I don’t like Brenda Merryn. I don’t like her character in the book. I don’t think I would like her in real life. I don’t know what George Gently sees in her. I think he could do better. There, I’ve said it.
There have been other mild flirtations for Gently before Brenda Merryn but, unexpectedly, she has been the one that has legs. Personally, I would have preferred to see him succumb to the no-nonsense, coarse promiscuity of Wanda Lane from The Raven Transport Café: “She breathed hard. She pulled off the dress. She was wearing a pair of drawers under it. She sat on the edge of the bed, leaning towards him, her breasts swelling between her arms.” (Gently Where the Roads Go, p. 94) or to the coy mischievousness of the gloriously-named Gertrude Winfarthing, maid at Merely Manor: “…there surely never was a more demure Gertrude than the one who pointed out the little sprig of mistletoe which was pinned to the transom.” (Landed Gently, p. 30) rather than to the knowing sophistication of Brenda Merryn: “You can see I’ve put some effort into it––bath, perfume, lace undies, the lot. And if you were chivalrous you’d leave it at that, and only put up a token resistance.” (p. 107). But, it is the Swingin’ Sixties, where everything goes, and so what should I expect?
Gently with the Ladies is the first of the Gently series to be set almost exclusively––a brief drive to Rochester apart––on Gently’s home turf of London. The scene of crime at Carlyle Court, Bland Street, Chelsea is only a couple of miles away from his headquarters at Central Office, Scotland Yard. Whilst East Anglia may be considered Gently country, London still remains the place where his bread-and-butter work takes place, and his command of this urban environment is as evident as is his familiarity with the ways of the countryside when he is in Northshire. It is hard not to have built up a bias, though; hard not to imagine the Gently in the town always longing for an escape to the country; indeed, the reason for his trip to Rochester appears little more than an attempt to get away from the city: “The drive was soothing. Gently hadn’t been out of town for a month, and the soft boom of the Rootes engine seemed to relax a tension.” (p. 73). The apartment, where the murder victim is discovered only seems to greater highlight the clashing juxtaposition of town and country, its modernist décor of varying shades of green throughout a travesty of the beautiful hues of the green of nature: “Curtains of heavy apple-green velvet swathed windows and door. The carpet was a green Persian and there were green Chinese vases in an alcove, and supporting the alcove, in green carved frames, two Etty, or near-Etty nudes.” (p. 21).
The popular icons, which made Swinging London appear the centre of a youth-driven cultural revolution based on fun-loving hedonism, are all here: the society photographer; the fashionistas; the sexually liberated. Although in Alan Hunter’s hands, none of these stereotypes are necessarily thriving; self-loathing and paranoia prevail; everyone has their flaws: “You’d need my background to understand. To have been a worthless, degraded bum without a shred of self-respect” (p. 63). And it is this world of weak personalities and spoilt egos, that Brenda Merryn inhabits, possessed of the same easy morals and fearful self-protectionism.
I find myself asking the question again: what does Gently see in her? They say that ‘love is blind’, but somehow I expect more perspicacity in an experienced Chief Superintendent. Opposites attract? There is some kind of argument to be made there, but I remain unconvinced. I think that Gently’s housekeeper, Mrs Jarvis, is a better judge of Brenda Merryn’s character, asking archly: “Was that––person––a client?” (p. 118). Even Brenda, herself, acknowledges Mrs Jarvis’s suspicions: “I don’t think your good lady trusts us?” (p. 106).
If Gently is conflicted in any way either by being torn between the city and the countryside, or by the demands of his new relationship, he finds the perfect outlet upon which he can take out his frustrations in the shape of perhaps the single biggest cultural style icon of the entire 1960s: the household rubber plant. The plant in question sits in the foyer of the Divisional HQ of the Chelsea Police Force: “Flanking the foot of the steps, in strip-work holders, were two potted rubber-plants with dusty leaves.” (p. 44). The sense of satisfaction that Gently gains by flicking the leaves of this plant is palpable: “He went on up, yielding to a compulsion to flick one of the rubber plants as he passed it.” (p. 87), although by the end of the book, man and plant appear to have reached something of an entente cordiale: “Somebody must have noticed Gently’s interest in the rubber plants because since his last encounter with them their leaves had been sponged and the fibre they grew in had been damped and raked… Gently fingered an immaculate leaf and left it imperceptibly nodding.” (p. 145).
And where does all this leave Gently’s nascent relationship with Brenda Merryn? I’ll give it a book.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow is currently working on a book of collected essays based on Alan Hunter’s George Gently series of novels.
This essay refers to the book Gently with the Ladies, originally published by Cassell in 1965.