Reviewed by Harriet
Cluff did not stir. Nor did Wright. Wright gripped the curtain, his arm raised, frozen in the beginning of motion. The afternoon began to fade. The pilot light above the time-clock in the lamp shone more brightly as the dusk gathered. If anyone in the other houses was watching Cluff he stayed unperturbed. If it was cold where he was he showed no sign of it. No one went up the street or down it. The ordinary inhabitants of Balaclava Street never opened their front doors, except for visitors. There were no visitors to Balaclava Street on weekdays.
I always look forward to getting copies of the latest British Library Crime Classics novels, and I can safely say that I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve read to a greater or lesser degree. They are invariably entertaining, sometimes exciting, and of course stuffed with all that period detail so many of us have come to love. But I’ve never really expected or looked for what you might call fine writing, so this novel came as a wonderfully unexpected surprise.
Gil North, real name Geoffrey Horne (1916-1988), was a civil servant from Skipton in Yorkshire. Writing was obviously dear to his heart, and his first novels appeared under his own name. But in 1960 he created Sergeant Cluff, and used his pseudonym for the eleven novels in which the sergeant appeared. This one was the first of the series, all of which were filmed for TV though they don’t seem to exist any more.
Like his creator, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is a bluff Yorkshireman, a lifetime inhabitant of the fictional town of Gunnershaw. Cluff is a law unto himself – his superior at the police station doesn’t understand him and is irritated by the way he goes his own way, hardly seeming answerable to anybody else. The case that draws his attention here is that of Amy Snowden, who is found dead in her bed, the room full of gas. Everyone but Cluff is satisfied with the coroner’s verdict of suicide, but he feels sure that Amy’s husband Wright had a part to play in it. Amy was a relatively attractive woman, but she was in her forties and her husband some twenty years younger, and it seems clear that he married her for her money and property. Her friends and neighbours know she was unhappy, and that Wright was the cause, though she never said a word against him. However, though the police agree to call him in for questioning, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for holding him or for pursuing the matter any further. So Cluff decides to take time off work and to pursue Wright in his own time.
The scenes in the centre of the novel are truly remarkable. They start with Wright’s night in the police station, in which Cluff sits silently at the table, allowing his own brooding presence to progressively break down the weak man sitting opposite, and they continue throughout his silent vigil outside Amy’s house, inside which Wright is hiding like a cornered rat, peeping through the curtains from time to time to see his pursuer still in his place, and weeping with fear and rage. Eventually he cracks, and flees the house in the middle of the night, making his way to a remote farm in the depths of the dales, where another woman waits for him but where Cluff knows all too well where to find him.
There are many shocking revelations still to come, and a good deal of tense and exciting action, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather it is a psychological thriller of a most convincing and absorbing kind. Not only do we have Wright, wandering ‘like a spirit in purgatory’, unable to settle or to deal with the guilt of his past actions, but in the second half of the novel we also meet the terrifying Jinny Cricklethwaite, a middle-aged widow who is keeping her farm going as best she can after the death of her husband. Jinny is a true monster, far more wicked than the weak, frightened Wright, and the scenes in which we see her in action almost descend to grand guinol horror, but manage to remain in the realm of the believable.
But what’s this about fine writing, I hear you say? Well North’s style here is quite unlike that of any crime novel I can call to mind. I’ve seen him compared to Simenon, but the extraordinary spareness of his language here reminded me the most of that great though largely forgotten mid-twentieth-century novelist Henry Green. As you can see from the quotation at the top, he favours short sentences and rarely uses commas. He describes people and events in detail, and interrupts conversations to tell us what people are thinking but not saying. I suppose the style is the linguistic equivalent of Cluff himself – a man of few words, blunt and to the point. Another Cluff novel is coming out in a couple of months’s time and I’m looking forward to it already.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Gil North, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356466, 118pp., paperback.
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