Gently by the Shore is the second Inspector Gently book by Alan Hunter. George Gently is called in to investigate a murder in Starmouth, a British seaside holiday resort. An unidentified body was found on the beach. The victim was naked, punctured with stab wounds. Gently summarises it:
He had wandered into town, this enigmatical foreigner, he had taken lodgings, he had found a cafe to his taste and a prostitute to his taste; and then he had been, in a short space of time, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and introduced into the sea, his room ransacked and plundered of something of value. There was a ruthlessness about that … it bore the stamp of organization. But there was no other handle. The organization persisted in a strict anonymity. (page 92)
All Gently has to go on is his intuition. This man had been in disguise, no one seemed to know him or why he was in Starmouth. Gently by the Shore was first published in 1956 and reflects that period of time. Gently smokes a pipe and puffs his way through the investigate often in a haze of smoke when questioning suspects who also smoke. The account of a British holiday scene in the fifties brought back memories of childhood holidays (without any murders!) of sunny days on the beach, wet days in amusement arcades on the penny slot machines, the end-of-piers shows, beach cafes, deckchairs, and staying in Guest Houses, where you had bed, breakfast and an evening meal but weren’t expected to stay in your room during the day, the change-over on a Saturday with a mass exodus of one set of holiday makers before the next lot arrived.
It has a very ‘English’ feel about it:
Exceeding Sunday-white lay the Albion Pier under mid-morning sun. Its two square towers, each capped with gold, notched firmly into an azure sky and its peak-roofed pavilion, home of Poppa Pickle’s Pierrots, notched equally firmly into a green-and-amethyst sea. Its gates were closed. They were not open until half past two. The brightly dressed strollers, each infected in some degree by the prevailing Sundayness, were constrained to the languid buying of ice-cream, the indifferent booking of seats or the bored contemplation of Poppa Pickle’s Pierrots’ pics. They didn’t complain. They knew it was their lot. Being English, one was never at a loss for a moral attitude. (page 145)
The fifties were also the period where the death sentence was still in force and Gently and the main suspect discuss the ethics of killing comparing a hired killer with the hangman. Gently maintains that the death penalty is an ideal – ‘to protect people on their lawful occasions’, and that his duty is to catch the criminal. The case is complicated by the involvement of secret agents, at which point I thought the plot became too contrived, and Gently is faced with solving:
… a planned execution, the details of which have been efficiently erased. (page 189)
But, solve it, he does!
My verdict is that this book doesn’t live up to the promise of the first one, Gently Does It, but I enjoyed the setting, the ethical discussions and the problem-solving aspects.