|the end of the "Great Detective"|
not with a bang but a snicker
The odious "Wilf" Dover may represent the end of the Great Detective tradition in classical detective fiction, but the eleven stories in which the old oaf appears are, for the most part, fine examples of the fair play mystery, filled to bursting with ribald humor.
In the hands of Joyce Porter (1922-1990), then, this is the way the Great Detective ends: Not with a bang but a snicker.
A Foul Play Press Book, published by the Countryman Press of Woodstock, Vermont (they also have published Robert Barnard and Phoebe Atwood Taylor), Dover is the definition of well-packaged book. Included is a typically insightful foreword by Robert Barnard and a delightful and enlightening afterword on the life of Joyce Porter by Canon J. R. Porter, the author's brother.
Anyone familiar with Robert Barnard's own detective fiction will not be surprised to learn that he is a great fan of Joyce Porter. Barnard greatly admires Porter as a satirist and farceur. He notes that Porter's most famous fictional creation, the odious and disgusting Chief Inspector Dover, can be seen as a send-up of the English gentleman detective figure so prominent in the books of three of the British Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and an ironic commentary on the British police from the 1960s onward (the first Dover novel was written in 1963 and published the next year).
"Even the most cautious and conservative of us, if we were reading a Dover in bed and thought we heard noises downstairs, would think twice before reaching out to dial 999," declares Barnard.
So true, that! I would also add, however, that Dover is a the lowest possible devolution on the scale of fictional English police detectives. Going from Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector Joseph French (1920s-1950s, decent and virtuous to the point of blandness) to Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef (1930s-1950s, a bit "common" and vulgar, but quite personable and appealing) to Joyce Porter's Inspector Dover (1960s to 1980s, thuggish, lazy and squalid) is a steep decline!
With Dover and his assistant, Sergeant MacGregor, Joyce Porter seems to me to replicate Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef-Lionel Townshend relationship. Both Townshend and MacGregor are rather genteel but feeble English public school products who look down their noses on their partners in crime fighting (in MacGregor's case quite justly), but are themselves unable to provide an effective alternative.
|a brilliant debut for a dullard detective|
What's impressive about most of the Dover novels is that besides the humor, they usually do have good puzzle plots. The same is true of the stories. These are meaty tales, with substantial plots and lots of humor.
Generally, Dover and MacGregor will arrive on the scene of the murder, Dover complaining all the while, because work is anathema to him. Dover will look for the most comfortable chair and start a snooze. Eventually he will expect to be provided with cigarettes and drink. He will spend a considerable time in the bathroom (bowels trouble). Then he will start looking for small articles to nick. After that he starts thinking about lunch. Somehow (this must have taxed Porter's ingenuity greatly) he usually does manage to solve the crime, however!
Arguably the two best stories in the collection are the first two, "Dover Pulls a Rabbit" (1968) and "Dover Tangles with High Finance" (1970). The first is a cottage murder, which Dover is able to solve through one of his actual areas of expertise (read the story and find out which). The murder victim is a Miss Ebbitt, whom Dover keeps calling "Miss Rabbit"--hence the title of the tale. Dover rarely can be troubled to remember names, dubbing suspects with such titles as "What's-his-name" and "Who's-your-father." The second story is a clever corporate poisoning case, again solved by Dover through one of his little vices.
I would recommend the Dover stories (and most of the novels) to fans of classical detection who have strong stomachs for a "Great Detective" who isn't so great. Oh heck, he's downright narsty!