THROWBACK THURSDAY: DEAD ERNEST by James Mitchell (1986)
James Mitchell was best known as the creator of the iconic Callan television show and the author of five Callan novels and assorted short stories. After the success of Callan, Mitchell, a highly regarded script writer, enjoyed considerable success with the television show When The Boat Comes In and the associated novels. In the mid 1980s he established a new crime series featuring Ron Hogget, a sort of private investigator who specialises in finding things. There were three books in the series and all were quite enjoyable.
Dead Ernest is the second book and was released in 1986. When I first read Dead Ernest back in the late 1980s I was a little disappointed with it and thought that it was a poor follow-up to the first book, Sometimes You Could Die. In part my disappointment was due to the scenes in Australia, which I thought were poorly done and seemed tacked on, as though Mitchell was justifying a trip to Australia. On recently re-reading while I was away, however, they seemed less clumsy and not as condescending as I first thought.
The story opens with Hogget being hired by the wealthy Imogen Courtenay-Lithgoe to find her missing racehorse and her fiance, in that order. The racehorse is a potential Grand National winner. The horse went missing about the same time as her fiance, a moody IT genius who has developed a valuable piece of software. He also has the unfortunate name of Ernest Fluck, which Mitchell has much fun with, including on the back cover of the book:
“No kidding. Lady Muck wanted to be Mrs Fluck.”
Of course nothing is what it seems and the action moves quickly from London to Dublin to Spain to Sydney and back to Spain and the United Kingdom, with the bodies mounting up along the way. Hogget is useless at the rough stuff, but fortunately he has an useful associate in the form of the book-reading, minicab driver Dave, who used to be in the Paratroopers and is quite handy with a gun and his fists.
The story is told in the first person, and Hogget is an engaging and occasionally amusing narrator who keeps the story ticking along nicely. His working class observations give the story a light-hearted tone and his fear of violence helps to ground the action scenes and make them more believable. His descriptions are rarely politically correct, but they do help to create good visual images, as in this description of him and Dave being almost interrupted breaking into a hotel room:
“We were in in eighteen seconds, just three seconds ahead of a bunch of Krauts who marched down the corridor like it was France in 1940.”
In all, it is a very enjoyable tale. There are probably too many co-incidences, but the pace is brisk enough to overlook them and there are some good twists and turns to the story. The climax in Spain is unlikely, but there is a good wrap-up and a neat resolution. Like most thriller writers of his generation, Mitchell does not handle the romantic elements well, but these are easy to overlook. It is good fun and a very pleasant way of spending a few hours.
Dead Ernest and the other Ron Hogget books are available on Kindle and also in attractive editions from Ostara Publishing as part of their excellent Ostara Crime series. They are not as good as the Callan books, or the spy novels that Mitchell wrote as James Munro, but they are well worth tracking down.