Back in the 1970s I had the great pleasure of discovering Joyce Porter’s detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Dover. Even then I never saw them in a bookshop. Joyce Porter was one of many wonderful ‘finds’ from my local library. Always on the return shelf and eagerly awaited by those in the know, sadly many fine crime novelists never achieved wider fame. Now thanks to e-readers and the Bello imprint readers can enjoy Joyce Porter’s work again.
Comic novel-writing is a difficult trick to pull off, compared to writing for television. Even the most accomplished scriptwriters, Ronnie Barker for instance, had a lot of help from visual humour and his own impeccable delivery. A series of funny detective novels sounds unlikely but Joyce Porter’s novels are guaranteed to make you smile and like all good writers the finished work seems effortless.
Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover of the Yard is a one-off. Portrayed as vividly as one of Dickens’s grotesques, Dover is a fat, gluttonous, slovenly, lazy, selfish, sponging, bad-tempered, sometimes menacing, hypochondriac. But enough of his good points. Whenever a Chief Constable requests the aid of Scotland Yard – that fictional convention universally used – Dover is first choice to be foisted on some unsuspecting local force to get him out of his superiors’ way. He spends his time between meals complaining bitterly, having forty winks, insulting the locals and loading work on his long-suffering sidekick, Sergeant Charles Edward MacGregor.
Sergeant MacGregor is a complete contrast to Dover, young, elegant, courteous and ambitious. He spends his time trying to get Dover to do some investigating, smoothing things over and mentally composing desperate requests for a transfer. He likes to follow up leads on his own, hoping to solve the case but is thwarted by Dover not wanting him to get any credit.
These are not city novels. They focus on the goings-on in small towns or villages with a vicar, spinsters, formidable matrons, peppery colonels and other characters familiar from the Golden Age. However the settings are considerably less appealing than St Mary Mead. Joyce Porter has a wonderful eye for people’s foibles and the character sketches are still instantly recognisable.
As well as being very funny, the novels have adroitly plotted murder mysteries. The solutions are unpredictable and satisfying. Dover attained his rank somehow and when prodded to work, his shrewd cunning always solves the case before Sergeant MacGregor. You can’t help liking him and perhaps part of his appeal is that he isn’t ‘politically correct’. Occasionally I’m reminded of him by the pithy sayings of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel or Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond.
The first novel Dover One was published in 1964. They are now social history with their snapshot of daily life in England in the 1960s. A vanished age when pubs were shut in the afternoons, country railway stations had porters and there was nothing to do on Sunday.
If you like Colin Watson’s delightfully quirky Flaxborough Chronicles, you may well enjoy seeking out Chief Inspector Dover.