One of the dangers of becoming an established genre is that it makes parody possible. All anyone has to do is exaggerate the genre’s characteristics a little more and bam! Comedy. I’m sure parody is a stage in the life cycle of a genre on some chart somewhere. M.R.C. Kasasian’s The Mangle Street Murders, the first in the Gower Detective series, is one of the best parodies of the detective genre that I’ve read in a long time.
Sydney Grice is known across London as its greatest private detective. (Though he will angrily point out that he’s a personal, not private, detective.) He’s also eccentric, rude, callous, and more concerned with money than justice. Our narrator, March Middleton, rapidly learns all about his character flaws when she comes to live with him after the death of her father. Grice is clearly modeled on Sherlock Holmes—though he’s even ruder than his inspiration, if you can believe it. He can tell who and what you are based on the tiniest of clues. March is no slouch at detecting either, though she is much more trusting than the cynical detective.
Their first case arrives in the black-clad form of Grace Dillinger. Her son in law has been accused of brutally murdering his wife. March convinces Grice to take on the case, even though Grace can’t afford to pay him. March then pushes her way into the investigation, with every male trying to tell her its no place for a woman. As a doctor’s daughter, she’s no stranger to gore. March and Grice question William Ashby, the accused murderer. March is convinced that such a gentle man couldn’t have murdered anyone. Grice is firmly convinced that Ashby is a murderer. The evidence against the man is damning, but there are inconsistencies. In 1881 (or thereabouts), forensic science is in its infancy and, with Grice pushing, Ashby goes to trial and is quickly convicted of murder.
This isn’t a spoiler. All this plot happens in the first third of the book. The Mangle Street Murders has a rapid pace. The hanging of William Ashby is really just the beginning. After his execution, March turns up more troubling information about the Ashbys and Grace Dillinger. Grice only gets involved after his impeccable reputation is questioned. Kasasian slowly reveals that the murder of Sarah Ashby was just the tip of the iceberg in a bigger criminal conspiracy.
The Mangle Street Murders, though the plot sounds grim, is peppered with jokes about the detective genre and its history. If you’re paying attention, you’ll catch on and end up laughing in the middle of an autopsy or crime scene reconstruction. Meanwhile, Kasasian is turning the stereotypes of the Great Detective inside out. I was expecting an interesting puzzler, but I got a lot more from this book.