Wednesday, 22 October 2003

Nigel Williams: Hatchett & Lycett (2002)

Edition: Penguin, 2003
Review number: 1190

When a teacher dies on a school trip to France in 1939, her colleagues decide that it will be easier to smuggle her body through Customs back to England before "discovering" her death than it will be to deal with the complexities of the French judicial system. Though this turns out to be only the first in a series of murders of teachers at the Croydon girls' school at which she taught, the start of the war a month later overshadows the investigation, as does a last minute decision to help a Jewish girl escape to England by pretending she is part of the school party.

Stirring this in with a love triangle between the teachers most likely to work out what happened, and you get the recipe for this hilarious novel by the author of The Wimbledon Poisoner. While some of the jokes and ideas may have been recycled (notable sources include Spike Milligan's war memoirs, Catch 22 and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and while most of the characters are eminently dislikeable, much enjoyment can be had laughing at the absurdities of the home front early in the War, the absurdities of the crime genre, and the absurdities of young love. The odd serious moment - several characters take a small boat to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, for example - serves to heighten the effectiveness of the humour (as it does for Spike Milligan and Joseph Heller too, of course).

Hatchett and Lycett (named after the two male teachers in the love triangle) is well put together by a master craftsman of humour. It may not be really original, but it is better than the average comic novel. It doesn't seem to be stretching Williams terribly much (I didn't get the feeling that The Wimbledon Poisoner reached the limits of his talent either). Craftsmanship rather than inspiration is the order of the day here.

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