One consequence of the lockdown has been to reunite me with a backlog of reading matter, and top of my pile has been the 46 Inspector George Gently novels by Alan Hunter.
The thoughtful Chief Inspector is first introduced in Gently Does It, published by Cassell in 1955, and it is clear from the very first sentence of that book that Gently has an unusual idiosyncrasy; a peculiar penchant, perhaps? And that eccentricity is a predilection for peppermint creams.
“Chief Inspector Gently, Central Office, CID, reached automatically into his pocket for another peppermint cream and fed it unconsciously into his mouth.”
In fact, peppermint creams are mentioned on five separate occasions in the first nine paragraphs of the book and, during the course of Gently’s first narrated investigation, several bags of the sweet delicacies are consumed. Seemingly, no interrogation can take place; no suspect be arrested; without first a peppermint cream being popped into Gently’s mouth.
Reviewers of the book at the time spotted the characteristic:
“Gently, with his peppermints, is almost as tangible a figure as his French blood-brother Maigret, with his pipe.” (Spectator)
Alan Hunter had made peppermint creams Gently’s leitmotif, in the same way that Conan Doyle had provided Sherlock Holmes with his deerstalker and meerschaum pipe, or Agatha Christie Poirot’s stiff moustache.
And so the theme continued throughout Gently’s next two cases, Gently by the Shore and Gently Down the Stream. Peppermint creams were hoovered up at a prodigious rate and Gently himself seemed scarcely able to focus on his investigations until he had located a source from which to purchase his favourite indulgence.
However, a subtle change occurred by the fourth Gently book, Landed Gently. Perhaps it is as a result of being cut off from his supplies––Landed Gently is a variation of the classic isolated country house mystery––but Gently’s intake of peppermint creams is noticeably reduced. This trend continues into the fifth book, Gently Through the Mill, where Gently manages to refrain from eating any sweets until almost the last chapter and, even then, the peppermint cream is almost an afterthought, not the previous obsession:
“…Gently was busy going through his pockets. Surely, in some neglected corner, there ought to be a peppermint cream?”
By the sixth novel, Gently in the Sun, the peppermint creams have vanished entirely.
George Gently and peppermint creams are an interesting example of the evolution of character in a novel. Clearly, at the start of the series, Alan Hunter believed that he needed to give Gently a distinctive character trait, which would make him stand out from the crop of other fictional detectives at large at that time. However, as the series progressed, the character of Gently that developed was one of a quiet, intelligent, reflective detective, all attributes that were strong enough to stand on their own, without the addition of any ‘artificial’ extras. Hunter must have been conscious of this fact by the time of plotting Landed Gently, and from then onwards the writing was on the wall for Gently’s peppermint creams.
Strangely, though, Alan Hunter did not entirely do away with Gently’s quirks. At the very same time that the peppermint creams disappeared in Gently Through the Mill, a new, and persistent oddity emerges.
Gently Through the Mill sees the first use of the colloquial phrase “chummy”––often “chummie”––to describe a suspected felon. The word is genuine police slang, first emerging in the 1940s. The use of “chummy” or “chummie” becomes the new leitmotif for Gently, spoken not only by him but by almost all police officers of his acquaintance.
For me, George Gently needs neither his peppermint creams nor his colloquialisms to set him aside from other fictional detectives; what sets him apart is his believable ordinariness, not his eccentricities.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow has a few eccentricities of his own.