The Bursar's Wife by E G Rodford

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The Bursar's Wife by E G Rodford

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: A readable and reasonably tense private detective novel set in Cambridge on the seedier side of the university, but don't look too closely at the details. It gets quite dark but there's relatively little violence and sardonic middle-aged investigator George Kocharyan is an interestingly flawed first-person narrator.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Titan Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785650031

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Private investigator George Kocharyan struggles along on the seedy side of Cambridge, following the odd unfaithful spouse or checking up on benefit claimants for the Department of Work and Pensions. This just about pays for his invaluable part-time assistant Sandra who knows how to work the office computer, and her teenage son who George occasionally hires to do some of the leg work. Into this grubby world walks Sylvia Booker, wife of the bursar at Morley College, overprotective mother, glamorous middle-aged woman. Worried that her daughter has fallen in with a bad crowd she hires George to look into it. Then one of the unfaithful wives George had been following turns up dead, and life begins to get complicated.

This is the first novel in a new series, though the author has apparently had success outside the crime genre under another name. There is a clear nod to Philip Marlowe with George's chess problems permanently set up in the dining room and his weakness for beautiful women, not to mention his ability to get sapped on a regular basis. As with any crime novel set in a university city, tensions between town and gown are exploited, and the sordid undercurrent beneath the visible polish of the university is exposed. There is an element of police corruption that could have been made more of.

On the face of it George shouldn't be a particularly likeable character, he comes across as a misogynistic snob uncomfortable with the modern world, though the misogyny becomes almost understandable as you encounter the various women around him. They tend to be bossy, nosy and gossipping, his wife emails him regular updates of her new life in Greece with the woman she met at her book group, and the coarse and unpleasant Detective Inspector Vicky Stubbing keeps turning up when she's least wanted.

In many ways George reminded me of Ed Reardon, the pompous and self-deluded hack writer from the BBC Radio 4 comedy Ed Reardon's Week, and that similarity and the lighter tone at the start of the book at least gave him an endearing veneer. George sneers at cheap suits and the smell of cheap aftershave or deodorant on other people, but by all accounts it's the pot calling the kettle black. Given his circumstances, his character and his desperation I was surprised that several younger women were apparently willing to go to bed with him, and that was one of the niggles that meant that despite a reasonably tense plot the book never quite sat comfortably with me.

My other major source of unease was the use (or not) of technology. The time period is never explicitly stated but the fact that everyone except George has a mobile phone, and there are memory sticks, DVDs, Google and broadband made me assume it was contemporary, though it could just as easily be set ten years ago. He uses discreet GPS trackers on vehicles, but there were times when realistically I felt he would have used a mobile phone, or Google Street View (which has been around for seven years now) to scope out a neighbourhood, but then the plot couldn't have advanced as it did. His dislike for and unfamiliarity with technology felt at times like a gimmick and I wonder if the author would have been more at ease setting the book twenty or even thirty years ago to get around some of the modern shortcuts that overcome difficulties that have traditionally put the lone investigator in danger.

I doubt I'd go out of my way to read the second novel (The Runaway Maid, due out in March 2017) but if I stumbled across it in the library I'd probably give it a go. It would be interesting to see how George developed as a character and entertaining to get another dose of Cambridge from the dark side.

For something along similar lines but set in Chicago you could try Michael Harvey's The Fifth Floor The Fifth Floor by Michael Harvey or give a female private detective a visit in Manchester, via one of Cath Staincliffe's Sal Kilkenny mysteries such as Bitter Blue Bitter Blue by Cath Staincliffe. We also have a review of Rodford's The Surgeon's Case: George Kocharyan Mystery 2.

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