belfast and the most unlikely hero in crime fiction. A puny specimen, Mystery Man is a coward, a flake and a hypochondriac who suffers from brittle bones, and yet he finds himself dragged into solving mysteries time and again on the basis that he has read every crime and mystery novel worth reading, and thus understands the criminal mind to a degree that no other detective could.
Here Mystery Man is approached by Nurse Brenda, a psychiatric nurse, to help out with establishing the identity of a man who has been incarcerated in Purdysburn mental hospital. Known only as ‘The Man in the White Suit’, the man has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and refuses to speak, even though he has been accused of a brutal murder.
Mystery Man, who was previously a patient of Nurse Brenda, takes on the case against the better judgement of his girlfriend, Alison, who fears that he will suffer a relapse and find himself being dragged off to Purdysburn. But Mystery Man has the scent of a good mystery in his nostrils - and besides, someone is prepared to pay him to investigate, which is very good news given that the book industry is dying on its knees.
The Mystery Man novels are on one level a humorous spoof of the crime and mystery genre, or at least the more extreme and clichéd crime and mystery novels. Told in the first person, so that we have access to Mystery Man’s deluded ramblings as he goes about his investigation, they are a distant (and possibly addled) cousin of the Raymond Chandler / Dashiell Hammett private eye novels, with the added bonus of Mystery Man’s knowing commentary on his own actions as he explains the various clues and avenues of investigation.
Of course, Colin Bateman is a veteran of 22 crime novels for adults at this point, so he wraps his apparently ham-fisted spoof of the mystery novel inside a cleverly constructed mystery narrative. All told, it’s terrific fun.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.