Friday, May 13, 2011

Death Lives Next Door and Coffin Underground by Gwendoline Butler

Death Lives Next Door is the first of literally dozens of books featuring John Coffin, a police detective in London. I was happy to find a used copy for fifty cents, since I had picked up several other John Coffin books but didn't want to read any until I'd read the first one.

I really disliked the book for reasons I'll go into shortly, but since it was published in 1960 and the 1960s are probably my least-favorite era when it comes to literature, I went ahead and picked up Coffin Underground next to see if I liked it better. It was published in 1988, nearly three decades after Death Lives Next Door. You'd think it would be different, if not better.

These are not well-written books. They're barely coherent. And the 1988 book was virtually identical in tone, theme, and voice to the 1960 book.

Warning: there will be serious spoilers ahead. If you think even for a moment that you might want to read these books, don't get pissed at me if you read the next couple of paragraphs.

The 1960 book's plot is based on pop psychology, which was all the rage at the time and which is partly what makes late 1950s/early 1960s literature such a wasteland. In this case, the murderer turns out to be--look, I warned you there'd be spoilers--the split personality of one of the main characters, who doesn't even know she has a split personality. It made for a "what the fuck?" ending, not one of those lovely "so that's what those cleverly-placed clues meant" endings. The 1988 book is just as bad and just as dependent on pop culture--in this case, the murderer turns out to be hooked on a game called Tombs & Torturers, one of many such games said to be causing mayhem across the globe as previously normal children and teens are sucked into the seamy world of what is described as a board game and start killing people.

Yeah, I remember the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1980s. I also play D&D so I know how laughable the hysteria was and how weak a grasp Butler has on role-playing games. Near the end of the book, John Coffin thinks to himself portentiously, "It was only just beginning now. Where would the infection be in ten years' time?"

Because, you see, the book published in 1988 was set in 1978. It took me a long time to figure that out, though. It's not until about three-quarters of the way through the book that we get an actual year, although I was piecing together clues from various mentions of celebrities and politicians before then. There's a prologue set in 1974, but since the character in the prologue is only identified as "the girl," I wasn't completely certain that she was the same character as one who appears later in the book.

Both books are like that. They're vague on details but full of extraneous information. It's not that Butler is trying to distract us with red herrings. I actually think she thinks she's writing great literature by, for instance, digressing for three or four paragraphs about what the waitress in the fish and chips shop is thinking about her job while giving John Coffin a cup of tea.

It's not even as though these are interesting mysteries or interesting character studies. The mysteries only remain mysteries because Butler withholds both facts and clues; the characters are uniformly neurotic and dull. In fact, I had a meta mystery experience while reading Coffin Underground since I knew perfectly well who the murderer was and why he did it, but I was baffled over the mysteries of what time period the book was actually set in; how old the character of Sarah (also confusingly called Sal) was--I mean, she's described as looking 16, but I swear I saw a reference to her actually being 15, but maybe she was 15 when her parents died four years ago--that's important because John Coffin is interested in her and that's creepy even if she's 18 or 19 since he has to be at least 40; and whether the character Nona was a black girl as was clumsily implied but never actually described--and if so whether she was adopted or if only her dad was black since her mother was described as blonde, or maybe her mom frosted her hair--and if she did, was that actually common in the late 1970s, because I don't think it was, but maybe the book wasn't set in the 70s....

It's a mess. With the vagueness of the details and the morass of extraneous information, it's as though Butler just wrote a fast stream-of-consciousness book and has left it up to the reader to carve a plot out of the text.

Maybe the other thousand books in the series are better. Somehow I doubt it. And yet people obviously like them or there wouldn't be so many. I just don't understand.

Death Lives Next Door B&N link (used book)
Coffin Underground B&N link


Adam X said...

i was searching the internet tonight to see if anyone shared my views on how terrible an author Gwendoline Butler was. i had just read the one entitled ' Coffin knows the answer' and it was a complete waste of my 3 days. She spent almost 12 chapters on things that were irrelevant and never have i read a novel so long-winded, especially when she keeps talking about Coffin's cat and dog. Coffins police team would call for meetings for no reason whatsoever and discuss issues everyone already knows. And finally comes the 'wtf' ending...sigh

K.C. Shaw said...

I'm glad to know it isn't just me who thinks she's a terrible writer.