William L. De Andrea finally gets coverage on this blog, though paradoxically we begin at the end. Although not planned that way, this book turned out to be the last of the Matt Cobb novels after the author’s premature death at the age of just 44. Virtually none of DeAndrea’s novels have been published here in the UK, but as this one is set in London it seemed like the right one to pick. Cobb has been working for a TV network in New York with the lofty title of ‘Vice President of Special Projects’, which actually means he is their resident investigator / troubleshooter. But he decides to take indefinite leave, fearing that always seeing people at their worst will turn him into a permanent cynic. So with his girlfriend Roxanne, who practically owns the network, he moves to London for a quiet life …
“It was exactly the kind of thing I moved to London to get away from.”
Cobb and Rox move to a nice big house in London, fill it up with pets (having for the purposes of keeping their dog ‘Spot’ with them turned their residence into an official quarantine!) and start anew. After 3 months Cobb gets a little itchy for the old life and goes to visit his old friend Bernard, who is working at the satellite station TVStrato, which Rox’s Network co-owns with the rich and powerful Arkwright family, the publishers of ‘The Journal’ and The Orbit’ newspapers. In other words, the Arkwrights are more or less the Murdoch clan, in real life (shudder) owners of the The Times and The Sun. Lady Arkwright asks Cobb to deliver a package, and foolishly he accepts. The man he is to deliver it to, just outside the ‘Planet Hollywood’ restaurant (remember those?) near the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus, is shot at point-blank range but Cobb is unable to apprehend the murderer (who later turns up dead, or in Cobb’s phrase, ‘ventilated’) as the police arrest him for the murder instead. In one of the book’s mot enjoyable extended sections, Cobb dallies with Inspector Bristow, correctly surmising that as the victim was black, the police are holding Cobb overnight, even though he is innocent, to diffuse any potential racial tensions. All of this, given the rioting in London this Summer and the ongoing revelations about the Murdoch’s media empire and their appalling business practices, gives this book more than an added piquancy, even 15 years after its original publication. Bristow eventually comes round after checking Cobb’s bona fides with the New York police, later joshing him about the good references they provided:
“To hear the New York police department tell it, he’s a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wayne, he has that much brains, virtue and courage. good to his mum, too, his secretary tells me.”
At its core this is an ‘American in London’ story and most of the fun, told in the first person with the author’s customary no-nonsense good humour and zest, derives from the counter-culture shocks and jokes at the expense of British customs and practices. Cobb never seems to tire of remarking on how different everything is compared with the US (it’s a big world Mr Cobb …): from the variety of toilet flushing mechanisms to the pronunciation of ‘brochure’ (Brits put the stress on the first syllable); everything is rich and strange and often just plain ‘wrong’; even the imported things that are meant to be identifiably from back home usually aren’t (with the exception of TGIF, a cultural export I could certainly do without). DeAndrea gets most of the geographical and cultural details right about London too, only getting the odd minor thing wrong here and there such as a couple of the TV references that he uses at the top of each chapter – but these are really minor quibbles though. The collision between the cosy and hardboiled tradition is here greatly emphasised by the London setting – or ‘Christieland’ as Cobb / DeAndrea refers to it several times – and mostly works to its advantage, with some choice potshots as the classic Brit in the classic detective tradition.
The left eye occasionally twitched, as though it were pining a monocle.
Having said that, it also means that it comes as no great surprise that the the villain (there will eventually be three deaths to solve) proves to be quite mad after generations of upper class in-breeding, with the climax taking place in a classic pea-souper with the hero chasing the villain in a fog-shrouded zoo late at night. It’s designed as an homage to a great tradition and in its modest way works best in that context. Cobb is a great character, a hardboiled hero solving traditional mysteries like Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ PI and is lovingly modelled on Archie Goodwin, the ‘legman’ in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories. As with even the best of Stout, the plot is really not the thing here – it is perfectly serviceable but as a whodunnit it is pretty transparent and quite easy to spot the villain, not least because there are in fact only a handful of suspects. But the dialogue is fun and the setting remarkably topical, making this a light and engaging read. It’s a real shame there weren’t any more Matt Cobb novels. The complete series is made up of:
- Killed in the Ratings (1978)
- Killed in the Act (1981)
- Killed with a Passion (1983)
- Killed on the Ice (1984)
- Killed in Paradise (1988)
- Killed on the Rocks (1990)
- Killed in Fringe Time (1995)
- Killed in the Fog (1996)
This book turned out not to be quite the last word of Cobb though. In 2003 four Cobb short stories were collected with several other short pieces in the posthumous Crippen & Landru anthology, Murder – All Kinds. It includes a moving portrait of the author by his widow, the writer Jane Haddam (aka Orania Papazoglou) and I heartily recommend this book. It is available from the publisher here.