Dan Mallett is the amateur sleuth in a series of rural detective novels by the late Frank Parrish (1929-2000). They seem to be, very sadly, out of print, though second-hand copies are easy to come by.
A little about Dan Mallett in a moment, but first a few remarks on his creator, Frank Parrish – a prolific writer who produced a great deal of fiction under a number of pseudonyms. The real name of this author was Roger Longrigg, and he published a few volumes under his own name. But he also wrote as – wait for it – Rosalind Erskine, Laura Black, Ivor Drummond, Frank Parrish, Domini Taylor, Megan Barker and Grania Beckford – there are probably others I’ve missed out.
He wrote in most genres, including crime, historical, mild erotica, family dramas and spy stories. He scored something of a hit with the erotic novel The Passion Flower Hotel, which became a stage musical and a film, and the television series Mother Love.
If all of these writing names suggest that Roger Longrigg was a bit of a hack, then think again. He was a consummate professional, very good indeed at his craft, and particularly skilled at writing detective novels.
His character Dan Mallett lives with his ailing mother in a cottage in the middle of a wood, near to a village in Dorset. Officially, Dan is the village odd-job man. He is also the local poacher, occasional burglar – though he only tends to target the patronising members of the nouveau riche who have moved into the locality – and lover of beautiful women. As the village odd-job man he mows lawns and tends flower-beds, putting on a broad Dorset accent (straight out of Thomas Hardy) to impress the newcomers.
In truth he is well-educated, well-spoken and has abandoned a safe job as a clerk in a bank so that he isn’t constrained by the boredom of working hours, giving him more time to enjoy roaming the countryside.
He breaks the law only to fund an operation for his arthritic mother, a countrywoman with an acerbic tongue, who is continually urging him to go back to working at the bank, so that he might become more respectable.
Because of his more nefarious activities, Dan is high on the wanted list at the local police station whenever anything goes wrong – and usually the prime suspect when someone is murdered.
Which they often are in Dan’s idyllic village. For Medwell Fratrorum has a death rate that would do justice to one of those idyllic habitations in Midsomer Murders. And, not being St Mary Mead, with Miss Marple at hand, Dan is often forced to solve the mystery and bring the murderer to book himself, if only to clear his own name.
Frank Parrish writes quite beautifully about the English countryside. His knowledge of natural history and rural life can hardly be bettered, for Roger Longrigg was an old-fashioned countryman in every sense of the word. It is as if you melded Bates or Coppard with a touch of Christie.
Dan Mallett makes his first appearance in Fire in the Barley, which won a best first novel award, embarrassing for Longrigg who had already published nineteen novels at that point!
Cleverly, Parrish portrays the English countryside of the last half of the 20th century as it really was; the landowners, once rich, are now on their uppers and being replaced by incomers, the big houses are being turned into schools and businesses, there is little employment for ordinary people, the ancient inns are now catering more for the tourist trade than the locals, the nature of farming itself is changing. It really is well-perceived and accurate.
But the wilder places, the rivers and heaths, woodlands and meadows remain as they always were, a fitting backdrop for Parrish’s likeable country detective.
The Dan Mallett novels deserve a wider readership. They are extremely well-written and Dan himself is a delight. Some enterprising publisher should bring them back into print.
And they would make a wonderful television series.
The Dan Mallett Novels are:
Fire in the Barley 1977
Sting of the Honeybee 1978
Snare in the Dark 1982
Bait on the Hook 1983
Face at the Window (US Title: Death in the Rain) 1984
Fly in the Cobweb 1986
Caught in the Birdlime (US Title: Bird in the Net) 1987
Voices in the Dark