Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels and series don’t fit neatly into a particular crime fiction sub-genre (e.g. police procedural, PI, noir, and so on). And yet, they add to the genre. To show you what I mean, let’s focus on one such series today and turn the spotlight on Mike Ripley’s Just Another Angel, the first in his Fitzroy Maclean Angel series.
Angel is a London jazz trumpet player who takes gigs wherever he can get them. He is also the owner of an unlicensed cab he calls Armstrong (Yes, Louis Armstrong). He doesn’t bill himself as a cab driver, but if someone occasionally mistakes him for one and pays him for a ride, who is he to argue?
One night, he meets a young woman Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp who makes that mistake. They end up spending the night together and since neither really takes it seriously, he doesn’t think much about it until he sees her about five months later at Mimosa, a club where he’s playing. The next day she unexpectedly calls him, asking him to meet her. Angel has no idea what she’d want to talk to him about, but he agrees. Then he finds out what she wants. She asks him to track down a former friend Carol Flaxman who’s taken a valuable emerald pendant and some credit cards from her. She wants the emerald back especially, and she doesn’t want the police involved. She also says that the job has to be done quickly and quietly because she’s afraid her husband will find out.
‘Of course, looking back, it was time to say goodbye, walk out of there and get the first available Greenpeace boat heading for New Zealand. It would have been safer.’
Angel finds himself agreeing to help, even though he’s well aware it’s not a wise move. Then he starts work on finding out where Carol has gone.
Before very long, he traces Carol’s whereabouts. It’s not spoiling the story to say that when he finds her, he recoups the emerald and Jo’s credit cards. It’s really when he gets back to London and tries to return Jo’s property that the real trouble begins.
For one thing, almost as soon as he returns, he discovers that Mimosa’s bouncer Nevil is looking for him – and not to offer him a new gig. When he tries to find out why, no-one will tell him. For another, he learns the hard way that the police are interested in Jo. They suspect her of criminal activity and because of his connection with her, they suspect him too. And then there’s Jo’s husband, not someone you want to cross. Angel will have to use his wits and take advantage of luck to extricate himself from this mess.
This isn’t a conventional crime novel – a murder, an investigation, and so on – although there is crime in it. In that sense, it’s more of a ‘caper’ novel. And in that tradition, Angel finds himself mixed up with several people who don’t exactly live on the right side of the law. And yet, he himself (although hardly, well, an angel) isn’t really the one who commits the crime.
And that’s what lends this novel a touch of the ‘screwball’ element. It uses the premise of the well-meaning protagonist who’s caught up in a web not of his own making, but from which he can’t escape at first. And yet, with a few exceptions, it doesn’t require the suspension of disbelief that some ‘screwball’ novels do. And in the cases where it does, even Angel admits the improbability (e.g. the idiocy of him actually agreeing to go after the emerald in the first place). Readers who like to keep their disbelief with them will be pleased to know that it’s by and large not too hard to do that.
Another important element in the novel is the wit. Angel has a sometimes-snarky sense of wit that comes through in several places, since the story is told in first person from his point of view. Here, for instance are his thoughts about Malpass, a police officer who arrests him on the premise of having a de-licensed cab:
‘He beamed innocently, and as his eyebrows went up, I noticed his hairline. He would be bald before he was 50; but I didn’t think now was the time to tell him.’
There are also some very funny scenes in the story (well, readers who don’t mind irreverent comedy will find them funny).
Angel has an odd assortment of quirky friends and contacts, and those oddball characters are also important to the novel. For example, there’s his friend and fellow musician Bunny, who’s at least as much interested in female company as he is in his next gig. Bunny’s not exactly a settled, stable sort of person, but he comes through when he’s needed. And there are Angel’s building-mates Fenella and Lisabeth. They’re in love with each other, but Fenella’s very conservative, strait-laced parents would absolutely not approve of that relationship, so at one point, when Fenella’s parents pay her a visit, Lisabeth ends up bunking with Angel for a few days. And that has its own funny consequences. These characters may be a little eccentric, but there is an underlying sense of friendship and camaraderie. It’s clear that Angel has a ‘support network,’ although no-one is particularly mawkish about it.
The novel also gives readers a look at life as a club musician during the late 1980’s (the book was first published in 1988). Gigs are arranged by word of mouth, and unless you attract important attention, it’s not a lucrative life. There are odd hours and sometimes very seedy venues. And plenty of drug use. But the band members love what they do, and they’ll turn up for just about whatever chance they get to play.
There is also a strong sense of the times in other aspects of the novel. This is more or less before the age of ubiquitous personal computers, and certainly before the age of the Internet, social media and mobile ‘phones. So Angel makes plenty of use of public telephones (including the clever use of one particular place’s ‘phone, so that he doesn’t have to pay for the call). He also relies on telephone books, maps and his own knowledge of London to get where he’s going.
And the London setting is distinctive. In the course of his adventures, Angel goes to several sections of the city including Hackney, Northeast London (where he lives); Central London; and South London. Anyone who’s spent time in that city can tell you that each of those places has its own character, and Ripley makes that clear.
Just Another Angel is the story of a seemingly small favour that spirals into all sorts of misadventure. It features a basically good guy with an offbeat way of looking at life and a solid knowledge of music, and is set very distinctly in London. But what’s your view? Have you read Just Another Angel? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 19 January/Tuesday 20 January – Cradle to Grave – Eleanor Kuhns
Monday 26 January/Tuesday 27 January – The Killing of Emma Gross – Damien Seaman
Monday 2 February/Tuesday 3 February – The Gingerbread House – Carin Gerhardsen