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In a nutshell, L C Tyler's Ten Little Herrings is a wonderful, satirical, head-butting type of nod to Agatha Christie and the locked room mystery, with gently pointed humour. Literary agent Elsie Thirkettle fancies herself as the modern day Miss Marple, but in high heels and a short, tight designer skirt and with a passion for chocolat. She has more in common with Inspector Clouseau.
And yes, that wasn't a typo on the chocolat above as Ten Little Herrings is mainly set in France, at a place called Chaubord, to be precise (and modelled on Chambord, I presume). When the novel opens we learn that lit agent Elsie is in Sussex looking after Ethelred's flat and that she has "killed off" her novel-writing client and cancelled his credit cards. When the matter of finances draws to a head, she asserts herself and takes the lead, travelling to Chaubord to escort her author client, Ethelred home.
But Chaubord is where all the action is: this hotel may suffer from peeling flock paper but a recent stamp collectors' trading get-together ensured that the hotel provided a focal point and the locked room to which I referred earlier. With two dead, how many to go next? If any? And why those two? And whodunnit? Elsie decides to investigate and becomes the prime suspect on times (not her decision on the latter).
We first met Elsie and Ethelred in The Herring Seller's Apprentice. Ethelred took the lead there, but in Ten Little Herrings we have more of Elsie, the lit agent. She's always sharp on dialogue if lacking on the side of brain power now and again, especially when it comes to investigative work. The story interweaves chapters from Elsie's and Ethelred's point of view, providing a different take on the activities at the peeling-flocked-wallpaper hotel. Here are some of Elsie's gems:
'The Elsie Thirkettle Agency quickly attracted a number of promising young authors of high literary merit, but I managed to dump most of them. It's a question of quality, not quantity, you see. The agricultural revolution was all about getting two crops a year out of a field that previously gave you one. It's much the same with books. The royalties on a book that has taken five years to produce are usually much the same as on one written in six months. I can double-, sometimes treble-, crop my authors." We are then treated to Elsie's laws in respect of literary agency.
When Ethelred is subject to the equivalent of the Spanish inquisition in the locked room denouement, Elsie records: "'Nor I,' said Ethelred. I nodded at him. I always admire good grammar under pressure."
Finally, another Elsie-ism on Google and the net: "I found myself (Google informed me) on page 1 of about 395,000. Google told me that this had taken it 0.23 seconds (smug git)…" This one had me laughing out loud on a train carriage because of a faux pas on their behalf regarding my blog earlier this year, now resolved.
At Len's launch party for Ten Little Herrings I found myself talking to someone – I don't remember who – and we agreed that part of the appeal was the writing in the style of 1950s and 1960s middle-class English, the sort you used to receive and respect from the BBC. Now long gone, Tyler provides a reminder that adds poignancy to his novels.
Whilst loving Elsie and her Miss Marpledom fiasco, it is also fair to point out that Tyler is a very canny plot-maker. As with A Very Persistent Illusion, he tests the boundaries of reality, perception and the surreal in Ten Little Herrings with a deft mind and effective application.
Len Tyler has now gone full-time on his writing, for which I wish him all the best and I hope we get more of his engaging humour, perhaps more frequently, as a result. Ten Little Herrings may not have the humorous "oomph" of its opener The Herring Seller's Apprentice, but the humour and character development are all there. It was great to read of Elsie's development; Ethelred needs to come through more as a character in book three to give the series longevity, in the Mr and Mrs "Hart to Hart" sort of way.
But don't think it's undecided; it's not. It's another gem in the writing oeuvre of the emerging L C Tyler. More please and soon. Once read, you cannot but love these two.