Book Sampler: Gently Observed

Gently Observed
By Fergus Longfellow

ISBN 978 1 912226 32 0

Paperback book


An uncritical reading of the 46 George Gently crime novels of Alan Hunter, ranging across topics as varied as the East Anglian countryside; Eastern philosophy; British car manufacturers; Shakespearean tragedy and, of course, crime.

Sample Chapter

Song of the Open Road

Gently Where the Roads Go
Cassell, 1962

The A1 has a surprisingly colourful history.  Running fairly directly North-South up the spine of England, it is the longest numbered road in the country, and it can trace its origins back to Roman times, when it was known, more romantically, as Ermine Street, and traced a route from London to Lincoln and then York.  Later, it became known as the Great North Road, and in the opening paragraph of Gently Where the Roads Go, Alan Hunter provides a condensed history of two millennia of travel along this thoroughfare, which included: “…the Celts, the horse-tamers, chanting songs of Bran and Gwydion; and the Romans, great marchers, paving the miles to Pictishland; followed Angle and Saxon, fierce quarrellers and kingdomers, the Danska, fiercer than them all, and his French-speaking cousins; baron, pedlar, shuffling friar, tinker, soldier, murderer, thief…” (p. 1).  Even ghosts and highwaymen were not forgotten in Hunter’s account of the great road’s varied wanderers.

Extensive and interesting as the A1’s history might be, it is hard to consider today’s straight, flat carriageway of hot rolled asphalt with any great love or romance; for most people, it simply provides a means to an end; something that must be endured rather than enjoyed.  But Alan Hunter brings a certain poetry to the great road, which makes it necessary to consider it again.  It is almost as though a duel has been declared between poet and subject matter.  Bring me the most unpromising subject that you can find, and I will turn it into poetry.

Of course, before Alan Hunter embarked on the Gently series of novels, his first published work in book form was The Norwich Poems, which were brought out by the Soman-Wherry Press in 1945.  In earlier Gently books, there has often been the suspicion of a poetic voice attempting to break through but, in Gently Where the Roads Go, it is the first time where it is allowed free reign: “The air dead, the air pressing.  Tyres wearing on the greasy road.  More tyres.  More tyres.  Northing and southing along the earth.” (p. 134).  It is not necessarily a pretty picture that Hunter paints, as when describing the “…ribbed concrete morosity of the lay-by…” (p. 51) where “Wrappers, paper, were strewn on the verge.  In the ditch, a rusted bike frame… Behind the hedge lay human faeces and paper.” (p.51) but it compels a second, longer glance at a landscape, which is normally only witnessed fleetingly from the window of a speeding car.

The section of the A1, which Hunter picks out for his poetic examination is the stretch just west of Huntingdon––Offingham in the book––running through England’s central low counties.  It is an overlooked corner of the country; often passed through, seldom stopped at.  Hunter extends this analogy further, encompassing the Earth as a whole, viewing us as a sleepy backwater in a much wider universe: “Friday August 16th in a small town, in a small country, in a small world, in a large universe.” (p. 115).  It is a theme, which he returns to several times during the novel, placing the great road in the context of a much wider whole: “And the stars began to define themselves above the statistics of the Road, dusting the greyish hemisphere with a thousand million of computations, clarifying the terrestrial egotism with an index of mild infinity, but unseen: infinitesimally, North and South went its way.” (p. 81).  Why this sudden philosophising?  I have a theory.  Becoming a parent changes a lot.  Some people become joyous; some people become anxious; for Alan Hunter, I believe that he became philosophical.  The dedication that he makes at the start of Gently Where the Roads Go reads: “For my Son or Daughter, as the event proves.”  The event proved a daughter and, I think that the arrival of a new child made Hunter re-evaluate his own place in the universe; made him see his own position more clearly as just a small part of a long chain of evolution, stretching endlessly backwards and forwards in time.

The poetic voice is not the only new note in Gently Where the Roads Go.  As with Gently Go Man and Gently Floating, this finds Hunter at the peak of his writing abilities, producing perhaps my favourite of his novels, in the middle of what I like to call his ‘experimental years’.  Unusually, the first chapter combines narrative with a series of official-sounding reports, statements and memos, from police officers, from witnesses, from suspects, and from medical examiners, rapidly filling in the background to an investigation, which will provide Superintendent George Gently with an exciting new case.  Similarly, the novel ends with a series of cuttings from newspaper reports, succinctly rounding up all the loose ends of the investigation and revealing how the investigation is brought to a conclusion.  The staccato, quick-fire information-discharge of these reports is rather reminiscent of the rapid rat-a-tat-tat shot delivery of a Sten submachine gun, or perhaps the incessant, ever-moving hum of tyres passing over the hard, unflinching bitumen as the busy flows of traffic continue to wend their course north and south along the Great North Road.

Gently Observed

Fergus Longfellow thanks you for reading.

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