Sunday, July 13, 2008

24. Daughter Fair by Peter Graaf (John Christopher)

Daughter Fair pictureDug this one up at the National Archives of Quebec, through the Bibliotheque Nationale. They had it in their computer system and I had to order it. I wonder who was the last person to read it? John Christopher, whom you've read so much about here, wrote at least two detective novels under the Peter Graaf pseudonym. The detective is Joe Dust, an unlikely American living in London in the '50s. I think that's sort of the point here, to juxtapose the cliched, wisecracking American private dick against the more procedural, proper British context. It's an interesting experiment, at least in this novel, with mixed results.

In Daughter Fair, Dust is hired by a wealthy, eccentric to find his favorite, youngest daughter, who has disappeared from the estate while on sick leave from her private school in Paris. The estate itself is a viper's nest of aristocratic weirdos. The rich guy's other two daughters live (and are trapped) there with their two husbands, all dependent on the patriarch, forced to follow his rules and lacking the money and balls to leave.

The Joe Dust character is always wisecracking, to the point of being rude. It's just slightly off. If it had been written by an American at the time, I suspect the american character would have been a little more circumspect and less arrogant. Dust's behaviour reflects the British post-war insecurity towards America's growing success and power. Even weirder, about halfway through the novel, a British inspector shows up, one who has had a history with Dust. They get along fine, in the traditional begrudging relationship of the cop and P.I., but it is the inspector who really seems to figure everything out and do all the right stuff, whereas Dust just seems to hang around and get on everyone's nerves. Daughter Fair is almost like a passive-aggressive version of Conquest in California, where the American is placed as the hero, but ends up ultimately getting shown up by good old fashioned British police work.

The mystery itself was actually quite clever and I enjoyed it's unfolding. All the simpering, dissipated upper class characters were also well drawn out and deliciously contemptible. If there has been one theme throughout Christopher's wide range of books, it's a constant critique of the aristocracy.

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