Joanna Cannan – Body in the Beck (1952)

Francis Worthington, Oxford history don and famous mountaineer, is staying in the Lake District. On his way to attempt a difficult climb with his
protege David Brown, Francis discovers the body of a man in a pool;
unperturbed he carries on with the climb, but on returning to his hotel does
notify the police. Detective Inspector Price of Scotland Yard is summoned to take over the case – much to his chagrin.

As a whodunit it has to be admitted that this book is very severely flawed.
Price spends most of the book pursuing Worthington – a pursuit the reader
knows is completely wrong-headed. The case is solved as a result of
Worthington’s activities, with the mopping-up and solution, which is far
from scintillating, being concluded in the last 20 pages or so. The book is
in fact concerned with the clash of values represented by Worthington and
Price. Price, Cannan’s series detective for her last five mysteries, is not
only something of an idiot, but is made to represent every value of which
Cannan herself disapproved. He is narrow-minded, bigoted, puritanical,
insensitive. His political attitudes – Welfare State Labour – are clearly
those Cannan disapproved of. Now sometimes Cannan is very amusing about
this. Price’s distaste for rural life, his eating habits and so on provide
ample scope for humour. But for how long you continue to be amused or
receptive to all this is a matter of personal taste I imagine. I am also
unsure as to the extent to which Cannan really regards Worthington as a
hero-figure. Personally I find him just as repellent as Price. You do wonder
whether Cannan was quite aware of the positions adopted at times. For
instance Price manages to gain entrance to Worthington’s rooms at Oxford –
this is clearly seen as reprehensible, but when Worthington and his proteges
break into the main suspects house it is commendable. Was Cannan in fact
sending Worthington and his moral code up or did she not perceive the
similarity? Cannan is a good writer, she can be very funny, the descriptions
of climbing feats will fascinate those interested in that sort of thing and
her political attitudes are interesting. But this is a very, very strange
choice as one of the top 100 mysteries; for a start her first Price book,
Murder Included, is much better.

(July 2007)