Gently Experimental

Alan Hunter’s first published work was a volume of poems––The Norwich Poems––which was published by The Soman-Wherry Press, while Hunter was serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.  This poetic heritage is evident in much of his subsequent writing, particularly in the ninth, tenth and eleventh books in his Inspector George Gently series of crime novels, Gently Go Man, Gently Where the Roads Go and Gently Floating.

The style of writing in each of the three books is quite different, but there is clear evidence for a desire, on the part of the author, to experiment with the narrative whilst still remaining within the accepted boundaries of the traditional detective fiction genre.

In Gently Go Man, Alan Hunter experiments with the language of his characters, creating a semi-fictional street-slang for his teenager hoods––jeebies.  The book was first published in 1961, and reflects the Rocker and Ton-up Boys subculture prevalent at the time.  Anyone outside of the culture was ‘square’; anyone inside it ‘cool’.

One of Gently’s first encounters with the jeebies occurs in the First and Last café:

“You want I clue you,” the youth said.  “Like you’re dumb or some jazz.  We don’t go for squares in this scene.  Like you’re smart you’ll blow pronto.”

Unusually, sections of the book are written as long asides, directly addressing the reader, outside of the main narrative, and written from the viewpoint of the leader of the jeebies, in his own idiosyncratic lingo.  These passages provide an entry into the mind and philosophy of the jeebie culture; one that Gently ultimately comes to regard with some empathy.

Of the three books, Gently Where the Road Go finds Alan Hunter at his most obviously poetic, and this is perhaps because he is focussing his poetry on a most unsympathetic object: the A1 or Great Northern Road, which runs between London and Edinburgh.

Few people would consider the A1 an object of great beauty or worthy of a great deal of literary appreciation, but Hunter manages to evoke the nature of the road, its travellers, and its environs, in several long descriptive passages, which are more poetry than prose.

“Nobody came there to look at it, nobody saw it with pleasure.  Ghosts tilled it, ghosts dwelt in it, but North and South was its only significance.  Day by day, century by century, traffic and souls crowded through it; sterilising it by long denial into the rank of the semi-real.”

This form of poetic text is continued in Gently Floating, where the scene of activities transfers to the Norfolk Broads, and a landscape more conducive to waxing lyrically.  However, in this book Hunter adopts yet another literary style: the stream of consciousness.

Descriptive paragraphs flow past, like the waterways of the Broads themselves, without punctuation; long descriptive lists, conjuring up vivid impressions of the East Anglian landscape, and the inhabitants––both permanent and transient––who live there.

“He found secondly about the yards and about the car parks and open space adjacent to the yards large busy populations wearing slightly crumpled city clothes with on their faces expressions of irritation and anxiety and in their hands crammed luggage packed fishing rods even tennis rackets and frogman flippers moving transporting inquiring packing calling swearing nagging queuing at toilets queuing in the café queuing to drag luggage on to overfilled buses waiting for hire cars that didn’t arrive and waiting to extract private cars which were temporarily unextractable.”

For me, Alan Hunter’s excursions into experimentation only enhance his novels.  I see a writer who is seeking to entertain himself as much as he is hoping to entertain his readers; setting himself literary challenges, similar to the criminal ones that his fictional detective Gently has to overcome.  In Alan Hunter, I like to think that I find a kindred soul.

© Fergus Longfellow


Fergus Longfellow can get rather experimental himself.

If you enjoy this blog about the George Gently novels you may also enjoy Gently with Peppermint Creams.

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