Sunday, August 11, 2013

S is for Skulduggery

This week I am featuring the fifth book in the Yellowthread Street series by William Marshall for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme.

This is a series that came highly recommended by my husband. I read the first in the series years ago and it just did not hit the spot. So when I decided to sample the series again, I started with Skulduggery (1979).

The series is about a group of quirky detectives who work out of the Yellowthread Street Precinct in the Hong Bay district of Hong Kong. The first book in the series was published in 1975; the last one in 1998. Thus it covers roughly the last twenty two years of the British administration of Hong Kong.
Other words to describe this series are zany and humorous. Usually this type of mystery doesn't appeal to me, but I found much more than those elements in this mystery. Some reviews say that the mysteries in these books are secondary, and for some readers, that may be true. But I found this book to be a very satisfactory mystery novel.

Although Hong Bay is a fictional section of Hong Kong, the books do give the reader a sense of Hong Kong of that time. As mentioned above, my husband is a big fan of the series and appreciates them for the setting, the eccentric characters, and occasional elements of the fantastical.

Skulduggery features three crimes under investigation. Two of them are dealt with fairly quickly, but the puzzle of a twenty year old skeleton discovered floating in the bay is the primary case. As the pathologist at the Hong Bay Mortuary points out:
"The age of the skeleton is thirty to forty years."
"That's how long ago he died?"
"That's how old he was when he died."
"Then how long ago did he die?"
"He died about twenty years ago."
Initially DCI Feiffer, the lead detective, has a difficult time seeing this skeleton as important. Why give priority to the investigation of a skeleton of a person who died twenty years ago? Gradually he sees the man as a real person, and begins to be obsessed with solving the mystery of his identification and his death. Accompanying the skeleton are some unusual items, which lead to some clues that seem straightforward but often lead in conflicting directions.

It appears to me that Dr. Dawson Baume, the pathologist at the morgue, is introduced in this mystery. He is described by one of the detectives as the H.R.P.M, the "Happy Phantom of the Rue Morgue." He plays postal chess with Russian grand masters, and he is "more than a bit odd." But then, that describes most of the characters in this book.

By the time the mystery is solved, the solution seems very obvious. Yet the author kept me guessing to the very end and I never considered that solution. The best kind of mystery.

This review by Yvette at in so many words... gives more detail of the various plot threads in Skulduggery.

It looks like all of the mysteries in this series are under 300 pages and many of the earlier ones under 200 pages, which also is a plus factor for me.

I will close with some quotes from mystery reference books to give an overview of the series.

From The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (2002), compiled by Mike Ashley.
[The detectives] are wildly eccentric and take the bizarre cases in their stride. In Gelignite, they encounter a serial bomber. In The Hatchet Man a psychotic starts chopping people up at the cinema. ... Perfect End has a series of police murders take place during a typhoon. That book is not the end, though, as WM has continued the series through "to the end" and the handover of Hong Kong to China.
This excerpt from 1001 Midnights (1986), from a review of Sci Fi by Bill Pronzini, describes the team:
Marshall's protagonists, the men of the Yellowthread Street station -- Detective Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer, Senior Detective Inspector Christopher O'Yee, and Detective Inspectors Spencer and Auden -- are delightful and utterly zany characters. There are plenty of action, bodies galore, and a spectacular sock finish.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter. 


Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: Thanks for an interesting review. I usually do not associate zany and mystery together. I am going to have to think about this series.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Never read the books but I think they were adapted for British TV as YELLOWTHREAD STREET, which I remembr liking so thanks as always TracyK

col2910 said...

Another series to check out - hopefully not too long! This sounds really interesting.
Quid pro quo - Glen's paying me back for the Brennan's!

Anonymous said...

Tracy - Thanks for this fine review. This is a series I've always wanted to try but just haven't got to yet. You've given me a welcome prod to go check it out.

TracyK said...

Bill, I normally don't go for a lot of humor or comedy in mysteries. There has to be a backbone of a real mystery there for me and there was in this one.

TracyK said...

Sergio, I had wondered if the series was any good, and whether having read the books would make the TV show more or less enjoyable. Sometimes a TV adaptation doesn't live up to my expectations.

TracyK said...

Col, very true about the pay back. There are 16 books in the series, but still worth a try. And mostly very short books too.

Scott said...

It is interesting to read about the old Hong Kong. What a difference thirty years makes.

TracyK said...

Margot, you should definitely sample this series. I would love to know what you think of it.

TracyK said...

Very true, Scott. Reading this book encouraged me to brush up on my knowledge of that area.

srivalli said...

I have to try this series. The setting is interesting and I love humour in mysteries too. Thanks for the recommendation.

TracyK said...

Valli, I think you will like the series. I hope you do try it.

Sarah said...

What an unusual cover!

TracyK said...

Sarah, it is very nice and unusual. I believe this is the first paperback edition, and my husband has two more books in that style, which he has never bothered to replace with hardbacks. All three have cover illustration by Ann Meisel. The later Mysterious Press paperback reprints, which he started out buying when he discovered the series, were replaced with hardbacks and passed on to me (since I collect paperback editions if they appeal).

Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading this book and loved it (and it's four predecessors). For some reason, I found the stuff with the cat hilarious. Got some strange looks on the bus laughing out loud at it ...

TracyK said...

Glad you liked it. I am looking forward to reading more of them.